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Obama’s Ides Of March: The Acting Company Production of Julius Caesar

I’ve been extraordinarily remiss in not commenting on The Acting Company’s recent production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar [1], which I saw last month in New York at the Baruch Performing Arts Center. Julius Caesar is a problematic play, structurally – basically it falls apart in the second half – and in terms of its principal character, the chilly, remote Brutus. Shakespeare created many powerful, moving characters who are relatively opaque to themselves emotionally, who don’t really know who they are – Othello and Coriolanus are the most prominent examples – and he also created many cold, head-focused characters, of whom my favorite is probably Hal/Henry V. But Brutus is the only major Shakespeare character I can think of who combines both elements, being both cold and intellectual and remarkably un-self-aware. It’s a problematic combination, because it leaves us, in the audience, very little to latch onto – we can’t really admire him, because we don’t really know him, but we also can’t feel for him, because he doesn’t seem to have feelings, exactly.

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The play does have at least three secondary characters of enduring interest: Mark Antony, Cassius, and Caesar himself. But one of these is dead by the midpoint of the play, and the other two have basically nothing interesting left to do after Antony’s funeral oration. And then, of course, there’s the problem that the play is so appallingly sexless – again, very nearly unique in the Shakespearean canon. All in all, it adds up to a play that, for all that it has a handful of powerful set-pieces, just doesn’t work for me.

So what to do? Well, one way out of the box the play puts you in is to take the ideas of the play seriously – or, at least, to take the idea of taking them seriously seriously. And that means connecting them to ideas that people we know take seriously.

Which brings me to this production. Director Rob Melrose has set his Caesar at our precise historical moment, in Obama’s Washington, D.C. The capital is rocked by “Occupy Rome” protests. His Caesar (the suavely confident Bjorn DuPaty) is a tall, charismatic African-American politician; he doesn’t look or sound much like Obama (he more closely recalls Michael Jordan), but the audience is unquestionably going to read him as an Obama stand-in nonetheless, particularly when his opponents bear a marked resemblance to Eric Cantor (Sid Solomon’s snappy terrier Cassius) and Mitch McConnell (Kevin Orton’s cynical old pol Casca). Even Mark Antony is recognizable as a standard Democratic politician type, Clinton/Gore division.

This could all come off as very cheap and obvious, but it doesn’t for two reasons. First, because the rhetoric of the Tea Party opposition to Obama partakes of an intellectual tradition that self-consciously traces its lineage back to Brutus: republican as well as Republican, a tradition that includes both Jefferson Davis and Patrick Henry. What one thinks of that tradition as a whole, and what one thinks of the people who currently invoke it is another topic – but the people who invoke it do so for a reason. John Wilkes Booth, who had played Brutus, quoted the Roman assassin immediately after murdering the man he saw as the American Caesar. He did not choose his words idly.

Second, because the director made the interesting choice to cast another African-American, William Sturdivant as Brutus, and it is his performance that really makes the play. Sturdivant does a pitch-perfect black conservative intellectual – more specifically, the thoughtful, reserved type of black conservative intellectual, a coil of carefully controlled tension. There were times I thought I was watching John McWhorter up there on stage. He managed to give Brutus a shadow of interiority that he so frequently lacks, and to add a whole other dimension of pathos to Brutus’s decision to ally with Cassius. This Brutus is not merely the noblest of Romans in the sense that he is an exemplar of the patrician class – no; he’s the one character on stage whom we know has chosen, affirmatively, to affiliate himself with the ideas for which he kills, who believes them because he believes them, and not merely because they are in his interest. It’s a splendid choice.

And the play is riveting right up through Antony’s funeral oration, which is delivered with a fine sense of rhythm by Zachary Fine; his Antony is conscious from the beginning of what he has to do, but plainly gains confidence as the oration goes on. And then . . . well, then it all falls apart. Because watching Eric Cantor and Mitch McConnell tramping around the stage in battle armor is just silly, there’s no way around it. Metaphorical civil war we can believe in; to get us to believe that we are on the brink of literal civil war, and that these pampered politicians will actually get into battle would take . . . I don’t know what it would take – I literally have no idea what would make me believe that.

The closest solution I’ve come to in my own head is to find a period that means something to us and something to the play, and that would mean setting the play in an alternate 1865, in which the assassination of Lincoln ignited a kind of dead-end resistance by the South. But even that doesn’t make very much sense. In the end, if the first half of the play is to connect with a contemporary viewer on a visceral level, its ideas to have some actual impact, the warfare that dominates the second half of the production will have to be understood as a kind of rhetorical fantasy – a fantasy apparently shared by many who harken back to Brutus today. It might not be a bad idea to see that fantasy fully played out, but I can’t imagine what would do that successfully on the stage.

