BACK in November, when President-Elect Pence went to see a performance of Hamilton, he was ambushed during the curtain call by the cast and compelled (along with the audience) to listen to a statement challenging the newly elected administration. Pence’s response was perfect: he praised the show and commented that the statement was “what freedom sounds like.” This response rather pricked the Hamilton gang’s bubble of self righteousness. Fortunately for them, Donald Trump got involved. This kept the story going days longer than it should have. Pence was right: smile and wave; that’s what he’s paid for. Trump was wrong. Kind of: it was highly unprofessional; had a similar situation happened with Obama in the audience, he most likely would have smiled and waved (see above), but some group of liberals would have been outraged and quite likely would have accused the cast of being racist.
Oh, well. That’s what freedom sounds like.
A week or so ago, the news filled with reports of corporate sponsors overreacting to a production of Julius Caesar done in Central Park by The Public Theatre. In this production, as you most likely know, Julius Caesar is presented as a thinly-veiled version of Donald Trump. Some corporate sponsors—Delta and American Airlines, specifically—took offense and pulled their funding.
Immediate uproar! The Internet and news are filled with stories about this. Everyone weighs in. Censorship is bad. Delta, American, and everyone who is offended by the production have got Shakespeare wrong. People who support this production love freedom of speech and art (and, presumably, puppies). People who do not, hate freedom of speech and art (and, presumably, puppies).
What is amusing is that so many people—on both sides of the issue—have simply gotten it wrong. The situation has little to do with Freedom of Speech or Censorship (and nothing to do with puppies).
Before I go on, I have to say that I am not offended by a production that casts a ‘Trump’ to be the victim of an assassination. Nor would I be offended if a production used an ‘Obama’ (some did), or a Bush, Clinton, Reagan, or whomever. I do think it is in bad taste—in any of those cases. I was not offended by The Interview (the film about the assassination of North Korea’s Kim), but it was in bad taste. Nor am I offended by drawings of Mohammed, but they are in bad taste. By all means, go ahead and make Trump Caesar or Claudius or, better, Bottom (you’ll save on costumes for that one).
Shakespeare is dead and his estate, if there ever was one, is long gone. Unlike Albee or Beckett, he cannot stop a production if he does not like the cast or the interpretation. Because of this, directors have long adapted Shakespeare’s plays to support whatever cause they want. Shakespeare can be both pro- and anti-war, for example. When an audience goes to see a production of one of Shakespeare’s plays, they are not seeing his play; they are seeing someone else’s interpretation of his play, or, rather, they are watching some director’s agenda manifested on stage with Shakespeare’s words as background sound. Delta and AA are not incorrectly interpreting Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to be pro assassination. Delta and AA are interpreting the Public’s production, which intentionally depicts the assassination of a very public figure. Donald Trump is not only very public, he is also a figure that the artistic community in America clearly hates. The left (which includes much of the artistic community) has filled the Internet with memes and jokes about the president’s death. They are not very secretly praying (or, rather, ‘hoping’, since ‘praying’ smacks of religion) that Donald Trump will have some sort of accident. Trump should be impeached, should resign, or should die (or be executed, according to the Huffington Post). Impeached is best, since it would invalidate Trump’s administration. Death is hard because he would have to die correctly. A stupid accident while golfing would work. Assassination has the problem of sometimes making a martyr of the victim—unless you don’t like the victim, in which case it is a good thing (had The Interview been about two agents trying to kill Obama, the liberals would have found a way to object: most likely by calling it racist). Shakespeare may very well have intended for his play to condemn assassination; the production (or, at least, the director) is presenting the assassination of a widely despised political figure.
Brutus is called “the noblest Roman of them all.” He was trying to preserve to the Republic—in Shakespeare and in history. The First Triumvirate of Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus had subverted republicanism, yet at least had pretended to work within the system. Caesar’s ‘lifetime dictatorship’ did not even pretend. It was the culmination of a campaign that began when Caesar crossed the Rubicon because his ‘dignitas’ was offended. Caesar waged war against the state because it would not bend to his will (or, at least, to his whim). He pandered to and bribed the electorate. He had no intention of relinquishing power. When Brutus cried out, “sic semper tyrannis!” he was not all that wrong: Caesar was a tyrant, even if what he was doing was arguably for the good. What with the Second Triumvirate, the wars between Antony and Octavian, and the eventual elevation of Octavian, the Republic was dead. If Brutus is portrayed as a gull to manipulation by suspect power-hungry senators, then he is trivialized. If he kills his best friend (and someone who has been seen by some scholars to be either his father or his lover) for the greater purpose of returning Rome to Roman values, he is ennobled.
In James Clavell’s novel Shogun, Blackthorn is asked by Toranaga if rebellion can ever be excused. Blackthorn answers that it can—if you win. Dozens of Nazi Generals were posthumously lionized by the Allies because of their real or alleged association with the assassination plot against Hitler. Assassination is hardly seen as an inherent evil, unless, that is, the victim is evil himself. Putting an Obama-like Caesar as the target of the Brutus’ knife, we condemn Brutus. He was wrong. Assassination isn’t the answer. He deserves to be punished. Putting a Trump-like Caesar on a stage where the bulk of the audience is made up of people who do not like him (or even hate him), tells a different story. Any director with the experience to snag a gig with the Public Theatre should be savvy enough to know this. Said director would have known this before rehearsals even began. In fact, this interpretation would have been discussed and debated by the Artistic Director, the producers, the publicists, and possibly the theatre’s legal counsel. They know the story they are telling and have a pretty good idea how the audience will react.
That is the point: they know.
