A Trump-as-Caesar Reader

Earlier this summer, director Oskar Eustis’s production of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, which had been mounted by the Public Theater (of which Eustis is the artistic director) as part of its Free Shakespeare in the Park program’s 2017 Delacorte Season in New York City’s Central Park, became a lightning rod for discussion and conflict.  The depiction of the title character, a populist Roman ruler assassinated by senators concerned that his ascent could mean the end of their democratic ideals, was perceived as a doppelganger of Donald Trump.  Some political partisans, who misinterpreted the show as an attempt to normalize or advocate violence against Trump and other Republican politicians, spoke out against it, protested it, and even interrupted the production,  Two corporate sponsors withdrew support from The Public, and the National Endowment for the Arts distanced itself from the show.  All of this became the predominant topic recently on this blog’s Facebook page.  In fact, I posted so much related to this topic that I thought it might be useful to try to consolidate the various articles and links into this blog post, to which I have added some additional material.


Delacorte Theater stage viewed from aisle M-N By: This photo was taken by participant/team Lazy Bastards as part of the Commons:Wikis Take Manhattan project on October 4, 2008. (Contributed by author), via Wikimedia Commons

The Director’s Vision’s first Facebook post about the Julius Caesar controversy was a link to The New York Times review by new co-chief theatre critic Jesse Green.

Next I posted “a brief snip” of video from a speech that Eustis gave from the stage of the Delacorte before a performance of Julius Caesar after the controversy had erupted.  That was shared from The Public’s Facebook page, which also has a more complete version of that speech.  In fact there is quite a bit of interesting stuff about The Public’s response to the controversy on their page, so please check it out.

In the comments on that post I then linked to an interview by New York Times writer Michael Paulson in which he elicits a statement of intent from Eustis.  I also linked to the director’s program note, which had been posted on The Public’s web site.

My friend, the actor Ashley Smith, had pointed out this Deadline article about some fools threatening completely unrelated theatresThis piece in Vox made clear how wrong-headed the protests and other complaints really were.

Next came an interview by Washington Post theatre critic Peter Marks with Eustis about the controversy.  I also linked to Marks’s review.

In addition to the New York Times news article linked above, there was a thought piece from Vox about the performance interruptions.

Then the eminent critic and scholar Dr. Samuel L. Leiter re-posted (and recommended) something that had previously been re-posted (and recommended in the strongest possible terms) by the very distinguished classical actor Peter Page.  That turned out to be part of a very substantial three-part piece of writing by one of my heroes, the great actor/director/scholar Dakin Matthews.  Mr. Matthews has been kind enough to give permission to re-post the entirety of this writing here.  Many thanks to him for this extensive, fine-grained, and extraordinarily useful analysis.  Part one:

Julius Caesar in the park! Okay, let’s all take a deep breath!

First of all, can we please distinguish between the play and the production? And can we also distinguish between free speech and corporate support?

Let start with the second distinction first. Nobody so far is trying to close down the production—though I’m sure some would like to. But sponsorship, whether corporate or individual, is voluntary. Any theatre that begs for corporate sponsorship knows exactly what it is doing, and knows both the upsides and the downsides. And any sponsor, corporate or individual, has every right to give, deny, or (within limits) withdraw its sponsorship. And anyone in the public has every right to boycott any corporate entity if he or she disagrees with that corporation’s actions, whether political or economic or social or benevolent or whatever. It’s free speech and free action all around.

Take a contrary hypothetical: suppose a corporation funded a theatre, and then that theatre never cast minorities in important roles; how would you feel about a withdrawal of corporate support? Would you boycott that corporation? Or come to its defense?

I think the question of government support is a little trickier, and overwhelmingly much more political. But again, how would you feel if government support went overwhelmingly to those companies that equally overwhelmingly hired non-minority performers? (Perhaps that is even the case right now, or could be soon.)

Now about the play and the production.

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is a maddeningly complex, highly sophisticated play about a number of things: about Brutus and Cassius and Antony and Caesar in particular, or at least about how Shakespeare tried to understand them, but also about the individual in society, the tensions between democracy and monarchy, the psychology of the strongman and the psychology of the assassin and the psychology of the mob, a particular critical moment in early western history, the use of rhetoric in public discourse, politics and ambition, stoicism and its discontents, good intentions and mixed intentions–and even possibly the tenuous state of the Elizabethan monarchy at the turn of the seventeenth century.

Yes, an argument can be made about the topicality of certain of Shakespeare’s plays—Shakespeare himself occasionally forges the link himself, and certainly his contemporaries did as well—especially about his history plays (see Richard II and Henry IV for well documented examples—as well as Coriolanus). And Shakespeare’s plays were produced by his own company pretty much in what was for them “modern dress,” and have been produced in what has been, for succeeding audiences, “modern dress” ever since. So there’s nothing new or unprecedented about leading audiences to make connections between the world of the play and the world they live in. What would be the “purpose of playing” if plays didn’t do that? (See Hamlet.)

