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Bob Goepfert: Julius Caesar

I recently attended the Public Theatre’s production of William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”.  Perhaps I’m naïve, or it’s the times in which we live, but when I left the Delacorte Theatre in New York’s Central Park, I never expected the production to be so controversial.  I certainly never expected Shakespeare’s political drama to be criticized for being political.

The controversy revolves about the fact that the actor playing Julius Caesar is clearly made to look and act like Donald Trump, complete with orange hair, long ties, an assertive speech pattern and a beautiful wife who speaks with a Slavic accent.  It must be mentioned that the text – with the exception of three words, “on Fifth Avenue” - is exactly what Shakespeare wrote in 1599.

In the play, Caesar is accused of being a narcissist who is planning to declare himself emperor. Those who fear the loss of democracy assassinate Caesar.  The scene is visceral and violent.  It’s also shocking, but the powerful staging makes for excellent theater.

There are some who claim that by having Caesar so closely resemble our current president the production is encouraging the same thing happen to Trump.  In fact two corporate sponsors Delta Airlines and Bank of America have already withdrawn financial support of the production citing bad taste.

I suppose corporations expressing their displeasure by withdrawing financial support could be compared with the average person protesting by not attending a production – even this one, which is offered free.  But, to a person who has made a living in the arts the reasons offered for taking offense is disturbing.  Delta says the production “crossed the line” of good taste.   That fails to define “good taste” or acknowledge that not long ago that line might have been a white man kissing a black woman – which also happens in the racially diverse casting of this “Julius Caesar.”

More curious is the Bank of America statement that accuses the Public Theatre of producing a piece of art that “intended to provoke and offend.”  I can’t think of a more accurate description of censorship.  And corporate censorship is as threatening as is government censorship.

Of course, this all begs the obvious – Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” is not about advocating assassination as a political solution.    The actions in the play state the opposite.    Political violence tears Rome apart and those who committed the crime do not rise to power.  Instead they unleash a civil war in which they are defeated and pay with their lives.

What the play “Julius Caesar” says is the public must beware being swayed by the cult of personality or by the speechmaking ability of those trying to form public opinion.  At Caesar’s funeral Brutus convinces the crowd of the justification of Caesar’s murder.   His powerful speech is followed by Caesar loyalist Marc Antony (who in this production is a female).  She manipulates the crowd and turns them against the assassins, encouraging mob violence that leads to a civil war.  As students of history know, as did Shakespeare, the irony is that the assassination of Julius Caesar led to Augustus Caesar becoming Emperor of Rome.

There are many messages to be absorbed by the controversy revolving about this production.  I believe that a free society depends on free speech and as time has proved artists are often those who most clearly see the time in which they live.

The question becomes: how does art avoid economic censorship in a society in which producing theater depends on corporate and private donations.

Another is how does one produce art of any value without being provocative enough to offend someone in the audience.

To my mind this is another case of trying to negate a strong message by distraction and attacking the messenger.  “Julius Caesar” is NOT a call for political violence. It is cautionary tale that tells how a society can collapse when the public responds to an emotional message that serves their own self-interest.  

Shakespeare’s play speaks to today not only in the United States but throughout the world.   It should be supported, not censored.   

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management. 

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