Perhaps Riddley Scott will make a movie?

27 Comments (Open | Close)

27 Comments To "Obama’s Ides Of March: The Acting Company Production of Julius Caesar"

#1 Comment By MM On June 12, 2017 @ 12:10 pm

This sort of thing has become ubiquitous. Literally, there were so-called journalists musing right after the election that they hoped Trump’s plane would fly into a mountain.

Of course, when a rodeo clown in Missouri wore an Obama mask, it was the tip of a monstrous racist iceberg in American’s heartland. And the bonehead was fired to boot.

But who needs to be consistent or proportional, right? Certainly no one in the press at large, or the uncultured left…

#2 Comment By giantslor On June 12, 2017 @ 12:42 pm

Look at the date on the article, fool.

#3 Comment By Diane On June 12, 2017 @ 1:08 pm

I wonder now, 5 years later if the author of this article can now more clearly see civil war on the horizon for this nation. It’s not looking nearly so far fetched anymore. And once again it will be the Democrats who bring it about.

#4 Comment By Kurt Gayle On June 12, 2017 @ 1:24 pm

Noah: Good to see a re-posting of your 2012 TAC review of “Julius Caesar” at the Baruch Performing Arts Center.

I would be very much interested in your comments on the New York’s Public Theater’s free annual Shakespeare in Central Park version of “Julius Caesar” – a production that “depicts the assassination of a Trump-like Roman ruler…a tempestuous blond man in a blue suit with a svelte Slavic wife” — a production that recently lost support from two high-profile corporate donors on Sunday, Delta Air Lines and Bank of America.

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#5 Comment By Eileen Stiles On June 12, 2017 @ 4:04 pm

To much violence today generally, entertainment should be just that, a play depicting the killing of our President is not entertainment and is not art, it is a political statement poising as art, really the lowest and crudeness we are subjected to in our nation. Real quality seems to have left us, I hope not forever, we seem to be breeding a classless society.

#6 Comment By MM On June 12, 2017 @ 4:21 pm

Per Oscar Eustis, Artistic Director at the NYC Publish Theater, this season:

“The difficulty in determining the protagonist of Julius Caesar–there are at least four credible candidates—is not a formal weakness of the play, but rather essential to its structure. When history is happening, when the ground is slipping away from under us and all that is solid melts into air, leadership is as transitory and flawed as the times.”

Interesting profile of Eustis in the New Yorker, titled “Stage Left”:

[5]

I may be a fool, but its doubtful the theater world views the newly elected president in the same light as the the former president, running for reelection in 2012. Timing and interpretation is everything in the arts, whether you think the character in question is a martyred hero or a corrupt villain. These guys can thread the needle on political advocacy better than most.

#7 Comment By G. Forner On June 12, 2017 @ 7:17 pm

Eileen, art tends to be either technical or political, and while art can be entertaining that’s the difference between art and entertainment. Hell they even distinguish the two in your local paper, but I get it- nuance is hard.
Sorry you don’t like to ponder the state of humanity in our current world.
You might believe different things if you weren’t content consuming the empty calories of entertainment that says nothing (that you personally don’t want to hear). Maybe a re-run of Everybody Loves Raymond is coming on soon.

-and you guys have the temerity to call liberals snowflakes…

#8 Comment By Karl Dunkleberger On June 12, 2017 @ 10:50 pm

Fact: we are Now In a Place our for fathers had No Idea would ever Occure. Men at one time were “Reasonable” eve the worst of the lot by todays standard were neither allowed to beat their animals or those they treated as animals as a rule! It was frowned upon. Then came Liberation, emancipation, freedom, And Suffrage. who would ever thought some one like Trump would be lauded and honored in america? He is the worst of several American leaders, Burr, Adams, Jackson, even Dickinson… The worst in these men! Not even the worst of those to come, like custer, Howard, Grant, Lee ,Sherman Davis Or Longstreet. We Need to get him to resign.. How and Quickly how! are the only question?

#9 Comment By mjazz On June 13, 2017 @ 11:17 am

The article is from 2012, yet none of the comments are from then.
Are we “changing our history”, as Michelle Obama suggested we do?

#10 Comment By Ellimist000 On June 13, 2017 @ 2:55 pm

mjazz,

No, history isn’t changing, just the present. Another theater group is now basically doing the same thing about the current president. Predictably, right-wing snowflakes are freaking out enough to prompt corporate backers to pull out.

