Home / Action Plan / ‘Julius Caesar’ Isn’t Enough: Why Tasteless Art Will Never Defeat Donald Trump

‘Julius Caesar’ Isn’t Enough: Why Tasteless Art Will Never Defeat Donald Trump


The media tempest surrounding the Public Theater’s production of “Julius Caesar” in Central Park has filled fat column inches for days. In case you’ve been consumed by more weighty matters filling the headlines – I don’t need to remind you, I trust? — two of the theater’s corporate sponsors, Delta Airlines and Bank of America, withdrew their support of the company when it was learned that in Oskar Eustis’s production, the title character was depicted, none too subtly, as a simulacrum of Donald Trump. (The production was barely into its first week when an alt-right protestor rushed the stage.)

In the play, you will recall, things don’t go well for Caesar, as he is betrayed by his intimates and stabbed to death in one of the more famous onstage murders in Shakespeare – of which there are plenty. While this arts-funding scandal naturally raised a dark hue and cry in cultural spheres, it receded from the national discussion when a gunman opened fired on Republican congressman practicing for a baseball game.

These events were of course unrelated, despite an appalling retweet from Trump’s son Donald Jr. intimating a connection between the two – like father, like son. And yet occurring back to back, they did seem to underscore that the tide of virulence, paranoia and anxiety sweeping the country continues to mount as the days of an unruly and unsettling presidency tick by.

I attended a small rally supporting the Public Theater at Astor Place on Thursday, and then headed uptown to see the production about which so much digital ink has been spilled. I left in a state of some dejection. As many critics and Eustis himself have naturally pointed out, “Julius Caesar” is hardly a play that advocates the assassination of overweening political leaders. In turning to violent means, the assassins destroy themselves, and Rome’s already endangered democracy. Blood begets blood, and, as in many Shakespeare plays, the stage ends up littered with corpses of Romans noble and otherwise.

But there is a bit of sophistry involved in critics’ defending the production on the basis of the complexity of Shakespeare’s play and the ideas about rulership and politics it embodies. For as it is presented by Eustis, it would be difficult for most in the audience to see beyond the gaudily presented parallels between Caesar and Trump. The actor portraying Caesar, Gregg Henry, wears crotch-skimming brightly hued ties, and is married to a svelte younger beauty who speaks in a Slavic accent. Accompanying the production throughout is the vague, slightly distracting sound of someone outside the theater, or on its periphery, bellowing angrily. A pink knit pussy hat makes an appearance.

It was these ham-handed signifiers that the audience I saw the play with responded to with knowing laughter. No surprise there, of course: the overlap between Shakespeare in the Park regulars and Trump supporters is presumably infinitesimal. But as someone whose disdain for Trump probably equals anyone’s, I still came away feeling that, whatever Eustis’s larger aims — “ ‘Julius Caesar’ is about how fragile democracy is,” he writes, correctly, in a program note — the production was essentially exploiting Shakespeare’s play as a blunt instrument, inevitably inviting audiences to smirk at the cheeky parallels rather than engage with the play’s ideas on any deeper level.

Oscar Eustis'Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson' Play Opening Night, New York, America - 13 Oct 2010

Oscar Eustis


Coming on the heels of the controversy surrounding the comic Kathy Griffin’s faux-beheading photo, for which she was publicly pilloried and immediately dumped by CNN as New Year’s Eve host, and the similar fracas that erupted when Stephen Colbert used a vulgar (and yes, homophobic) phrase to describe the relationship between Trump and Putin, the Public Theater’s production left me with the dispiriting sense that artists and performers, in their natural desire to call out the president and his policies for their inhumanity and their recklessness, are taking a page from his own puerile playbook.

Trump, after all, has flooded the Twittersphere with intemperate outbursts, unfounded attacks, vitriolic flights of character assassination. He is currently a potential defendant in a lawsuit accusing him of inciting violence during his campaign rallies. At those rallies, the atmosphere of brutality and hostility toward Americans who opposed his campaign practically seared your hand as you reached for the remote control to change the channel.

And it’s understandable, I suppose, that when a politician and his followers engage in this kind of brutal combat – and succeed in winning the presidency through it – it is natural for his opponents to attempt similarly hard-charging tactics. But for artists and performers to allow their own work to be tainted by the vulgarity spewing so regularly from the capital is dismaying to watch, and I’m afraid I would have to classify Eustis’s blunt-edged production as an exercise in obvious vulgarity.

To be clear, artists of course have a right to express themselves any way they choose. Tastelessness is sometimes a necessary tactic, a way of shocking the audience into awareness; goodness knows we are all guilty of becoming lulled into indifference by the endless onslaught of entertainment options blinking from all of our screens. But it’s also a cheap one, and it doesn’t supply the kind of stimulation and nourishment that resides in more restrained, ambiguous and subtle forms of art.

