If the ballyhoo around the Public Theater’s Julius Caesar is a sign of the theatrical times, then we have a lot more than Trump to fear.
By Bill Marx
The kerfuffle over the New York Public Theater’s outdoors production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is a reminder of the Faustian bargain theater companies strike when they accept funding from corporate sponsors. The latter are far from unwavering when it comes to controversy (aside from how it may create more paying customers); they are not deeply committed to fostering artistic independence. For banksters and mega-businesses, the performing arts are branding opportunities, a means to project — relatively inexpensively — a public halo of niceness. At the slightest sign of public kick-back they inevitably skedaddle. For them, what we know of truth and beauty should be safe – like Cirque Du Soleil.
On one level, the corporate corruption of the arts is obvious. There is inevitably pressure on stage companies to police what political dramas (if any) they will or will not stage. (Seen any plays that question the value of the unfettered free market lately?) But the corruption also takes a subtler, more soul-destroying form, which is being ignored or minimized. For example, mainstream commentators are, as usual, missing the more insidious point of the Julius Caesar fracas, wallowing in the surface issues, content to indulge in silly finger-pointing and self-serving postures of defiance.
Bank of America and Delta pulled their funding for the Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar after heated protests greeted Caesar’s resemblance to Donald Trump. (Delta ended its sponsorship of the Public Theater; American Express released a statement that it “does not condone the interpretation of the Julius Caesar play.”) The irony is that director Oscar Eustis is following a well-worn modern tradition: Julius Caesar has often been turned into a facsimile of an au courant political villain. (I saw a production of the play in London decades ago in which he came on as a purse-carrying Margaret Thatcher!) There have been few public protests before because, as many theater critics have pointed out, no one in his or her right mind has ever seen this play as an argument for assassination. Once Caesar goes, chaos erupts. (Shakespeare was not a democrat. He just liked his kings kindly rather than tyrannical.)
The reaction of both sides to Trump-as-Caesar has been pumped up by opportunism, from the death threats and protests generated by Trump devotees to the Public Theater’s heroic talk about battling for free speech. The corporations are two-faced; if there had been an adverse public reaction to Obama as Caesar in a 2012 Guthrie Theater production of Julius Caesar they would have headed for the hills. But the Public Theater is not hitting the barricades either; it could use this as an opportunity to announce it was boycotting corporate funding in the name of artistic freedom. Interestingly, much less hysteria greeted the recent Hartford Stage production of George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House, in which the boorish capitalist Boss Mangan turned up as a Trump lookalike. In this case, the plot led to an uplifting liberal fantasy – the character is enlightened through hypnosis! (Still, why no death threats from Trump supporters, given that their guy is brainwashed into reverting to liberalism?)
Cue crusading critics and columnists (at the Boston Globe, NPR, and elsewhere) going on and on about how turning Caesar into Trump or Obama somehow generates thought, strikes a blow for free expression against authoritarianism, etc. The truth is that fiddling in this way with Caesar reduces the play to the level of a Saturday Night Live spoof. It makes the script less politically incisive – not more.
Theater critics and scholars should make this point clear. Instead, they argue that seeing the characters in Julius Caesar as stand-ins for today’s politicos is hunky-dory, even nervy. For some, the Public Theater chose the wrong figure to be Trump! “The heart of the play is about the will to power, and people looking for an opportunist moment by which they can take over through a populist sentiment,” Andrew Hartley, the Robinson Chair of Shakespeare Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, told CNN. “To me, the Trump figure is Antony, not Caesar.” Looking for a Trump (or Obama) figure in Julius Caesar is an expression of naked opportunism: our own. It is about our need to nail a villain or a scapegoat, to find a way to let ourselves off the hook by dividing the play into demons and victims. It is a depressing example of defanging the political power of Shakespeare’s plays by turning them into cartoons, rote reflections of our media landscape. Audiences are riled up (á la Cable News) rather than challenged.
The truth is that Shakespeare is too great a playwright to give us good guys and bad guys, particularly in a Roman history that reflects the perfidy and fears of the Elizabethan era. Garry Wills puts it best in Rome and Rhetoric, his book about Julius Caesar:
There are no villains in this play. Though each character has his own self-interest, and a readiness to use or do away with other characters, all think they are doing so for the honor or glory or persistence of Rome. This play is the only one that gives us all Rome all the time. Other plays show us the betrayers of Rome – Titus Andronicus gives us subversion by the Goths, Antony and Cleopatra a key defection to Egypt, Coriolanus a similar defection to the Volscians. Here only Romans bring down the Roman Republic, trying to save it.
Let me add that Ben Jonson’s Roman tragedy, Sejanus, takes the opposite tack: his Rome is destroyed from within via a paranoid free-for-all. It is a contest for domination (staged by a tyrant) that pits big bullies against little bullies. For Shakespeare’s history play to provoke audiences today (rather than simply cheer or aggravate them) its characters should be an enigmatic mix of self-interest and good intentions: underhandedness on all sides for the sake of honor or glory. If a company is going to turn Caesar into Trump, than a director should at least have the courage of his convictions and thumb his nose all the way, as dramatist Barbara Garson did at LBJ and the Kennedys in 1967’s MacBird!. My updated/rewritten Julius Caesar scenario would make Antony into Pence, with the conspirators, Cassius and Brutus, versions of Hilary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren. Bernie Sanders as the soothsayer?
For me, the Public Theater incident, from its spineless corporations to its gaggle of self-admiring theater companies, columnists, and stage critics, reveals a scary vacuum in American theater. In these escapist-crazed, musical-infused times, there is no will to demand serious political theater, the kind that would confront Trump. Morphing him into Julius Caesar is a Pavlovian stunt. What’s called for are scripts that tackle difficult, intractable issues: climate change, income inequality, the complexities of immigration, the global domination of corporations. The best political theater attacks the “us versus them” complacency of those along the ideological spectrum. That is what Shakespeare does in Julius Caesar: Rome is destroyed through the efforts of those who want to save it. The body of the state rots from within.
And that is just where our theater companies are afraid to go, to use drama to diagnose our political/economic diseases by probing deeply into tissues that are sick or dying. Playwrights must be fearless enough to be indifferent to who will be upset by their discoveries. At least in Boston, the response of our stage companies to Trump has been to stick to the tried and true — tepid, market-orientated commercialism. Why is there no resistance? How about a satiric cabaret? Understandably, fat cat corporations and wealthy donors are happy to maintain business as usual, to fund inspiring entertainment that keeps middle-class consumers happily consuming. But is that the purpose of theater? In the past, oppressive regimes (often very early on in their tenure) have clamped down on and/or censored stage companies. Why? Because theater has traditionally been a hotbed of dissent. If the ballyhoo around the Public Theater’s Julius Caesar is a sign of the theatrical times, then we have a lot more than Trump to be afraid of.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.