So you can’t really challenge the current production on “general principles”—that modern dress somehow invalidates the production or that topical application, whether implied or inferred, is somehow both unwelcome and corrupting.

But you can challenge any individual production, it seems to me, on its specific invitation to topical readings.

And what are the bases of such challenges? I think there are a number, but we must always remember that no production actually wipes out the play text. Julius Caesar the script remains uncorrupted in whatever form it comes down to us, and can withstand any wrongheaded or well meaning production that may call itself “Shakespearean.”

Nonetheless, one can challenge any specific production, first and foremost, for essentially betraying the play. (And I’m not suggesting they don’t have the right to do that, and no one could stop them anyway; I’m just suggesting that betrayal is always possible, and that I’m not sure it a good choice. But betrayal of his intentions was the option that Shakespeare had to embrace when he co-created unfinished works of art and left them for his fellows and future generations to finish. “How many ages since, etc.” And just as Cassius and Brutus are wrong about how future playgoers will evaluate their actions, so playwrights can never be sure how future actors will interpret their works.)

One sign of what I call “betrayal” might be the excising of critical portions of the text (or additions to the text) that mask or distort what Shakespeare’s interpretative intentions were. (Yes, I still believe in the author and his intentions, as do most actors I know. And most playwrights.) Another might be the clear violation of the meaning of a critical part of the text, or of an action indicated by the text, without actually cutting or adding to it. I have actually heard more than one director say, “I know that’s not what the text means, but let’s do it that way anyway.” Sometimes it’s harmless—“Who in the press calls on me?”—but sometimes it’s not.

But injudicious cutting or interpolating or deliberate misinterpretation are not the only reasons why one might challenge a particular production, because the primary task of any production is to produce an interpretation of of a playscript—and here I use the original meaning of ‘interpretation,’ the live voicing and/or presentation of a performance. Again, I believe that Shakespeare, in the case of Julius Caesar, wrote a very carefully balanced narrative, which, while extraordinarily complex, does not seem to me necessarily ambiguous—‘ambiguous’ in the sense of giving a director unconditional permission to slant the narrative or the dramaturgy any which way he or she chooses.

Many critics of the production believe that the slanting of the narrative by the director’s clear intent to have the audience see Caesar and his wife as stand-ins for President Trump and his wife—especially as the climactic action of the first part of the play is the assassination of the ruler—crossed some kind of interpretive, and even socially and politically permissible, line. Supporters of the production, including the director himself in a note posted on the Public’s website, continue to point out that Shakespeare, and presumably this production, make it very clear that assassination is not only not condoned, but is shown to have destructive consequences for democracy.

I suspect both responses are a little simplistic.

Art has always tended to cross lines, and sometimes the consequences are positive and sometimes negative. A graphic staging of the murder of a character deliberately identified as Donald Trump (even if his name is Caesar) is indeed provocative. Offensive to his supporters and even to some of his detractors, who nonetheless find the graphic representation of such an assassination unnecessarily provocative. (For the record, Queen Elizabeth I seems to have been more offended by an abdication scene of one of her predecessors and by his murder scene.) And while they may not admit it, I suspect more than a handful of his most fervent enemies will probably find a perverse pleasure in this assassination fantasy.

But, frankly, a director’s disclaiming post about one of the purposes of the production being a staging of the chaotic consequences of assassination could sound a little like protesting too much. I think that is clearly one of the purposes of the script, perhaps even its primary dramatic purpose; but a visual and interpretive slant as strong as replacing Caesarism with Trumpism seems to me unlikely to maintain the necessary thematic and psychological balance of the play. I will know more when I see the production tonight; but even its defenders have mostly admitted that the second half of the production, where this balance is carefully worked out through a series of shifting sympathies among the three surviving protagonists, seems a muddle; and that the wonderful performances of Cassius, Brutus, and Antony (the latter a cross-gender triumph) tend to get overwhelmed and flattened out by the extreme topicality of the Trump/Caesar identification; and that even that characterization, replacing a truly world-shaking and widely admired (however monumentally flawed) soldier, statesman, politician, and literary stylist like Caesar with a petty, preening blowhard, does little to honor Shakespeare’s careful psychological portrait and the delicate balance among the four leading characters.

I’ll give you my personal judgement on all this tomorrow.

Dakin Matthews, continued:

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 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.


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.


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.

And the final (third) part of Dakin Matthews’ writing on this subject:

Now my personal opinion—and that’s all it is–about the production itself. Please take nothing I say out of context.

Let’s get the Trump business out of the way first.

1. A modern dress production—set in the U.S. or elsewhere–is a perfectly valid choice for a play as political as this. But familiarity is not really the primary goal of such a choice. Rather it is to make the play more understandable for the audience, and through that understanding, more relatable to their own social and political situation. A transfer to any period other than that imagined by the author can potentially make the play more understandable, as long as the new period provides equivalencies that illumine rather than obscure the original; and other periods than our own can do that as well. However, some periods may simply not be amenable hosts because they do not provide equivalencies or are even less familiar than the original. Contemporary America strikes me as a nearly perfect choice because of the wealth of equivalencies and the high level of interest in and information about the current political situation. And the danger to our own institutions.

