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Revisiting ‘Julius Caesar’ — Theater In The Age Of Trump

Tina Benko, left, portrays Melania Trump in the role of Caesar's wife, Calpurnia, and Gregg Henry, center left, portrays President Trump in the role of Julius Caesar during a dress rehearsal in May of The Public Theater's production of "Julius Caesar" in New York. (Joan Marcus/The Public Theater via AP)
Tina Benko, left, portrays Melania Trump in the role of Caesar's wife, Calpurnia, and Gregg Henry, center left, portrays President Trump in the role of Julius Caesar during a dress rehearsal in May of The Public Theater's production of "Julius Caesar" in New York. (Joan Marcus/The Public Theater via AP)
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“Ambition’s debt is paid!”

So cries one of the conspirators moments after the death of Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play. It is uttered as a slogan, a moral summation to an act of violence that the speaker believes is as inevitable as it is just.

The line in performance is most likely shouted with assurance and conviction by the actor. And, most importantly, it must illuminate a moment that depicts moral certainty when such certainty is far from universally accepted.

Great tragedy is born from such a moment of conflict and chaos. A tragic fall, while a clear diminution of a character’s moral status, is still a fall — something that throws us off-balance, experienced as a surprise, even though we are forewarned (in this case, repeatedly, by a soothsayer). And yet, it hangs in the air with the starkness of its own inevitability.

In "Julius Caesar," Shakespeare uses the Roman republic's deified emperor to explore the tragedy of those who used villainous means to exert their justified ends — only to be enmired in the destructive chaos they created, which does little to resurrect their beloved republic.

Like all great plays, "Julius Caesar" finds its potency in its time of revival.

Like all great plays, "Julius Caesar" finds its potency in its time of revival. All productions intersect in at least three points: the time of their writing, the time they are depicting and the time of the production at hand. In my lifetime, I have seen or read about interpretations of the play that make potent use of this temporal tension. I’ve seen a Washington, D.C.-based version of the play that cast the morally conflicted and debased former “mayor for life” Marion Barry in the title role. We’ve read about the 2012 Guthrie Theater production that featured an Obama-esque actor. We’ve seen fascist, socialist and corporate Caesars. There’s really no end to how the character of Caesar can be used to create a sociological mirror that reflects and refracts the play and its historic moment as a means to understanding some present time.

Shakespeare’s plays provide ripe opportunities for such interpretive musings. Consider Barbara Garson’s "MacBird!" Written in 1967, the satire revisited Shakespeare’s "Macbeth" in the post-JFK assassination era that skewered LBJ by imagining him as the conniving title character. In performance, Ian McKellen’s Richard III exuded a spidery Nazi creepiness to memorable effect. The mirrors of interpretation collude with the mirrors of history and/or current events in ways that theater artists and audiences have been evoking for years.

Two years ago, a Donald Trump-inspired Julius Caesar might have been the stuff of farce, owing more to Aristophanes and Molière. Somewhere down the road, such farcical treatment may be where the current saga finds its resolution. But, now, five months into this young, unpredictable presidency, we don’t seem to be farcing around. This is serious.

An ad for The Public Theater's production of Julius Ceasar reads: "Danger knows full well that Caesar is more dangerous than he." (Verena Dobnik/AP)
An ad for The Public Theater's production of Julius Ceasar reads: "Danger knows full well that Caesar is more dangerous than he." (Verena Dobnik/AP)

Some may gripe (in some moments, myself among them) that the orange-haired, long-neck-tied depiction of Julius Caesar at New York City’s Delacorte Theater in Central Park this summer is too on-the-nose to be taken all that seriously. However, might we consider that months into this unexpected presidency, we, as theater artists and audiences, have been taken by surprise. The surprise at this Trump presidency is almost universal. Globally and nationally, few — even Trump, himself -- expected him to win. We have seen the scramble that has followed, as journalists rediscover a strong raison d'être that seems to have birthed a new age of intense reportage, far less infotainment than the media’s campaign coverage, which some opine created a horse race for ratings and contributed to the weirdness of the result.

In the theater, too, existential angst about the meaning and value of our work has been replaced with existential clarity and purpose. We know what we’re here to do. Tell the stories. Represent truth. Reveal moral complexity. Present the questions. In so doing, there is an artistic reaction to the surprise of the moment we find ourselves living. We can afford a bit of aesthetic ham-fistedness in the process. Sometimes, the clarion calls of alarm are as artfully considered as Tony Kushner’s angelic trumpets. But sometimes, we’re just earnestly grabbing pots and pans from the kitchen and running out into the street, banging them together and shrieking “Beware! Beware!”

The "Julius Caesar" that emboldens the summer of 2017’s theatrical landscape is less interesting for its depiction of Trump as Caesar than for its depiction of us. Theater in the time of Trump is finding its potency in the exploration of the society that elevated him to its highest office. In the end, it is more important that we find out who we are in light of our choice to elect him. This is the stuff of tragedy. And in the consideration of its form, we learn a great deal about ourselves.

In the end, it is more important that we find out who we are in light of our choice to elect him. This is the stuff of tragedy.

For the play to work, Caesar must be beloved, a leader who is perceived to have strayed from his ideal self. In the analogous contemporary realm, Trump was hardly a revered figure. But he is reverenced for his pragmatism, his business sense. He is respected for his perceived no-nonsense, put "America First," "Make America Great Again" mantras. He is “nobody’s fool,” he laughs at “political correctness” as he grabs us by the whatevers. Enough of us like that about him. And as he evolved into his presidential candidacy, he dared to declare himself the savior of the country actually saying, “I will give you everything. I will give you what you’ve been looking for for 50 years. I’m the only one." Trump may as well stand on the roof of his D.C. hotel and bellow, “L’État, c’est moi!” like his fellow gold-lover, Louis XIV.

A hubristic narcissist is fed to the point of combustion and as he inevitably falls (and we witness that Gordian knot untie with each passing day), what does it say about us and who we are? The most chilling depiction of such psychological gorging was televised as we witnessed (many of us gaping) his cabinet speak in sycophantic tropes, thanking him “for the opportunity and the blessing that you’ve given us to serve your agenda and the American people.” Ah! We are as one! Trump and the American people. We have colluded. We make him, we resist him, we support him, we fuel him, we hate him, we love him. Hopefully, we will survive him. But ... who will we be then?

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Jim Petosa Guest Commentator, The ARTery
Jim Petosa is the director of the Boston University School of Theatre and the artistic director of New Repertory Theatre in Watertown.

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