Julius Caesar in the Park, part two.
(A long, as yet unfinished read)
This is not really a review yet, this is the beginning of a report on what I saw and an analysis both of the production choices and of the brouhaha surrounding this production.
First, it must be read in connection with my earlier posting, in which I attempted to untangle what I thought were some overly simplistic—and sometimes knee-jerk—reactions to the whole thing. (And I beg no one to take any of my statements out of the larger context of the discussion. I am an avid supporter of the Public Theater, and of Oskar Eustis my friend in particular, and I will not have my name or my opinion dragged into any diatribe or movement to sanction this production, this company, or its current charismatic leader.)
Corporate support of the arts or culture in general, withdrawal of that support for whatever reason, and boycotting a corporation for either supporting or withdrawing support are all voluntary actions in a democracy and do not amount to censorship. Such actions may be deplorable or admirable, depending on the specific situation. If the dreadful Citizens United has taught us anything, it is that free speech can be expensive, but finally the “free” in “free speech” was never intended to be a financial term. If conservatives have called for boycotts or withdrawals over presentations or programs they did not like, so have liberals. The day after Delta and Bank of America announced their withdrawal of support, partial or total, from the Public Theater’s Julius Caesar, J.P. Morgan announced it was withdrawing its advertising (and its revenue) from Megyn Kelly’s airing on NBC of the Alex Jones interview. No one should be surprised to find that when corporations spend money on something, they do not act from self-interest; and sometimes that self-interest bows to the pressure exerted by their customers or stockholders, both of whom can be offended in ways that make the corporations uncomfortable.
(By the way, there has been a lot of pushback against Delta for supposedly supporting an Obama-assassination-themed production from the Guthrie and the Acting Company some years back. I’ve seen that particular meme repeated ad nauseam in the Public’s defense. Well, I saw that earlier production (and I am a proud founding member of the Acting Company), and there is frankly no equivalency. It was modern dress and the Caesar was black, and the production was good and well received, but there was absolutely no overt attempt to identify him as President Obama, even if that’s where the director claims to have drawn his inspiration. Black “presidents,” like Morgan Freeman and Dennis Haysbert, were popular memes around then, if you recall.)
THE PRODUCTION AND THE PLAY
The other thing I attempted to unravel—and that will be my primary concern here with regards to the specific production of Julius Caesar–is the difference between a playscript and a production of a play. Playscripts are not plays, they are detailed instructions for plays, as scores are instructions for symphonies. Some playscripts may also be marvelous literary documents (like Shakespeare’s), as some costume renderings are wall-worthy art; but that’s not their purpose. They embody a co-creator’s intentions for an eventual production; they contain detailed instructions, like a blueprint. And the instructions are given to the stage artists, whose work, each time it is done, embodies not just the writer’s artistry but their own particular creativity as well. That’s the deal.
So to say that a “play” has a certain “meaning” or “lesson” for us is a statement whose truth is dependent upon how a particular production of that play integrates the work of its two principal creators, the author and the stage artists who interpret it. And inasmuch as Shakespeare is most likely the greatest professional playwright who ever wrote, surely this means that this integration and interpretation by the living stage artists should factor in a rather serious respect for the playwright’s literary, thematic, dramaturgical, and psychological skills. Or as I often put it to my students, “When Fred Astaire asks you to dance, don’t insist on leading.” Shakespeare’s script may indeed offer us such a lesson, but an individual production, in its particular appropriation of that script, may not. (In my opinion, this play is a particularly excellent example of that; historically, perhaps the majority of performances of this play have insisted on presenting Brutus as the unflawed hero of democracy, and have achieved this by carefully selective cutting and staging emphases.)
At the same time, when a play becomes a classic, in reality it may (perhaps even must) forfeit, to some extent, the author’s dominant claim to intentional pre-eminence, especially when both the culture and the staging conditions change radically. The text may then become the “raw material” for further artistic mining, which may result in unearthing “ore” beyond the original author’s intention. That is also the deal, the Faustian bargain that playwrights tacitly accept when they write for the ever evolving stage, for productions that may take place “many ages hence. . . In states unborn and accents yet unknown.”
