A shocking and violent play, currently being performed in New York's Central Park, justifiably has Donald Trump supporters and the right-wing media upset, for it shows the murder of a character who resembles Donald Trump. The character – a tall and blond world leader, whose wife has a heavy Eastern European accent – is assassinated by conspirators from his own administration, who stab him multiple times. He dies onstage.
Fox News was the first to raise the alarm about this provocative and threatening piece. Commentator Guy Benson said: "This is so incredibly in poor taste that I'm surprised they haven't cast Kathy Griffin in the production." Then, major sponsors of the festival hosting the play, including Bank of America and Delta Air Lines, pulled their sponsorship. The graphic death scene "does not reflect Delta Air Lines' values," the airline tweeted. "Their artistic and creative direction crossed the line on the standards of good taste."
In its initial account of this political piece of art, Fox failed to mention at the top of its article that the name of the play was Julius Caesar and that it was written by William Shakespeare. It was being performed as part of "Free Shakespeare In the Park." After some mockery (what blogger could resist the headline "Et tu, Delta?"), the network quickly updated its reports to reflect this. But, honestly, I don't think that the fact that the play is taught to high-school students makes it any less upsetting. The incident reminds us just how gruesome and scary this playwright can be.
Julius Caesar is not really about Julius Caesar: it's about Brutus, who speaks more lines and has more complex decisions to make. After some self-doubt, he participates in the mob-killing of his ruler, and things only go downhill from there. The play ends in an orgy of death and suicide. Almost every major character dies.
In this lack of restraint, sensationalist English theatre of 1599 was very different from the decorum of the French theatre at the time, and France was the far more powerful cultural centre. England was the uncouth backwater. French plays of the 16th and 17th centuries were more civilized: violence had to happen offstage. They were also more ruthlessly censored. A playwright such as Molière, who entertained with satirical comedies, was always at risk of going too far and offending the church and the royal court – indeed, he did go too far with Tartuffe, the portrayal of a religious hypocrite. Even though there was no outrageous violence in his play, and even though the title character was not a caricature of a particular real person, the play was banned.
It's understandable that governments and churches would seek to mute the more sensational effects of this art form: theatre is visceral and disturbing, especially when there is blood on the stage. Its use as political propaganda dates back to church plays of the Middle Ages, and in the 20th century in particular was used to great effect as revolutionary agitation. The Trump administration itself has already run into the undermining effects of angry theatre, when Vice-President Mike Pence was embarrassed by the fiery out-of-character rebuke from an actor in the historical musical Hamilton last year. Trump called it harassment.
Nor is it the first time a canonical narrative has been interpreted as a reflection of Trumpian excesses: in 1988, also in New York – in the era of Ronald Reagan – opera director Peter Sellars mounted a production of Mozart's opera The Marriage of Figaro that had as its setting the gold-plated Trump Tower and its decadent denizens.
It has been posited that Julius Caesar was always about contemporary political power. One theory has it that it was a veiled reference to fears that civil war might break out in England after the impending death of Queen Elizabeth. It has certainly always been used as a political weapon of one kind or another – especially in the United States. Abraham Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, acted in a production of the play in 1864 and was inspired by its noble regicide. Orson Welles directed a production in 1937 in which Caesar resembled Mussolini.
Fox News is not at all wrong to see this interpretation as an insulting parable of dictatorial excess and a disturbing dramatization of the assassination of the President of the United States. The artistic director of the theatre company protested, as he has to, that "Anyone seeing our production of Julius Caesar will realize it in no way advocates violence towards anyone." But, really, the producers of the play should not be surprised to see that there are painful consequences to offending the powerful.
This has always been a rough and shocking play, and there always have been dangerous consequences to provocation, and that is precisely why this kind of theatre is valued and admired and powerful. Political art wouldn't be very political if it had no consequences, would it?