Let’s face it, theatre may be an art, but it is also a business (and pretty much always has been) so the idea of attracting “butts” to put in “seats” has been a pervasive motive behind the vast majority of theatrical productions throughout history. Yes, there have been times (the Jacobean masque, seems relevant) when there was really only one “butt” of any real importance (usually the ruler’s), so attracting audiences can’t be said to be the only reason why theatre is done, but, nonetheless, presenting a play without getting an audience seems a little foolish, and is usually frustrating.
So, the Public Theatre’s “Shakespeare in the Park” series this summer has included a production of Julius Caesar, and has chosen to play Caesar as a very “Trump-like” character, complete with hair, tie and pouty wife. Since Caesar gets assassinated in Act III, Scene 1, some have chosen to declare that this is a direct attempt to encourage the assassination of President Trump. This, rather silly idea (more on that later), has created enough public pressure that some corporate sponsors (like Delta Air Lines) have withdrawn their funding of the production and the Public Theatre. I think that’s too bad and rather shortsighted of Delta, especially since they apparently have no problem with supporting the Guthrie Theatre in Minnesota, in spite of their 2012 production (in conjunction with The Acting Company) of a production of the same play which featured an “Obama-like” Caesar, who was also (rather obviously) assassinated (it’s in the play, people)!
Now, I happen to be very fond of this play of Shakespeare’s. (Okay, I’m MORE fond of Hamlet, but That play isn’t the subject at the moment.) I have even gone so far as to create my own adaptation/edit of it, which I have entitled The Evil That Men Do, as I don’t wish to imply that it is anything but an adaptation of Shakespeare’s original. In doing that, however, I spent a good deal of time reading and re-reading the original play to try to figure out how to make it work a bit better. I have also seen more than one production and several movie versions. I hear that one of the complaints about the Public’s production is the “bloodiness” of the assassination scene, in addition to the outrageous idea that it actually encourages political assassination!.
Now when I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production in Stratford in 2009, I was with my younger (though adult) daughter, Maggi. This production, played in somewhat “periodesque” costumes, avoided having Caesar rigged with blood bags (and having to deal with the consequent mess for the rest of the play) by the use of a lot of red light, but no “blood.” I could buy into the convention (although I didn’t think it totally effective), but Maggi had a real problem with it. As she (rather cleverly, I thought) put it, “stabbage leads to bleediness.” And, you know, she’s right! The fact is the Caesar is supposed to be stabbed and the conspirators “bathe their arms” in his blood. That’s hard to do convincingly if there’s no blood present. Shakespeare’s company used “blood bags” filled with actual animal blood, which I’ve not heard has been the case of ANY production in a long time. But all of that is really beside the point.
If one actually READS the play (at least in my somewhat studied opinion) it’s pretty obvious that Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar isn’t really about Caesar so much as it is about Brutus and the events which led up to Caesar’s assassination and its aftermath (which ends with the downfall of the Roman Republic and the creation of the Roman Empire. Brutus is, after all, the one of the “conspirators” we see being manipulated to join and “lead” the assassination conspiracy. And he clearly IS manipulated, especially by Cassius. (Read the play!)
Now Caesar, who only appears in a few scenes with something like 130 lines, IS portrayed as a somewhat unhealthy, partially deaf, ambitious and egocentric older man, who really would LIKE to be king, but is smart enough not to say so out loud when it looks like he can just act modest and become king anyway. Brutus is presented as a highly idealistic man; somewhat proud of his own position in society, who wishes he could prevent the Senate’s giving Caesar a crown without having to kill his friend. Thus, his motives are to preserve the Republic. I would suggest that this MIGHT have been possible except for the fact that others (Caesar’s friend, Anthony, and others) move rather quickly to assume power in the vacuum left by Caesar’s demise and the upheaval of his death. It’s worth noting that the crowd (portrayed as likely to be easily swayed by emotional appeals) IS, in fact, pretty much convinced by Brutus’ “funeral” speech that the assassination was necessary to preserve the state. Then Anthony (Caesar’s friend) is granted permission to “speak at Caesar’s funeral.” Bad move on Brutus’ part!