Still, it is my belief (and others may not agree) that any producer who touts a performance as Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and the themes and characters and “lessons” therein as Shakespeare’s own, had better be damn sure that he or she is not just using Shakespeare to advance another, identifiably non-Shakespearean agenda, whether artistic, cultural, ideological, or political. But, of course, identifying exactly what the tolerable mix of fidelity and invention is, where the line can be drawn, and whether it should be drawn, is devilishly difficult. But just because it is difficult, doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try.
First of all, I must report with some embarrassment that I am writing this analysis after reading some kind words Oskar wrote about me in the program, words which I read for the first time when I took my seat in the Delacorte on opening night. Some may therefore read my analysis as the height of ingratitude. Oskar, I know, will not. He and I have been friends for over three decades, and while he claims to have learned from me, I wish to state for the record that I believe I have learned far more from him over those decades than he from me. The value of passionate engagement in the culture and the arts. The right mix of social activism and social grace. Commitment to a strong vision for society and the courage and flexibility to engage with those who may not always share that vision. An appreciation for the truly innovative. An unshakable faith in diversity at all levels. Provocation tempered with real care. The right blend of prudence and exuberance. All areas where I find myself often in need of improvement.
Next, though I think the current kerfuffle has indeed been driven primarily by a right-wing engine of faux outrage—which I think various journalists have documented fairly clearly—nonetheless I think it is still possible and necessary to ignore all the political noise and attempt to undertake a mainly artistic analysis of the production’s strengths and weaknesses. (The left-wing engine of faux outrage is not all that silent either.)
Third, I do know this play quite well, both as a scholar and as a theatre professional. I’ve written extensively about it, I taught it almost every year of my academic life, and have read most of the important critical literature. I’ve seen lots of productions, dramaturged it twice, directed it twice, and appeared in it at least seven times: twice as Brutus, twice as Caesar, twice as Casca–and as other plebs, citizens, and soldiers. I’ve worked with some mostly white casts, but also with black Caesars, black Cassiuses, black Brutuses, and black Antonys, and women in men’s roles, in modern dress, in period dress, and in between. Twice Oskar and I worked together on productions; both times I thought we both learned a lot.
Finally, let’s be frank, the production’s conception of the title character does not “suggest” Trump—it absolutely identifies Trump, and his wife, through a series of semiotically unmistakable gestures and props and set pieces and stage business and characterizations and habits of speech and costumes and additional text. It does not allow or invite audiences to draw the similarity, it forces them to, it needs them to, it makes it impossible not to. Much of the success of the early part of the play is firmly rooted in this deliberate identification. So let’s not pussy-foot around it—this is a specifically Trump-centered production, and Fox News is closer to the truth (Oh gasp!) in its faux outrage when it headlines that “Trump is assassinated in Central Park” than the play’s defenders are who claim that it’s just a fictional “Julius Caesar.”
I read one blogger who claimed it is simply not true to say that the play “depicts” the assassination of Donald Trump. In fact, that’s exactly what it does. What it does not do, ever, is “condone” it. Still some questions remain: what is the purpose, what is the effect, and what is the propriety of even a metaphorical suggestion of violence against one’s political opponent—and more specifically against one’s head of state?
Does the mere depiction of such an action cross some kind of ethical, aesthetic, cultural, political, or legal line? Even to some creators of similar depictions, it apparently does cross one line–of taste. Kathy Griffin thought so, and said so—under some pressure admittedly–and hers was just a depiction of a depiction of Trump’s beheading, a photograph of a mask of his likeness. And among Obama’s supporters, depictions of Obama being lynched created a fair amount of left-wing outrage–as it should–though I have yet to hear any apologies for those. The mask was not Trump, the drawings and the effigies were not Obama, and Gregg Henry’s Caesar is not literally Trump; but all are works of art clearly and intentionally depicting violence against them, and we should be honest about the fact that art sometimes wants to speak quite directly through such likenesses. And we should take it seriously. And not be disingenuous about it. Oskar certainly has not been.
But we can still question, when we give artists that space, when we concede that they have that right, whether they use it appropriately—because all rights come with obligations. I know, I know, some artists reject outright the idea of appropriateness, even thrive on being inappropriate. But I’m not necessarily talking about culturally or socially appropriate, or even about tastefulness or tactlessness; I’m talking about aesthetics. And I’m talking about the full context in which such provocative depictions may be made, and whether they are artistically successful or self-defeating depictions.
