Kate Maltby: While the Public Theater's production of Julius Caesar is a commentary on Trump, the controversy around it is exaggerated
And the fact that the theater has lost funding because of its political critique is a disturbing attack on free expression
Editor’s Note: Kate Maltby is a regular broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom on issues of culture and politics and is a theater critic for The Times of London. She is also completing a PhD in renaissance literature, having been awarded a collaborative doctoral between Yale University and University College London. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
The Trump family seems to have a problem with theater. In November, a few days after his election victory, Donald Trump launched a Twitter attack on the “highly overrated” New York musical, “Hamilton,” after the cast’s performers registered a restrained protest against Vice President Mike Pence.
And, on Sunday, his son Donald Trump, Jr., objected on Twitter to the Public Theater’s production of “Julius Caesar” (part of its open-air Shakespeare in the Park series), in which the murdered Caesar closely resembles President Trump. As a result, both Delta and Bank of America have pulled their funding for the production.
As a theater critic, I saw this production on Saturday night, shortly before the storm blew up. Shakespeare’s plays rarely contain heroes or villains: everyone in Julius Caesar is capable of good, though everyone ends up doing ill. Like most conservative critics, I tend to find that imposing specific modern parallels on Shakespeare tends to reduce this ambiguity, simplifying his complex characters into “Saturday Night Live” parodies.
Public Theater art director Oskar Eustis’ version of “Julius Caesar” is no different. Gregg Henry’s grinning, gesticulating Caesar is too obviously Trump to bear much relation to Shakespeare’s flawed, charismatic war hero; Tina Benko, as his wife, is no more than a heavily-accented Melania stereotype. Subtlety is lost.
Yet this is not the vicious lynching of a Trump-surrogate that the right-wing press are keen to portray, nor a ritual expression of New York Democrats’ bloodlust. Eustis’ production may present Trump as a vulgar demagogue – quelle horreur! – but it makes crystal clear that assassinating him is the worst possible thing his opponents could do.
That is, after all, the message of Shakespeare’s play. (High school students learn this; so should Donald Trump, Jr.) Brutus and Cassius assassinate Caesar because they think he’s going to transform Rome’s democracy into a personal empire; as a result of the violence they unleash, Caesar’s nephew Octavius is able to use the army to establish his own empire instead. The last representatives of democracy end up committing suicide rather than be captured by the enemy.
If anything, portraying Julius Caesar as Donald Trump is unfair to Caesar. The Caesar of history and of Shakespeare’s original, at least, had earned credibility in war, instead of dodging the Vietnam draft. In Eustis’ production, Caesar’s aides have the grace to look embarrassed when anyone mentions his war record. It’s also hard to understand why Brutus, a democrat of rich integrity, admires Caesar’s personal qualities and is so conflicted about betraying him.
But we in no way celebrate Caesar-Trump’s murder. When Elizabeth Marvel’s female Mark Anthony shows the audience Caesar’s bloodied jacket, ripped with knife wounds, we feel her grief, and we, like the Roman crowd, are whipped into a frenzy of revulsion at the pity of this violence.
It matters, then, that Fox News and their allies are determinedly misrepresenting this production in order to pressure corporate donors. It seems to have worked: a spokesman for Delta objected to the “graphic staging” of this production, in which “artistic and creative direction crossed the line on standards of good taste.” (That strongly suggests a spokesman who hasn’t seen the show – or didn’t know Shakespeare’s Caesar contained an assassination scene.)
This Julius Caesar does not glorify Trump’s assassination, but it does critique him as a wannabe-emperor. If that’s all it takes to get funding pulled, other theaters are going to be very wary of staging work that engages with the nation’s President. And that has a chilling effect of freedom of expression. There is nothing less American than an America in which artists cannot speak truth to power.
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It also shouldn’t matter that this production of Julius Caesar has artistic flaws. Even with them, it still has value: as a British Shakespeare scholar, I’ve never heard any American actors pronounce his language so expertly. Elizabeth Marvel makes Mark Anthony’s speech the highlight of the show and a sharp warning about the modern breed of politicians for whom claiming to lack rhetorical cunning is the most cunning rhetorical strategy in the game. (“I am no orator, as Brutus is,” she roars, as if mocking an Ivy League opponent. “I only speak right on.”)
Yet the rights and wrongs of this particular Julius Caesar aren’t the point at all. A theater has lost its funding because it mocked the President, on the back of a lie circulated by that President’s allies falsely accusing it of inciting violence.
That is a dark moment for American freedom of expression. Let us hope theater fights back: not with Brutus’ knives, but Shakespeare’s verse.