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23 August 2017 19:38 (South Africa)
South Africa

A Comedy of Terrors: Donald Trump v Julius Caesar

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • South Africa
Photo: Tina Benko, left, portrays Melania Trump in the role of Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia, and Gregg Henry portrays President Donald Trump in the role of Julius Caesar during a dress rehearsal of The Public Theater's Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar in New York. File photo provided by The Public Theater.

Unbelievably, the Shakespearean classic, Julius Caesar, has generated a real firestorm with a new production in New York City that has the would-be emperor something of a doppelganger for Donald Trump. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a closer look.

Just like almost every ninth grade student in America, and millions more around the world, I studied Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, with its lessons about both the peril in the collapse of political order as well as the dangers of an authoritarian ruler. By now even the famously un(formally)educated Jacob Zuma has taken to quoting a line or two from Shakespeare’s tragedy, as with his recent Youth Day speech at a Ventersdorp rally over the weekend.

Almost everyone knows Caesar was killed during those dangerous ides of March (which he should have been aware of, according to a soothsayer), by a mob that had included his honourable friend Brutus, noted as the dying man uttered his final words, “Et tu Brutus”. The would-be dictator’s violent death – on stage – was followed shortly thereafter by co-conspirator Marc Anthony’s funeral oration in which Anthony summoned one and all, “Friends, Romans, and countrymen”, to hear him – presumably – bury Caesar, not praise him, but in reality use the occasion to drum up a populist mob bent on wreaking vengeance over the great man’s death.

This play has been around for over 400 years (and as a famous bit of Roman history for over two millennia) and there have been virtually innumerable live performances in a multitude of languages. And a whole clutch of film versions as well – some of them of astonishing dramatic quality.

And a copy of Shakespeare’s complete works, the so-called “Robben Island Shakespeare”, smuggled onto the prison island disguised as a Hindu religious volume, contains annotations by Nelson Mandela (among others) pointing to favourite speeches and lines. In Mandela’s case, it was – inevitably – Caesar’s speech about cowards dying a thousand deaths while brave men die but once, uttered as the Roman leader was heading towards the Roman Senate for that fatal confrontation with his enemies.

Over a decade ago, along with many others, I witnessed a production of this play at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, directed by Yael Farber, and delivered almost entirely in the seSotho language. Despite my grasp of about two words of that particular language, the production was riveting and the meanings of the actors were pellucid. Set in a landscape comprised of movable, open-work, iron pyramids, with costumes derivative of African traditional attire, Caesar was something of a stand-in for an African authoritarian, given to physiological fits as well as fits of rage. Even as it was clear that this ruler was up to no good, the Shakespearean message that the violent removal of an autocrat will release devastating social and political turmoil came through as well. (One can read into this play a dire Shakespearean warning to anyone who might have even thought about trying to overturn the Tudor dynasty to which he was a most obedient servant – as well as a gentle nudge to the monarchy to keep its authority within reason, lest it face civil turmoil.)

Or as Marc Anthony says just a little bit later on:

Blood and destruction shall be so in use 
And dreadful objects so familiar 
That mothers shall but smile when they behold 
Their infants quarter’d with the hands of war; 
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds: 
And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge, 
With Ate by his side come hot from hell, 
Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice 
Cry ‘Havoc’, and let slip the dogs of war
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth 
With carrion men, groaning for burial.”

Of course, with that production in Johannesburg, it didn’t take much contemplation to observe that that particular Caesar could easily have been a possible stand-in for a certain elderly African ruler, living just to the north of the Limpopo River, or, indeed, others of his ilk around the continent. Shakespeare obviously didn’t have Robert Mugabe in mind, but rather, the autocratic archetype that inevitably lets those dogs out. And South African audiences loved it.

Moreover, as they thronged to attend, people often remarked on how much this production mimicked what it might have been like to attend a play back in Shakespeare’s time. There was that close engagement of audiences with the action on stage right in front of them, and the close interaction with the audience, once the barrier of Shakespeare’s old-time English had been eradicated.

I recall taking a staff member from our office who had never been to attend a live theatre production before. He came out of that experience with his seat close to the stage, thoroughly and deeply astonished, but with a new-found love for the real theatrical article.

He was also covered with flecks of raw boerewors meat when the soothsayer/fortune-teller/inyanga in the drama had waved a long string of the sausages around, in lieu of using bird entrails, as any good Roman fortune-teller would have done. There was a bit of a dry cleaner’s bill after it was over, but one simply can’t get a visceral experience like that at one’s local cineplex, or by being a couch potato in front of that flat-screen TV and DVD. No way.

