A ‘Julius Caesar’ for a Troubled America

People got worked up over director Oskar Eustis’ decision to portray Caesar in a manner resembling the current occupant of the White House in the Public Theater’s summertime production of Shakespeare’s 'Julius Caesar.'

click to enlarge Oskar Eustis directed the controversial NYC staging of the play. - Photo: Provided by Yale Repertory Theatre
Photo: Provided by Yale Repertory Theatre
Oskar Eustis directed the controversial NYC staging of the play.

It’s gratifying to know that people beyond the theater world still pay attention to things happening onstage. But when they miss the point of what playwrights and productions of their plays can achieve and when they misinterpret intentions — well, that can be troubling.

Such is the case with the Public Theater’s recent free summertime production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at the Delacorte Theater, an outdoor venue in New York City’s Central Park. In the first scene of the play’s third act, set in 44 B.C., the Roman emperor is assassinated by senators and others who fear his ego and power have exceeded natural limits and the only way to secure the republic’s future is to end his life. Even his friend and supporter, Brutus, participates, prompting Caesar’s final words: “Et tu, Brute?”

Of course, if you recall Shakespeare’s play (I remember reading it in my sophomore English class in high school), you might know that’s not the final scene — two more acts follow in which the conspirators all suffer dire consequences in the aftermath of their deed. The message that democracy is not served by violence is underscored by the play’s following events.

But apparently a lot of contemporary media commentators got all worked up and decided that director Oskar Eustis’ decision to portray Caesar in a manner resembling the current occupant of the White House — actor Gregg Henry wore a long red tie and a wig effecting an orange comb-over; as Calpurnia, Caesar’s wife, Tina Benko employed an Eastern European accent reminiscent of the current first lady — was both disrespectful and an invitation to violence. The outcry was fast and furious.

Eustis responded with a statement on the Public Theater’s website: “Our production of Julius Caesar in no way advocated violence toward anyone. Shakespeare’s play, and our production, made the opposite point: Those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic means pay a terrible price and destroy the very thing they are fighting to save. For over 400 years, Shakespeare’s play has told this story, and we were proud to have told it again in Central Park.”

That didn’t stop Delta Air Lines and Bank of America from withdrawing their sponsorship of the theater and this production. Eustis continued, “The Public Theater stands completely behind our production of Julius Caesar. We understand and respect the right of our sponsors and supporters to allocate their funding in line with their own values. We recognize that our interpretation of the play provoked heated discussion; audiences, sponsors and supporters have expressed varying viewpoints and opinions.”

This is not the first time that Shakespeare’s 400-year-old play about events two millennia past has been seen through a more contemporary filter. In 1937, Orson Welles set a stage production in Fascist Italy by giving Caesar a Mussolini-like persona. In 1973, the BBC produced Heil Caesar, set in an unnamed country; New York’s Riverside Theatre dropped its 1984 staging into a contemporary Washington, D.C.

In the same year, our own Cincinnati Playhouse placed Julius Caesar in a chaotic Central American nation as the Iran-Contra Scandal was unfolding in the real world. And there have been others.

To tell the truth, Shakespeare’s play advances no singular message. His works almost never distill the complexities of history and human nature. Julius Caesar warns about authoritarian behavior, pandering to populism and resorting to violence — all pertinent messages to our 21st-century world, especially in the United States.

Not long after Shakespeare’s death in 1616, his fellow writer Ben Jonson suggested that the Bard of Avon was “not of an age but for all time.” The Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar and the emotion it evoked offer continued evidence that Shakespeare’s insights are timeless.

It also demonstrates the power of theater to provoke. Eustis concluded his web statement with this remark: “Such discussion is exactly the goal of our civically engaged theater; this discourse is the basis of a healthy democracy.” Here’s to our good health, with the provocation necessary to sustain it.

CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]

Rick Pender

RICK PENDER has written about theater for CityBeat since its first issues in 1994. Before that he wrote for EveryBody’s News. From 1998 to 2006 he was CityBeat’s arts & entertainment editor. Retired from a long career in public relations, he’s still a local arts fan, providing readers (and public radio listeners)...
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