Right-wing commentators have a new enemy this week—they don’t like Shakespeare. Or at least the Public Theater's version of his classic Julius Caesar that’s now at the Delacorte Theater in New York and makes unmistakable parallels between Caesar and Donald Trump.
For most of this very up-to-date production, Caesar wears a dark suit and long red tie, he has a familiar hairdo and blustery style. The first time we see him, he grabs at his wife’s crotch, dashes into the audience to shake hands, and calls out to the press. He is the constant campaigner with almost inexplicable charisma.
If you don’t quite remember your high school Shakespeare, Caesar is hailed as a hero by the people of Rome, but he is ambitious and wants more power. A group of honorable men led by Cassius worry that he is a threat to democracy and must be removed.
And remove him they do—in the bloodiest fashion.
And so, on the day of the Tony Awards, another theatrical event made even bigger news: the bloody dispatch of a Caesar who looks very much like President Trump in the Public's open-air production in Central Park.
To the upset of many working in the arts, Delta Air Lines and the Bank of America have pulled sponsorship from the Public, and on Monday American Express was sufficiently stirred to insist, via Twitter, that they were not funding the production, "nor do we condone the interpretation of the Julius Caesar play."
The sponsors' actions appeared to be in response to outrage stirred by the likes of Breitbart News, which blared the headline: “ ‘Trump’ Stabbed to Death in Central Park Performance…” FOX News found people waiting for tickets who worried about “violent rhetoric towards our President.” Trump supporters took to Twitter and started attacking the corporate sponsors of the Public Theater, where show director Oskar Eustis is artistic director.
Rather than standing up for Shakespeare and artistic freedom, Delta Airlines was the first to go public, issuing a strongly statement making clear it was ending its overall sponsorship of the Public. Bank of America followed by pulling its funding of the production.
"No matter what your political stance may be, the graphic staging of Julius Caesar at this summer's Free Shakespeare in the Park does not reflect Delta Air Lines’ values," a Delta Airlines statement, sent to the Daily Beast read. "Their artistic and creative direction crossed the line on the standards of good taste. We have notified them of our decision to end our sponsorship as the official airline of The Public Theater effective immediately."
Delta Air Lines declined to answer further questions from the Daily Beast, while in a statement released Monday afternoon, the Public Theater robustly stated its support for the production.
“We stand completely behind our production of Julius Caesar,” the statement read. “We recognize that our interpretation of the play has provoked heated discussion; audiences, sponsors and supporters have expressed varying viewpoints and opinions. Such discussion is exactly the goal of our civically-engaged theater; this discourse is the basis of a healthy democracy.
“Our production of Julius Caesar in no way advocates violence towards anyone. Shakespeare's play, and our production, make the opposite point: those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic means pay a terrible price and destroy the very thing they are fighting to save. For over 400 years, Shakespeare’s play has told this story and we are proud to be telling it again in Central Park.”
As Mic reported, Delta did not withdraw their sponsorship of a production of the play when President Obama was presented as the murdered Caesar in a production mounted in Minneapolis over five years ago.
If the production's detractors have seen the present Public Theater production (and it appears unlikely they have), they have most certainly missed the bigger point that Shakespeare makes.
Eustis changes hardly a word of the text, though he does change everything about the context.
So, for example, in Act II, Caesar’s wife Calpurnia is trying to convince her husband not to go to the Senate that day. She’s had a dream that he might be killed.
In this latest version, an arrogant and self-serving Caesar is smoking a cigar and sitting naked in his gilded bathtub during the conversation. Calpurnia—who has a sultry walk and speaks with a heavy Eastern European accent—takes off her silky robe and slithers into the tub next to him.
As played perfectly by actor Gregg Henry, Caesar manages to be vain and preening even in the tub. And when he utters Shakespeare’s elegant lines, they somehow take on a Trumpian roughness and bluster. The clever staging makes it feel like Shakespeare wrote the lines yesterday specifically for our current president.
When Calpurnia (Tina Benko) vampishly asks Caesar “upon my knee” to stay home, he pompously puffs the cigar and lets himself be seduced. Sure, he’ll stay with her! One of his advisers shows up (bath-side) to bring him to the Senate House but Caesar barks “I will not come. That is enough to satisfy the Senate.”
The adviser, though, knows how to manipulate the manipulator. He tells Caesar that people will mock him and he may lose some of the power he wants. Oh, really? He hadn’t thought of that. So responding to the latest voice in his ear, Caesar/Trump turns on his wife and sneers, “How foolish do your fears seem now, Calpurnia! I am ashamed I did yield to them.”