2. However, should a conceptual transfer become too specific, too topical, or too silly, too self-referentially clever, then it can overwhelm the original by creating false equivalencies, and by distracting audiences from what Shakespeare calls the “necessary question of the play.” To aggravate this, dropping what is essentially a SNL sketch parody into the heart of this play wounds it, in my opinion—though not necessarily fatally—by creating a contemporary incoherence of tone, uncalled for by the original text and unhelpful, finally, to the overall production– however much it may have created both a temporary frisson, not to mention a lot of press and support.

3. There are really two reasons, in my opinion, why this choice hurts the production more than it helps it. The first is social and the second is theatrical.

4. As I tried to clarify in my earlier analysis, one might object to the performance choice because it is inappropriate and even offensive socially. Simply put, is it ever appropriate to graphically represent the brutal murder of one’s political opponent, let alone the head of one’s state? The defense that it was “Julius Caesar” and not “Donald Trump” who was knifed onstage is disingenuous at best and dishonest at worst. One cannot spend 59 minutes saying, “Look, it’s Donald Trump—look, it’s Donald Trump!” and then at the top of the hour claim, “Nothing to see here folks, it’s just Julius Caesar being assassinated.” This is the case that some of the play’s defenders are making, and it’s bogus. Almost as bogus as the supposed “Obama-assassination-production of Julius Caesar” some years back, about which even the director admits there was never any overt attempt to identify Obama with Caesar. And I don’t think it is a defense which Oskar has ever made. I have generally found Oskar, bless him, to be anything but disingenuous.

5. The Public’s Caesar is meant to be read as Donald Trump, pure and simple. The name, as Lady Bracknell might say, is immaterial. In the final act, a defeated Brutus enters and urges his companions to “rest upon this rock”; but there is no rock, there is what I take to be a cheesy hotel room. Calling it a rock doesn’t change the visual fact that the final scene is meant to be seen as indoors in a run-down room for rent. The visual trumps the purely nominal.

6. So the question remains about the depiction of the brutal murder of one’s political opponent or one’s head of state. Personally, I cannot think of a case where I would find it appropriate; and I suspect I would usually consider it offensive. (I know that is true in every case where a similar depiction was aimed overtly at Barack Obama.) I’m not talking about satire or ridicule, though there are also times when satire and ridicule might be socially inappropriate as well–if it is racist or sexist, for example, or attacks a person’s family, or comes at a time of personal crisis, like the loss of a loved one. I’m talking strictly about depictions of murderous violence. Of course, one man’s inappropriate is another man’s offensive. And the line between inappropriate and offensive is generally partisan—as is the line between “inappropriate but necessary” and “inappropriate and unnecessary.” So at that level it may be more a matter of personal taste and social courtesy. I get that, and I also get that offensive speech is constitutionally protected, perhaps even more so than inoffensive speech.

7. But there is another question beyond whether a depiction is “socially acceptable.” Is such a depiction socially productive? If the depiction was meant to “start a conversation,” did it start one that benefitted society? Oskar is very clear in his conviction that the Public’s offerings are part of a necessary civil conversation, one that can be at times more uncomfortable than “civil.” One can question whether this particular “conversation” contributed to the reduction of polarization, or merely aggravated it. Whether it spoke to those who needed to hear it, or only to those who wanted to hear it. It may have moved the questions of “artistic freedom” and “free speech” and “corporate support of the arts” to the fore, but did it do anything for the themes at the heart of this play: the allied dangers to democracy presented by tyranny, demagoguery, populism, and violence? Oskar spoke eloquently of the “clash of ideas” necessary for a democracy, but did this production reduce the noise level so that the “sharing of ideas” was made more likely, or it did it merely increase the din, so nothing could be heard clearly amid all the shouting? I think that’s a fair question.

8. At the same time, I understand there is no hard and fast rule which says that all public speech must be civil or even constructive. Free speech is a right, but the access to exercise that right can be and often is quite limited by the structures of government and the power of money. Sometimes all one can do to combat injustice or raise an alarm is stand in the street and yell. Protest is almost by definition boisterous, disruptive, and inappropriate. There are times when even highly offensive speech is not only protected but necessary. This may be one of those times; but one can still ask the question, is this particular form of protest effective?

9. I would argue that finally it is not—and here we get into the aesthetic argument–mostly because the tool (Shakespeare’s script) used to mount the protest was not constructed for, and indeed is ultimately ill suited for, that purpose. You can try to hammer a nail in with a shoe, but it might compromise the shoe and still not get the job done. You can also try to hammer a nail in with a bronze bust of Shakespeare, and in a real emergency you might have to (“for want of a nail, etc.”); but the result may still be serious damage to the bust, and even then you might end up with just a bent nail. To put it in the bluntest possible terms, perhaps one should write his own protest play, and not use Shakespeare’s as a stalking horse–and then as a protective shield when the tactic misfires.