In what I (and a good many others better qualified than I) would say is something of a rhetorical masterpiece, Anthony, manipulates the crowd against Brutus and the conspirators and sets a mob loose in Rome to burn, pillage and destroy (including the murder of Cinna the poet, simply because one of the conspirators was also named Cinna) while he (Anthony) goes off to hole up with his buddies to plot how they are going to take over the whole place (with few qualms about murdering “troublemakers” OR “adjusting” Caesar’s will [used by Anthony to help sway the crowd] for their own benefit). This leads to the rest of the play being something of a chronicle of the civil war between Cassius-Brutus and Anthony-Octavius, which ends with the defeat of the conspirators, their suicides and the statement by Anthony that Brutus was “the noblest Roman of them all because HE, alone, killed Caesar out of good intentions.
Now, anyone who actually knows anything much about this play who can figure out that it’s a play which encourages assassination is (I think) reading a play quite different from the copies I’ve read/seen. Yes, there is an implication that assassination MIGHT be justified on occasion, but the consequences of that act are clearly shown to be fraught with difficulties. That is to say that nothing of the idea that, if Elizabeth’s censor (the Master of the Revels), had gotten ANY suggestion of this sort of thing from the play, it would never have been performed and James I never would have allowed the play to be published.
Since it WAS performed (we have records and its performance is referred to in a letter by a “tourist” to London during the period) AND it WAS published (not until the First Folio, but it WAS published), the Master of the Revels obviously didn’t think it encouraged regicide. That MAY have been because Caesar was, in fact, assassinated, but the decline of order following this act would seem to suggest that no one familiar with the history (and ALL of the power figures were familiar with the history during the Elizabethan era) would have been likely to have used this play as a justification for killing a leader outside of the rule of law.
I should (perhaps) also point out that when the supporters of the “Essex rebellion” in 1601 (a couple of years after Julius Caesar was written) desired to arouse the mob to their support, they got the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to perform Richard II with the abdication scene* shortly before the planned uprising (which failed miserably). This led to Augustine Phillips, one of Shakespeare’s fellows in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and a “sharer” in the Globe along with Shakespeare, being examined by the Privy Council as to why the company had performed this play at this time (They were, in fact, paid quite liberally by Essex’s supporters for putting on this “old” play). This (among many other cases) suggests, at least to me, that playwrights and companies had to be pretty careful not to offend the crown under Elizabeth (and James). IF Julius Caesar had been viewed as encouraging assassination, it seems quite unlikely that it would ever have seen the light of day, let alone print.
There seems to be plenty of silliness to go around in the current case, but the suggestion that theatre should do everything possible to avoid controversy is beyond silly, it’s stupid. If the purpose of theatre is “… to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature…”, then it must be allowed to do so. If we really meant to have freedom of speech in this country (read the First Amendment), then we have to allow others to express ideas with which we don’t agree. No, we don’t have to support those ideas, but, unless they pose an immediate danger to public safety (like yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre), people do have a right to express them. That’s to say nothing of the fact that art (all sorts of art), especially theatre has always been controversial. Aristophanes may not seem particularly controversial today, but his humor makes the strongest late night comics seem pretty tame, if you take the time to look into what he is actually saying about the political/social leaders of his time.
On the other hand, in keeping with my belief that corporations are NOT people, I would suggest that Delta should have clearly established the conditions of its “support” for the Public Theatre (a theatre long known for controversial projects) prior to making a big deal about pulling its support for the theatre based on this one production. Given Delta’s history in sponsoring other productions of this play, I would suggest that there’s at least a smell of hypocrisy about their actions, which could lead to backlash (boycott) of the airline by people who support the Constitution. We’ll wait and see, I guess….
*Richard II was probably written in 1595 and first appeared in print (Quarto) in 1597, which suggests that it wasn’t the most popular play Shakespeare even wrote. In fact, there were three Quarto editions of the play published before the abdication scene was included in a published version in 1608 (five years after Elizabeth died). It’s generally thought that the abdication scene must have been cut from “approved” stage performances, at least during Elizabeth’s lifetime.