Though to be fair, this President is a lot more like Caesar, and I imagine a fair amount of GOP politicians would to go Brutus on him if they could get away with it…

#11 Comment By Marvant Duhon On June 13, 2017 @ 9:29 pm

The disproportionality of responses to the two versions of Shakespeare’s play is remarkable. When in 2012 I heard that Julius Caesar had been done with an Obama-like dictator being assassinated, I (an Obama supporter) was, like most Obama supporters who heard about it, not bothered at all. Nor had MacBird, the anti-LBJ version of Macbeth, bothered me (or most Democrats). But a Julius Caesar featuring Trump, who has more dictatorial tendencies than Obama ever dreamed of, stirs up Republicans and therefore corporations. It seems that Republicans have so much more to be sensitive about.

#12 Comment By Marvant Duhon On June 13, 2017 @ 9:36 pm

In 2012 I (an Obama supporter) had no problem with a Julius Caesar in which the assassinated dictator resembled the President. Nor did most Democrats who heard about it. Trump has more dictatorial tendencies than Obama ever dreamed of having, yet today a great many Republicans are incensed over a Trump-like Caesar. They must have a lot to be sensitive about!

#13 Comment By Martha Widmayer On June 16, 2017 @ 9:45 am

In the 2012 production, Caesar/Obama was portrayed as a “martyred hero,” to borrow MM’s phrase, while the 2017 Caesar/Trump is a “corrupt villain.” The Obama Caesar was assassinated by characters presented as vicious and self-seeking, while the Trump Caesar is depicted as righteously killed by his female and African/American “victims.” The Cultural Marxists determined to destroy this Republic will continue to exploit and defile art and everything else they touch in an effort to achieve global domination. Their most powerful weapon is the inability of most people to recognize them for the brutes and thugs they are.

#14 Comment By Nunya Business On June 17, 2017 @ 10:44 am

“The disproportionality of responses to the two versions of Shakespeare’s play is remarkable. When in 2012… ” Well in 2012 you did not have Republicans rioting, burning down businesses, assaulting people for supporting their parties candidate or people on television advocating for the overthrow/assassination of the President. Liberals better pray the latter does not happen.

#15 Comment By Didnt Forget On June 17, 2017 @ 3:06 pm

Yeah, you did have that.

#16 Comment By cheeto benito On June 17, 2017 @ 4:58 pm

REEEE REEEE REEE mah orange god emperor imma get out of my trailer park and sue everybody for insulting mah cheeto god emperor

REEEE REEE REEEEEE duggar lives matter

#17 Comment By Banish Lying Libs On June 17, 2017 @ 7:53 pm

Marvant Duhon,
What tendencies are you referring to that President Trump resembles a dictator?
I bet a dollar you don’t have any examples at all. Just like the fake news, you are just making stuff up to push your own agenda.

#18 Comment By jevioso Orishas On June 17, 2017 @ 9:47 pm

Trump’s version is pretty much the same, however, as the Alt-Right learned from the Social Justice Warriors, in postmodern politics, context and reason are irrelevant. All that matters is organization and outrage, if you have those, and maintain them, you can have your way with even Fortune 500 companies.

And yet, the country, increasingly move towards tribalism. Who would think that politically, in the 21st century, we would seek to emulate the politics of third world countries, still trying to figure out technology?

#19 Comment By Anna On June 17, 2017 @ 10:52 pm

Like every other opinion uttered by a rabid republican pre-2016 – this article remarkably aged well!

#20 Comment By CzarOrangeDonnie On June 17, 2017 @ 11:26 pm

So many GOP Snowflakes…SAD!!!

#21 Comment By Feud N Hatfield On June 18, 2017 @ 3:26 am

Nunya Business you haven’t goggle searched for Ted Nugent and what he said about Obama and Hillary starting in 2007 and for the last 10 years. That way waaay disproportional and no GOP lawmakers disowned that…. Then you have Alex Jones and the other hate mongers. No one doing that on the left except K. Griffin. – 35 yrs and still a registered GOP

#22 Comment By Chuck Rogers On June 18, 2017 @ 7:24 pm

This serves as an interesting reflection on the mindsets of liberals and conservatives. Of course, there have been countless studies and analyses over the years which paint a picture of what drives people to adopt a conservative or liberal mindset, but what we’re seeing here is a fairly apples-to-apples comparison of propensity to take offense. At first glance, conservatives are more deserving of the term “snowflake.”

