The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park got unprecedented press this year for staging Julius Caesar as a coup against President Trump. Delta and Bank of America pulled their sponsorships from the production company. Donald Trump, Jr. suggested that the play, which closed on June 18, might have presaged the shooting at the Republican congressional baseball practice.
Amid the controversy surrounding the production, we should not miss another disturbing fact: Shakespeare in the Park didn’t just butcher Trump in effigy. It butchered Shakespeare. The acting and stage production were spectacular, but director Oskar Eustis’s tendentious interpretation tried to force Shakespeare’s political drama about classical civic virtues into a contemporary progressive’s mold it can’t possibly fit.
Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar transports us to the last days of the Roman Republic, where one man from the elite governing class is doing the unprecedented: appealing to the plebeians to elevate himself above his peers in order to assume ultimate authority. The patricians, meanwhile, are caught in a difficult situation. Their elite status is threatened, and they are unsure what to make of this would-be popular monarch. The question in Shakespeare’s play is never whether Caesar is great or not, but whether his greatness so surpasses that of others as to justify his claim to dictatorial authority. The moral ambiguity of the conspirators’ enterprise in the play is one of the features that makes it a classic.
Eustis’s production did not allow for these great political and philosophical questions. It reduced Shakespeare’s morally complex political drama into a heavy-handed tale of democratic champions revolting against oppression and getting shut down because they didn’t go far enough. In the show’s playbill, Eustis describes the plot as “a group of idealistic patriots and small-d democrats” who “recognize that their republic is in danger from a leader who is threatening to overthrow democratic norms and establish an outright dictatorship.” In his version, the tragedy is that Cassius—traditionally seen as the least noble of the conspirators—foresees the need to eliminate Caesar’s supporters, but allows himself to be guided by Brutus into limiting the scope of their bloody coup.
The production featured a blond, bombastic Caesar in designer suits and long ties cheered by the white working class and married to a Slavic-accented Calpurnia. Cassius—written by Shakespeare as a proud man who feels his elite status in Rome is threatened by Caesar’s growing popularity—was portrayed as a “pussyhat”-wearing, police-mocking champion of democracy. All the conspirators were people of color, except for Brutus, who couldn’t stop white-splaining bad advice to the rest of the conspirators. Marc Antony had a thick southern accent. Eustis split the fickle plebeians into two alternating groups that never appeared on stage together: MAGA hat-wearing Trump supporters, and progressive Women’s Marchers and Antifa protestors.
In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, to quote Allan Bloom’s “Morality of a Pagan Hero,” “The actors and their faults are everything; material circumstances and chance are reduced to an almost meaningless minimum.” Not so with Eustis’s production, in which the Act V “civil war” features a clash between unarmed protestors and well-armed police.
Worse, Trump doesn’t work as a latter-day Julius Caesar. The two share a similar degree of self-conceit, but the similarities end there. Trump doesn’t possess Caesar’s undisputed greatness, nor his near-universal popularity. Brutus looks like a fool when he says, “And, to speak truth of Caesar, I have not known when his affections swayed more than his reason.” To quote Bloom once more: “It is possible to play Caesar as a petty, petulant, frightened despot, but it would be absurd to do so. There would then be no accounting for how Caesar had got where he is or for the general opinion that he was ‘the noblest man that ever lived in the tide of time.’”
Shakespeare’s timeless themes allow him to be reimagined in different settings (see West Side Story or The Lion King). But Eustis misunderstands Julius Caesar, through a failure of political imagination. In the playbill he claims that it is fruitful to “try and understand ourselves” through the lens of “that historical moment 2000 years ago,” but his production does just the opposite. He views that historical moment through the lens of modern politics, not so much in order to “understand” ourselves as to justify the dislike he and others bear toward President Trump. Rather than allowing Shakespeare and the Romans to teach us about the relationships and responsibilities of the few and the many, Eustis casts the conflict as a “progressive’s nightmare.” He is either oblivious to or willfully ignorant of how much his changes distort one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays.
It is sad to see the Public Theater, one of the most respected theater companies in New York, join the trend of appropriating classic literature as a vehicle for political grandstanding. Et tu, Eustis?
Josiah Peterson is debate coach and adjunct instructor of rhetoric at The King's College in New York City.