Choosing a very public political figure as avatar for Julius Caesar (or vice-versa) is fairly common. It is also somewhat lazy. It lacks any real creativity. However, it is topical. The theatre wants the audience to say to themselves, “Heh, heh. Heh, heh. Donald Trump. What a douche.” It wants the audience to be uplifted when he is killed. It certainly is not worried that the audience is thinking about Caesar: it’s Donald Trump. The theatre wants something else, as well. This is the important want. It wants Donald Trump to tweet about it. Frankly, I would love for The Donald to tweet that my books suck or have suspect values. I could use the sales. When Joseph Papp started the Public 60+ years ago, it did exciting innovative work. Now it is mainstream establishment. Shakespeare in the Park is no longer hip. However, if it can poke the right place and get a belligerently indignant howl from the White House, then they can reclaim their position as rebel with a cause. How to do that? Well, one way is to depict a Trump-like Caesar being brutally killed on stage. For whatever it’s worth, Delta and AA have interpreted this production correctly.
This interpretation of Julius Caesar is clearly designed as a publicity stunt. It worked. A decent production is all of a sudden given far more attention than it probably deserved. People on both sides of the political spectrum are talking about a theatre and a play that most of them have probably never heard of. If harshly criticized, the theatre will speak of Freedom of Expression and the dangers of Censorship. It will also toss out some Shakespearean scholar’s assertion that the play is actually anti-assassination. Since no government has officially sanctioned (or threatened to sanction) the production, the question of Freedom of Expression is not an issue. No government entity has tried to shut down the play or control what is done on the stage (as far as I know), so Censorship is not an issue. True, Delta and AA have reacted, but they are private companies and can support whom they want. Of course their reactions were ill advised. The airline industry has been dealing with a series of PR missteps these last couple of months; this one makes them look silly. If Delta and AA had really wanted to hurt The Public, they simply could have refused to give them money next year when the theatre came asking for it. They would not have to give a reason; they could simply say, ‘no’. By making The Public a victim of corporate conservatism, Delta and AA have all but guaranteed that some more moderate or liberal corporation or philanthropist will make up the difference.
On top of the corporate scandal, now two Trump-loving conservatives have tried to disrupt a performance of the production. Conservative activist Linda Loomer ran onto the stage and cried out, “stop the normalization of violence against conservatives.” Why would Linda Loomer use buzzwords that are so associated with liberals? Why would a conservative go out of her way to give the play even more publicity? Given that the type of person who goes to Shakespeare in the Park is most likely to be anti-Trump rather than pro-Trump, this ‘protest’ would serve little more than to make more moderates curious, at least, about what is going on there. I love the name ‘Linda Loomer’, by the way. I wonder if her editor is Jonah Jameson and her photographer is Peter Parker. And the conservatives sent two people? If you want to disrupt a play, you sent fifty or a hundred; you have them walk onto the stage and hold a sit-down strike; you have them do something. Two people? Who don’t appear to be connected? I don’t know the truth behind it, but this event has all the earmarks of a set up, a hoax on the part of either the theatre or its supporters. Claques have a long history in the theatre and in politics. Or it could be a practical joke by Alan Abel—though he, most likely, would get it right.
Anyway, this play will run its course, then some other event will happen that arouses someone’s ire. I like that New York theatre is, for one brief shining moment, relevant. I wish, though, that the Public had put some thought into it. They may haul out some dusty scholar to tell us what the play is really about (and that scholar might actually be right), but it stands that the theatre was not trying to be provocative; it was trying to be offensive, and it wanted the audience to embrace the idea that Trump is being figuratively assassinated. Politicizing Shakespeare is old hat. Trump as Julius Caesar is an obvious choice. Bottom would be a better choice. Or Macbeth. I’d pay to see that one: Trump as Macbeth and Pence (or Ryan) as Lady Macbeth. That way, the Public gets to ‘provoke’ folks on the left and the right—and we know that the LGBTQ people never get offended when they are portrayed ‘provocatively’ in the media. Also, Trump needs to grow a pair. Really. The people in charge always get poked by the opposition. You remember how the American left never played the race card whenever Obama was criticized.
I first heard about The Donald during the Marla Maples scandal in the late 80s. Since then, Trump has popped in and out of my radar—almost always as some sort of punchline. His occasional forays into the political realm over the last twenty years have done little to change that. His last was brilliant, in a way. At least, it was effective: he won. He’s a billionaire. He’s President of the United States. At some point, perhaps he can stop worrying about what every individual thinks about him. Ignore them, Mr. President. Maybe they’ll go away. Maybe not. To make an analogy: if you don’t like looking at naked people, don’t visit the nude beach; if you run down the street yelling that there’s a disgusting nude beach around the bend, don’t be surprised if everyone goes to check it out.
The Public’s production of Julius Caesar is a theatrical one. It will reach, at best, a few thousand people. The only people who will walk out of the park after a performance with a negative attitude towards Trump went in with one. The theatre’s stunt was not intended to affect anyone’s opinion of Trump. It was intended to get attention for the sake of attention. Now it has the opportunity to play the poor little victim being bullied by the big bad corporations. The Public wants corporate sponsorship and high visibility. It wants to be an eminence rouge in American theatre, while at the same time it wants to be the angry young rebel—backed by a vast organization, lawyers, publicists, and corporate sponsorship—answerable to no one. You had better like the plays, too. If you don’t, if you object to their methods: you hate Freedom of Speech and art; you are a homophobe, perhaps a racist; you’re uneducated and ill informed; you’re Hitler; and, most likely, you don’t like puppies
That’s what freedom sounds like.