And so, in the fullness of time, for this year’s Delacorte Theatre free-to-the-public (one has to stand in a long queue, but it is usually worth the trouble), summer production in Central Park, New York City’s Public Theater (the late Joseph Papp’s old haunt) decided on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Not a problem. This play is done all the time, and kids and their parents love those well-known, famous speeches, the wild action, and even, sometimes, the gore, thanks to modern theatre-making. And sitting in the park along with thousands of others is a wonderful community experience.

But you just knew there would be some sort of trouble, given the play’s blood-soaked storyline, and the impolitic, angry temper of the times in America. Oh, and did we forget to mention that the production’s director, Oskar Eustis, just happened to clothe the actors in 21st century garb, place the action in the present, and, in particular, give actor Gregg Henry a Donald Trump-esque orange-yellow pompadour hairstyle, a blue suit, and one of those overlong red ties in order to take a nibble at a portrayal of the eponymous character of this drama? Oh, and there was also the rather slinky actress portraying Calpurnia, affecting a pouty face and what seemed like a distinctly Slovenian accent to most reviewers, just in case audience members didn’t get the hints.

With that, we were off to the outrage stakes, the right-wing anger races. Big time. Never mind that only a few years back, the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minnesota had offered audiences a Julius Caesar with a tall, thin black man in the title role, as he was killed by a rabble of right-wing conspirators. (Does that somehow remind one of the ideas about a certain past president that were held by a significant number of his alt-right-style opponents?)

Then there was the Royal Shakespeare Company’s recent production with an African motif (not unlike the Market Theatre production). And some 80 years ago, Orson Welles had offered a portrayal of Julius Caesar – placed in Rome, of course –where the character had a distinctly Mussolini-like posture, strut, and arrogance. Nobody raised a huge ruckus about any of these. (Well, okay, if Il Duce had seen that New York production back in 1938, he might have been grossly offended – but, then again, maybe he would have seen it as a paean of praise to his grandeur.)

But such is the temper of the American political world nowadays that even the slightest whisper of disparagement of Donald Trump makes major corporations tremble, and sends out legions of angry tweeters to harangue the nation and trouble its national sleep and give it indigestion. As soon as it became apparent, via a bootleg video on social media of the assassination scene, that Donald Trump-lite was being murdered nightly in Central Park, two of the yearly programme’s sponsors, Delta Airlines and Bank of America, felt compelled to renounce the production publicly. And then they withdrew their money, just in case anyone still believed they had any courage whatsoever.

Locally, Wits University English Professor Chris Thurman commented to us over the furore, “As for the New York City Julius Caesar – the whole episode simply reinforces my general frustration with corporate arts patronage and my particular frustration with staid expectations of what it means to ‘do’ Shakespeare. Regarding the decision by Delta Airlines and Bank of America to pull sponsorship: it’s a classic case of an arts patron having a very reductive view of the artists and work they are sponsoring. They evidently don’t know Julius Caesar very well, and haven’t taken the trouble to think about what the Public Theatre might be trying to say though this production (from the Public’s recent statement: ‘Our production of Julius Caesar in no way advocates violence towards anyone. Shakespeare’s play, and our production, make 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.’)”

Meanwhile, back in the US, one of the Trumpster offspring ratcheted up the flames more than a little a bit, tweeting that public monies had better not be part of this high-culture, mob hit on his dad, while Fox News, inevitably, among numerous others further over on the right-wing fringe, rose up in respective righteous indignation about this seemingly outrageous slur on a duly elected president, and the perversion of the uses of culture. Never mind that Caesar has been killed, over and over and over again on stage for four centuries (let alone once in real life), and in literature textbooks for almost as long as Shakespeare was a subject for students, right in front of the eyeballs of all those sensitive, impressionable young people.

Well, maybe this play’s action has had an actual effect on a couple of particularly impressionable people throughout history. John Wilkes Booth, President Abraham Lincoln’s assassin in 1865, and one of the nation’s pre-eminent actors of his time, and obviously no fan of that president, had said after he had been captured by troops for the president’s murder that he had been hunted down “for doing what Brutus was honoured for”. Well, maybe, but that is quite an unusual reading of the play’s meaning, equating Lincoln with Caesar. Then there is also the case of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. This man, the would-be assassin of Adolf Hitler in 1944, apparently had kept a well-read, marked-up copy of the play on his desk, before carrying the bomb in the briefcase into the Führer’s Wolf’s Lair headquarters that had been intended to kill the German dictator and thereby bring the war to an end.

