The first sign that this was no ordinary opening night of Shakespeare in the Park were the TV crews, and particularly one from Inside Edition.
The same questions were being asked of those going into the Public Theater’s Julius Caesar on Monday night in New York’s Central Park.
How did they feel about the scene in which Caesar, dressed as Donald Trump and played by Gregg Henry, would be bloodily cut down by Brutus and his fellow assassins? What did they think of the controversy, fanned by outrage on Breitbart and later Fox News, around the show that had led Delta Air Lines and Bank of America to withdraw funding from the Public Theater, one of the most venerable arts institutions in New York?
As the events of the weekend seeped into Monday, there were other questions: What of the statements of the National Endowment for the Arts and American Express, distancing themselves from the organization, as if it were a foul stink on the sidewalk? Would there be counter pro-Trump protests?
Shock. Outrage. Rinse. Repeat.
Sad to report to the right-wing fire-starters and Newt Gingrich who invoked the Public’s production darkly on Good Morning America on Tuesday morning, but those in attendance Monday night queued for gin and tonics without obvious blood-lust in their eyes, and took their seats, quietly leafing through programs. There were no, “I can’t wait to see how he dies” heard by this reporter.
At least the brouhaha meant Shakespeare was on primetime. If this episode has proved anything, it is the relevance and currency of Shakespeare, many hundreds of years after his plays were first performed.
Also on Monday, eagle-eyed social media users rightly equated the flattery that Trump sought and received from his cabinet with King Lear, at the beginning of that play, demanding the same explicitly stated devotion from his three daughters, Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia. Cordelia declines of course, leading to her father disowning her—until realizing, too late, she was the most honest and well-meaning one of all.
This PR blitz on the Bard might be welcome, driving ever younger generations to his work, even if the questions of the TV reporters to Caesar-goers were askew. Self-evidently those attending the show were not outraged, as they had come to see the play.
The production’s detractors had not realized that a Caesar, dressed as Barack Obama, had also been killed in a production five years ago. Caesar is a figure of power, and different productions in different eras configure him as the leader-figure of that moment.
But most clearly, many of those criticizing the play had not seen it.
The shocking thing about this production of Julius Caesar is not the murder of Caesar itself, bloody as it is, but how the play evokes the fragility of democracy, and how power can corrupt and itself be corrupted.
Before the performance began, Oskar Eustis, the Public’s artistic director took to the stage to loud cheers, asking those assembled to video the speech and post it to social media.
Eustis, quoting Hamlet, said one of drama’s functions was to hold “a mirror up to nature…to show the age his form and pressure.” The public aimed to do the same as Shakespeare, Eustis said. “When we hold the mirror up to nature often what we reveal are disturbing, upsetting provoking things—thank god. That's our job.”
The Public’s mission, said Eustis, was “to say that the culture belongs to everybody, needs to belong to everybody; to say that art has something to say about the great civic issues of our time, and to say that, like drama, democracy depends on the conflict of different points of view. Nobody owns the truth, we all own the culture.”
In the play itself, its characters in modern-day dress, Gregg Henry as Caesar wears a red tie, and carries himself as Trump would. But he does not affect Trump’s tone of voice. He does not swagger exaggeratedly. He does not make his Caesar into a modern-day drag act, to be laughed at or booed. He is Trumpian, not Trump.
Yes, Calpurnia (Tina Benko) speaks in a Slavic accent like Melania Trump, and yes, this drew scattered laughs—but it was no more “offensive” than a Saturday Night Live skit.
Before the slaying of Caesar—which occurs not at the end but midway through the play—what is striking is the gender and color-blind casting, both refreshing and freeing. We also see protesters attired in “Resist” garb.
When it occurs, the murder of Caesar is brutal, just as Shakespeare wrote it. But it is, whatever your political affiliation, Caesar being murdered, not Donald Trump.
Among the audience, no doubt dismissed as diehard lefties in the minds of the play’s detractors, there was no sense of delight at the scene on opening night. One person to my left clapped, tentatively. The rest of the audience sat in silence. The assassins immediately start falling to pieces, interrogating their actions and their consequences. The country falls apart. This Julius Caesar is the very opposite to a positive advertisement for the joy and benefits of a Trump assassination.
The trajectory of the play, which has been largely ignored in the hysterical news coverage of recent days, advances a subversive and ambivalent vision of power and patronage.
Caesar is a divisive figure, just as Trump is one. But Shakespeare’s emphasis, and the Public’s focus, is on what plotting to diminish and take away his power will do to society; what does it mean for democracy; and how easily political and cultural threads can be torn dangerously asunder when such a political assassination takes place.
That Caesar’s murder occurs midway in the play is important because the sweep of the following half is one of terrible and truly tragic consequences. Mark Antony and Brutus have many supporters and many enemies, and the public itself is represented—ingeniously—by around 20 to 30 planted actors in the audience, who shout approval or dissent to speeches being made. This polyphony is the polyphony of democracy, and later the destructive discontent of an imperiled democracy.
This is also a Shakespearean tragedy, so those same bodies ultimately join the main characters in going to war over what they believe, and the truly shocking thing is not the bloodied body of Caesar, but the massed corpses on the stage by the play’s end.
Those bodies you can see as real and metaphorical casualties of the arrogant exercise of power, and the manipulations of those who wish to co-opt it. The personal tragedies are real, and the possibility of the death of civil society is real.
“Anybody who watches this play tonight will know neither Shakespeare, nor the Public Theater, could possibly advocate violence as a solution to political problems and certainly not assassination,” Eustis had said in his introduction.
“This play, on the contrary, warns about what happens when you try to preserve democracy by non-democratic means…it doesn't end up too good.
“One of the dangers unleashed by that is the danger of a large crowd of people manipulated by their emotions, taken over by leaders who urge them to do things that not only are against their interests but destroy the very institutions that are there to serve and protect them.”
That is borne out in the conception of the production. The Public’s Julius Caesar does not delight in the death of Donald Trump in any way. It cautions a watching audience instead about what we expect and invest in our leaders, about how they exercise authority, and what can happen to a society where the toxicity of extreme political ambition and inflammatory rhetoric infects the body politic.
That may not be the soundbite Inside Edition is looking for, but it’s the more complex truth of an unjustly denounced theatrical production.