10. One of the problems with the production, in my opinion stated earlier, is that it diminishes Caesar even further than Shakespeare himself did, and substitutes one kind of humor (satirical and parodic) for another (ironic), which while it may please the multitude, is in my view, to paraphrase Hamlet, injudicious. And finally it does not quite have the courage of its own convictions. There were, after all, four principal Caesar partisans: Caesar (Trump), Calpurnia (Melania), Octavius (Jared), and a female Antony for whom there surely was an obvious candidate—Caesar’s confidante, tireless defender, master of his public campaign, and manipulator of public opinion. But I guess we should be thankful we were spared a Kellyanne Conway version of Antony’s forum speech, and treated instead to a virtuoso performance from Liz Marvel.

11. Speaking of actors, you do not usually get four such wonderful actors as Ms Marvel, Gregg Henry, John Douglas Thompson, and Corey Stoll onstage all at the same time, not to mention crowds that are truly crowds and crowd scenes that are wonderfully staged and truly galvanizing—and for all that the production was well worth seeing. In fact the first half of the show, even with the unsettling Trump material, was staged and acted with a briskness and clarity and inventiveness that was altogether remarkable.

12. But finally, the production was, I felt, less successful that it could have been—especially in the difficult second half. Granted, most of the play’s dramaturgical challenges are in the later scenes, and it is the rare production that makes them work. So Shakespeare will have to shoulder some of the responsibility for that. But so will the production design, which never managed to escape from the curse of the modern tendency to design a set that works wonderfully for a critical part of the play and woefully for other parts, in this case for most of the second half. The initial look of two great gearlike projections suggested a kind of inhuman society that ground its people down (which would perhaps have been more visually apt for a production of Coriolanus). When they meshed to form the Senate chamber, the effect was thrilling. But then, when the play shifted to other locations, there they still were, relentlessly urban and incapable of being subsumed into any other environment. The result was the unfortunate inability to portray martial action effectively and the aforementioned cheesy hotel room that served both as “tent” and “rock” of refuge. Shakespeare’s plays written for the neutral unit set always present a challenge to modern designers, who must find a way to recreate the period the director chooses for the play without being so overspecific as to undermine the fluidity of the action and the appropriateness of the setting.

13. But beyond the design and beyond what I consider the initial directorial misstep, both in tone and in dramatic weight, of the over-reliance on the Trump identification, there were other ways in which specific crucial elements of the script were cut, ignored, or warped so that Shakespeare’s careful blueprint went unheeded and the resulting construct became unwieldy.

14. To take what was for me the most egregious example—the Cinna the poet scene. Once Orson Welles had more or less restored this critical scene into the American repertoire by his brilliant staging of it, it resumed its rightful place in most productions. But Shakespeare’s point is very clear: a mob of citizens aroused to blind vengeance by Antony’s funeral oration tears an innocent man to pieces solely out of bloodlust, on the pretext that he has the same name as one of the conspirators. The Public’s staging presents us with exactly the opposite reading. It is no mob of enraged citizens, it is uniformed officers of the law. It is not the People who have gone rogue, it is the Man, the Police. Now while this version may appeal more to contemporary radicals and even reflect, in the view of most Americans, a very serious problem in our current culture, it simply defeats the purpose of the scene in the dynamic of Shakespeare’s play. Shakespeare’s point is that the anarchy and chaos willfully unleashed by Antony will create an opportunity for him to seize control of power. The Public’s version suggests not a riot, not an outbreak of mob violence, but organized and murderous oppression by an establishment already in power. (That a poet is manhandled by people driven to take extreme measures because of their outrage over a political injustice is not without its irony here.)

15. To my mind, a similar misstep is made in a scene towards the end of the play when a heavily armed and shielded swat team (the army of Antony and Octavius) mows down apparently unarmed (and un-uniformed? it was hard to tell) civilians (the army of Brutus and Cassius). Again, not two armies clashing on the plains of Philippi (pronounced Phil-LIP-eye, by the way), but one ragtag defenseless group of protesters mercilessly dispatched by a supremely efficient killing machine–perhaps in the parking lot of that cheesy motel? Once again, appealing perhaps to the more devout anti-establishment types among us, but not at all what Shakespeare—or history–provides us. The result is an absolute skewing of the carefully calibrated portrayal of both the event and the principals. And of course it makes a complete hash of all the martial strategy discussed in the previous scenes and defeats all the irony embedded in Cassius’s yielding to Brutus’s inferior battle plan and his own subsequent misread of events, and in Brutus’s bad tactical choice at the crisis point of the battle.

