During the first half of The Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar, two banners of past presidents hang from the rafters on the set. On one of them looms the portrait of George Washington, a man who removed his name from consideration for reelection when his popularity could have made him president for life – a man who handed over his power to preserve our young democracy.
A few feet away from that banner struts Julius Caesar, the spitting image of Donald Trump, the greatest threat to our democracy since its inception. Gregg Henry walks like Trump, sounds like Trump, and embodies the swaggering, bullying persona of Trump – but is Shakespeare’s Caesar Trump-like?
The text is ambiguous on that front. Cassius, Brutus, and the other assassins fear that Caesar will become a true dictator, but their fear is based on the idea of absolute power belonging to any one man. We don’t spend enough time with Caesar to see if he’s the power-hungry would-be tyrant the conspirators say he is.
In that sense, this production of Julius Caesar is, ironically, a gift to the Trump supporters disrupting performances and making angry phone calls to the wrong Shakespeare theaters. Caesar’s motivations remain unclear, while Trump’s desire for tyranny to feed his ego couldn’t be more transparent. This Caesar who resembles Trump has his Melania sound-alike/Ivanka look-alike wife beg him to avoid the Senate for his safety, his best friend weep for his body, and his killers die with their mission failing and their legacies ruined. Casting Trump as Caesar doesn’t just caution the audience about using violence to preserve democracy; it asks us to wonder if the bully in the White House isn’t so bad after all.
I doubt that Oskar Eustis intended to soften Trump, but aside from a ham-fisted line about Caesar shooting people on Fifth Avenue, the worst thing he does in the play is greet his visiting Senators while nude. That makes him rude and sick with self-love, but not a dictator.
While the comparisons to Trump himself are questionably accurate and have the subtlety of a sledgehammer, the production’s other parallels to modern-day America are more complex and interesting. It’s notable that Brutus (a great Corey Stoll) is the only white man among the conspirators. When Cassius (an excellent John Douglas Thompson) and the other Senators try to rally him to their cause, they recognize the need to have a white male voice legitimize their mission if they have any hope of reaching the public. And when the conspirators (all people of color and women) stab Caesar, he turns to his old friend expecting, despite evidence to the contrary, for Brutus to save him. When he says the famous, “E tu, Brute?” before his death, he’s wondering how someone in his base could turn against him.
Also interesting is the choice to cast Mark Antony as a woman. Elizabeth Marvel’s costumes change from a tracksuit to a pantsuit to military gear, leaving me puzzled over which modern-day political figure she was meant to represent (Ivanka? Kellyanne Conway? Sarah Palin? Nikki Haley?) But while her image and her Southern accent are both uneven, her passion and oratory are mesmerizing. We can’t take our eyes off of her when she gives her “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech, and it’s impossible to tell when her genuine grief for her friend morphs into the famous incitement to violence. I’m left with two burning questions: was Antony the bigger threat to democracy all along? And is a Southern conservative woman the only kind of American woman who could rally an entire divided country to her side?
In that sense, this production is a threat to Trump, but not for the reason his supporters would have you believe. The Public’s Julius Caesar is a threat because it asks its audience to think, to self-examine, to question. It cautions against falling into mob mentality and making rash decisions based on emotion – all of which led to Trump’s election. Critical thinking is the biggest danger to the success of his administration and his chances for reelection.
Whether we have enough critical thinkers left in this country to make a difference at the ballot box is still up for debate. When my friend and I left the theater, we saw a man holding a large American flag that read “Trump 2020.” Other audience members asked him if he was serious. The man replied, “Trump forever. Barron 2050!”
I still don’t know if that man was joking. The other man with a Trump sign a few yards away was definitely not. Behind a line of police officers, this man shouted epithets against Kathy Griffin, Madonna, and Snoop Dogg, condemned America’s war on white male heterosexuals, and praised Trump and Putin.
When I first read Julius Caesar, I thought the crowd’s immediate shifts in opinion were too exaggerated for dramatic effect. I understood Shakespeare’s point but didn’t believe that the people would be that easily led.
After listening to this man chant about the CIA murdering John F. Kennedy and Trump wanting peace with China and Russia, I now wonder if Shakespeare was too kind.