Review of the Public Theater’s Julius Caesar

Well, now. It looks like Caesar can really matter to this play!

That might seem a not-so-striking discovery. After all, countless European students over many centuries learned to venerate Caesar as a leader of exceptional genius who brought law, order, and civilization to the rugged corners of their continent. One legend familiar to Shakespeare held that Caesar had personally founded London. No doubt about it: on any traditional view of things, Julius Caesar was great.

But Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is oddly indifferent to this heroic tradition. Making almost no reference to Caesar’s foreign military triumphs, the play instead sets him in the context of Roman factional and popular politics, where he dominates the scene while making pretentious speeches touting his solitary greatness. Modern productions often make him either distinctly ridiculous or terribly totalitarian—or both, reflecting our culture’s general sense that populist strongmen are intrinsically ludicrous yet also capable of infinite harm.

While this serious political theme of Caesarism has lent interest to many stagings of Julius Caesar since the 1930s, it does little to make Caesar a compelling character. He lacks the makings of a major Shakespearean protagonist. One reason is that he dies in Act 3, returning later only as a fleeting ghost (who may or may not really exist). In contrast, Brutus, Cassius, and Antony feature in all five acts. Similarly, Caesar offers actors only a smallish speaking part. Measured roughly by total line count, his role is less than half as big as Antony’s in the same play, and less than one-fourth that of Brutus or Macbeth; Caesar has about as many lines as Maria in Twelfth Night.

Given its brevity, Caesar’s part suffers all the more in that it can seem to lack gravity—and even prompt levity. Here is the original Great Dictator, a man who calls himself “more dangerous” than “Danger” (2.2.48, 47). Boasting in public that he is as “true fixed” as the “Northern Star” (and, ironically, as “unassailable”), he vacillates at home over prophecies and portents (3.1.67, 66, 75). And his notorious third person self-descriptions ensure that he just isn’t engaging, isn’t relatable. Anyone who identifies with Caesar should trouble us.

For all these reasons, it’s a novelty when the character of Caesar draws so much comment as to overshadow everything else. And that was the upshot of the Public Theater’s recent decision to make Caesar a political cartoon—a younger, yet recognizable caricature of the man who, in January, was vested with the powers and responsibilities of the US presidency. The decision left Caesar, much more than Brutus or Cassius or Antony, on America’s mind, and it has made this “Shakespeare in the Park” season unusually eventful. (Pause for a moment to give thanks that it hasn’t been more eventful.)

Although other choices shaped the Julius Caesar recently on view in Central Park, none was as consequential for the play’s reception. Most obviously—to anyone who was there and stayed throughout—everything about the show strenuously supported its explicit aim of presenting a “parable for our time,” illustrating the futility and cost of political violence. Like many modern productions, the Public updated and escalated the violence of the play’s second half, both in urban unrest and in all-out civil war. Riot gear was donned; automatic weapons were employed; heavy artillery was heard. The onstage death toll was accordingly large, mounting steadily in a series of graphic scenes. The main conspirators were methodically shot—Casca, Cinna, Decius Brutus, Metellus Cimber, Trebonius, felled one by one by Antony’s firing squad. There followed a mass execution of the other proscribed senators, at the edge of what might have been an open pit, their mass grave. And then there were all the dead extras: scores of Romans, in protesting or desperate mobs, mowed down in barrages of gunfire.

All this felt appropriately harrowing, in light of the conflicts now taking place around the world, yet none of it mattered, finally, as Caesar mattered. Even one riskier innovation—making Mark Antony female—became comparatively irrelevant (as did the less obtrusive transgendering of Decius Brutus). The logic of making Antony a hard-drinking, Southern-twanging, female political operative was not obvious; perhaps it was to expand her pivotal rhetorical histrionics with a wider, performatively “feminine” range of passionate extremes? If that was the intent, maybe it worked somehow. But any such ideas were eclipsed in the moment—chiefly by the cloud of connotations trailing President Caesar, though also partly by wave upon wave of spectacular violence.

The play’s most protagonist-like figures, Brutus and Cassius, were coherent and convincing, in ways I might parse and praise in detail. But again, next to the jarring irruption of associations that was Caesar, their distinguished performances couldn’t compete. Nor did the other conspirators, however able, leave much of an impression, except in their drawn-out struggle with Caesar, who resisted like a boar. Portia behaved stoically without making a difference. Calphurnia, her Slavic accent, her untold marital backstory, her comically risqué turn with a bubble-submerged Caesar in a gold-tiled bathtub: none of these supporting figures mattered in the end.

Only Caesar mattered.

