There is a whole lot of anti-Trump resistance going on at the moment, seeking to bolster American democracy in the aftermath of the election of the amoral showman Donald Trump to the White House (also here, here, here, here, and here).
Rather than sink in despair for the next four years, thousands of Americans have announced plans to run for elective office. Thousands of pop-up groups, organized by Indivisible and others, have arisen, with varying agendas---saving healthcare and climate change policy in their states, countering Trump’s proposed tax cuts to the rich, etc. States and cities have joined in, by recommitting to the objectives of the Paris climate accord that Trump has recently abandoned.
The common denominator of this resistance movement? Reversing the damage---averting the tragedy---of Trump’s bulldozer presidency, to save our badly-faltering democracy. It’s a remarkable thing, if you think about it: Great nations historically, once they enter decline, always fall. But America, with this resistance, is striving to reverse her decline. Americans not being fatalists (yet), we have a fighting chance.
Which is why the New York production of Julius Caesar---you know the one, it was all over the news: with Donald Trump portrayed as Caesar, complete with mop of blond hair and Slovenian wife---is hurtful to the resistance’s salvage operation. Not only is the play a tragedy---Shakespeare’s full title is The Tragedy of Julius Caesar---but, as every high-school student knows, it features an assassination.
It was this element---Caesar’s assassination---that Trump supporters fastened on and protested to high heaven, making it a media monster (here, here, here, here, and here) and shoving it from the arts pages to the front page of The New York Times. At a time of extreme polarization, Democrat versus Republican, when polls show we now impugn the worst intentions to the other side, it’s a production like this that feeds conservatives’ worst suspicions of the anti-Trump resistance: that not only is it anti-anti just for the sake of opposition, but seeks to foment unrest, rioting, maybe even assassination. (This production’s pre-scheduled run ended June 18.)
So vehement was the reaction to the production that the theater---the storied Public Theater, founded by Joseph Papp---was forced to issue a statement, declaring its production “in no way advocates violence toward anyone.” In it the Public restated both its intention---“Shakespeare’s play, and our production, make the opposite point: those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic means pay a terrible price and destroy the very thing they are fighting to save”---and its goal as a “civically-engaged theater” to foster discourse, as the “basis of a healthy democracy.”
But lofty intentions got trumped by the proxy Trump’s bloodied corpse.
In his program note, director Oskar Eustis, who’s also the theater’s artistic director, was silent on the choice of a Trump proxy, but expressed fear for our democracy’s fragility: “The institutions that we have grown up with, that we have inherited from the struggle of many generations of our ancestors, can be swept away in no time at all.” Continuing, he wrote, “when the ground is slipping away from under us and all that is solid melts into air, leadership is as transitory and flawed as the times.” In an interview with the Times, Eustis spoke of his production as “a progressive’s nightmare vision” of destabilized democratic norms.
Certainly, given these beliefs, if you see Trump as a latter-day prototype of Caesar’s autocrat---which many liberals do, myself included---then theoretically you are justified in casting a Trump proxy in the title role. But, given the extreme “choler” (as Shakespeare might put it) of the public since the earthquake of Trump’s election, you also run a risk of losing your argument in the backfire, which indeed happened. No doubt this production was thrilling---as theater, to liberals. (Reviews were positive.) But as political event, as conversation-enabler, the backfire only reinforced the conservative’s view of liberals as a sneering, elitist, anything-goes, nothing-sacred lot, so why talk to us?
(Eustis disappointed when, in the Times interview, he blamed the backfire on the “right-wing hate machine.” No, Mr. Eustis, other liberals can have a problem with your firecracker choice of Trump as the assassinated Caesar.)
Of course, here’s where the traditional liberal argument for the absolute right of free speech and artistic choice will force itself into the discussion. (Most artists being liberal, this argument comes up constantly.) But here again is where the argument for responsibility, and for greater situational awareness, also must be made.
As for the right to free speech: As a liberal I repeat Voltaire’s vow to defend “to the death” anyone’s right to express things of which I may disapprove. But there is a limit to free speech, enunciated by the jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, calling for responsibility: We cannot falsely cry “Fire” in a crowded theater. In this instance, where we have both a literal theater and the larger figurative theater beyond, crowded and choleric and combustible, we have the responsibility---to the public---not to torch the place.