16. It strikes me that both staging choices—in clear contradiction to Shakespeare’s intentions–are essentially railings against a Police State–which are, to my mind, nowhere the spine of Shakespeare’s play except perhaps in a very minor way, and only overtly in the single icy scene when the new triumvirate pricks down its imagined enemies for execution. And even that scene is deprived of its deliberate “coolness” by the multiple executions being violently staged in the background, which draw most of the attention away from the subtler dynamics of the scene, in particular the growing cracks in the triumvirate itself and Antony’s utter callousness and disregard for his associates. These are all examples where strong visuals, some of them directly contrary both to historical fact and/or Shakespeare’s dramaturgical and thematic intentions, are allowed to thwart the purpose of the play, in the service of a shocking contemporary reading. I’m sorry to say that this can look at best like preaching to the choir and at worst like pandering to the political left.

17. But finally, I think the production could have overcome all these powerful and challenging staging choices, in fact even partially justified them, if only it had done more to honor what I think is the primary strength of the play—the deep humanizing of the central characters. And this, I think, is due more to the cutting than to the performing.

18. By humanizing, I mean—as I stated earlier—that I think Shakespeare’s specific purpose in dramatizing the story of Caesar’s murder and its aftermath is not primarily to teach us any particular lesson about the counter-productivity of political assassination. There needs no poet come from the grave to tell us that; history has already made it quite clear, as Shakespeare informs us elsewhere in the canon, through the mouth of Camillo (WT 1.2.356-351). The story already carries that “moral”; so of course the play will too. But what Shakespeare, I think, primarily offers us is an understanding of the events through his exploration of the psyches of the principal characters, as well as through the psyche of the mob. And his principal understanding of human behavior comes from his exploration of two facets of the human psyche: the fact that human beings do not always know why they do things; and the fact that humans can be fooled, even by themselves. The second insight is mostly a classical one, though man’s capacity for self-deception strikes a more contemporary note; the first is surprisingly modern, and it is why I think his plays are endlessly fascinating. And I think the cutting eliminated, suppressed, or downplayed too many occasions for the actors to explore these particularly Shakespearean insights into his characters.

19. Of course, plays can and should be sometimes cut. And playing about two hours without an intermission is perfectly defensible; but the longer the play the more will need to be cut, and the more likely something essential will be lost. Most scholarship suggests that in the Shakespeare’s outdoor theatres, at least, intermissions were unlikely. Indoors, candles had to be trimmed, so there may well have been musical interludes. In my experience, however, modern productions of this play can benefit from a well-placed intermission, primarily because of the clear structural and temporal (and emotional) break between the assassination and its immediate aftermath and its longer range consequences. But finally the question is not about whether the play should be cut, but what precisely is cut, and the effect that those cuts have on the overall impact of the play.

20. I thought there were a number of cuts—and again this is only my opinion, based on what I think is at the heart of the play—that did the play no favors. (Caveat. I do not have a copy of the production script, so I’m working mostly from memory here, and it’s possible I may say something was cut when in fact it was spoken, but without the kind of emphasis I would have preferred.)

21. The one I most missed was the complex second announcement of the death of Portia at the end of the rightfully famous “tent scene.” I realize there is a long theatrical tradition defending this cut, one mostly based on a critical (or rather uncritical) insistence on Brutus’s absolute integrity and honesty. But for me the scene is crucial to an understanding of Brutus. He has been living with the knowledge that his wife has killed herself from the beginning of the scene; his grief, to some extent, clearly fuels his surprising emotionality in his fight with Cassius, as he himself admits. But his reputation and his self-regard as a man always in control of his emotions is so important to him, and so necessary, as he thinks, to his ability to lead, that once he has completely vented his grief, he then purposely participates in a charade (and a lie) whereby he forces another man to bring the news of her death (seemingly for the first time) so that he can display the appropriate stoicism. In front of Cassius, who knows the truth. And Cassius, after an extremely emotional reconciliation with Brutus, watches this happen–in who knows what state of astonishment–and then who knows why defers to Brutus’s flawed analysis of military strategy. The psychic complexity of this, for both principals, is almost mind-boggling; and it is lost by the cutting of the scene. And this behavior is not just a one-off thing for Brutus. If you read back through the entire play, his concern for the appearance of honor is at least as strong as his concern for actual honor. His private turbulence is again and again masked in public, though those closest to him offer plenty of evidence that he is not the dispassionate Stoic he wants other to see. There are moments when he himself will acknowledge his interior distress, sometimes obliquely sometimes directly, but it is clear that his personal and familial need to appear more honorable to other men than he really is, is his Achilles heel. And it is a fault which Cassius exploits to the maximum in the early scenes by his constant and clever insistence that he merely wants to be Brutus’s mirror and show him what he is, and what other people think of him, as an inducement to what he should think of himself. And Cassius actually announces that it is precisely Brutus’s “honor” which is his weakness, again a speech that was cut in this production. The final result is a flattening of not just the character of Brutus, but of Cassius as well. (Also later cut is Cassius’s surprising confession, just before the battle, of his loss of faith in his Epicurianism and the stirring of an irrational belief in omens. Brutus’s confusion at the same time about the proper stoic attitude towards suicide is retained however. But then seriously underplayed is Cassius’s need to let his friend know privately that he is going along with Brutus’s battle plan unwillingly. These are all fine touches, illustrative of Plutarch’s insistence that small actions and offhand remarks often tell us as much about the minds of great men as their heroic deeds.)

