‘Julius Caesar’ Shakespeare in the Park’s Brilliant Controversy
When Donald Trump won the 2016 election, Oskar Eustis decided that he would present the opening of the summer season of The Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park with the timeless production where Shakespeare asks through conspirators who just assassinated Julius Caesar, “How many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted over in states unborn and accents yet unknown!” If Shakespeare could have conceived of his work being done to reflect the current social and political times of one of the foremost nation’s on the planet, a state not born in Shakespeare’s time, he would have appreciated how the director and cast presented his immutable themes about power, violence, greed, political dynamics with a current spin to make the audience think. To an admirable extent, Eustis’ direction “got it right!”
The assassination of a political figure, especially one as accomplished, militarily gifted and innately brilliant as the real Julius Caesar contains lessons for every era and generation of humanity. Considering Shakespeare’s concentration on the very human issues of envy, injustice, pride and ease with which the witless masses are manipulated by politicians, all of which his work emphasizes, the US version of Julius Caesar presented by the Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park in its modern day interpretation sits as a clarion call. It is a harbinger not of things to come, but is an echo of what has been and what will always be.
For as long as there are governments, political factions, power players and the will to murder and commit genocide to secure riches and power, Julius Caesar will be an iconic play. If human nature could only embrace the man who came after Julius Caesar born in Judea in the time of Augustus. Would that humanity could embody His spirit and virtues to change the very core of its flawed essence. Then Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar would be a quaint history play, an almost irrelevance. But such as humanity is, the play will always resound in studied human hearts and Caesar will bleed in sport on global stages for centuries to come..
Whether you dress Caesar up in a suit and long, red tie to mimicry and satirize the current fake and pompous American “man who would be king” or you costume Caesar in a toga replicating the times of Rome, there is much to understand about human beings and politics in this play, if one has the eyes to see, the ears to hear. If you managed to score a ticket to watch this very fine production which amassed responses of praise, excoriation and lukewarm dismissal during its controversial run, you would have been treated to a rousing occasion and would have judged for yourself whether it was offensive, too over the top or innovatively enlightened.
Indeed, the furor of misinterpretation by those who never saw it and complained in error about what they thought the production advocated prompted a few sponsors to pull their support from a play which normally draws yawns and zzzzs after the climax in Act III. That Eustis could raise controversy because of his directorial choices is to his credit and speaks to his courage, ingeniousness and focus on the purpose of great drama: to raise awareness, to show us ourselves and to encourage us toward amendment.
The outcry by those who most likely would not have appreciated the production’s cleverness, are probably not at the head of the class in understanding Shakespeare, his language, the subject, the poetic cadences, the metaphors, symbolism, themes, ironies and more. That is the real tragedy. For the commoners in Shakespeare’s time did recognize the poetic language, rhythms, the themes and even the psychological guilt in Brutus’ soul when Caesar’s ghost shows up to predict his death. Shakespeare’s work, unlike our atomized entertainment, was aimed at the working class and royalty alike; he wrote for everyone and his audience of Queen Elizabeth I and the groundlings appreciated and understood his plays.
Today, the intellect of commoners in the US who can or cannot appreciate Shakespeare knows no economic latitude and longitude. One may be a wealthy or poor Philistine: the vilifiers of Eustis’ production did not suppress their ire. They misunderstood his work with abandon, thinking it rightly due that they could uplift uninformed opinions though they didn’t see the performances. Right behind them the Russian trolls and bots stirred up cauldrons of boiling virtual mud online via fake social media accounts. So be it. They too, like Marc Antony will stumble over their own carcasses en route to an unhappy grave (the bots and trolls). Despite the hoopla, this presentation was a roaring fire and our nation and culture are better for it.
Eustis chose to accoutre his production with elements from our culture. He included these to poke fun at the chaos and clownish behaviors emanating from the United States’ once venerable seat of power, the White House, whose nobility has been sucked dry by the head canker worm with the red tie, and the other parasites that occupy the halls of power. Thus, from cell phones and twitter feeds to graffiti walls on subway stations where dissidents (ordinary citizens, protestors, Occupy Wall Street et. al.) wrote encouraging messages to counteract the disgust they felt after the 2016 election, the play manifests the struggle of American citizens on both the left and the right to solidify their agendas and make their voices known. The production emphasizes the horrific violence on both sides of the Roman coin which leads to the demise of the Roman republic and the rise of autocratic rule. That is the key warning for our age.