Why? Partly because in this Caesar’s larger public reception, the actors, director, and theater fell victim to internet culture and to ignorance of Shakespeare generally. But another reason seems more interesting in the moment of physical performance and within the spectrum of informed responses to the play. It has to do with the workings of topical allusion—a tactic that can enrich response, but can also detach our minds from the fable being enacted, switching us onto another track. Phenomenologically, the cognitive gap between a drama’s plot trajectory and that other trajectory could be said to define the boundary between what we regard as make-believe and what we feel to be real. This ontological line isn’t one that we always attend to—or should—while absorbed in a drama. Topical allusion, however, can invite thoughts of reality to flood the play-world.

This was what happened when the Public gave us, in place of Shakespeare’s iconic and ironic Caesar-construct, the living image of a real human being. The Caesar of Julius Caesar is a near-abstraction; grandiosely oblivious to the hyperbole sustaining him, he is in part allegorical, like tyrants in English morality plays. He is oversized, suprahistorical, and silly, in ways that defamiliarize his own myth and unsettle cults of authority past and present. What the Public communicated instead was the metaphysical opposite: our awareness of an actual referent. Such a referent becomes for us the real, which we can’t avoid setting over and against the semi-reality of art. All the rest—the parable conveyed by the production, the various actors’ readings of their roles—all this fades below a metaphysical threshold that is suddenly paramount for us. We avert to what matters. Reality matters.

This short-circuiting of dramatic attention surely is not an inevitable effect of all topical and political allusions in the theater; nevertheless, with President Caesar it was almost a foregone conclusion. The Public tried earnestly, but in vain, to create cognitive consonance through set design. Looming over us were images of national symbols, founding documents, marble memorials.  Big, movable arc-shaped flats evoked coffered white segments of a capitoline dome, from which the soldiers of Antony’s faction fired down on their victims. None of these devices helped the Public fit its Caesar-personage comprehensibly into Julius Caesar. One major problem was the disconnect between the play’s aristocratic factionalism and our culture’s identitarian partisanship. Unlike Shakespeare’s plebeians, whose support swings sharply between noble factions, most Americans today have durable cultural allegiances that all but preclude crossing party lines in national politics. So it was impossible for the Public’s audience to understand or believe—in twenty-first-century US terms—how the whole mass of commoners might shift from supporting Brutus to following Antony. This difficulty in relating the crowd scenes to the image of President Caesar broke any dramatic illusion of continuity with 2017. (A more successful allusive strategy was on view in a scrappy Coriolanus that I saw staged last fall by New York’s Red Bull Theater, weeks before the US election. Rather than look ahead to the nationwide vote, the production took its topical bearings from the primaries, where support for a particular candidate was far less predetermined than in national elections. Here, sudden shifts in voter allegiance made better contemporary sense.)

None of this is to say that the Public’s allusion lacked its own satisfactions, at least for an apparent majority of the play’s audience. Most were comic, as when Caesar stood abruptly upright from that gold-tiled bathtub, starkly enacting his epochal decision to disregard the omens and proceed to the Capitol. In Shakespeare he says, “Give me my robe, for I will go” (2.2.112). In Central Park he emerged fully nude from his bubble-bath and advanced, stalking in naked dignity upstage.

At moments this funny business felt more profound. Laughs of recognition arose, for instance, as Caesar told Antony his bad feeling about Cassius, speaking with the slow acerbity of a native New Yorker: “Let me have men about me that are fat” (1.2.202). The laughter registered an illuminating intersection between Shakespeare’s Caesar and the show’s Caesar-referent, a brief blending of the dramatic with the real, in a line evincing the anxiety of a purely mercenary world view. The need to rely on others’ loyalty is distressing when one can hardly imagine doing anything, oneself, except for gain and self-promotion.

Such pregnant conjunctions were few, however. The most resonant example still with me was, exceptionally, not a joke, and it lacked the emphasis actors often use to signal a pointed allusion; I can’t be sure it was intended. It came in Caesar’s “Northern Star” speech, through an epiphanic textual coincidence with a phrase lately embedded in our politics. Shakespeare’s Caesar says that among the stars that exist “there’s but one in all doth hold his place” and that of all the men who live “I do know but one / That unassailable holds on his rank, / Unshaked of motion.” (3.1. 71, 74–76, emphasis added).

Of course Caesar only knows “but one.” These days we do, too. The Public Theater tried to show us other things and people; to show us ourselves; to show us, even, our worst selves. But all we saw was Caesar—the only one who mattered.

The Delacorte Theater in Central Park, New York (23 May–18 June 2017)

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Performance Review, Web Exclusives