THE MIRROR UP TO NATURE
So I guess we’re right where Oskar put us all in his opening night speech—looking into the “mirror up to nature.” If like me, you believe that Hamlet, in select parts of the play, is actually channeling Shakespeare’s own opinions (why else would a 9th century Danish Prince talk about London’s 17th century children’s theatres?), then surely his advice to the players is advice to all players. And too often that advice is condensed to just the plain mirror image, as if some kind of contemporaneous topical reflection is what Hamlet (and Shakespeare) is talking about. But it’s not. Shakespeare also used “mirror” when he clearly meant “model” or “example”—see Lady Percy’s stirring eulogy for her husband in 2 Henry IV.
(Of course, while we’re on the subject, this is the same Hamlet who also thought it entirely appropriate to slant a performance of an extant play on regicide (“The Murther of Gonzago”) to give it a more specific reference to an existing ruler, even adding lines of his own to the text to sharpen the topicality. So if Hamlet is still channeling Shakespeare here, one would have to conclude that the bard would have no great problem with what Oskar is up to. Of course the Prince was probably also funding the performance, so he’d also have no objections to the changes, and arguably the players would have had no choice but to accept his directorial intrusions.)
But back to that “mirror up to nature.” What the entire phrase and the surrounding context call for is the appropriate depiction of human behavior for a specific purpose: “to hold, as ‘twere, a mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” Now the first part of this is pretty unambiguous, theatrical mirrors are not neutral reflectors, except for narcissists who simply wish to gaze lovingly into their own eyes. Plays are only mirrors, as ‘twere; they’re not reflective neutrally. The theatrical mirror is a much more complex apparatus; its job is to show you human nature. If I may paraphrase, it is specifically constructed to show you what you should be (virtue), what you shouldn’t be (scorn) and what you currently are. (I should add that I’m not sure the final phrase can be construed only to mean the present time; it is possible that Shakespeare thought that the theatrical mirror should also try to accurately reflect what human nature was like in other eras and times. The metaphor is from wax seals, the image left in the wax exactly captures–in concave of course–the impression of the signet or seal–its form and the pressure with which it is applied. And I’m pretty sure Shakespeare thought “human nature” was pretty consistent and recognizable across all ages.)
The theatrical mirror offers primarily an occasion for self-evaluation, not simply recognition—by an individual and by a society. And when that theatrical mirror is specifically a history play, rather than a simple fiction, it offers an occasion for self-evaluation by presenting us, not with pictures of ourselves, but with (perhaps re-fashioned) examples from the past with whom we share a human nature and whose dilemmas and decisions, even in a radically different culture, we may be able to identify with and sympathize with (because we share that nature), and from whose actions—and their consequences–we may be able to learn something about ourselves and our choices.
So what happens when a character called Julius Caesar becomes Caesar in name only and Donald J. Trump in almost every other way—to the point where a wonderful actor is required to mangle Shakespeare’s verse rhythms in order to capture our president’s bullying fifth-grade schoolyard cadences? There is clearly a gain in comedy and perhaps in pertinence (or impertinence), but there are clear losses as well. A specific tone of satire and parody is introduced which may clash with, and be counterproductive to, the inherent and ironic seriousness of the rest of the play. The extreme topicality also practically compels us to go hunting for other contemporary parallels, and we find them of course in Caesar’s wife—proverbially beyond suspicion—now saddled with Melania’s accent and attitude, and haunted by her soft porn modeling career. And Jared’s flak-jacket over blazer ensemble. But we also find them—and if we’re a right-wing website we blare them out—in the fact that “all the conspirators save one” are women and minorities, and of them, only the white man, it is finally declared, was acting nobly out of principle. Topicality, it seems, can cut both ways, and color-blind casting does not always blindfold an audience.
So why make so strong a choice about Caesar, when it should have been obvious that such a choice could have at least a disruptive effect not only on the production itself, but on the perception of the production? (Unless disruption, as it is for Steve Bannon, was the point.)
