Opinion: Of Shakespearean Lessons and Art That Makes Us Think

The president doth tweet too much, methinks

The artistic licenses taken by The Public Theater’s production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” would be appreciated by the bard himself, Curtis writes. (Courtesy Public Theater)
The artistic licenses taken by The Public Theater’s production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” would be appreciated by the bard himself, Curtis writes. (Courtesy Public Theater)
Posted June 22, 2017 at 5:03am

When Barack Obama burst onto the national stage and consciousness with his eloquent speech of unity at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, listeners delighted at its deliberate thoughtfulness — the flip side of the George W. Bush “everyman” style. (And yes, that the polished orator was the child raised without a father and the other had a lineage of political privilege was part of the irony and appeal of the shiny, new package.)

President Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, was, as everyone knows, the opposite of all that — a man of immediate reaction and few, sometimes incoherent and contradictory words, often strung together in 140 characters or less. Those who favored this new style eventually read the former’s quality of reflection as indecision, and compared President Obama, often unfavorably, to “Hamlet.”

All references to William Shakespeare are by design, as we again seem to be debating the relevance of the long-dead playwright, courtesy of a Public Theater production of his “Julius Caesar.” He would be honored at his own longevity yet appalled at what it’s all come to, I suspect.

The play hasn’t changed, of course, but our political scene has, becoming more partisan and predetermined. So, at a time when creative, controversial art, work that makes us think and struggle, is needed more than ever, the response from some is to make it disappear. In this case, a title character read as Trump, complete with long red tie and accented wife, was the catalyst for angry tweets, conservative outrage and corporate sponsors scurrying away.

Spoiler alert: Caesar is stabbed to death.

Theater can be an escape from life or it can illuminate it; the best manages to do both. There is a reason Shakespeare is on the syllabus of every high school English class. His phrases have become commonplace, part of the language used daily whether or not the speaker realizes its origin.

A different response

The lessons in his works of history, portraying rulers and fools hundreds of years before his own time, are relevant as ever. That may be why, through the years, politicians and TV characters portraying them have been compared to “Richard III,” “King Lear” and “Macbeth,” with an Obama-like character the stand-in for doomed general “Julius Caesar,” a conflicted historical leader with a resemblance to a complex modern one, in a 2012 production. That touring Acting Company of New York interpretation that stopped at Minneapolis’ famed Guthrie Theater garnered mostly positive reviews and not one tweet or murmur from team Obama.

Public Theater’s artistic director Oskar Eustis said before the opening of the company’s Central Park production: “The Public’s mission is to say that the culture belongs to everybody, needs to belong to everybody. To say that art has something to say about the great civic issues of our time, and to say that like drama, democracy depends on the conflict of different points of view. Nobody owns the truth — we all own the culture.”

Of course, anyone can and should criticize; reviewers make a living doing just that. Maybe the concept didn’t work, or the acting was so-so. But covering your ears while yelling “la, la, la” means not hearing what the play has been saying for centuries. In a statement, the Public said: “Our production of ‘Julius Caesar’ in no way advocates violence towards anyone. 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.”

It’s a message supporters and detractors of the current as well as past and future administration should note.

Full of sound and fury

Yet protesters rushed the stage at the park’s Delacorte Theater, the summer home of the Public, with angry words shouted and exchanged before the production had a chance to succeed or fail on its own, provocative terms. These bad reviews came before the production, which is getting it backward.

But it’s not surprising. Instant analysis, before the facts are in, is now the rule, whether it’s interpreting a shooting to place blame or predicting what will happen in November 2018 based on results of special elections more than a year before. Obama-style rumination is so 2004, even when the stakes include war in hot spots across the globe, a situation about which Shakespeare’s plays had plenty to say.

In theater, when a director or designer or actor ventures onto a creative limb, all they are usually risking is their artistic reputations. Getting lost for a few hours in a dark space or a park can be transformational and exhilarating for an audience — or not. But there are now rules against taking that chance. Better stick with an all-toga dress code next time, and maybe bore viewers to tears.

Theater, itself, is as partisan as everything else, branded as the province of “the elite.” In Shakespeare’s time, his tales of kings and consequences had to appeal to all, quieting and challenging the crowd in the pit of the Globe as well as the gentry in the cushy seats. He would appreciate the democracy of the Public’s Free Shakespeare in the Park, where the cost of a ticket is standing in a very long line, and the audacity of artists who — pass or fail — at least try.

I’m sure Shakespeare has written a play with that very lesson — if only we would see it.

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.