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Howard Sherman: How I got caught up in the Julius Caesar/Donald Trump controversy

Cast of Julius Caesar at the Public Theater
Howard Sherman
Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. He is director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School for Performing Arts.
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Lots of digital ink, and not a little actual ink, has been used reporting and opining on the events that have surrounded The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar, which concluded last Sunday.

With outrage ginned up by the Fox News Network, the modern dress production directed by Oskar Eustis, which deployed a Donald Trump analogue as the Roman emperor, demonstrated how easily the polarisation of American political thinking could spill over into the cultural sphere, even through a play some four centuries old.

After two sponsors withdrew their support, one from the production, the other from the theatre entirely, and the show opened on June 12 officially, leaving only a week to run, it seemed that the controversy would quickly die down.

But on Friday night June 16, and then again on the final show, the performance was interrupted by protestors outraged at the depiction of the assassination of the current president, failing – and unwilling – to understand anything about the play and its ultimate message.

Subsequently, people would learn that while they may have been acting out of their own beliefs, they were also prompted into action by the promise of a $1,000 prize offered by an alt-right agitator to anyone who could disrupt the show.

As someone who was in the open air theatre for the Friday night performance, I had a clear view of the woman who ran on stage shouting about the “normalisation of violence against the right" and a somewhat more distant relationship to the second disruptor, who followed her immediately from his seat, shouting something about Goebbels that I didn’t quite catch. It was an annoyance, to say the least, but it all started and ended quickly.

The indelible moment that came out of this, reported elsewhere, was the brilliance of the production’s stage manager. Once the duo were removed, her voice came over the loudspeaker system to advise the cast and crew where they would resume. “Let’s take it from ‘Liberty. Freedom,’” she directed, and the apt choice of words caused the crowd to erupt in probably the most genuine and heartfelt standing ovation I’ve ever witnessed.

Holding my dimmed phone close to my torso, I sent three tweets as the show got underway again, reporting each of the disruptions and the stage manager’s inspired directive (accidently reversing the words in my initial report). Then I settled down to watch the show, which concluded without incident.

Because I attended the show alone and my flat is most easily reached by walking from Central Park, I looked again at Twitter while I headed home and found that I was already deluged with messages in response to my tweets, most of them negative. I added some thoughts with additional tweets, in particular noting the show had not been, as a tweet from one of the disruptors had it, shut down, and that the interruption would quickly be forgotten.

That assertion obviously rankled. For the next 18 hours I was barraged with tweets hurling invective my way, calling me a libtard, commie, political pervert, scum and many other choice names. Other than vague amusement at this impotent display, I couldn’t have cared less.

But what I experienced was only a tiny fraction of what was hurled at The Public Theater, online and over the phones. Its staff was surely barraged and while many voices were raised in support of the theatre and its rights, I fear not enough recognised the professionalism and commitment of the staff, from those most visible such as ushers, house managers and box office staff, to anyone whose phone extension or email address may have been discovered online by the ugly opposition.

Indeed the cast must also be given great credit for carrying on after that first Friday interruption, never knowing what might come next in their remaining performances, at any time, from anywhere, despite increasingly tight security.

Following the multiply interrupted final performance, Corey Stoll, who played Brutus, wrote a remarkable short Facebook post about the experience of the show, saying in part:

"'Good gentlemen, look fresh and merrily. 
Let not our looks put on our purposes, 
but bear it as our Roman actors do, 
with untir'd spirits and formal constancy.’ Last night I spoke those words as Brutus after the first of three frightening, misguided interruptions of our free production of a 400-year-old play.

"I had spoken those lines hundreds of times before, but last night I almost couldn't get the words out I was so overcome with pride. The strain of acting in two plays simultaneously – one we had rehearsed and one thrust upon us for which we had no script – was enormous. But looking at my laser-focused cast mates who hadn't missed a line or skipped a beat despite the fear and anxiety wracking our bodies, it occurred to me that this is resistance.”

Eisa Davis, who played multiple roles (the show utilised cross-gender casting), wrote even more briefly on Facebook, concluding her remarks with:

“Deep bows to our cast, crew, staff, security and artistic team for standing together in intelligence, love and courage. And big ups to Shakespeare stretching across time to give us a good look at ourselves – if we can forgo the heat for the light.”

I doubt that anyone learned much in the course of the controversy and that whether they were reading essays or tweets, their confirmation bias was in full flower, supporting the artists, the theatre and Shakespeare himself, or seeing them as complicit elitists denigrating the president.

A lingering concern is about the ability of theatres to stage vivid, socially conscious work vis a vis their funding that will have to be watched, as will the willingness of those who wish to silence messages they don’t like by interrupting and undermining it, destroying the generally understood contract between theatre artists and their audiences. Startlingly, those who opposed the now-closed Caesar have maintained their attacks, with reports of ugly, racist posts on the Facebook pages of several of the actors of colour who appeared in the show, and threats against Eustis’ wife, which are currently under investigation by the police.

But what I will remember most of this Julius Caesar is that the artists and staff of The Public Theatre were not just creatively brave, but personally and directly brave, in ensuring Julius Caesar would continue despite obvious obstacles and, no matter what, the show did go on. Liberty and freedom indeed.

This week in US theatre

Widely produced in the early 1990s, Scott McPherson’s Marvin’s Room makes a very belated Broadway debut at the Roundabout Theatre Company, where it opens on Thursday. The story of estranged sisters reunited when a health crisis threatens one of them, it features Lili Taylor and, in her Broadway debut, Janeane Garofalo, under the direction of Anne Kauffman. The production arrives 25 years after the death of the author from complications from Aids at the age of 33.

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