It was a pleasure to see eloquent and thoughtful teacher/blogger Curmie back commenting after a hiatus, and his timing could not have been better, as the controversy over the nightly assassination of a Julius Caesar who appears to be President Trump’s twin has become even more relevant since an anti-Trump zealots started picking off Republican Congressmen with his rifle.
Curmie is a theater professional with keen perspective on artistic freedom and a proven facility with ethical analysis. Here is his Comment of the Day on the post, Ethics Observations On The “Shakespeare in the Park” Trump As “Julius Caesar” Production:
Not surprisingly, I suppose, I’ve been thinking a lot about this story lately—enough to post about it twice on my own blog. Not having seen the production, I can’t say for certain that it does or doesn’t do X or Y. But I wonder if what we’re dealing with here is a variation on the theme of the Second Niggardly Principle.
[Ethics Alarms note: “When an individual or group can accomplish its legitimate objectives without engaging in speech or conduct that will offend individuals whose basis for the supposed offense is emotional, mistaken or ignorant, but is not malicious and is based on well-established impulses of human nature, it is unethical to intentionally engage in such speech or conduct.”]
A couple of points first. Drama, especially in the West, has always been political. I would argue (although I suspect the majority of my fellow theatre historians would disagree) that the Dionysian Festival, generally regarded as the birthplace of formal theatre (although there was almost certainly theatrical activity of some kind before that) was created less to honor Dionysus—a rather obscure demi-god worshipped primarily in Asia Minor—than to consolidate the political power of the tyrant Peisistratus.
Whether or not this is the case, it is unquestionably true that the Dionysia was used as a site for political speeches (e.g., Pericles’ funeral oration), and that the plays themselves commented on contemporary events (e.g., the Oresteia on the reforms of Ephialtes three years earlier, or Oedipus Tyrannos on the plague). Old Comedy—the plays that would have been contemporaneous with the work of the great Athenian tragedians—was explicitly political, often vulgar, and uniformly iconoclastic. These comic critiques of the powerful were seen by the state as an important part of the cultural life, much as the Feast of Fools became a staple of the medieval calendar. Similarly, Americans knew we were going to be all right after 9/11 when David Letterman started telling Bush jokes again.
It is also true that I know of not a single book, article, conference paper, or lecture on Julius Caesar that suggests that the assassination of the title character in the play is a good thing. And this is not mere consequentialism: killing Caesar wasn’t a bad idea because things fell apart thereafter, but because things would always fall apart after such an event. The notion of basileus, “Divine Right,” was central not only to the political but also the (Anglican) religious doctrine of the era. In other words, I find it difficult to argue that any production of Julius Caesar could be said to be apolitical, or to advocate violence against a ruler (of course, I use this last term loosely, to include President Trump). Thus, it is extremely unlikely that any production company of stature (and the Public Theater certainly qualifies) would <intentionally promote the course of action adopted by Brutus, Cassius, et al. in the middle of the play.
Finally, as has been mentioned here earlier, adopting production concepts which attempt to bring a classic work explicitly into the present by underscoring parallels between characters and well-known contemporary figures has a long history, including previous productions of Julius Caesar which may not have been quite as explicit, but were apparently sufficiently clear that contemporary critics picked up on the allusions immediately.
All that said, a couple of other points need to be made, as well. First, it is undoubtedly true that the theatre community in general is not supportive of Mr. Trump’s presidency. They don’t like his politics, they don’t like his dishonesty, and they don’t like him. A rift that has always existed between artists and the GOP has widened in recent years, and the enmity towards the Trump administration is real, whether or not justified.
Moreover, Julius Caesar is, in my opinion, one of the poorer-structured of Shakespeare’s plays. Even though the murder takes place at about the midpoint of the play, it certainly seems like the climax. And that’s where the on-stage action is. The ensuing two acts are, as I’ve suggested elsewhere, pretty dull. So the disintegration of Brutus’ ideal new world just isn’t as interesting as the assassination of a political leader, especially if the killing is staged in a particularly realistic and histrionic manner, as appears to be the case in the Public’s production. So whereas it may be wrong to think of this as an “assassination play,” it’s understandable.
That is, seeing the Public’s production as a call to arms remains an inaccurate reading, but it is perhaps foreseeable. And Oskar Eustis, the director, seized upon what a friend of mine (also a PhD in Theatre) refers to as a “wouldn’t it be cool if” concept. These almost always sound great in theory, but ultimately end up unable to integrate the production and the original text. That is, the fact that no serious scholar thinks Julius Caesar promotes violence matters a whole lot less if the play being produced has been sufficiently altered by “concept” that it ceases to be Julius Caesar. Again, without having seen the show in question, I can’t comment further.
What does seem entirely possible is that Eustis and his colleagues set out to make their production relevant to a 21st century audience: a worthy goal. But they may have gotten too cute. I still stand 100% behind their right—legal and ethical—to do a play like this, and I still regard Delta’s and Bank of America’s withdrawal as morally craven and hypocritical. (I already knew that about Fox News.) But the furor had to have been anticipated as at least a plausibly predictable response to the production. Moreover, portraying Caesar as they did was unquestionably an intentional tweaking of President Trump and his supporters. That the “correct” reading of the production almost certainly runs directly contrary to the hype generated by the right-wing media may be irrelevant. The Public bears some responsibility, not for threats or incitement or anything like that, but for willfully playing “us vs. them” games and widening the gulf that separates left and right.