News & Politics

'Trump Assassination' Version of Julius Caesar Costs More Than Expected

By Edwin Austin Abbey - Metropolitan Museum of Art

The big theater news out of New York City this week has been the Free Shakespeare In The Park version of Julius Caesar, which has been more than a little controversial because Caesar is played as a man with a bad combover and an overlong tie, Calpurnia (Caesar’s wife) as a runway model with a Slavic accent, and when Caesar is assassinated by the Senate, the deed is done by women and minorities.

Guess who they’re making into Julius Caesar.

Yeah, you’re right — that one’s too easy.

Now, I’m sure the director and the producer, late at night after one drink (or toke) too many, thought this “Trump as Caesar” approach would be just great. I’m sure all their Upper West Side friends heard about it and assured them it was utterly, utterly brilliant.

The reviews weren’t quite so kind.  Joe Dziemianowicz of the Daily News said:

The new production of Shakespeare’s bloody classic imagines the Roman ruler as a blond, swaggering, egotist who’s a dead ringer for the current occupant of the Oval Office. And he gets murdered for his hubris and hunger for power. Subtle? Not one bit. Provocative and button-pushing (which is, after all, the point)? Yes, but only to a point.

As much as The Public Theater’s modern-dress production wants to make “Julius Caesar” into “Donald J. Trump,” the play itself doesn’t actually allow it. Yes, the production, directed by Public Theater head Oskar Eustis, uses the 45th President as a Caesar surrogate, but only a jumping-off place for this interpretation, which is novel and sensational and packs immediacy. But, alas, the production doesn’t follow through with other references that would ring true or conjure current personalities. It can’t; Shakespeare wrote a classic about a very different leader in the middle of a very different kind of power struggle.

In other words, the director sacrificed Shakespeare’s text, the story of Caesar’s rise to dictator, and the end of the Roman Republic for what comes down to a cheap laugh, the political equivalent of a fart joke. All the bien pissants look at each other and smirk, and feel superior because all their superior friends got the same joke.

But they didn’t count on one thing: the rest of the country.

There was controversy. Jesse Green of The New York Times noted that heavy-handed satire of Trump was becoming all too common:

Hartford Stage’s recent revival of George Bernard Shaw’s “Heartbreak House” dressed that play’s pathetic bully character in a bright yellow wig. Robert Schenkkan’s “Building the Wall” imagined President Trump’s presiding over a near-term dystopia of immigrant concentration camps. Opening soon is a shrewdly timed adaptation of George Orwell’s “1984”; Michael Moore arrives later this summer blowing Broadway-size spitballs at the White House.

Must I also mention “Faust 3: The Turd Coming, or The Fart of the Deal,” a satire of Mr. Trump performed by a company of clowns? I must.

(I swear I called it a fart joke before I read this.) Green continues:

Still, when the famous funeral scene arrives, and Marc Antony exposes not just Caesar’s sliced-up garment, as Shakespeare indicates, but also his bare, wound-ripped flesh, even theatergoers who loathe Mr. Trump may begin to wonder whether the production has a Kathy Griffin problem on its hands. Has it gone too far?

To answer that, you first have to consider where it started. Mr. Eustis has said he decided to schedule “Julius Caesar” as the first of this summer’s Delacorte productions on election night in November. It was already his favorite of the Shakespeare tragedies, and it did not take much of a leap to envision the title role as a Trump precursor. The character as written is vain, self-serving and demagogic, cynically manipulating the whiplash passions of his followers.

 

Then there was outrage.

Then there was a reaction. Delta Airlines decided that staging the assassination of Trump as a fart joke in Julius Caesar was maybe a little too much for them.

Bank of America quickly followed.

Bank of America said:

“The Public Theater chose to present ‘Julius Caesar’ in a way that was intended to provoke and offend,” Ms. Atran said. “Had this intention been made known to us, we would have decided not to sponsor it. We are withdrawing our funding for this production.”

Of course, the bien pissants are outraged that Delta and Bank of America are responding to the outrage, but what they are forgetting is that both Delta and Bank of America are doing business in the whole country, including all the counties that voted for Trump and see him being bloodily assassinated in a blatant political ploy as being just, somehow, uncouth.

Look, it’s the job of art to make us see things in new ways, to open our eyes, to surprise us. This production of “Donald J. Caesar” does just the opposite: it plays to the sensibilities of people who read The New York Times and The New Yorker and The Nation in a trite and already-clichéd fashion. It’s like a dramatic rendition of the Clinton campaign. And like the Clinton campaign, once it got away from the coasts, it just doesn’t play.