Estimated Reading Time : 6 minutes 48 seconds
FRIENDS, ROMANS, COUNTRYMEN, LEND ME YOUR EARS
This past Sunday, The Public Theatre in New York put on its final performance of its Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar at the Delacort Theatre. In case you haven't heard, the production caused a great deal of outrage from Trump supporters and right wing media because the actor playing Caesar was dressed as Donald Trump and…spoiler alert…there is a scene where this Trumpian Caesar gets assassinated by a group of senators stabbing him to death.
The uproar over the assassination scene comes on the heels of the shooting of Republican congressman Steve Scalise by left-wing lunatic James Hodgkinson at a baseball field in Virginia and a plethora of other, less violent, but equally incendiary incidents like the Kathy Griffin/Trump decapitation photo, the Snoop Dogg/Trump clown shooting video and Stephen Colbert's "cockholster" joke.
I have written at great length about the perils of violent language in political discourse, and the Scalise shooting proves the point that heightened emotionalist and violent language being tossed about in our culture can and will lead to violent acts.
I was quick to denounce Griffin, Snoop Dogg and Madonna for their attacks on Trump using violent language or imagery because they were cheap, thoughtless, self-serving and frankly, counter productive to any sort of resistance to Trumpism. Throwing shit at someone who lives in a sewer is hardly a winning strategy in the age of Trump.
I COME TO BURY CAESAR, NOT TO PRAISE HIM
With all of that said, I fully support the Public Theatre, its artistic director Oskar Eustis and its production of Julius Caesar. I have not seen this rendition of the show, but from all that I have read about it, it is a serious and legitimate production that is true to Shakespeare's words and intent. Eustis and company are being faithful to their art and craft by not changing Shakespeare's language or altering his play in any way in order to make a cheap political point, in fact, they are doing the exact opposite, using Shakespeare's brilliance in order to highlight the perils of our current political moment.
The idea that Trump is Caesar is not a very original one, hell... I wrote about immediately after the election. I have long argued for taking on Trump on the most pure of constitutional and political grounds. It has always been obvious to me that to impeach or "assassinate" or remove Trump by any other means than democracy, will be much more catastrophic to the Republic than anything he himself could do in office. This is the lesson of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, and it is the lesson that The Public Theater's production is trying to teach their mostly liberal audience.
If the simpletons in the media, most specifically the High Priests of the illiterati over at Fox News, and their legion of dimwitted viewers, had half a brain between them, they would understand that The Public Theatre's Julius Caesar is not really about Donald Trump, but about those in opposition to him. The play, which anyone can find in their public library, condemns and punishes those who use extra-judicial means to remove a leader they are unable to control. The Public's version of Shakespeare's masterpiece is not an endorsement of Trump's assassination, but an indictment of those plotting against him.
The assassination of Julius Caesar in Shakespeare's play is a tragedy, not a success, and so it is in this Trumpian version. Yes, Caesar dies a blood-soaked death, but so do his attackers and so does the Republic. In a political sense, the assassination is a complete and utter failure as it ushers in exactly what the plotters wanted to avoid, a less democratic Rome. Obviously, only ill-informed fools and knuckle dragging neanderthals would lack the basic sophistication to grasp this fact. The biggest reason why Trump supporters are so furious about the Public's production is that they are only shown one scene, the "Trump" assassination, and not given any context about the rest of the play. Context is usually what is missing from any and all reporting coming from the establishment media, of which Fox is a flagship member whether they want to admit it or not, and this Trump/Caesar story is no exception.
In fact, if you look at the broader context of Shakespeare's play you would easily understand that it admits to things with which Trump supporters themselves would actually agree. For instance, it admits that Trump is surrounded by enemies who are plotting against him and trying to use non-democratic means to remove him from power. Is this not what a typical Trump die-hard believes about Robert Mueller and the Russia investigation? Hell, I am not a Trump supporter and I believe that. And don't Trump supporters see their man as a Caesarian figure, an outsider to the establishment who crossed the Rubicon promising to drain the swamp of Rome/Washington and do away with business as usual? Wasn't Trump's entire appeal as a sort of Caesar-esque figure to his supporters?
Of course, to understand these points takes a few things, the first, a knowledge of the play, which apparently no one on the right has ever read, and two, the willingness and ability to look beyond the surface of things and get past our suffocating emotionalism…not exactly strong suits on either side of the aisle in our current political climate.
THE EVIL THAT MEN DO LIVES AFTER THEM
And to be fair, it isn't just those on the right that are showing their glaring idiocy with this Trump/Caesar story. Last week Bill Maher had Breitbart News Network editor-in-chief Alex Marlow on as his interview guest. Marlow and Maher agreed with each other that the Public Theater had gone too far with the Trump/Caesar assassination. Maher said , "If Obama was Caesar and he got stabbed, I think liberals would be angry about that". Maher then said, " I really think they should not have Trump playing Julius Caesar and getting stabbed."
