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‘Julius Caesar’ Isn’t Enough: Why Tasteless Art Will Never Defeat Donald Trump

Charles Isherwood explores the recent controversy surrounding the Public Theater and explains why anti-Trump art needs higher standards.

julius caesar

“Julius Caesar”

The Public Theater

The media tempest surrounding the Public Theater’s production of “Julius Caesar” in Central Park has filled fat column inches for days. In case you’ve been consumed by more weighty matters filling the headlines – I don’t need to remind you, I trust? — two of the theater’s corporate sponsors, Delta Airlines and Bank of America, withdrew their support of the company when it was learned that in Oskar Eustis’s production, the title character was depicted, none too subtly, as a simulacrum of Donald Trump. (On the last Friday of the show’s run, an alt-right protestor rushed the stage.)

In the play, you will recall, things don’t go well for Caesar, as he is betrayed by his intimates and stabbed to death in one of the more famous onstage murders in Shakespeare – of which there are plenty. While this arts-funding scandal naturally raised a dark hue and cry in cultural spheres, it receded from the national discussion when a gunman opened fired on Republican congressman practicing for a baseball game.

These events were of course unrelated, despite an appalling retweet from Trump’s son Donald Jr. intimating a connection between the two – like father, like son. And yet occurring back to back, they did seem to underscore that the tide of virulence, paranoia and anxiety sweeping the country continues to mount as the days of an unruly and unsettling presidency tick by.

I attended a small rally supporting the Public Theater at Astor Place on Thursday, and then headed uptown to see the production about which so much digital ink has been spilled. I left in a state of some dejection. As many critics and Eustis himself have naturally pointed out, “Julius Caesar” is hardly a play that advocates the assassination of overweening political leaders. In turning to violent means, the assassins destroy themselves, and Rome’s already endangered democracy. Blood begets blood, and, as in many Shakespeare plays, the stage ends up littered with corpses of Romans noble and otherwise.

But there is a bit of sophistry involved in critics’ defending the production on the basis of the complexity of Shakespeare’s play and the ideas about rulership and politics it embodies. For as it is presented by Eustis, it would be difficult for most in the audience to see beyond the gaudily presented parallels between Caesar and Trump. The actor portraying Caesar, Gregg Henry, wears crotch-skimming brightly hued ties, and is married to a svelte younger beauty who speaks in a Slavic accent. Accompanying the production throughout is the vague, slightly distracting sound of someone outside the theater, or on its periphery, bellowing angrily. A pink knit pussy hat makes an appearance.

It was these ham-handed signifiers that the audience I saw the play with responded to with knowing laughter. No surprise there, of course: the overlap between Shakespeare in the Park regulars and Trump supporters is presumably infinitesimal. But as someone whose disdain for Trump probably equals anyone’s, I still came away feeling that, whatever Eustis’s larger aims — “ ‘Julius Caesar’ is about how fragile democracy is,” he writes, correctly, in a program note — the production was essentially exploiting Shakespeare’s play as a blunt instrument, inevitably inviting audiences to smirk at the cheeky parallels rather than engage with the play’s ideas on any deeper level.

Oscar Eustis'Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson' Play Opening Night, New York, America - 13 Oct 2010

Oscar Eustis

Contino/BEI/REX/Shutterstock

Coming on the heels of the controversy surrounding the comic Kathy Griffin’s faux-beheading photo, for which she was publicly pilloried and immediately dumped by CNN as New Year’s Eve host, and the similar fracas that erupted when Stephen Colbert used a vulgar (and yes, homophobic) phrase to describe the relationship between Trump and Putin, the Public Theater’s production left me with the dispiriting sense that artists and performers, in their natural desire to call out the president and his policies for their inhumanity and their recklessness, are taking a page from his own puerile playbook.

Trump, after all, has flooded the Twittersphere with intemperate outbursts, unfounded attacks, vitriolic flights of character assassination. He is currently a potential defendant in a lawsuit accusing him of inciting violence during his campaign rallies. At those rallies, the atmosphere of brutality and hostility toward Americans who opposed his campaign practically seared your hand as you reached for the remote control to change the channel.

And it’s understandable, I suppose, that when a politician and his followers engage in this kind of brutal combat – and succeed in winning the presidency through it – it is natural for his opponents to attempt similarly hard-charging tactics. But for artists and performers to allow their own work to be tainted by the vulgarity spewing so regularly from the capital is dismaying to watch, and I’m afraid I would have to classify Eustis’s blunt-edged production as an exercise in obvious vulgarity.

To be clear, artists of course have a right to express themselves any way they choose. Tastelessness is sometimes a necessary tactic, a way of shocking the audience into awareness; goodness knows we are all guilty of becoming lulled into indifference by the endless onslaught of entertainment options blinking from all of our screens. But it’s also a cheap one, and it doesn’t supply the kind of stimulation and nourishment that resides in more restrained, ambiguous and subtle forms of art.