22. A similar flattening, I think, happens with Casca. First of all, his comic report on what occurred during the Lupercalia, specifically what happened when Antony offered Caesar the crown, is presented to the audience as an accurate report–by having it staged just as Casca narrates it. In his retelling, and the Public’s staging, Caesar tries to take the crown and only demurs when the people voice their disapproval; and he is clearly unhappy to be cheered only when he removes his hand. That may be what happened–though it is not what Antony suggests later. (We will eventually find out that he probably does want the crown, but at this point we do not know that.) Casca is, however, clearly an unreliable narrator, twisting the facts, hinting at his disapproval of Caesar’s ambition, and at his own possible willingness to join the conspiracy against him, but always sarcastically and obliquely enough as to be deniable. He mostly feigns not just disinterest but also ignorance. And at his departure, Brutus comments on his apparent slowness. Cassius corrects Brutus’s evaluation, pointing out that the apparent “tardiness” is just a comic strategy (and perhaps a protective front); Casca will respond, he promises, once he can be made to see that the enterprise will be “bold and noble.” This entire exchange about the personality of Casca is cut, which makes somewhat unintelligible the following scene where Cassius basically enrolls a timorous Casca in the conspiracy by a blatant show of extravagant boldness and hyper-Roman nobility. Without this preparatory explanation, we might fail to see that Cassius’s persuasion of Casca through Roman “boldness” is no less a rhetorical persuasive technique than his clever enticing of Brutus through the mirror of “honor.” Instead we only see Cassius, accompanied by some shouting protestors, parading through a thunderstorm in manic high spirits.

23. And inasmuch as so much of the play is about people exploiting other people’s weaknesses through persuasion—not just Cassius building the conspiracy, but also Decius Brutus manipulating Caesar, Portia displaying greater stoicism than Brutus (by deliberately cutting herself) to gain his confidence, Antony manipulating the crowd then deceiving Lepidus–what should be a clear motif is partially obscured by the cuts. And this motif is also really a submotif of a larger theme, that people are not always what they seem, and certainly not always what they say they are–partly because people can be deliberately deceptive, but also partly because people don’t always know what they are deep down.

24. Let me give one more, perhaps even a debatable example–the long wonderful scene between Antony and the conspirators after the assassination. The preparatory scene with Antony’s servant is cut—not unusual, but we do lose some important information. We lose, for example, Brutus’s guarantee of Antony’s personal safety. But we also lose a little irony. In making his promise, Brutus praises Antony as “a wise and valiant Roman, / I never thought him worse.” And he says this not that many minutes after he had earlier demeaned Antony to the conspirators as impotent, unRoman (unlikely to choose an honorable suicide) and one “given / To sports, to wildness, and much company.” Antony subsequently puts on an impressive display of grief and amenability and self-deprecation all at once. And political pragmatism. But after the conspirators have left, we quickly see that all but the grief was an act. He breaks into an angry soliloquy promising revenge, havoc, chaos. Then Octavius’s servant enters and momentarily is stunned into tears by the sight of Caesar’s mangled body. It is at this point that Antony notes, “Passion, I see, is catching, for mine eyes, / Seeing those beads of sorrow stand in thine, / Begin to water.” Antony seems to be saying, very specifically, that there were no tears until that moment, and what caused the tears was seeing another person cry. For me this is an indication that wheels, as they say, are turning. After a general promise of havoc, Antony now begins to consider more deeply the means to create that havoc. (Getting Brutus to cede the final funeral oration was very likely already laying the groundwork.) But the idea of a primarily emotional appeal to the people, as opposed to Brutus’s plan for a rational appeal, now begins to take a more specific form. If I weep, the thought seems to be, I can get them to weep. And of course that is exactly what Antony will do. And it will work. This kind of detailed portraiture, of a person able to calculate even in the midst of harrowing grief and boiling anger, of a person able to feel deeply and yet at the same time evaluate those feelings as a possible rhetorical strategy, this is Shakespeare at his best. And this is what I occasionally missed.

25. And this is not to take anything away from Ms Marvel’s performance; she was one of most successful and moving Antonys I have ever seen, particularly in the great funeral oration, which was also, I thought, brilliantly and effectively directed. In fact, all the principals, I thought, were outstanding. But I also think they were occasionally denied the necessary materials to make their characters as deeply, surprisingly human as Shakespeare provided for–which can be, I’m afraid, a result of a somewhat agitprop take on the play.

26. So partially through cuts, partially through loss of emphasis, partially through a desire to streamline the action, partially through an activist desire to make a strong contemporary political statement, I felt the complex humanity–which is for me the hallmark of a Shakespeare play and the reason I keep returning to his work–that critical insight was left only partially explored.