In his own artistic defence, and in defence of the play itself, director Eustis told media as the firestorm had broken that “ ‘Julius Caesar’ can be read as a warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy by undemocratic means. To fight the tyrant does not mean imitating him.” And the director of that 2012 Minnesota production, the one with the black Caesar, Rob Melrose, said of his own and Eustis’ work, both, “When everyone’s in white togas, there’s just not a lot of content there. Making those choices to have it in contemporary clothes, I think, illuminates Shakespeare’s play. What kind of person was Caesar? What kind of person was Brutus? But it also illuminates our time.”

Chris Thurman adds, “As for Shakespeare in particular: of course his work should be staged in ways that resonate with the contemporary political moment…. ‘Julius Caesar’ explores the relationship between a political establishment (full of its own frailties, corruption and infighting) and a populace that appears to want to give a demagogue power. And for those who know he would be dangerous in power – what can they do? And are they serving some greater ideal in opposing the demagogue, or simply their own ambition? If that isn’t the USA circa 2016-2017, I don’t know what is. You could almost go so far as to say that, for anyone staging ‘Julius Caesar’ in NYC this summer, Caesar has to be Trump or the production will be completely disconnected from what’s happening outside the theatre space.”

Then, just as this particular production had hit its thespian stride, a thoroughly troubled man tried to kill several Republican politicians – including the party’s chief whip in the House of Representatives, Steve Scalise – while they were at a practice session for the annual Republican-Democratic Congressional baseball game – on a suburban baseball diamond. It took just a New York minute for some to let those damned dogs back out yet again, insisting that it was the very thing like this production of “Julius Caesar” had lured James Hodgkinson, an avowed supporter of Bernie Sanders, into his shooting spree. As Donald Trump Jr tweeted just after the shooting, “Events like today are EXACTLY why we took issue with NY elites glorifying the assassination of our President.”

Oh, twaddle. Does Donald Jr know that Hodgkinson had been so impelled by the Public Theater production he picked up his rifle and drove out to murder a few congressmen? Or, perhaps, instead, was this unhappy, confused, but clearly dangerously deranged man so caught up in the ill-humoured public rhetoric that Donald Sr had done so much to engender through his pronouncements during the presidential campaign and right on into the first months of his presidency that the shooter felt this was the only answer?

The Economist, in discussing the public tone the new president had done so much to lower, noted,

Shakespeare understood bullies. The tragedies are filled with demagogues: orators with a genius for stirring up divisions and stoking grievances to turn decent citizens into angry, vengeful followers. During the election Mr Trump called rivals ‘disgusting’ or said they ‘choke like a dog’. This week he called the news media both fake and ‘dirty’ and said they pursue ‘their agenda of hate’. Shakespearen populists – men like the plotters in ‘Julius Caesar’ or the crowd-pleasing tribunes in ‘Coriolanus’ – also dehumanise opponents. They call their foes wolves, or an elitist ‘enemy to the people’, liable to pay commoners no more heed than dogs that are ‘beat for barking.’ ”

This production has now drawn to a close on Sunday after its final performance, but not before right-wing protesters had run onto the stage in the midst of Saturday’s performance to interrupt that production. As The Guardian reported it,

A right-wing protester has been charged with trespassing after interrupting a New York production of ‘Julius Caesar’ during the assassination scene and shouting: ‘This is violence against Donald Trump.’

The protester, who later identified herself as Laura Loomer, interrupted the Shakespeare in the Park production on Friday night and shouted ‘this is political violence against the right’ while audience members booed and told her to get off the stage.

The incident was filmed by Jack Posobiec, a right-wing provocateur best known for helping to spread the Pizzagate conspiracy theory. He stood up as Loomer was escorted off stage by security guards and yelled at the crowd: ‘You are all Goebbels. You are all Nazis like Joseph Goebbels … You are inciting terrorists. The blood of Steve Scalise is on your hands.’ ”

There it is, right-wing political rhetoric at its best.

Now, thinking about this fuss over Julius Caesar means that next year’s selection for Shakespeare in the Park, at least assuming Trump’s bully-boys haven’t frightened away every potential sponsor, or that the president hasn’t quit out of pique over his inability to ride roughshod over the entire government, almost selects itself. King Lear. Has to be. Just imagine the storm that will break when an actress performing Cordelia wears some of Ivanka Trump’s fashions, and that the Lear’s other children rather closely resemble Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner. Oskar Eustis: are you hearing me loud and clear? DM

Photo: Tina Benko, left, portrays Melania Trump in the role of Caesar's wife, Calpurnia, and Gregg Henry portrays President Donald Trump in the role of Julius Caesar during a dress rehearsal of The Public Theater's Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar in New York. File photo provided by The Public Theater.

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • South Africa

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