I suppose it was almost irresistible. The director himself tells us he made that decision the day after the election. And to be fair, the playwright himself supplied a lot of encouragement. Shakespeare’s Caesar is not just physically compromised (epilepsy, partial loss of hearing) but clearly pompous, egotistical, not invulnerable to ambition, and a sucker for flattery. (It was particularly piquant to see one recent New York Times front page feature–below the fold–on the production’s provocative portrait of Caesar, printed right next to a story about Trump’s recent Cabinet meeting orgy of sycophancy and ass-kissing.)
But Shakespeare’s Caesar, while deeply flawed, is still history’s Great Man as well, a conqueror, statesman, literary stylist, adored icon, consummate politician, “mighty, bold, royal, and loving” as one character calls him, and a man whom even his assassin praises as one he has never known to let his affection sway more than his reason. He may be now in decline, even in decay, but he may also be “the ruins of the noblest man / That ever lived in the tide of times.” In other words, even a failing Caesar carries behind him a train of world-changing conquests, glories, triumphs, and spoils, while a Caesar shrunk to Trumpian dimensions trails only a string of bankruptcies, lawsuits, failed promises, garish buildings, lies, and gold-plated scat. The displacement of a larger-than-life figure by a smaller-than-life one does the play no favors.
So in such extreme topicality there may be a diminishment, a diminishment that may extend, unfortunately, to every other character, and a diminishment in the aesthetic coherence of the play as a whole.
DRAMATURGY AND PLAY CONSTRUCTION
Because scripts are not merely suggestions, like architectural sketches on a napkin. They are, for lack of a better word, foundational. So now it becomes necessary to try to identify what exactly Shakespeare’s script may have envisioned for any production. By this I do not mean that all his intentions are recoverable or stage-able today. Or that they have to be. I will always honor the interpretive right—even the interpretive necessity–of his living co-creators to leave their mark on his plays and make them accessible to a 21st century audience. What I mean is that a script, like a blueprint, is a complex set of instructions for constructing a production; and not understanding any part of it, or tinkering with any part of it, is likely to have negative system-wide repercussions. And unlike a blueprint, scripts deal with human behavior, not inorganic materials—so the complexity is exponentially multiplied.
Take this script, for example. First of all, it is a history play, so all the primary characters already have their own legendary reputations, and the audience’s knowledge of those reputations, exerting pressure on the narrative. Then it’s a seventeenth century reflection on a first century BCE event and a first century BCE culture. And it represents, therefore, not what we now know and think of that era and that deed, but what Shakespeare and his contemporaries knew and thought. And what they knew was strongly influenced by the enormous impact that ancient Rome had on the educated Renaissance Englishman, and on the mostly self-educating William Shakespeare in particular. (In addition, it is now so familiar a script—in fact for many people their likeliest source of what little knowledge they have about the events portrayed—that it will always present directors with the temptation to do something surprising and disruptive to counteract that familiarity.)
There were four primary interpretive frames, I think, through which Shakespeare is likely to have looked back on, and understood, and tried to reproduce the events of March, 44 BCE.
1. First was that of a Christian writer evaluating a pagan culture, in particular the various philosophical bases of its ethical behavior—like Stoicism, for example with its doctrines of dispassion and suicide; and the three most recognizable pillars of the Roman ethos: duty, honor, friendship. (Many of these doctrines Shakespeare and his peers would have absorbed from their reading of Cicero and his disciples.)
2. The second was that of a monarchist examining a democracy.
3. The third was as a writer who had an almost personal relationship to Roman culture because of the dominance of Roman-based rhetorical studies in his education—again from Cicero and his followers. Shakespeare may therefore have felt compelled, almost in the interests of verisimilitude, to anchor much of his characterization in the persuasive powers of the principal characters. To be a Roman was to be a rhetor. Rhetoric would be pervasive in any depiction of Roman affairs, and would help to create the Roman era with the same kind of historical accuracy that we would now expect from authentic costuming and properties and architecture.
4. And fourth, as reader of Plutarch, whose Parallel Lives only reinforced Shakespeare’s natural curiosity about the psychological makeup of the great Greek and Roman heroes, and whose insistence that it is not only in the large deeds of great men that we come to understand them, but sometimes in their small actions and casual thoughts as well. It is almost impossible to underrate this last influence. Shakespeare will lay out the sequence of events with a great deal of skill in his plotting, making some adjustments along the way; but that is not what really interested him. It’s not what happened, but how it happened, and more importantly why it happened. Or to be more accurate, since this is performance art, why it is happening before our eyes. And almost always the why is to be found in the psyches of the principal players.
