Monday, June 12, 2017

On the way to the forum

One morning in May of 1972 I arrived at my early morning Shakespeare class in my customary half-awake condition.  I had a newspaper but had had no time even to scan the front page.  As we settled in, Professor Johnston (who happened to be African American) commented that the play under discussion, Julius Caesar, could hardly be more topical:  In Maryland, someone had shot George Wallace, the segregationist Alabama governor who was running for president.  Wallace lived, confined to a wheelchair, but his political career was over.  Nearly four hundred years earlier, Shakespeare had warned that violence solves nothing.  Caesar dies, but Brutus's hope of restoring the Roman republic is in vain. 

In the last century this play still had the power to galvanize an audience.  In 1937 Orson Welles directed a legendary -- not a word I use lightly but this is no showbiz hyperbole -- legendary production in modern dress, a commentary on the fascism then dominant in Spain, Italy and Germany.  The murder of Cinna the poet at the hands of a mob was considered particularly shocking, as Shakespeare no doubt meant it to be.  (There's a very good movie about this production called Me and Orson Welles, worth seeking out.)  Welles had just broken with the Federal Theater Project after it pulled out of presenting the left-wing agit-prop musical The Cradle Will Rock.  He and his producer, John Houseman, had formed the Mercury Theater, largely financed by Welles's earnings as a radio actor.  Their re-imagining of Caesar was a companion piece to the so-called "voodoo Macbeth" staged earlier at a Harlem theater with an all-black cast and musicians from Haiti. 

Many years and many productions later, Caesar is making people nervous again.  New York's Shakespeare In the Park is presenting a production by Oskar Eustis with an actor named Gregg Henry in the title role, and it seems he bears a striking resemblance to one Donald J. Trump.  One woman who saw it exclaimed, "It was the onstage murder of the President of the United States!" and that was enough to make Bank of America and Delta Airlines withdraw their sponsorship.  Outrage is percolating through the right -- it's practically an incitement to murder!  Although (as Erik Loomis points out at Lawyers, Guns & Money) they had no problem with a 2012 production starring Bjorn DuPaty as a black Caesar.  "Obama's Ides of March:  The Acting Company Production of Julius Caesar," was the title of an enthusiastic review by Noah Millman  at The American Conservative on May 21, 2012, which concluded by suggesting, "Perhaps Riddley [sic] Scott will make a movie?"  I still remember the tyrant Obama, who ruled by executive order and said he alone could fix stuff.  How did the republic survive?

Once again:  Julius Caesar is not a call to solve political problems through violence.  It is the exact opposite.  See it.  Read it.  Don't condemn it until you have. 


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