27. But it must be said, this is true of almost any great Shakespearean play. They practically defy definitive productions, not, in my opinion, particularly because they are ambiguous and can tolerate any number of (even contrary) interpretations, but because they are so rich and so complex that they continue to yield benefits the more they are explored. And even when they are occasionally treated more as vehicles for the insights or passions of other artists, they continue to surprise and please. (And who’s to say, even a badly aimed pick may uncover a hitherto unknown vein of gold.) After all, these plays must, always must, be co-created anew by each generation of performing artists to meet the concerns of their culture. That’s the deal. They are part of our shared artistic heritage, they belong to us. All of us. And they will survive, I am sure, whatever any of us does to them. Unless we silence them.

The Trump-as-Caesar controversy has reminded the world, as Mr. Matthews notes above, that five years ago the Guthrie Theater and The Acting Company mounted a production of the same play in which Caesar was depicted as a Barack Obama-type figure (interesting to note that it was supported by one of the corporations that withdrew sponsorship from The Public).  The director of that production, Rob Melrose, wrote this piece for medium.com.  At the same time that my friend, the director Laura Livingston, brought that essay to my attention, my friend and colleague, scholar/director Dr. Rick Jones posted a link to this remarkable account by Corey Stoll, the actor that played the leading role of Brutus in Eustis’s production, of the experience of preparing and performing the show.

Charles McNulty of the Los Angeles Times made an interesting case, in his essay about Shakespeare’s Richard II at the Old Globe Theatre, for the political rhetoric of director Erica Schmidt’s production of that play in San Diego.  The L.A. Times also published this account, by Jessica Gelt, of the emergence of the controversy.  In the same package, the Times had an interesting piece by opera critic Mark Swed linking the controversy to the work of director Peter Sellars and the ongoing challenge of balancing artistic (and political) integrity with the need to attract contributed support.

If I’ve gotten anything wrong here, please let me know and I’ll do my best to correct it.  If you’ve run across anything else that would be interesting to add to this compilation, please note it in a comment and I’ll look into linking to it.  If I find anything else to supplement these links and quotations, I won’t hesitate to continue to build on this post.  Hope this material is useful!




There’s Directing and Then There’s Directing

I was fortunate recently to see two remarkable productions on the London stage.  One was Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Harold Pinter Theatre, directed by James Macdonald and starring Imelda Staunton, Conleth Hill, Luke Treadaway, and Imogen Poots. The other was Tony Kushner’s Angels In America (both parts, “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika”) at the Royal National Theatre, directed by Marianne Elliott and starring Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane, Denise Gough, and Russell Tovey.  The two plays are very different from one another, obviously, but even more than that, the projects undertaken by these two excellent directors in staging these two major works of American drama were strikingly dissimilar.


Photo: The Royal National Theatre, London, in 2005. By Jonathan FeBland, via Wikimedia Commons.

Macdonald’s production of Virginia Woolf was masterfully rooted in realism.  Designer Tom Pye’s richly detailed, sunken living-room set was tidy but palpably lived-in.  Charles Balfour’s lighting design was nothing short of brilliant in motivating and perfectly coloring every textured pool of light around that room and in walking us through each of the wee hours of the morning and into the cold dawn.  Indeed the only visual hint of abstraction was the chilling void beyond George & Martha’s front door, but even this could be interpreted as the effect of real darkness and fog.  (I also couldn’t figure out why, when every exit to the kitchen was taken upstage right, George puzzlingly went upstage left to refresh the heavy-drinking characters’ supply of ice cubes, but this hardly seemed an intentional departure from realism, and it’s not impossible to surmise that there might have been a freezer somewhere in the house besides the kitchen.)

As dazzling as Albee’s language is in this, his best-known play, and as flamboyant as Martha’s (and, to a lesser but still significant extent, Nick’s and Honey’s) behavior may be, the acting style was also essentially realistic.  Indeed, as great as Imelda Staunton’s performance as Martha truly was, the signal achievement of the evening for me was the far subtler but equally strong work of Conleth Hill as a deliciously wry, long-suffering, sometimes sadistic and sometimes tormented George.  His rumpled naturalism epitomized the show.

It was, unsurprisingly, the acting that drew practically all of the critical attention in this rapturously reviewed production.  Obsessed as I am with the craft of directing, I found myself ticking off the characteristics of a superb specimen: crackling rhythms and varied pacing, compositions and picturizations making full use of every inch of the stage to tell the story vividly and delight the eye with variety and dynamism, limpid clarity in structure and storytelling, surgical specificity in every circumstance and powerfully motivated action.  Best of all, that direction was practically invisible; only a textbook author (or the equivalent) would keep such a scorecard while everyone else in the audience was completely swept up in a harrowing and hilarious story enacted by some of the most compelling performers in the world.