I am, of course, dismayed by the craven behavior of the corporations who pulled funding from the Public Theater. Most disturbing is the potentially chilling effect their decision could have on smaller regional theaters across the country, whose commitment to politically engaged works may now be endangered. As Jeremy Gerard reported in Deadline, theaters that happen to have Shakespeare in their name – and, naturally, there are plenty – have been assailed by vitriolic and even violent threats once the right-wing press began covering the Public Theater’s production. And speaking of craven, it is a thorough disgrace, although perhaps not a surprise, that the National Endowment for the Arts put out a statement, protesting rather much, that it had in no way given support to the Public Theater for the production. (Who even knows who’s running the NEA these days? Has Ryan Seacrest added it to his broad portfolio? I’m sure his nomination would sail through Congress.)

It is alarming that the corporate arts funding that is so necessary for art to thrive in America – given the puny budget of the NEA – may be in danger. Timidity on the part of corporations has become much more pronounced as the political sphere has become so radically polarized. But I worry just as much about the pollution of artists’ sensitivities by the juvenility and thoughtlessness that seems to be holding greater sway in the culture in the Trump era. None of us lives in a vacuum, after all, and we are all susceptible to influences that we absorb from the media. Those influences are fairly toxic these days. Some fine art has arisen from angry impulses and a virulent reaction against an oppressive political atmosphere. But most good art, and maybe all great art, has not.

Trump swept into Washington promising to “drain the swamp.” That immediately became a risible notion. What I fear is happening instead is that the toxicity of Washington is spreading into the culture, and the world of the arts, in ways that will ultimately be damaging. It is practically impossible, after all, to swim in a swamp and not get a bacterial infection or two.

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Comments

Andrew

If there is an “alt-right” (which is some made up term by the media) then there must be an “alt-left”. And I would argue the alt-left as represented in Hollywood and the media collectively have one goal: destroy Trump. The media and this ridiculous theater group are simply consumed with hatred for Trump and his administration and they do nothing but help keep this country divided with their intolerance and classless behavior. The media and “alt-left” have become completely unhinged and because of their hatred they’re pushing their audience over the edge (as unfortunately witnessed by the tragic shooting in VA by a liberal psychopath). All these people need to take a look in the mirror: they’re the ones out of step in America.

    c Dunn

    If this type of ‘tasteless art’ was depicted as art and free speech when Obama was in office – people from the left would be crying racism. Especially, from the person that wrote this play.

      Bo

      This is a typical very ignorant and stupid post which is why there is such a problem now in this country and why the trump and his followers have no clue why so many people are standing up and voicing their displeasure with their epic ignorance, mistruths, outright lies and big time incompetence. This poster hasn’t a clue and should click on the reply of Kathleen who provided him with a link in an attempt to educate the poor sod. This same play was presented in 2012 at the renown Guthrie Theatre in Minn. with a black actor playing the lead character. The left didn’t moan and get violently upset because they are more aesthetically aware and accepting of works of art which the intolerant and ignorant right is not. It’s ridiculous and this poster proves the point of how misinformed, ignorant and misguided the right wing are. It won’t help as this person posting this kind of ignorance and stupidity will probably think it’s fake news. It’s just a play or which the writer was Shakespeare which this stupid poster seemed also to be unaware of. My god, this is so pathetic to be beyond reason. We are dealing with a vapid, crude con man and his cadre of very ignorant and uneducated followers who will be the death of us all and they won’t even realize it. Scary stuff and ignorance like this has always been the soil from which all evil takes root and grows.

      Kevin

      C Dunn, “the person that wrote this play” is named William Shakespeare and he’s been dead for four hundred years. He’s no longer around to cry “racism” or to say anything else.

      Stan Winston

      HKGuy

Jeff B.

As neither a supporter nor outright opponent of Trump, I think the author is correct in stating how far the arts and media are going in their resistance to Trump. As was said many times when Obama opponents with a public stage went too far in speaking out against him, anyone has the freedom of speech but that doesn’t include the freedom from consequences for that speech. The loss of sponsorship shouldn’t be completely unexpected.

And to be fair, there was a Julius Cesar production with an African-American portraying Cesar that didn’t get the reaction this production did, granted Minneapolis is a much smaller market than Central Park.

http://www.startribune.com/caesar-wears-a-business-suit/137759458/

    Bo

    So what if Minn. is a smaller market? It was presented at the renown Guthrie Theatre and the media covered it. The so called left or liberals didn’t react in this insane manner because they appear to be much more aesthetically aware and had no problem with it. To say the right is aesthetically ignorant is a gross understatement. Not to also say that the right is hyprocitical and disingenuous too.

Molly Larson Cook

This co-opting of the classics is certainly not new, but there’s a mark too far here and with similar productions. And a mark not far enough as well. Intelligent audiences will note the similarities between Shakespeare’s original play and contemporary politicians without being browbeaten or insulted by the look-alike wigs and ties and whatever else. Give the audience some credit. We too have studied Shakespeare and engaged in intelligent discussions. Let us see Shakespeare as the Bard intended. Enough with the cheap tricks.

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