Bad Shakespeare, Bad Politics: The Case of the Central Park “Julius Caesar”

1. Unlike most of those who have felt the need to express an opinion of Oskar Eustis’s production of Julius Caesar at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, I’ve actually seen it. I attended a performance during the third of the three weeks of previews that preceded its formal one-week run — a couple of days before the furor over the production erupted into national news.  I found it to be reasonably entertaining — and embarrassingly confused:  dubious as a staging of Julius Caesar, and politically irresponsible.

I hasten to say that I see no merit at all in the indignant, opportunistic complaints of those who profess to be scandalized at Eustis’s choice to identify the character Julius Caesar with Donald Trump.    About those complaints, I will say only this. I can see nothing  objectionable in a theatrical representation of Julius Caesar as the sitting President of the U.S., even if that should include (as it inevitably would) on onstage assassination. A stage-play is not an incitement, period. In reply to the “serious question” hurled by the President’s son—in the words of his tweet, “When does “art” become political speech, and what difference does that make?” — I defer to the U.S. Supreme Court: Expression, artistic or not, counts as political speech the moment the attempt is made to suppress it for giving offense on political grounds; the difference that this makes is that it’s precisely then that the First Amendment kicks in with full force (vide R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, 505 U.S. 377 (1992), Scalia, J., Opinion for the Court). The issue is much the same as with burning the flag. (I note without comment that the scandalized theatergoer who first put the would-be censors on the scent seems to have been as much scandalized by the sight of the Trump look-alike naked in the bathtub as by the assassination scene.) You don’t have to enjoy or admire the spectacle of it to acknowledge its legitimacy as political expression.     It confuses the issue to defend such expression on the grounds of its artistic worth or edifying value.

Among the unfortunate consequences of the controversy is that it’s shunted aside any serious discussion of the merits of Oskar Eustis’s staging. The play has been denounced on irrelevant, pernicious grounds by supporters of Trump, and embraced as a cause célèbre by the cultural establishment. An eminent scholar has assured the readers of The New York Times that the staging would have had the Bard’s own approval, and commended the production for illuminating our political circumstances. (The writer, James Shapiro, identifies himself as a consultant on the production, and I grant that his actual wording – although not the headline writer’s – is a bit more oblique.) I’m afraid I can’t agree.

As I say, the performance I attended was before all the nonsense went viral; I had the benefit of seeing it without any of that in my head.    I was disposed to enjoy it – waiting on line for five hours to get tickets does that to you. (Five hours in line is the standard procedure, for any Shakespeare in the Park production. The free tickets are distributed in Central Park at noon on the day of the performance; people start lining up even before the park opens at 6 a.m.) The actors’ performances  were consistently top-notch., and the details were  often clever.  But in the end the dramaturgy was incoherent, and the politics blinkered, or worse.   The representation of Caesar as Trump — that is to say, Trump as Caesar — has a certain specious believability, so far as it goes.  But it makes for a muddle of Julius Caesar, and muddled understanding of the political moment to which it purports to be tailored. Eustis has said that he looked to Julius Caesar to offer a parable for our time. But what he has made of the play isn’t a parable; it’s a proposition. It fails to carry conviction.

Preceding the performance (at least on the evening that I attended), a recorded audio announcement informs the audience that every line to be spoken onstage adheres to Shakespeare’s original (one small, immediately-recognizable topical joke excepted).  The same assurance is given in the director’s program note printed in Playbill.  The fidelity to Shakespeare’s text is cited as if this attested to the production’s coherence and seriousness.   In fact it’s part of the problem. It’s as if Eustis imagined that he need only supply the contemporary correspondences (a Caesar who talks and gesticulates like Donald Trump, an opponent of Caesar who sports a pink-pussy knit hat), and leave Shakespeare to do all the thinking.  The trouble is,  Shakespeare is thinking about other things.

2. That the actor in the part of Caesar, Gregg Henry, is meant to be taken for Donald Trump is uncontestable (and uncontested). His Caesar is not merely reminiscent of Trump, a Trump-like politician. He replicates all the signature mannerisms that are  unmistakably Trump’s.  Gregg Henry has mastered Trump’s verbal inflections and physical gestures with a literalness that by comparison makes Alec Baldwin look like, well, Alec Baldwin. That is to say, he approaches an order of verisimilitude that would interfere with Baldwin’s satirical purposes. The marvel of it, though, is that this is all done while speaking lines written by Shakespeare for Caesar. The lines Shakespeare gives Caesar to say are things we can well imagine Trump saying (were he a bit more verbally fluent).  Henry need only speak the lines in the manner we know to be Trump’s, and the fit appears perfect.

It’s a marvel, but it doesn’t get quite so far as all that.  The most that it shows is that Shakespeare’s idea of Caesar can pass fairly well for Trump’s idea of himself.    Caesar always delivers; he knows himself better than anyone. He’s the man that he takes himself for, the man that he gives himself out to be. Here is Caesar, explaining why he’d never reverse a prior decision:

…I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix’d and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
The skies are painted with unnumber’d sparks,
They are all fire, and every one doth shine;
But there’s but one in all doth hold his place.
So in the world: ’tis furnsh’d well with men,
And men are flesh and blood; and apprehensive;
Yet in their number I do know but one
That unassailable holds on his rank,
Unshak’d of motion; and that I am he,
Let me a little show it…

The actor  need only supply Trump’s spoken inflections, and his air-slapping gestures, for this to pass for a genuinely Trumpian utterance.  The audience, lately familiar with this sort of thing, understands that it doesn’t correspond to anything actual. We recognize the speaker as a man for whom constancy means nothing real.