At this point I might mention that on the same trip I saw a major West End production of another Albee play, the vastly inferior The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?  It was gallantly acted by television star Damian Lewis, the great Sophie Okonedo, stalwart Jason Hughes, and the brave, expressive newcomer Archie Madekwe.  But the fine director, Ian Rickson, imposed gimmicks, perhaps to draw attention away from the bizarre defects in the strained outrage of a script.  (A lot of very smart people disagree with me about the quality of the play: at the time of its 2002 premiere it won Tony and Drama Desk awards and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.)  For me the most annoying of the tricks played in the show was the movement of the side walls of the scenery, expanding and contracting the width of the room in which the story is set.  Why?  To give us something to wonder about, other than what piece of crockery poor Ms. Okonedo would be called upon to smash next while screaming “goat f***er!” for the umpteenth time?

It was the complete absence of such foolishness and the quiet assurance of Mr. Macdonald’s seamless direction that made his production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? so perfect.  He made it look easy, let the play and the actors enjoy the spotlight, and took his satisfaction from disappearing into the work.

My great admiration of this makes me feel somewhat hypocritical that I was a bit disappointed in the direction of “Part One: Millennium Approaches” of Angels in America.  Sure, the cast was excellent.  I had been a little worried that Lane’s compulsion to provoke laughter might deprive his Roy Cohn of the requisite darkness and (late in the play) fragility, but he was terrific in all those ways (and a pure delight as one of Prior Walter’s ancestors).  Garfield’s performance as Prior started out perhaps too arch but then proved intelligent, funny, and moving.  Gough had not gotten good reviews as Harper Pitt but she acquitted herself well.  Tovey‘s performance as Joe Pitt was the most honest and natural of all.  The rest of the cast was equally excellent.  The story was told with clarity and some visual flair as colorfully neon-framed turntables moved us from locale to locale in Kushner’s cinematic/Shakespearean/surrealistic scene structure.  But it was all just a bit more straightforward than I had hoped.

You see, this was not just a chance to see my favorite play live onstage for the first time in more than 20 years, and not just a chance to see it with an all-star cast.  This was a chance to see it interpreted by a mega-star director, Marianne Elliott, who had co-directed War Horse (Olivier nomination and Tony Award) and directed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Olivier Award and Tony Award).  Curious Incident in the West End had, as a matter of fact, provided the most exciting night I’d spent in a theatre since first seeing Angels in 1994, because for the first time I saw the latest scenographic technology and some eye-opening experimental movement employed in the service of a story I really cared about.  The puppetry in War Horse was also revolutionary.  By the time of the dinner break between Angels Parts One and Two, though, there had been no such directorial excitement.

Or, rather, there had been only one moment of it: The final imagery of the four-hour first part was the arrival of the Angel, not from the theatre’s fly space but rising up out of what seemed to be dark, amorphous creatures that swirled like scraps of ash.  Here were the visuals, the puppetry, the abstract movement that had marked Ms. Elliott’s brilliant earlier work.  This would become the touchstone for the style of Part Two, and although the neon and mechanically moving playing spaces returned as touches (and although I’m not sure that the way Elliott’s Angel appeared is the way that Kushner’s writing calls for it to appear), this darker, more experimental and more directorially assertive style made me feel that the production as a whole had been worth a trip to London.

As “Perestroika” unfolded, the dark figures of the ensemble, moving low to the ground like insects or crustaceans while somehow evoking Erinyes, began to change the scenes, to lurk in the shadows of the earthly settings, and to hold and manipulate the Angel’s wings (only to become anonymous members of the council of wingless angels that Prior confronts in heaven).  In the scene within the Mormon Visitors Center, the director’s facility with puppetry brought the animatronic figures to life in a uniquely creative way.  The heaven setting stripped most of the masking out of the yawning Lyttleton stage house leaving only an abstract curving frame structure that had gradually been emerging from the upstage shadows since early in Part One.  The actors’ performances were in no way diminished (in fact Lane, among others, just seemed to get better and better) and Kushner’s text was in no way neglected, but Elliott’s confident interpretation, distinctive propensities, and kinesthetic visual flair moved into the foreground.

What the two productions had in common was not insignificant: a major investment in the most skilled and authentic work of some of the best actors on the planet, and a deep, detailed interest in the best writing of two of America’s greatest playwrights.  Yet one director set out to give his production as inconspicuous a shape as possible, while the other sought a distinctive and original approach that would establish a whole new vision of an iconic play.  It is important to note that Albee’s play is written to be performed in a particular way, and that at the time of the author’s death he had made it abundantly clear that he was not open to rangy reinterpretations.  It is also salient that Kushner not only welcomed the idea of an Elliott-led mounting of his masterpiece (presumably knowing her reputation and probably having seen her high-profile shows) but that he also participated extensively in the process of the production’s development.  Regardless, it is intriguing to ponder how disparate the director’s work can be, even in its goals, from play to play and from production to production.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was broadcast live and video recorded for encore presentations that continue now in cinemas around the world, including showings today (Sunday, June 18, 2017).  Angels In America, “Part One: Millennium Approaches” will be broadcast live on July 20, 2017 and “Part Two: Perestroika” will follow on July 27 in cinemas around the globe.  Visit the National Theatre Live online to find movie theatres that will be showing these video presentations.