The Importance of the Taper’s ‘Caesar’

<i> Kushner is a playwright and translator who adapted Corneille's "The Illusion" that played the Los Angeles Theatre Center</i> . <i> He wrote "Millennium Approaches," which was directed by Oskar Eustis at Taper, Too in May, 1990. </i>

With all due respect to Sylvie Drake, who is one of the country’s most thoughtful theater critics, her review of “Julius Caesar” at the Mark Taper Forum (Calendar, May 10) completely missed the intention, substance and importance of Oskar Eustis’ production.

Drake reads this deeply intelligent and passionate encounter with Shakespeare’s play as a reduction of tragedy to the level of satire. The production is not fundamentally satirical; it is, rather, an examination of a particular kind of political tragedy, one that troubled the minds of Shakespeare’s audience and ought to be troubling the minds of Americans today.

Ostensibly protecting the play from a director’s injudicious updating of a classic, Drake hoists the tired old standard of Shakespeare’s “universality.” She is forgetting, as Eustis has not, that the play was written for a fiercely politicized and partisan people during a time, not unlike our own in this regard, when democratic institutions were seriously jeopardized by immensely arrogant, immensely popular leaders with despotic inclinations and dreams of empires.


Eustis’ greatest accomplishment with this “Caesar” rests in the fact that he takes sides. Instead of hurdling blindly over the power politics that are at the core of the play, Eustis’ production declares, in a bold and moral voice, solidarity with Brutus and Cassius--the choice is between a monarchy or a republic, and Eustis’ preference is clear.

And instead of offering a morality tale about the perils of personal pride and ambition, Eustis has revealed in “Caesar” a play about the far greater tragedy of failed revolution, a play about the terrible consequences of losing the struggle for democratic government.

Eustis has avoided that toga-and-marble limbo Rome to which so many dreary “Caesars” have been unimaginatively consigned. Eustis’ Rome is in no sense generic; it is a nightmare amalgam of specific images drawn from American history during the last 30 years. His Caesar is a deliberately composite demagogue, equal parts Huey Long, Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy--noble and dangerous all at once (and beautifully played by Stephen Markle); his conspirators assembled from the best elements of American progressive politics; and his Antony readily identifiable as an exemplar of the soulless sound bite postmodern politico--a creature born of the television technology that is Eustis’ thoroughly convincing modern equivalent for Shakespeare’s mob.

The point of Eustis’ transpositions is not, as Drake writes, to “make (the play) more urgent and topical,” not capricious “headline chasing” but a daring exploration of the deepest meanings of the text, of the particular relevances and resonances that in fact give this nearly 400-year-old masterpiece the best claim it can make for “universality.”

Drake offers no alternative interpretation for “Caesar’s” meanings. She reserves her approbation for matters of style, for performances that "(fly) like the wind and leave you breathless.” This sort of show sounds like great adrenelated fun, but I also enjoy theater that connects passion to ideas, that offers analyses as well as wind.

Being airborne and breathless are not necessarily circumstances most congenial to complex thought and feeling. At its finest moments, this production reaches out toward its audience and creates a community embroiled in a debate of paramount significance.

What drives the Taper’s brave and moving production of “Julius Caesar” is a wild lamentation for the failures of progressive people to stop Octavius Caesar from ascending to power, and there have been many such failures since Shakespeare wrote the play, and many Octavius Caesars (and when did you ever see a production of this play in which Octavius is actually frightening, as he is here?).

Universal tragedy is for people who believe the Universe to be their most immediate address. I live in the America of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, and this “Julius Caesar” feels very painfully to me to be the tragedy of my time.