Mischief, Thou Art Afoot

Here is the timeline, as I understand it.

Back on May 23rd, the Public Theatre’s new production of Julius Caesar began preview performances in the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. (The official opening night is tonight.) It is a modern-dress production, in which the character of Caesar is portrayed with a voice and mannerisms not unlike the current President of the United States. Being Julius Caesar, the play features – 2000-year old spoiler alert – Caesar being stabbed to death by Brutus, Cassius, and the rest of the conspiring Roman senators. Which means that, if you come and see the production, you will witness on-stage action that may suggest the assassination of the current head of state.

Last week, the hosts of Fox and Friends simultaneously discovered that Julius Caesar is a play that exists, and that this production draws the contemporary parallels it does. They expressed that they were shocked by this, and offended, which itself is hardly shocking – their program exists for the purpose of telling like-minded people who and what should offend them. (Of course, the play makes it clear that this assassination brings ruin upon the conspirators and ultimately creates the very dictatorship they claim they fear, which would seem to be a sentiment they'd agree with, but never mind that for now.) What is notable this time is the immediate effect the broadcast had. Yesterday evening, an hour or so before the Tony Awards, Delta Airlines and Bank of America withdrew their corporate sponsorship from this production, and from the Public in general, severing long-standing relationships in the process.

Among the many reasons I’m saddened by this is that the surprise and shock professed by all involved means that nobody read my blog post about all of this. Yes, Constant Reader, if today’s entry is prompting a sense of déjà vu, it’s because I already reported on this production two weeks ago. (I even made the same dumb “2000 year old spoiler alert” joke I make two paragraphs above!) So it seems I’m not getting the site traffic I’d like to be getting, and I’m going to have to ask all of you to share these posts a little more aggressively than you’re currently doing.

Even if they hadn’t read my post from two weeks ago, the corporate sponsors of the Public should have made any decisions about this production several months ago, when it was first announced. Julius Caesar the play has been the story of a monarch’s assassination for four hundred years. Julius Caesar the historical figure has been a part of the Western consciousness for two thousand years. Whenever you stage a production, even if it’s scrupulous in its historical accuracy, or is set in Antarctica or the surface of Saturn or wherever, it’s going to prompt people to draw parallels to whoever is in political power at that moment. Set it in modern dress, whenever your modern moment happens to be, and the parallels become explicit. A production of Julius Caesar in the 90s would inevitably be about Bill Clinton, a production during the Gulf War inevitably about George W. Bush. Not only might a production from a few years ago be reminiscent of Barack Obama, with the conspirators coming across as Tea Party true believers, but the Guthrie Theatre and The Acting Company staged a production that did so explicitly, which (fun fact) Delta Airlines funded with no similar crisis of conscience, and which elicited not a peep except for the American Spectator magazine calling the production “riveting.”

And this isn’t some modern affectation. Any Shakespearean play about a monarch is already designed to do this. He tells “sad stories of the deaths of kings” precisely because this was uppermost on the minds of the English of his day; his career spans the end of Elizabeth I’s reign, the growing anxiety as she had no heirs, and the dawning realization that James I was a completely inadequate successor. And he got in as much trouble for it as anybody staging a “Trump-ian” interpretation nowadays. In February of 1601, Robert Deveraux arranged for Shakespeare’s company to mount a revival of Shakespeare’s Richard II as part of the Essex rebellion.  The production was explicitly meant to draw parallels to the contemporary political situation in England, and rally public support to the cause of Essex and Deveraux.  And Elizabeth had them for it (Shakespeare and the players avoided this fate; then as now, it’s the producers who get in trouble), exclaiming “know you not that I am Richard II?”

Don’t feel bad if none of this was covered in your high school English class. For that matter, it’s perfectly fine to be offended by this particular production, or find it a shallow interpretation, or whatever. The problem is that the people who are making decisions about this production, decisions which could have a larger impact on arts funding in this city and nationwide, are doing so out of blatant ignorance. And making decisions based on ignorance, on base passions and prejudices that have been deliberately inflamed, is something that never turns out well.

 I’m pretty sure Shakespeare has a play or two to this effect.

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