The problem with Maher's statement is that it is entirely ill-informed. In 2012, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, one of the great theaters in our country, in collaboration with The Acting Company, produced a version of Julius Caesar where Caesar was an Obama-esque figure who…surprise, surprise…gets stabbed to death. Why would such a supposed staunch defender of free speech, like Bill Maher, not know that information when debating this topic? It is pretty obvious from all of his public stances that Maher gets his news from establishment sources like the New York Times, Washington Post and cable news, which is where I learned of the Guthrie production of Julius Caesar. So why was Maher so ill-informed about the history of Obama as Caesar? My guess is he, like those on the right, saw what he wanted to see and was unconsciously blind to the rest, in Maher's case so that he could maintain his "contrarian" image.
Maher is a corporatist fiend, and not surprising, other corporations suffered from the same weak kneed response to the faux outrage over the Trump/Caesar production as he did. Delta Airlines pulled funding from the Public Theatre due to the outrage over the show. Just like Maher, they ignored the fact that they did not pull their funding from the previously mentioned Guthrie production with Obama as Caesar. Even indirectly, Shakespeare reveals the truth about people, like Bill Maher's political posturing being as manufactured for maximum profit as that of Delta Airlines. Bravo to the Bard and boo to Maher and Delta.
THE GOOD IS OFT INTERRED WITH THEIR BONES
The reason Shakespeare's plays have resonated over centuries is that they tell universal truths about humanity and human nature that are not limited by time and place. The best thing that could happen for our culture would be for people to go back and read Shakespeare, or the classic Greeks dramatists, to better understand the time we live in now. By building a connection to this history and dramatic tradition, we enrich our understanding of our current time which can be so bewildering. Shakespeare and the Greeks are so vital for us in this dizzying time, because they give us a mooring and grounding while the world spins out of control all around us.
The cultural benefit of Shakespeare and the Greek dramatists are that they give their audience a chance for catharsis, a much needed cleansing and purging of powerful emotions under a controlled setting. A production of Shakespeare or the Greeks is a "cool" form of art, meaning it is not spontaneous or impulsive. Putting on a Shakespearean or Classic Greek play that is centuries old, takes months of pre-production and rehearsal, meaning that whatever "hot" emotions may have been present at the plays inception have long since been processed and integrated by the artists involved through the alchemical magic of the original text. This is why The Public Theater's version of Julius Caesar is a form of "cool" art that brings about a thoughtful, introspective and meditative catharsis, as opposed to the "hot art" of Kathy Griffin whose Trump inspired photo shoot was driven by an immediate, self-serving emotion and more akin to an adolescent tantrum than art.
People who go see The Public's Julius Caesar won't leave the theater riled up and agitated, they will leave it solemn and spent. Having a cathartic theater experience drains the viewer by purging them of their powerful and pent up emotions. In contrast, displays like Kathy Griffin's Trump photo are not cathartic of powerfully negative feelings, but rather help them fester because they are born of, and flourish in, a surface emotionalism that bypasses any connection to rational thought or spiritual depth. People like the Virginia shooter James Hodgkinson would be sub-consciously energized by the shallow emotionalism of Kathy Griffin's photo-shoot, and would find themselves depleted by the artistically thoughtful and classically rigorous nature of The Public Theater's Julius Caesar.
In my opinion, our culture and collective psyche would be better served if theater companies did more Shakespearian mediations on Trump, not less. Trump as King Lear, Trump as Richard III, Trump as MacBeth are among the many viable candidates of plays that tell deeper truths about Trump and our reaction to him than we could ever read in the New York Times or Washington Post or see on MSNBC. The same is true of any president by the way, not just Trump. It always seemed to me that Dubya was Hamlet trying to avenge his slain (one-term) father, while Obama was Othello, brought to a jealous rage by the Iago of the establishment, which made him choke his progressive impulses like the Moor did his beloved Desdemona.
SO LET IT BE WITH CAESAR
In response to the Kathy Griffin/decapitated Trump photo story, I wrote that what our country and culture needed was "a lot more Carravaggio and a lot less Kathy Griffin". The Public Theatre and director Oskar Eustis, with a tremendous assist from William Shakespeare, gave us a healthy dose of Carravaggio with their controversial production of Julius Caesar, but sadly, like children raised on reality television, which is the cultural equivalent of a McDonalds hamburger, we are unable to appreciate the Filet Mignon of true art, like The Public's Julius Caesar, when given the opportunity to take a bite.
This Trump/Caesar story is just one more bit of proof that we as a nation and a culture are doomed because we suffer from the dangerous maladies of amnesia and myopia. We are blind to our future because we are incapable of remembering the past. Shakespeare and Julius Caesar know what our future holds, but we are simply unwilling or incapable of heeding their prescient warnings. We have the current president, politics and culture we deserve. We will get the future we deserve as well, and we'll have no one to blame but ourselves. Shakespeare said it best when his Cassius declared, "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves..." Preach it Cassius, preach.