“Julius Caesar” is one of Shakespeare’s most complex political plays. In it we see a vaunted general and trusted public servant killed by elites who worry he is taking away their power. On the other side, we see a man seduced by power, ready to claim total authority regardless of the laws of Rome. This season, the Public Theater decided to produce the play in response to the election of Donald Trump as president.
The production features a Caesar who is directly modeled in every way on Trump. The upshot is that, eight times a week in Central Park, actors perform the assassination of the sitting president of the United States. In response to conservative objections, the Public Theater has lost sponsorships from both Delta Airlines and Bank of America.
Even the National Endowment for the Arts, not exactly a bastion of right-wing groupthink, has distanced itself from the production. In a statement it says that, while it has given the Public Theater’s renowned Shakespeare in the Park festival $300,000 in the past four years, no NEA funding went to this particular production. Setting aside that NEA funding to the overall festival clearly helped keep it going and facilitated this production of “Caesar,” when the NEA is saying, “Hey, we have nothing to do with this,” it indicates that more than just right-wing nut jobs find the decision troubling.
It is easy for conservatives to argue that a theater production enacting the assassination of Barack Obama during his presidency would have met similar uproar. But that argument, while likely accurate, is lazy and smacks of whataboutism. Instead, we should examine this choice, try to see why it was made, and determine if it makes any sense, or if it is just an excuse for the Public to lend its stage to the overall unhinged panic over Trump’s presidency.
Let’s Take a Closer Look at the Comparison
At a glance, Caesar and Trump have laughably little in common. The former was a vaunted general and public servant, not a casino owner and reality TV star. What creates the nuanced tension in the play is that Caesar really had done wonderful things for his country. In addition, Caesar was not elected emperor, as Trump was elected president.
Furthermore, in history and in Shakespeare’s version of it, the senators who assassinate Caesar are not elected, but appointed officials. So any notion that Brutus and Cassius were defending the will of the people or democratic values by plunging knives into their rival is patently absurd.
In the Public’s version, we see the pink-hatted resistance and cheers over the killing of Trump—and let’s be clear, it is Trump—by black senators. This racial divide is clearly nowhere in Shakespeare’s work, but an invention of director Oskar Eustis. Why the divide? Brutus and his conspirators were anything but an oppressed minority. They were literally the most privileged of Roman citizens.
Given that the analogy between Trump and Caesar makes absolutely no sense on its face, and that the circumstances of a fairly elected president being killed bears no resemblance to the killing of Julius Caesar, why was this choice made? Defenders of the production have suggested that since the assassins wind up losing in the end, the point of the production is that we shouldn’t assassinate Trump.
Is this a point that requires a multi-million-dollar theater production? Isn’t it obvious to everyone that assassinating any fairly elected president is immoral and a threat to democracy? Is the Public Theater trying to send some message to those who oppose President Trump about how they should or shouldn’t go about doing so? If so, why?
Let’s Hope It’s Just Trump Derangement Syndrome
In fact, this production is another display of the bizarre derangement Trump has inspired in the progressive zeitgeist. It’s the end of the world as we know it, and they do not feel fine. Instead, every aspect of our lives, including a 500-year-old play about a 2,000-year-old story, must be about this clear and present danger that the American people have brought upon themselves.
That is the charitable reading of Public Theater’s decision. A less charitable, although not implausible, theory is that Eustis and his collaborators thought New York City’s left-leaning audiences of Shakespeare in the Park would get a kick out of seeing Trump stabbed to death onstage by angry black people. I’m inclined to believe, or at least hope, this is not the case. I hope this is not analogous to lynching Obama in effigy, but rather a poorly thought-out response to despair and disappointment.
Now we find ourselves in a battle of the boycotts. Some on the Right say people should boycott the Public. Some on the Left say people should boycott Delta and Bank of America. Boycotts are rarely particularly useful or effective, especially not at healing divides. And whatever one can say about this production, it has clearly worsened the deep divides that Trump’s election has accented.
One other question emerges from this controversy: whether government should fund such works of art. I am skeptical of the idea that public funding should be withheld on the basis of people being offended. Frankly, I’m skeptical of public funding at all. But can we point to any government-funded production or piece of art that presents a conservative view of the political landscape?
This production puts into clear view that government-funded art flows politically in one direction and one direction only. Forty-seven percent of Americans voted for the man who is killed on Public Theater’s stage every night. Is there any production presenting their hopes for his presidency? Or is there only state-funded artwork that satisfies the fear and despair of his opponents?
Some may argue that such a literal depiction of the assassination of the sitting president is incitement, a kind of violent porn. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But whatever it is, it is not a work of art that seeks to build bridges. It is one meant to set them on fire. In that, and perhaps only that, it has absolutely succeeded.