That isn’t how Shakespeare sees Caesar. More to the point – it isn’t how Caesar is seen by anyone in Shakespeare’s play; it gets no purchase whatever on the situation with which Shakespeare’s characters are confronted. What’s alarming to Caesar’s opponents is not Caesar’s outrageous indifference to truth, but precisely the fact that Caesar is just as he says. Caesar, truly, always delivers, at least to the limit his aging body allows.   That’s the reason why Caesar’s most bitter detractor, Cassius, is reduced to harping on his limited physical stamina.  (Hmm… ) It’s also the reason — the only reason — why Brutus becomes persuaded that that Caesar must die.

This last point is crucial, for making sense of the play Shakespeare wrote. It’s not for tyrannical personality traits that Brutus comes to see in Caesar a menace to the republic.  “To speak truth of Caesar,” he says — in the soliloquy in which he persuades himself to join the conspiracy,  “I have not known when his affections sway’d / More than his reason.”  What makes Brutus fear for Rome’s safety – so he tells himself, anyway – is simply that Caesar is peerless, in every sense of that word.   The menace is hypothetical, consisting  in what future abuses that any leader so universally admired and applauded might at length be tempted to commit. (“So Caesar may; / Then lest me may, [let us] prevent.”) Brutus  knows very well this won’t fly as a political argument —  “the quarrel / Will bear no colour for the thing it is.” He takes it for granted that normal political opposition, on grounds such as this, is futile.  Desperate measures are called for.

Brutus  convinces himself that his notional fears will be publicly validated, if only he shows how far he’s willing to go in acting on them.  His egregious misjudgment in this becomes obvious, after the fact, when he proves to be no match for Caesar’s friend and admirer Mark Antony in controlling the public understanding of the assassination. But it isn’t so clear what alternative there might have been, in the world of the play, given the premises. And it isn’t so clear on what other premises Caesar is to be seen as a menace. There are no actions in the play that attest to alternative means of resistance to Caesar’s ascendancy — and no voices that counsel their adoption. (It’s not an accident that the figure of Cicero is sidelined – not just by the conspirators, but by the playwright.)   The alternatives offered — as Caesar’s opponents see it — are violence or acquiescence.

I do not mean to imply that Eustis’s staging endorses assassination, or advocates violence. Eustis states in his program note, and has repeated in the press, that the lesson of his staging is that “those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic methods… pay a terrible price and destroy their republic.” It’s presumably meant to be highly significant that the set’s painted backdrop — a mural which depicts, along with portraits of Washington and Lincoln, an image of the parchment presentation text of the U.S. Constitution — is abruptly torn down immediately after the assassination. Out come the riot police, commanded by Caesar’s successors. (I was briefly confused when Octavius comes on stage; the actor looks nothing like Jared.)   James Shapiro explains: “Anyone who sits through the final scene will see the consequences of deposing the tyrant: The brutality of the victors, Antony and Octavius, is far worse than that of Caesar.”  That’s clear enough.    Now all we need is for someone to explain how this is supposed to speak to the present political moment.

3.  It actually isn’t true that everything said onstage is from Shakespeare.  The production’s vaunted fidelity to Shakespeare’s text is limited to the lines spoken by  the named characters; Eustis gives himself greater license with the anonymous persons who stand in for the populace — appearing onstage in crowds, and sometimes shouting from the audience.  Especially in the latter third of the play, with Trump/Caesar gone from the scene, these extras serve as the bearers of the play’s topical reference, and do so verbally. They carry signs recognizable from anti-Trump demonstrations of the past half-year (“Resist!”).   And they chant: “This is what democracy looks like.”

What does democracy look like, in this staging of Julius Caesar? Who are these chanting protesters, in relation to the named characters of the play?   Watching the performance, I had assumed that they were to seen as the partisans of  the conspirators — I took their clash with the riot police for Eustis’ rendering of the conflict between the  forces raised by Brutus and Cassius and those loyal to Antony and Octavius.    (The text refers only to “powers”  on either side.)  After reading the director’s various statements in the press, I suspect I had misread the intention.  Perhaps the idea is that the unnamed protesters are acting on their own initiative, a leaderless movement à la Occupy Wall Street — acting independently of the conspirators, innocent of the conspirators’ violence.  In that case, the point of the chant is not to identify democracy with the cause of Brutus & co., but instead to announce the emergence of a more authentically democratic alternative.  That would better comport with the lesson that Eustis has said he has meant to convey; there’s a logic to it.   The trouble is just that it corresponds to nothing that anyone says in the play of Shakespeare’s that Eustis has chosen to stage.  It means discounting everything said in opposition to Caesar by any of Shakespeare’s characters, so as to affirm an alternative  mode of  oppositional politics (call it “resistance”) of which those characters are apparently unaware, and which has no discernible impact on the political situation.  Grant that these other, nobler democratic citizens are innocent of complicity in the fatal misjudgments of  Brutus and Cassius.  By the same token, they’re just as innocent of  responsibility for everything else that occurs in the play.  Their innocence is the obverse of their  inefficacy, from beginning to end of the tragedy.  Some resistance. Some democracy.

4. Eustis has stated that he made the decision to mount this Julius Caesar on November 9, the day after Trump’s election. I get that. But we’ve all had a chance to learn a few things, in the interim.



[Original Title: “An Emperor Disrobed: Some Thoughts on Oscar Eustis’s Julius Caesar.” Revised for clarity, 6/19/17.]

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