|Corey Stoll as Brutus in the Public Theater's Julius Caesar.|
There really are other stories worthy of comment out there, but the Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar seems to be the gift that keeps on giving. Even after the play's closing, the controversy surrounding the Caesar-as-Trump schtik has engendered some of the best discussions of Shakespeare we’re likely to encounter as a larger population. Curmie, as a theatre historian and critic, has access to, and an interest in, more purely scholarly investigations on an ongoing basis, but the average American, even the average theatre-goer, has seldom had the opportunity he or she has had over the last few weeks to read some very high-level and yet eminently readable stuff.
Among these commentaries are those from practitioners like Corey Stoll, who played Brutus (the lead, in other words) at the Public, and Rob Melrose, who directed the 2012 Guthrie Theatre/Acting Company co-production in which an Obama-like Caesar was assassinated on stage in Act III. Most telling about Melrose’s commentary is this three-paragraph passage describing why he thinks his production avoided controversy whereas Oskar Eustis’s did not:
I think one key difference in the corporate response to the two productions is simply that most people who wrote about and talked about our production — the one with an Obama-inspired Caesar — actually saw the show, where it is clear that most of those outraged by The Public Theater’s Trumpian emperor either didn’t see the play or didn’t stay to the end. [emphasis Curmie’s]
The Breitbart article that started the controversy is — I kid you not — a review by someone who talked to someone who saw the show. This second-order correspondent also thinks the play ends with the death of Caesar, as if they are killing the bad guy at the end of a superhero movie. In fact, the assassination takes place in the middle of the play, the rest of which deals with the terrible consequences of this action. Shakespeare built the outrage into the text. Mark Antony is so outraged — for himself, and on our behalf — that outrage suffuses the play’s entire second half. If you see a production, you get outraged with the play, not against it.
Our Obama-inspired production also didn’t have any gestures that tipped our hand to say “this is definitely Obama.” We wanted to make sure audiences could make the Obama connection if they wanted to — or could ignore the connections if they only wanted to live inside in the circumstances of Shakespeare’s play. In Eustis’s production, the Trump connections are more overt : Caesar wears an overly long red tie, Calpurnia speaks with a Slovenian accent (or “Slavic” if you are writing for Breitbart). There is also much more humor and satire in the Public Theater production. Caesar usually is not a very funny play, and I tip my hat to Oskar Eustis for finding so many genuinely funny moments. That may have bristled some people as well, but Eustis is hardly the first person to make fun of the president.
In other words, much if not all of the furor over the Public’s production was born of ignorance, and a rather proud and self-righteous ignorance, at that.
But Stoll’s article is, of course, more relevant to the current kerfuffle. Here’s the most important paragraph in Curmie’s mind:
When Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater and our show’s director, first assembled our cast for rehearsals, my anxieties centered on my desire to hold my own in such a strong company. After four weeks in the rehearsal room, we moved to the theater and I saw Caesar’s Trump-like costume and wig for the first time. I was disappointed by the literal design choice. I had little fear of offending people, but I worried that the nuanced character work we had done in the rehearsal room would get lost in what could seem like a Saturday Night Live skit. I was right and wrong. Audiences did laugh at Caesar, in an explosive, hungry way that shocked us with its intensity, but when it came time for the assassination scene, they lost their nerve. In early previews, isolated audience members would scoff or even applaud during the bloody, awkward, and ugly assassination scene. Two weeks in, once we refined our performances to neutralize the laughter, you could hear a pin drop. By then, I better understood Eustis’s decision to be so literal in making Caesar Trump. A nontrivial percentage of our liberal audience had fantasized about undemocratic regime change in Washington. Acted out to its logical conclusion, that fantasy was hideous, shameful, and self-defeating.
Notice that even Stoll himself had trouble getting past the literalization of the Caesar/Trump linkage, but ultimately he realized that it was the anti-democratic impulses of the left, not the authoritarianism of the right, that presents the greater danger in the play, and quite possibly to 21st-century America. Curmie is pretty certain that a significant percentage of both sides failed to make that connection. Perhaps this can be attributed to a failure in the production; more likely, it’s a failure in the spectators.
Speaking of the public’s (as opposed to the Public’s) failures: one of the most disturbing elements of the largely Astroturf outrage at Eustis’s production is that Shakespeare companies around the country started getting death threats. Getting riled to violence because of a play is not exactly a new phenomenon—one thinks of the first run of The Playboy of the Western World or the Astor Place Riots, for example—but if those events were spawned by hypersensitivity or hyperbolic nationalism, this round can only be attributed to utter stupidity. It’s repulsive enough that members of the Public Theater experienced death threats. It’s another step towards outrageousness that those threats extended to Oskar Eustis’s wife and daughter. “I want to grab you by the p---y,” one caller allegedly said. “Your husband wants Trump to die. I want him to die.” But for full-blown, terrifying lunacy, there’s the fact that other Shakespeare companies around the country—people who had nothing whatsoever to do with the Public’s production—are also under threat.
The two theatres most often mentioned in press coverage of this phenomenon are Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, MA, and Shakespeare Dallas. The Washington Post (linked above) and Salon, neither of them exactly bastions of conservative thought, both ran stories talking about how “Trumpsters” (Salon’s term) were sending death threats to “the wrong [theatres].” Serious question: is Curmie alone in thinking there’s no such place as a “correct theatre” to which to send death threats?
But there’s something else at play here for Curmie. Yes, it takes a special kind of stupid to make death threats at all. And yes, sending hate mail to Massachusetts or Texas because of a New York production secures an even more exalted place in the annals of history’s greatest morons. But, for Curmie, things just got personal. I have a friend and former student who’s acting at Shakespeare and Company this summer; three others that I can think of off the top of my head have worked at Shakespeare Dallas in recent years, and it’s only chance that they aren’t there now. I have a colleague at Arkansas Shakespeare, and seven present or former students at the Texas Shakespeare Festival. I know of at least three other summer companies with “Shakespeare” in the title where personal friends have worked in the past. One of them qualifies as “Shakespeare in the Park,” which seems to be the designated Google search term for assholes who might be violent if they weren’t so imbecilic and so craven. Curmie doesn’t like it when his friends get threatened, especially when they haven’t done anything that any sane person could construe as even remotely deserving of such treatment.
This episode serves to underscore some unpleasant truths about our country. Foremost among these is the political schism, the product of an arrogant buffoon of a President and a press corps interested only in spinning their partisan rhetoric, and the truth be damned. We are reminded that there are a lot of idiots out there (like we didn’t know that from who got elected President, right?). A more fundamental concern is attack on the arts in general. Any kind of commentary, any nuance, any perceived threat to the Hegemonic Legion of Doom, however miniscule, is increasingly likely to draw the wrath of the propagandists at Breitbart or Fox News: and the proudly anti-intellectual denizen of the White House will give them cover, even as they shill for his disastrous policies.
It ain’t pretty out there, y’all.