Caesar gets out of the tub naked. He asks a lackey for his robe, and while Shakespeare might have had a toga in mind, white terrycloth works quite well here. Do we need any clearer indication that the emperor has no clothes?
Wherever Caesar goes on this stage, there are throngs of advisers and security detail around him and it feels like you’re in the midst of House of Cards rather than an historical play. Cassius (a terrific John Douglas Thompson) carries a banner that says RESIST.
His co-conspirators are also trying to resist the undermining of democracy and the leader who is focused on his own authority.
Cassius even convinces Caesar’s friend Brutus to join in. Their fears are not for themselves but for their country. Played by the talented Corey Stoll (of House of Cards and Girls), Brutus is the man of integrity trying to figure out how to act in dangerous times. Once he decides to support the cause, Brutus reminds Cassius that they should “kill him boldly, but not wrathfully.”
They don’t have impeachment as an option, so they plan to stab Caesar/Trump in the Senate. It’s a stunning scene, powerfully acted and directed and ends with Caesar on the ground in a pool of blood. When Brutus gives the oration at the funeral, he explains that he rose against the leader “Not that I loved Caesar less but that I loved Rome more.”
The right-wing outlets have made the stabbing of the Trump-like leader in Julius Caesar seem as outrageous as Kathy Griffin and her severed head. But the Trump supporters (and the sanctimonious Delta Airlines executives) should really come inside the theater—and stay for the whole thing.
Because ultimately Shakespeare didn’t think that getting rid of Caesar had such a great result, after all.
The Roman conspirators aren’t sure what to do about Caesar’s friend and colleague Marc Anthony and decide to let him live.
Actress Elizabeth Marvel plays Anthony—a gender switch that is almost unnoticeable. (A few “hes” in the text have become “she.”) But Marvel, who who has been terrific as other politicos including the President elect in Homeland and a morally righteous presidential candidate in House of Cards, never quite finds her footing here.
Gregg Henry makes it very clear how Trump/Caesar gets the people on his side. His bluster is appealing and fills the stage. But Marc Anthony comes across as weepy and somewhat whiny.
Marvel strides around in a pantsuit (though there’s nothing Hillary Clinton about her) and somehow riles the crowd to support her. Eustis at least makes us feel her populist appeal by having a huge crowd of extras throughout the audience who cheer for her and join in turning on the conspirators.
Marc Anthony wants to avenge the death of her friend and builds a force that battles Caesar’s foes. In the end, Cassius and Brutus and the conspirators lose the fight and die. (Never expect a happy ending in a Shakespeare tragedy.) The democracy they were trying to preserve gets shaken, anyway.
Academics have argued for generations about which character Shakespeare considered the hero of his play. You can make the case that it’s Brutus—that honorable man—who stands up for what is right. (NeverTrump forces would agree.) But Marc Anthony, fighting to continue what Caesar started, has the big speech and the triumphant ending. Anthony’s forces win and take over Rome—so Caesar (in effect) lives on. It’s a position that Trump supporters (including Breitbart and FOX News) should like.
Arrogant leaders try to grab power in all times and places. The noble position is to resist—but it may not always end in the result you want. If we get rid of Trump, do we descend into civil war?
That’s probably not the message Eustis wants to send, but he respects Shakespeare’s formulation. He has pointed out that rather than advocating violence, the play shows that “those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic methods pay a terrible price and destroy their Republic.”
Are you listening, Delta Airlines and Bank of America?
Whichever side of the political message audience members choose to see, Eustis has great fun showing the timelessness of Shakespeare.
Brutus wears jogging clothes and people in the crowd snap photos of the murder on their phones. When the self-important Caesar blusters that “Danger knows full well that Caesar is more dangerous than he” you can practically hear Trump yelling it at a rally to show how important he is.
Earlier this spring a Delta Airlines flight attendant threatened a man with jail time for no legitimate reason and threw him and his baby off the plane. Now Delta is throwing Shakespeare off the plane. There’s no video to go viral this time. But the same problems of bullying and cowardice get repeated. As Cassius says to Brutus: “How many ages hence shall this lofty scene be acted over in states unborn and accents yet unknown!”
Shakespeare didn’t know about Trump or Melania or Bannon or Comey when he wrote Julius Caesar. But somehow he did. And Oskar Eustis and his impeccable cast have found every nuance to make 2,000 year old history feel brand new.
Whether you like it or not.
Julius Caesar is at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, until June 23. Details here.
Additional reporting by Tim Teeman