In November 1937, Orson Welles and partner John Houseman staged a production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” at the Mercury Theater on Broadway in New York City. They decided not to clothe the actors in traditional togas, but to use contemporary dress that evoked the style of fascist Italy.
The effect was electrifying. Theater critic Brooks Atkinson said that through Welles’ staging, the play “becomes the tragedy of dictatorship and mob rule in politics.” He called it the most exciting and terrifying drama of the season.
This summer, the Public Theater in New York performed the play in its free “Shakespeare in the Park” series, underwritten by corporate sponsors and the City of New York. And once again the play made headlines for how it was staged. This time, the character of Julius Caesar — whom you’ll remember is stabbed to death early in the third act by a group of conspirators acting under the impression that they’re rescuing the republic from tyranny — bore an unmistakable resemblance to President Donald Trump.
Controversy ensued and soon both Delta Airlines and Bank of America pulled their support of the production. Outrage only increased after Republican congressman Steve Scalise was shot by an assailant during a congressional baseball practice.
In one of the play’s last performances, protestors jumped onstage in the middle of the action. “Stop the normalization of political violence against the right,” one screamed at the crowd before being escorted out. “Because of liberal violence like this,” she later tweeted, “a congressman this week was shot in Virginia.”
The play’s director, Oskar Eustis, described by the New York Times as “an unabashedly left-leaning theatermaker who believes in the value of provocative art,” tried to defuse accusations that he’s condoning physical assaults on politicians, even assassinations.
“ ‘Julius Caesar’ can be read as a warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy by undemocratic means,” he explained. “To fight the tyrant does not mean imitating him.” Indeed, Shakespeare shows that it was the chaos unleashed by the assassination that destroyed the Roman Republic.
As the controversy grew, Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, took to Twitter wondering “how much of this ‘art’ is funded by taxpayers?” (By the way, I’ve never been quite so relieved that the National Endowment for the Arts had NOT supported a particular theatrical production.) He also asked, “when does ‘art’ become political speech & does that change things?” Having written about art and politics a lot, I could tell him that art has involved politics for a very long time and sometimes has been explained — and protected — by the First Amendment.
“Indeed, it is a strange-disposed time; but men may construe things after their fashion, clean from the purpose of the things themselves,” says the level-headed Cicero to the agitated Casca early on in the play. His words ring even more true today: We’re all still prone to see everything through our own distinctive interpretation, abetted now by social media and opinionated cable news.
Clearly we’re not a society always inclined to think through the ramifications of our impulsive actions, and this is one of the many things that great art can show us if we would let it. But like Shakespeare’s conspirators, we usually focus only on our perception of the rightness of our actions and give little clear-headed thought to the consequences.
One can’t help but suspect maybe John Wilkes Booth missed the point of “Julius Caesar” when he and his brothers staged it in New York in November, 1864, just five months before he sealed his place in the history books in a different theater in Washington D.C.