Some parallels between Julius Caesar’s Rome and U.S. politics are fascinating, but by no means does Eustis suggest the undercurrents of the tide and times are the same. Though he does make foreboding suggestions for our democracy, the US does not hang in the balance, certainly, not like Rome did. However, if there is a foreign power influencing our elections (this is not in Julius Caesar) to promote the demise of our two party system and push it against the principles of the constitution, then this must be looked into as a new type of warfare. We need to follow the example of our European allies who are currently working against Russia on many fronts including teaching children how to recognize fake sources of online news and the hallmark signs of propaganda. Ukraine and all of the EU nations are farther ahead of us who have not even recognized there is a devil in our virtual house, let alone protected against it.
Though there are hints at a comparison between Rome and the current US political situation, they are more for sardonic, dramatic and tonal purposes. Sadly, there is little to compare if one seriously considers the political players. Would that our current president and the politicians in our Senate and House be worthy of the exceptionalism, military soldiering, courage, erudition and genius of Julius Caesar and the senators of that day. Indeed, over the past devolution of decades, the current lot of politicians are more akin to the rabble of citizens (illiterate lower classes) who are easily swayed by the last speaker and motivated by gifts (Antony offers the citizens gold from Caesar’s treasuries to sway them to violence, and later reneges on his promise). Our current political “heroes” lack the honor, the soul power, the majesty, the courage, the talents, the skills and solidity of character that their equivalents in the play demonstrate.
By no means is the greatness of Caesar who led his legions, fought in battles next to his men and distinguished himself as an extraordinary individual who enriched the Roman empire to be lessened by a suggested reflection in the current president. If critics who so excoriated this production knew a bit about ancient history, Julius Caesar, the Roman senators, etc., they would have understood that the contrast between Donald Trump and Julius Caesar is indeed laughable to the extreme of hyperbole.
To think that Eustis is fomenting violence against the current president is even more laughable. And that is the point. This is one at whom one laughs, ridicules and mocks, for his actions are worthy of little more. Cutouts do not stand. They fall brought down by themselves. Julius Caesar the real man was very, very different. He was someone worthy, someone dangerous. His track record verifying this was miles long. The only wit who laughs about Caesar is Casca, no one else does in the play. The president’s behavior is imminently laughable and even more so that he does it to gain publicity which has been based on infamous shameless and untoward behavior unfit for the venerable office he holds and continually demeans.
There is no comparison between the two men. The fact that Eustis costumes the Caesar character in the tell-tale suit and red tie drives at the very cardboard cutout the president is proud to be: all show, all outer appearance, all image, no inner substance, no character, no strength, no courage, no bravery, not one wit of who Julius Caesar was, except perhaps in Shakespeare’s delineating his pride in not wanting to appear weak which is the fatal flaw that leads to Caesar’s death.
But even then Caesar had to be cleverly manipulated by a “close confidante” to turn against his own better judgment and go to the senate where death awaited him. Indeed, he goes because he is fatalistic. He has braved death many times in battle. He does not fear death, as he says, “The valiant fears death only once,” so let it be with Caesar. This man Julius tailors himself to fit the fullness of the role of Caesar which he respects and attempts to live up to, but cannot because he is mortal. The current president cannot fit the role of president, is unfit for that role and would shape it to fit the role of the leadership of another country whose oligarchy, fascism and tyranny is well documented.
Unlike the White House knave, Caesar was deserving of his honors. He earned them and was indeed a self-made man, a courageous leader, exceptional diplomat and lover of the reputed to be most beautiful woman in the world, Cleopatra. How he rose to power was daunting. And even if you consider that the Roman legions didn’t take BS from anyone, if he had proven himself less worthy, they would have just as soon slit his throat than suffer any clownish foolishness he might lay on them which in his nobility and stature he would never entertain. Again the contrast with the current president is wider than the ocean and Eustas’ production proves their difference in character and spirit to be galactic. And that key theme is screamed out with irony and sardonic humor.
By the time Shakespeare introduces Caesar in the production, the very Roman republic is thought by some to be at stake (an argument Cassius uses to convince Brutus to join the conspirators, which is hypothetical) because a majority of the Roman senators intend to proclaim Caesar emperor. Caesar, wisely, will not wear his crown in Rome, maintaining an apparent equality with the other rulers of Rome which he astutely understands want to keep Rome a republic. Nevertheless, it is because some senators supported Pompeii, the previous Roman ruler who Caesar fought during a civil war and killed in Gaul, that he has enemies. Rather than to kill many of Pompeii’s supporters (Cassius and the other conspirators) he pardons them. It is a fatal mistake because it is his enemies led by the noble, idealistic, impractical Brutus who kill him; only Brutus does so to preserve the republic. Brutus’ fatal error in fact destroys the Roman Republic forever.