I am, of course, dismayed by the craven behavior of the corporations who pulled funding from the Public Theater. Most disturbing is the potentially chilling effect their decision could have on smaller regional theaters across the country, whose commitment to politically engaged works may now be endangered. As Jeremy Gerard reported in Deadline, theaters that happen to have Shakespeare in their name – and, naturally, there are plenty – have been assailed by vitriolic and even violent threats once the right-wing press began covering the Public Theater’s production. And speaking of craven, it is a thorough disgrace, although perhaps not a surprise, that the National Endowment for the Arts put out a statement, protesting rather much, that it had in no way given support to the Public Theater for the production. (Who even knows who’s running the NEA these days? Has Ryan Seacrest added it to his broad portfolio? I’m sure his nomination would sail through Congress.)

It is alarming that the corporate arts funding that is so necessary for art to thrive in America – given the puny budget of the NEA – may be in danger. Timidity on the part of corporations has become much more pronounced as the political sphere has become so radically polarized. But I worry just as much about the pollution of artists’ sensitivities by the juvenility and thoughtlessness that seems to be holding greater sway in the culture in the Trump era. None of us lives in a vacuum, after all, and we are all susceptible to influences that we absorb from the media. Those influences are fairly toxic these days. Some fine art has arisen from angry impulses and a virulent reaction against an oppressive political atmosphere. But most good art, and maybe all great art, has not.

Trump swept into Washington promising to “drain the swamp.” That immediately became a risible notion. What I fear is happening instead is that the toxicity of Washington is spreading into the culture, and the world of the arts, in ways that will ultimately be damaging. It is practically impossible, after all, to swim in a swamp and not get a bacterial infection or two.

Check Also

‘The Last Jedi’ Will Be the Biggest Movie of 2017, Even as It Leaves Some Records Untouched


The first shows for “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” begin tonight, and there’s every expectation that is will be the biggest-opening, top-grossing domestic release of 2017. At a minimum, we’re looking at a $200 million opening, with $225 million very likely.

With strong holiday playtime following the first 10 days of release, a multiple of at least three times its opening is possible, which could propel to the domestic take to around $700 million.

Yes, it’s going to be huge — but there’s a few records it might not beat. Here (with adjusting numbers to 2017 values) are some comparable numbers that “Jedi” will easily best, and a few that seem unlikely.

Top domestic grosses of 2017: YES

“The Last Jedi” should find the opening numbers easy to beat, and it’s hard to imagine it won’t be the best-performing movie of the year.

Film Studio Opening Gross Domestic Total
Beauty and the Beast Disney $174.8 million $504 million
Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 Disney $146.5 million $412.6 million
It Warner Bros. $123.4 million $389.8 million


Best opening weekends in the “Star Wars” franchise: MAYBE

The bigger opening numbers in recent years can be tied to more seats available, pre-buys, and overall moviegoing habits.

Title Year Opening Box Office
Star Wars: The Force Awakens 2015 $254.5 million
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story 2016 $157.6 million
Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith 2005  $151.1 million


Best domestic gross for the “Star Wars” franchise: MAYBE

This includes reissues. “Star Wars” is the #2 film of all time, while “The Force Awakens” is the biggest success in the last 20 years. To be as high as fifth on the all time “Star Wars” list, “The Last Jedi”  would need to do 78 percent of the total for “The Force Awakens,” and significantly better than “Rogue One.”

Title Year Total Box Office
Star Wars 1977 $1.591 billion
Star Wars: The Force Awakens 2015 $965.5 million
The Empire Strikes Back 1980 $876.8 million
The Return of the Jedi 1983 $840.0 million
The Phantom Menace 1999  $757.4 million


“The Fate of the Furious”

Top international grosses for 2017: NO

The two most recent “Star Wars” films weren’t top among overseas release in their years. In 2015, “The Force Awakens” was second to “Furious 7,” though it did gross over $1 billion overseas. “Rogue One” was eighth best among 2016 releases, grossing $524 million. Expect “The Last Jedi” to gross somewhere in between, unlikely to be better than third best for the year.

Title Studio Total
The Fate of the Furious Universal $1.010 billion
Wolf Warrior 2 Beijing Jingxi Culture & Tourism Co. $864.9 million
Despicable Me 3 Universal $767.8 million
Beauty and the Beast Disney $759.5 million
Pirates of the Caribbean:
Dead Men Tell No Tales
Disney  $622.3 million


Top worldwide grosses for 2017: YES

This looks entirely doable. “The Force Awakens” made over $2 billion, “Rogue One” a little over $1 billion; expect this to do more, both at home and overseas.

Title Studio Total
Beauty and the Beast Disney $1.264 billion
The Fate of the Furious Universal $1.236 billion
Despicable Me 3 20th Century Fox $1.033 billion
Spider-Man: Homecoming Sony $880.2 million
Wolf Warrior 2 Beijing Jingxi Culture & Tourism Co.  $870.3 million


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *