June 13, 2017
Let’s talk about Julius-Donald Caesar-Trump: Stop being outraged, especially at the Public Theater’s production
by Peter Clark
In an interview about his 1937 production of Julius Caesar, Orson Welles said, “All of Shakespeare’s great characters are swine… They all are in Julius Caesar. It’s a very interesting play because Shakespeare has feelings for and against everyone in it.”
A similar sentiment could be taken from Oskar Eustis’s interpretation, currently at the Delacorte Theater, part of the Shakespeare in the Park series, through the end of the week. In it, Julius Caesar is depicted as Donald Trump. Calpurnia as Melania Trump. Mark Antony as Kellyanne Conway. Brutus as… an honorable man (Reince Priebus?), a conscientious citizen perhaps, but one so lacking in moral imagination that the audience hardly believes his good intentions for killing Trum—er, Caesar.
In the end, the audience is saddened and appalled by everyone, just as Welles might have intended when he produced the play in the thirties with Roman senators in green German overcoats, and a secret police force—headed by Cassius, perhaps the only unselfish anti-authoritarian character in the play—murdering Caesar from within the Nazi party.
The death of Caesar is a precursor to both further violence and the dissolution of democracy. Mark Antony (Conway, remember) rouses her fellow countrymen to hate the Senate and love the memory of their fallen leader. And inevitably, the backlash is even more brutal than the assassination itself. Rome becomes a police state and Mark Antony uses her new authority to execute political enemies, mostly played by black actors in this production, underscoring increased racial tensions around the country.
In the end, everyone dies except Mark Antony and Octavius. The melodrama is complete when douche-bro Octavius, Caesar’s son à la Donald Jr., assumes full power and honors Brutus with a military funeral, declaring the victory of tyranny to be a happy day.
The story of modern America’s reaction to this play unfolds as we might have expected: Breitbart got upset that Trump was stabbed; Fox News got upset that more people weren’t upset; sponsors started pulling support; and other media start explaining that everyone is misinterpreting the play. Naturally, people were tweeting asinine and factually incorrect things all the while, including douche-bro non-politico (for now) Donald Jr.
This story feels all too familiar. Someone is outraged. Someone else gets outraged at their outrage.
Outrage is now a trope more familiar than the plot of Julius Caesar, a play that concerns itself with the death of a Roman emperor-to-be and the subsequent manipulation of citizens through false outrage in pursuit of authoritarianism. But hey, that’s easy to forget. Almost as easy to forget as that time Obama was the inspiration for a production of the same play… ahem, remember that, Delta Airlines?
The play is certainly unsettling. Anyone would say so. But is it overly violent? No. Is it overly graphic? No. It depicts a man being murdered for his arrogance and malicious behavior. To those that say it is wrong to imagine Trump in this scenario, I say: you are a big fat liar if you claim you haven’t imagined Trump’s assassination. Both liberals and conservatives have pondered this scenario. We elected the least popular president in modern times, and it’s only natural to imagine the possibility of his demise. It’s not a question of for or against, appropriate or inappropriate; it’s a question of the decline of Rome. Said another way, could our country survive an ignominious victory like Brutus’s? Could the world?
Ultimately, I’m bothered by the outrage because, like most outrage, it’s disingenuous. No one attending this production cheers when Caesar-Trump is brutally stabbed. The audience sits there terrified. They think about how real and present a possibility Trump’s death might be, and how tightly wound our society really is — the danger of being continually at odds with one’s neighbors.
I’m not a theater critic, “but here I am to speak what I do know.” I understand the context in which Mark Antony says those words at Caesar’s funeral — some well-timed pathos to remind Rome that they loved their great leader. It makes me wonder: what could be more appropriate for our time than adoring a man so much that the plebes would rather avenge Caesar-Trump, dismantling our present civilization if necessary, than bear any of his disgrace… even when it’s in the guise of a 400-year-old play.
“If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.”
Peter Clark is a former Melville House sales manager.