In Act III of Hamlet, when the skirt-chasing, king-killing, crown-usurping villain Claudius watches a play entitled The Murder of Gonzago about a similarly skirt-chasing, king-killing, crown-usurping villain, he recoils at seeing himself portrayed and runs screaming from the theater: “Give me some light, away!”
So it’s been no surprise over the past few days to witness the knee-jerk reactions from the Trump team, the right-wing media and two major corporations to the Public Theater’s latest production of Julius Caesar, which depicts the murder of a Trump-esque Caesar in gory fashion. Over the weekend, the president’s own son performed a wounded sparrow act on Twitter, Breitbart and Fox acted suitably scandalized and Delta Airlines and Bank of America withdrew financial support of the show.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the political fence, the media has been aflame with defenses of Shakespeare’s 1599 political drama (Shakespeare makes it clear that the murder of Julius Caesar isn’t a good thing) as well as Oskar Eustis’ production for the Public (the director’s production notes include a warning: “Those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic methods pay a terrible price and destroy their republic.”)
At a time when stage productions outside of Hamilton rarely make headlines, it’s been edifying to see the art form do what it was set up to do since back in the days of Aristophanes and Aeschylus: make trouble. But because we’re not used to theater having this kind of impact, we’re left wondering, what now? “People talk about what theater does, but it’s rare that it actually hits a nerve,” says theater director and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ Jonathan Moscone. “Here we are in a situation where theater is hitting a nerve and we don’t know what to do with it.”
But there are several things art can do in the face of such an assault on the freedom of creative expression. The most important is to stick up for itself.
Moscone has an interesting cautionary tale about the time he produced a production of Julius Caesar for the California Shakespeare Theater that speaks to this necessity. It was in 2003, when Moscone was near the start of his tenure as artistic director of the company. His take on Caesar -- like all productions of this play -- was politically charged, referencing the 1978 slaying of his father, San Francisco mayor George Moscone.
In preview performances, Moscone had the actor playing Brutus pull a gun and shoot Caesar, instead of stabbing him. This theatrical glance at real-life events -- the death of the mayor -- caused consternation among audience members in previews, Moscone says. “The thing that triggered this was literally a trigger,” Moscone says. “I had people run up to me and yell at me for doing that.”
Still relatively young in his role with the company, Moscone decided to replace the gun with a knife. “It was a decision I made at the time as a new artistic director,” Moscone says. “Would I do that now? No.”
Later in that same season, when audiences complained about a Cal Shakes staging of Measure for Measure which included an executioner wearing a George W. Bush mask, Moscone didn’t change course. “It’s a dangerous place to be,” Moscone says. “We should be doing this all the time.”
But there’s a certain peril in staging productions that make obvious political parallels between Shakespeare’s world and our own. Should they end up failing in their mission to get the message across, they fail all the more spectacularly. Which brings me to the second important thing theater should do at this moment, which is to more carefully consider its tactics.
When the Oregon Shakespeare Festival produced Julius Caesar in 2011 with a woman in the title role -- Vilma Silva -- you couldn’t help but have to balance Silva’s brilliant portrayal of a leader drunk on power with the murder of a female premier destroyed by the men around her. The production brought out all the complexities of Shakespeare’s play while making a strong feminist political statement without needing to resort to putting Silva in a Hillary Clinton pantsuit or Queen Victoria pearls.
The reason we keep coming back to Shakespeare and other great dramatists like him is because their messages about power, leadership and its undoing transcend the moment. They endure. So whether a director puts Caesar in a toga or a red tie ultimately doesn’t matter. If it’s a strong production, its resonance to today’s world should be loud and clear.
If only that were really the case. In the din of today’s media landscape, where many people draw their conclusions based on a headline or an opinion expressed in 140 characters or less, it makes sense, at one level, for a theater director who wants to make an impression beyond the confines of an auditorium to go for the bleeding obvious -- and put Trump, complete with gold bathtub and Slavic-accented wife, right there up on stage. After all, great art is subtle and rarely easy on the brain; understanding it requires patience, and who the hell has time for that? “Shakespeare demands breathing room and we as a nation are not breathing,” Moscone says. “We’re choking and everything is crisis responding.”
This reality causes Eric Ting, who took over from Moscone as artistic director of Cal Shakes in 2015, a great deal of concern. He notes that the problems for the Public arose when people took the one epic moment in the company’s production of Julius Caesar -- the grisly murder scene of the Trump-like Caesar figure -- out of context, unable to see the larger and more nuanced message of the whole play. “This is a single moment in a production of a great, classical drama,” Ting says. “What is missed is the context of that moment: that Julius Caesar is a play that says ‘violent means beget violent ends.’”
What’s a theater director to do? By presenting Shakespeare (or for that matter Bertolt Brecht, Suzan-Lori Parks or Caryl Churchill) in all its depth and subtlety, one risks reaching only fans of the performing arts, and the show tip-toeing quietly into oblivion. But when trying to grab the public’s attention with some kind of shock tactic that causes less than a moment of thought prior to eliciting a reaction, there’s every chance it will be misinterpreted.
Which brings me to my third and final thing that theater can do: It should never give up. What the hoopla surrounding the Public’s Julius Caesar teaches us is that this art form can make a great noise and send the corporate overlords into a tailspin. As I write, I wouldn’t be surprised if others among the Public’s sponsors stepped up to redouble their support of the company in the wake of Delta Airlines’ and Bank of America’s withdrawal.
And if the day should come when we end up in a nuclear wasteland, where all power is down and none of our electronic devices work, at least there’ll still be theater -- a few actors walking across a stage -- to bear witness, tell the important stories of our times, and spread hope.