As for the right to artistic choice: Artists often say they can’t be held responsible for how their (bold) choices are taken by the public. And many declare, as a kind of law, that there is no connection between a work of art and any criminal act committed by an individual “inspired” by said work of art. This credo of exemption is echoed by the Washington Post theater critic in defense of the Public’s bloodied Trump: “Seeing something enacted on a stage doesn’t mean you should go out and do it yourself” [his italics]. But, this is to say art has no effect at all. In combustible times, are we really so sure?
Holding ourselves responsible for our artistic choices, I submit, would mature our art. Comedian Kathy Griffin’s “joke” of holding up a mask of Trump’s severed head was instantly and universally denounced as irresponsible and out of bounds (a hopeful sign, I think). In his Times interview Eustis noted that Griffin’s “joke” occurred while his Trump-as-Caesar production was in rehearsal, and he confessed his reaction was “Whoops.” That “Whoops” says lots. (By contrast, Griffin’s reaction---saying her career is over and Trump has ruined her life---also says lots: about blinding narcissism.) Another “Whoops” was likely sounded when last week a leftist known for extreme anti-Republican views opened fire on Republican members of Congress playing baseball.
Turning to the play, finally: What a shame that all the controversy has detracted from the play itself, because Shakespeare’s moral wisdom would be instructive at this singular and sad juncture in America’s history, when we have descended from the honorable likes of Washington, Adams, Lincoln, and Roosevelt, to the proto-autocrat Trump. Eustis is spot-on when he says, “Julius Caesar can be read “as a warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy using undemocratic means. To fight the tyrant does not mean imitating him.”
How instructive, then, to compare and contrast our times with ancient Rome, understanding that Rome’s fall will begin with Caesar’s assassination. How useful to know that, in the eyes of some (Cassius), Rome was already at a low point: “Age, thou are shamed! / Rome, thou hast lost the breed of noble bloods!”
How instructive to see Caesar as the great man becoming a tyrant: “I rather tell thee what is to be feared / Than what I fear; for always I am Caesar.” “Danger knows full well / That Caesar is more dangerous than he.” As Cassius says, “Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world / Like a Colossus, and we petty men / Walk under his huge legs and peep about.” (Unlike Trump, Caesar disdains “base spaniel fawning.”)
How instructive to see good men, “all honorable men,” Brutus and Cassius centrally, perceive themselves increasingly oppressed by Caesar and rationalize their way to murdering him. Brutus especially, “with himself at war,” suffers internal “insurrection” (imagining Caesar as a serpent’s egg that must be killed in the shell), eventually to conclude he must participate in this “piece of work that will make sick men whole” and slay Caesar’s ambition. And when the work is done, this good man stoops low and bathes his arms in Caesar’s blood.
How instructive to watch Marc Antony, Caesar’s ally, noting a mourning Rome is a dangerous Rome, brilliantly manipulate the malleable crowd in his funeral oration against the conspirators, “all honorable men.” How terrible to watch Antony’s prophesy come to pass, when in the name of the slain Caesar “the dogs of war” are let loose, with “carrion men, groaning for burial,” with the play’s falling action taking down all the conspirators, by suicide.
But all this instruction, and the poetry and psychological insight, are lost this time around in the media frenzy. Which is a shame, because in rereading the play I was especially struck by this line, from Brutus, which---in this moment when we are led by a heedless, amoral president---would resonate deeply: “Th’ abuse of greatness is when it disjoins / Remorse from power.”
There is another line from the play that may point our way. Early on, as Cassius plies Brutus to join the plot to kill Caesar, he says: “Think of the world.” Granted, Cassius’ purpose is nefarious, but the line can be read more expansively. I urge my fellow artists, when creating work for these disjointed times---and serious artists yearn to join the mix---think of the world and the effect your creation may have on it.
And think of the anti-Trump resistance. Will your creation help or hinder what millions of stout souls, working their sword arms at the barricades, are trying to do to rescue America? Again, if you think about it: Great nations historically, once they enter decline, always fall. But America, with this resistance, is striving to reverse her decline. Artists are more prone to think in a tragic key, but the resistance is trying to avert tragedy, mightily.
Friends, Romans, liberals: “Think of the world.” And think of the resistance.
Carla Seaquist, a playwright, has published “Two Plays of Life and Death,” which include “Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks” and “Kate and Kafka,” and is at work on a play titled “Prodigal.” Her latest book of commentary is titled “Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality.” An earlier book is titled “Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character.”