I would suggest therefore that he found the fascinating tale in history and then asked himself something like, what were these men and women thinking—both as individuals and as members of an influencing culture; what were they feeling, what did they imagine they were doing? What did they want? Did they even know what they wanted? These men and women may not have had the same culture as we do, but they had the same human nature. I should be able to understand them, I want to understand them, and I want to offer others a credible depiction of their behavior. The actions are a given, the people and their motives however, may still be still something of an enigma. I want to humanize them, not as oversized figures of out of history books, not statues, but flesh and blood. Maybe larger than life, but still lifelike, living.
Of all these frames, I think our modern audiences mostly share only the fourth. Not that we have read Plutarch, but it is that author’s and Shakespeare’s fascination with the complexity of human behavior, and their determination to depict it in all its complexity, that we now share and even crave of our best artists.
But the other three frames have left their mark on the dramaturgy of the play as well, and while they cannot always be reproduced, they cannot be easily dismissed or dismantled either. They are part of the warp and woof of the play, so players have to find some way to honor them.
For the first frame, with a much more secularized audience today, there should be no problem, as long as we understand what Shakespeare is up to. Brutus is to some extent a sympathetic embodiment of Shakespeare’s critique of Stoicism. And Brutus’s struggle with honor–is it intrinsic to a man or bestowed on him by others?—a concern Shakespeare will explore more deeply and harshly in Troilus and Cressida—is a struggle not unknown in modern times. As is Brutus’ parallel struggle to be true to his “philosophy.” But both are essential to the play, and are deeply intertwined. The word honor rings out clearly in all the crucial scenes; and any interpretation that does not give it the pre-eminence, and the specific development that Shakespeare accorded it, risks distorting the play—especially as Brutus, while not the title character, is clearly the protagonist of this play.
For the second frame, there should be very little difficulty honoring its presence. Tyranny, demagoguery, populism, mobocracy, plutocracy, oligarchy are still very much with us—perhaps even more so—out at the polarized edges of the political spectrum, as are monarchy and democracy towards the middle. Even Shakespeare had little trouble shining a harsh light on the abuses of monarchy, though he does seem a hold a rather harsher light on the abuses of democracy. He nowhere seems to condone assassination, but then again he did not live in the Hitler era. But to say he nowhere condones regicide is a bit of an overreach. What happened on Bosworth Field? (Though I believe I read recently that Henry VII officially backdated his official claim to the crown to the day before Bosworth Field to prevent that specific charge.)
For the third frame, though we are not so educated in rhetoric, we can probably still recognize it in all its variations when we hear it. (And when we don’t recognize it as just rhetoric and not reality, we sometimes get manipulated into making horrible decisions.) But how this frame affects Shakespeare’s dramaturgy is a little more complex. There are so many scenes of persuasions–of individuals and groups–and so many framings of those scenes, when the persuading characters explain, either before or after, exactly where the weaknesses of their listeners lie, and which rhetorical strategies can best take advantage of those weaknesses. So this particular structure, it seems to me, is fundamental to Shakespeare’s organization of his materials, and needs to be honored somehow–because again it is an essential part of the play’s dynamic, a thread that cannot be pulled out without damaging the tapestry.
As for the fourth frame, what it mostly requires of modern players is that they pay as much attention to the complex interior lives of the principals as Shakespeare does. This play is particularly challenging in that regard because it presents the principals in ways that arouse shifting sympathies over the course of the action. We should be constantly re-evaluating the main characters as they reveal hitherto unknown sides of themselves. Our assumptions are constantly being challenged by the surprising complexity of their psyches. And we must learn, as in life, not to take everything people say about themselves, or about others, as true. There is much in the play about “putting up a front” before others—“as our Roman actors do”—as there is about construing “things. . . clean from the purpose of the things themselves.”
With these disclaimers, and these frames, I will try, in an upcoming post, to give this production a critical look, not as a provocative piece of political activism, but specifically as a work of performance art.