As a result of the assassination, massive rioting takes over Rome, stirred up by Marc Antony who with Octavian and Lepidus foment another civil war between the old Pompeii supporters led by Brutus’ and Cassius’ legions versus Marc Antony’s, Lepidus’ and Octavian’s armies which eventually win against the conspirators. However, the cost in bloodshed is incalculable and Octavian/Augustus proves to be the very thing that Brutus and Cassius intended to prevent with Caesar’s assassination. In fact Octavian as a tyrannical autocrat is worse than Caesar would have been. Caesar’s grandnephew, Octavian, later Augustus, learned from his granduncle’s mistake of granting pardons. When he attains the leadership of Rome, after getting Antony to commit suicide and wiping out his “enemies” in battle, at home he rounds up anyone who would even whisper against him, not even allowing them a trial. The genocidal purge wipes out the best of Rome and leads to his Pax Romana (an irony as peace was purchased by bloodshed and kept by fear) and autocratic rule.
The Roman republic is destroyed. The catalyst is the assassination. If the conspiratorial senators had not taken matters into their own hands through violence, but trusted the very powerful democratic tools they had to strengthen their republic, thousands of lives would have been saved, and the intelligentsia would not have been wiped out as a potential threat to Augustus Caesar’s power base. Shakespeare’s principle theme that violence begets violence and a republic cannot be safeguarded by civil war is a powerful lesson he puts forth for future global generations.
Eustis’ production is assisted by fine performances by the ensemble and especially the standouts: the insidious, hypocritical Elizabeth Marvel as Marc Antony (with a southern voice, kind of like Jeff Sessions/Mitch McConnell and Strom Thurmond) Corey Stoll as Brutus, and John Douglas Thompson as Cassius. The latter two both portray a humanity and intelligence in their characters that is moving and real. In its entirety, Eustis’ Julius Caesar gives us a powerful reminder of the beauty of our democracy and constitution and the great tragedy if we lose it through violent means. ( or the new violence, cyber warfare).
Also, throughout this seminal, witty and sardonic presentation, there is an underlying, subtle exhortation to those who would govern us today, here and now: adhere to the constitution, respect the voices of the people, promote equity and justice through a free and accurate press, and insure solid educational opportunity which promotes a greater drive toward economic equity for all. To not do so encourages the hopelessness that begets violence and conspiracy such as made evident in Julius Caesar. Indeed, as this production and Shakespeare so tellingly relate, a country’s leadership is directly responsible for the evolution or devolution of its nation, because the leaders manipulate the people who are invariably less educated and have less power than they.
Shakespeare/Eustis also reinforces that those in power who would manipulate and use the commons to kill for them in the hope of securing power through violent civil strife and assassination, only sow their own demise and the demise of the republic.. With each act of bloodshed, with each body slain, with each bellicose threat of citizen against citizen, a republic and/or a democracy is weakened, as this production reveals. To interpret this work as anything but belies a senselessness and negligent/willful misinterpretation of Shakespeare’s great play and Eustis’ production which interprets Shakespeare’s immutable themes with a currency that encourages us to think, to meditate and delve beyond brainwashing pap uplifted in some media outlets.
The Public Theater is to be credited for its steadfastness to withstand the intense pressure to remove funding because of a production predominately miscued by those who didn’t see it. The controversy, used to generate publicity about an individual whose shamelessness and lack of respect for himself and the office he holds actually validated Eustis’ sardonic interpretation, is a further irony. I, for one, appreciate The Public’s undaunted courage to persist with their vision and mission to stand up for freedom of the press and the sanctity of artistic endeavor to bring a unique, fresh and ironic spin to a play that is often cast as a droll, frozen, rendering of antiquity, easily dismissed because it happened over 2000 years ago.
Eustis encouraged a new veneration for Shakespeare’s timeless work. And he unlike the head corporate philistine of Broadway who holds The Great White Way for ransom, follows in the venerated footsteps of its founder Joseph Papp. They offer sterling artistic works at a lower price and Shakespeare for FREE each year, if you cue up for it democratically. Bravo!