Thursday, June 15, 2017
Render Unto Caesar ...
I've not posted anything--on Facebook or here--about the recent uproar about a current production of Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Julius Caesar at New York's Public Theater/Shakespeare in the Park. Though the show had been running for a while, it was only recently that widespread outrage erupted because of the patent portrayal of Caesar as Pres. Donald Trump. As you can imagine, the assassination scene--senators and "friends' stabbing him to death--caused some alarm.
The murder occurs in Act III, Scene 1, and the rest the play deals with the disastrous fallout. Lots of others die, including Brutus, he of Et tu, Brute? fame/infamy. It's not really a play about Caesar but about the horrors of violent political overthrow.
Caesar was the first play I ever studied in school. Tenth grade. 1959-60. Hiram High School. I couldn't make much sense out of it at age 15, and I vowed I would forever hate Shakespeare and never read another damn word by him again.
Well, like many other adolescent vows, that one didn't work out too well. I ended up reading all the plays, poems, sonnets--multiple times. I taught the Bard to middle- and high-schoolers and college students; I wrote an e-book about him, available on Kindle Direct ("All the World's a Stage": The Worlds of William Shakespeare), and wife Joyce and I have seen all of his plays performed live onstage. That took many years. (Not a lot of companies produce Henry VI, Part 3!)
And there's no doubt about it: Even on the page Shakespeare can offend. Titus Andronicus features rape, disfigurement (tongue cut out, hands cut off, eyes blinded), murder, slavery, ... and, of course, cannibalism (a mother unwittingly eats a meat pie--and the "meat" is her son, who had raped and disfigured Titus' daughter).
Elsewhere, kings are murdered, wives commit suicide, children are murdered, weddings are disrupted and ruined, wars are fought over little, brothers are killed by brothers, and on and on and on and on. (Sounds like Game of Thrones, eh?)
Since 1616, when the Bard died, the plays have been used for about every political cause there is. As we can with scripture, we can find in Shakespeare's plays just about any meaning we want to emphasize. Joyce and I once saw a DARK production of A Midsummer Night's Dream that emphasized the, well, the darkness of the play (the betrayals, etc.). No one laughed. We have also seen cotton-candy light productions--one of which featured Beatles' music and had everyone dressed up like characters from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Another took place in outer space ... what fun!
Negative portrayals of power always offend the powerful and their allies. (Shakespeare himself had to be very careful about how he portrayed the royals--and many scholars believe that he wrote Macbeth, in part, to please the new English king (1603), James I (from Scotland), one of whose ancestors, so he believed, was one of the "good guys" in the story.
And Donald Trump is far from the first to be represented on stage in a Shakespeare play--or Shakespeare-related play.
The same year I graduated from college--1966--a new book/script appeared: MacBird, by Barbara Garson. I still have my copy of the play (see image). It's a take on Macbeth and features characters from the administration of Lyndon Baines Johnson (Ken O'Dune, The Earl of Warren, The Wayne of Morse, Lord MacNamara).
LBJ (whose wife was Lady Bird, whose daughter was Linda Bird), a Democrat, is the consummate Bad Guy.
The script did more than suggest that LBJ had been involved in the assassination of JFK (offensive, to say the least!), but it opened in New York at the Village Gate in February 1967 and ran for nearly 400 performances. It starred Stacy Keach as MacB, and Cleavon Little played a Witch! (There's an audio cast recording--I just checked on eBay, found one, bought it for $20.99!)
Garson borrows lines and speeches (much altered) from other plays. MacBird has a monologue, "To see or not to see!" And Robert--with some prescience--says: "MacBird permits not critics from within. / He draws the line, and all are forced to toe. / You're with him or against him, get that straight. / Your safety, sir, demands his overthrow" (23).
So, yes, if I were a Trump supporter, I would be dismayed/angry/whatever to see his murder on a New York stage--just as part of me would have been if it had been Pres. Obama. Our political positions are often visceral; our brain stems, dominant.
But there are other parts of our brains we ought to use. I know enough about theater--and about Shakespeare--to realize what's going on. It's just part of the use of theater throughout history.
The wife of Caesar would have been upset to see Shakespeare's play; friends and supporters of Agamemnon would not have sat still for Aeschylus' view of it; allies of Richard III ... you know.
Good plays--like good novels, like good poems, etc.--can jar us. In fact, they should jar us. And sometimes they jar us in ways we'd prefer not to be jarred. We can be offended rather than enlightened. That's the chance you take when you go see a contemporary Shakespeare production, or read a good novel.
And it's one of the principal reasons I often go to the theater--or read a controversial novel. It's good to be jarred, to be offended. It should make us think, though--not rave and rant like, well, like King Lear, foully betrayed by two of his daughters (how offensive!).
As Shakespeare said in The Taming of the Shrew, "'tis the mind that makes the body rich."