Some years ago, I had a small role in a production of Macbeth, which my family came to see. They enjoyed the production very much, and at the conclusion of the performance, my sister saw fit to exclaim “so that’s how it ends!” Like many of us, she’d had the Scottish play assigned in a high school English class, but she hadn’t bothered to read past the act which she’d been assigned for her oral report, and therefore the developments of Acts IV and V were completely new to her. Part of me – the pedantic part that majored in English literature in college – wasn’t particularly thrilled to hear that she’d blown off her long-ago reading. The other part of me – the part that had just been running around stage swinging broadswords for an hour and a half – was actually thrilled to hear it. With plays as familiar as the Shakespearean classics, the challenge for the actor is always to try and tell the story as if it were brand new, as if the audience didn’t already know every plot twist and could mouth along with every famous quote. And here was an audience for which this was indeed the case!
I found myself thinking about this while watching the Public Theatre’s new production of Julius Caesar in Central Park. It’s an excellent production of precisely the sort of classic play I mention above, where you have to overcome the fact that the story is so well known. Indeed, Shakespeare himself acknowledges this very fact within the text itself, immediately after Caesar’s assassination, with this dialogue:
Cassius: How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!
- Julius Caesar Act III Scene 1, lines 111-113
In our particular state, director Oscar Eustis has directed his American-accented performers in a modern-dress production. And far from simply putting everybody in business suits and calling it a day, this production of Julius Caesar is explicitly set in and about the Trump era. The crowds of citizens are depicted as BLM protesters and given Occupy-style Guy Fawkes masks. Caesar has sky-high orange hair and a necktie that’s way too long. His wife Calpurnia sports a distinctly Slovenian accent. You get the idea. It works sensationally well, and turns the play from a fusty history lesson into a dynamite piece of political satire.
Now, given that this is the story of Caesar’s assassination, you might think that such a production concept might be in poor taste, if not possibly illegal – after all, advocating violence against a sitting president is a federal offense. But as the Public’s own program notes point out, the assassination ultimately leads to the rule of Octavius Caesar and Marc Antony – meaning that the conspiracy to safeguard democracy from Caesar winds up causing the very dictatorship which the conspirators sought to prevent. In these frantic and confusing times in which we find ourselves, it’s a cautionary tale, and an invitation to contemplate the repercussions of our beliefs and choices. It’s tough, and funny, and cathartic.
Provided that you know the story. (Heck, the program note gives it away.)
But the reactions of the audience around me suggested that this wasn’t the case at all. The crowd gasped and hooted as if they were watching an especially poetic episode of Scandal. At first, I thought it was simply shock at the audacity of the production concept. It turned out, though, that the plot developments themselves were genuinely shocking to the audience. They were surprised by the assassination, genuinely uncertain of how history would turn out. There was a couple sitting next to me, and when Marc Antony delivered his “O pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth” soliloquy over Caesar’s body, I distinctly heard one whisper to the other “uh-oh, I knew I didn’t trust her, she’s up to something.” (The role of Marc Antony is played in this production by Elizabeth Marvel, in case you’re confused about the pronoun.)
I am once again of two minds about this.
On the one hand, there’s nothing more thrilling than performing Shakespeare in front of an audience that is enjoying it, not as a rarified objet d’art to be appraised and contemplated, but as a story. Shakespeare wrote for the groundlings; for all their poetry, his plays are rip-snorting crowd pleasers if they’re staged properly. And when that happens, the energy you get from an appreciative crowd – especially one as large as you get at the vast Delacorte – carries you along as an actor, takes you to heights you’d never previously imagined.
Julius Caesar isn’t just a text; the story is more than an assignment you might have blown off in high school or college. The story of Caesar’s power grab, assassination, and transformation of Rome from democracy to empire is one of the central stories of Western Civilization. It informs how our Founders put this country together; the events of this play are the specific things they intended the Constitution to safeguard us against. And we’re surprised by them? Genuinely unaware of how this story plays out?
Is this not, perhaps, how we wound up with a Trump era in which to set this production in the first place?