An assassination 2,061 years in the making: Trump, 'Julius Caesar' and the politics of theater

For 11 nights in late May and early June, Julius Caesar was brutally stabbed to death without much fuss as part of the Public Theater’s annual Shakespeare production in Central Park. On June 6, however, audio surfaced of a sales representative for a conservative media group describing the show to one of the company’s stars, Joe Piscopo, on his popular radio show.

Julius Caesar, she said, looked a lot like President Trump. Although the performances were well done, she said, she felt murdering the president onstage was “appalling” and “shocking.”

That’s when all the trouble began. Criticism of the play soon reached a feverish pitch, culminating nearly a week later with the opprobrium of Fox News and a scathing tweet by Donald Trump Jr. asking how much of this “art” (his quotes) was funded by taxpayers. The National Endowment for the Arts, fearful for its future, immediately issued a statement distancing itself from the play by clarifying it did not fund the production.

Right-wing pundits compared the production to comedian Kathy Griffin holding what looked like the bloody, decapitated head of the president in a universally denounced photo a week earlier. Fierce demonstrations against “Julius Caesar” ensued, corporate sponsors withdrew their support, and the country once again plunged into a screaming match about the nature of art and politics. When Republican House Majority Whip Steve Scalise was shot on a Virginia baseball diamond by an unhinged left-wing attacker later that week, accusatory fingers pointed directly at the Public Theater.

Opinions split sharply along party lines. The right was incensed by what it saw as a direct assault on a sitting president and a normalization of political violence. The left was angry that the GOP seemed not to care in 2012 when a production featuring an Obama-esque Caesar ran in Minneapolis, that most Public Theater protesters had not seen the play, and that few critics seemed aware that Shakespeare doesn’t celebrate Caesar’s death. The assassination is framed as the death of democracy itself.

The Public Theater’s “Julius Caesar” closed a week ago, but the sociopolitical carnage remains. The challenge — the duty — of a democracy, say those affected and transfixed by this debate, is to pick up the pieces and use them to build a constructive conversation surrounding the questions it raised.

Can taste or morals be arbitrated? Are there lines that should never be crossed? If so, who draws those lines? Is art, by its very nature, a political act? At what point does artistic speech become political speech, or is it all just free speech? Should public money be used to fund it? If a chill wind blows from Washington, will creative expression go into deep freeze?

“The foundation of American democracy is that free and open debate will lead to a better result than trying to shut people down,” Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis said the morning after his play closed. “The fact that a work of art made reference to politics has been going on forever. What’s new is this form of deliberate media provocation used to stir up hatred and misunderstanding.”

The controversy was not about his play, Eustis said. It couldn’t be, because most people never saw it. The controversy resulted from a political base being riled up to believe something that wasn’t true: that the Public Theater was advocating the assassination of a sitting president.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan, who penned a pointed warning of the dangers posed by the Trump era titled “Building the Wall,” called this phenomenon “the politics of outrage.”

One person’s politics could be another person’s entertainment, so who is to say what is politically offensive and what isn’t, he asked. But there are complexities inherent to the subject that should not be diminished, such as those discovered by Bill Maher when he used a racial slur in a recent broadcast.

“Even if your raison d'être is shock and sarcasm, there are lines you can cross that are objectionable for some very good reasons, but that requires some thought, and that’s not what we have today,” Schenkkan said over the phone from Santa Fe, N.M., the day after a production of “Building the Wall” premiered there. The Los Angeles production of the play, originally scheduled to close at the Fountain Theatre on May 21, has been extended through Aug. 27 and is one of the bestselling shows in the company’s 27-year history.

“We have people jumping on others — casting themselves as victims and their opponents as vicious and unthinking,” Schenkkan said.

In other words, today’s discourse is not at all about values related to art or politics, it’s about a personal sense of reactive indignation. It’s worth pointing out, Schenkkan said, that America has a history with assassination and is awash in guns and gun violence. For this reason, artists need to tread thoughtfully and carefully.

Making intelligent art, no matter how provocative, appears to be the invisible line in the sand, said Georgian-born visual artist David Datuna, who grew up in the former Soviet Union and immigrated to the U.S. in 1999 in search of artistic freedom.

Datuna, who recently placed a 10-foot-long sculpture of Trump’s name made out of dry ice in New York’s Union Square to protest the president’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, said that Kathy Griffin’s controversial photo failed because it wasn’t deep enough. It represented what he called “one-step thinking.” The image also conjured up the worst of Islamic State — not a subject to be trifled with, he added.

In the case of “Julius Caesar,” the decision for the title character to resemble Trump was clearly well thought out, Datuna said.

“Watch the TV, open the newspaper — everything that is going on today is about this crazy guy,” he said. “It’s absolutely normal that people would try to make theater about the energy in our country. If you don’t like it, don’t go see it.”

Conservative firebrand, filmmaker and occasional journalist for Breitbart News, the New York Post and the Irish Times Phelim McAleer also stood by the right of the Public Theater to produce the play. But McAleer, who staged the controversial play “Ferguson” in Los Angeles, which received a forceful takedown by the left in 2015, said the theater world doesn’t practice the equality it preaches.

The stage, he said, is dominated by left-wing ideology, so much so that competing voices and narratives get swiftly drowned out. When he considered staging “Ferguson” in New York City, he and a liberal friend tried to think of a single play that did not have a liberal message, and they came up empty.

“The theater really needs to say to itself, ‘There is something wrong in our world,’” McAleer said. “There is something weird about a world that has one viewpoint. It’s not a conspiracy, it’s a consensus, and a consensus is much worse than a conspiracy. Assassinating Donald Trump every night in Central Park gets the word out: ‘This is our world and you’re not wanted here.’”

He joined others in saying the right to make art — any art, no matter how tasteless or controversial — is sacrosanct in a functioning democracy. Free speech is protected by the 1st Amendment. Artists just must be prepared to face the reaction to that speech.

Which is as it should be, said Berkeley Repertory Theatre artistic director Tony Taccone, who issued a statement in support of Eustis and the Public Theater shortly after the “Julius Caesar” controversy erupted.

“We aspire to a society that is confident in itself, that can hear oppositional voices and opinions expressed with intelligent intent that you can engage or argue with,” he said. “When a society starts to fracture or becomes polarized, the lines become blurry and people start reacting much more quickly and irrationally. That’s where we are now.”

Each of us carries a moral universe within us, Taccone said. Most people don’t know where their values stand on a certain issue until they feel violated. Theater tends to be the most politically provocative art form because it uses words to convey its meaning, he said.

“Theater is much more volatile because it’s trafficking in content that is being directly expressed to the audience member,” Taccone said. “There hasn’t been a single show in our history that did not upset somebody.”

jessica.gelt@latimes.com

@jessicagelt

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