Or is it that simple? I think it’s an issue not of conservatives, but of Trump himself. He appeals to the sort of voter who wants an authoritarian strongman, but what history has shown us is that Rule #1 of Authoritarian Strongman is that you don’t criticize the authoritarian strongman. North Korea is the most blatant example, but you can also ask the families of all the people who’ve disappeared or turned up dead in Russia over the past 20 years.

Will the Trump administration start behaving similarly? Not hardly, and that’s not what I’m insinuating. This says much more about his fans than conservatism as a cause.

#23 Comment By Perspecticus On June 19, 2017 @ 2:18 pm

I’m not certain which amuses me more, the number of commenters to this article who obviously did not read the article (or the publication date), or the fact that every comment posted to it is from the last 5 days? Funny how nobody was calling “Julius Caesar” the “Obama Assasination Play” back in 2011.

#24 Comment By Robert F. Dobalina On June 20, 2017 @ 1:21 pm

Banish Lying Libs,

Here are your “Tendencies that makes President Trump resemble a Dictator”:

-He appoints family members to official government positions (see Saadam Hussein, Kim Il-sung, etc.)

-Blurs the lines of authority between federal administration and Trump family members

-Keeps family business running, and uses state resources to enrich said business while in office (i.e. kleptocracy)

-Diligently works to suppress, censor and/or eliminate free press

-Fills cabinet with military officials, even where military experience isn’t relevant to the particular department or area they lead (as is done with many Middle Eastern autocracies)

-Politicizes the civil service, military, National Guard, or the domestic security agencies. Trump presents some public services – like police or military – as uniquely conservative

-Uses government surveillance against domestic political opponents

-Uses state power to reward corporate backers and punish opponents

-Stacks the Supreme Court in his favor; in this case, he does so using a SCOTUS pick stolen from last president

-Partisan enforcement of law; overlooks crimes and terrorism committed by right-wing actors, while magnifying crimes and terror committed by those observed as liberal or not right-wing

-Fear-mongering towards marginalized groups; “othering” vulnerable populations as a means to attain or maintain political power

-Demonizing the political opposition, and encouraging his base to view his domestic opponents as being in league with the nation’s enemies

#25 Comment By steven smith On July 2, 2017 @ 1:30 am

@Chuck Rogers

There is one study that found a trait that can predict a conservative political leaning.
The propensity for disgust, measured by Hibbings and Smith, is much higher in people claiming conservative positions.

@MM,
Research as found that conservatives have a more rigid, ordered thinking cognitive style but the creators of culture, artists, musicians, actors, directors, writers, etc. tend to have free associative thinking styles and are more liberal in political views. Calling the left ‘uncultured’ goes against research.

@Marvant Duhon
The research has shown that conservatives tend to more easily feel threatened so you observation is realistic.

#26 Comment By Andrew Phillips On July 6, 2017 @ 4:48 am

I’m going to quote Martha Widmayer, upthread, since her right-on post so demolishes the false-equivalences made by so many lefties on this thread: “In the 2012 production, Caesar/Obama was portrayed as a “martyred hero,” to borrow MM’s phrase, while the 2017 Caesar/Trump is a “corrupt villain.” The Obama Caesar was assassinated by characters presented as vicious and self-seeking, while the Trump Caesar is depicted as righteously killed by his female and African/American “victims.””

Note how JC/Trump gets bombastic delivery, flyaway hair, a red tie to beneath his waist, and a slapstick death. JC/Obama is “suavely confident”, “recalls Michael Jordan” in his well tailored business suit, and all the stabbing (except that by Brutus) takes place in a blackout to reduce the appearance of violence. Yeah, it’s exactly the same.

I wasn’t much impressed by the claim that Palin caused the Giffords shooting, and the recent NY play didn’t cause the baseball field assassination attempt. So if the lefties want to pay for their own partisan propaganda I’ve no problem with that. But no tax money extorted from the unwilling should go to this stuff.

#27 Comment By Dan Pendergrass On August 10, 2017 @ 6:28 pm

So did Martha Widmayer actually see the play in 2012 or is this more false news? No two depictions will ever be the same. Obama was cool, smug and understated and being a minority it’s easy to cast as a martyr if in deed that was done. Trump is combative, bombastic, secretive and refuses to admit he’s wrong even when court transcripts have him on record saying the opposite of what he said on national TV (Jeb Bush VS Trump). Hard to make a martyr out of someone like that. I know now I’m a Liberal lefty although I’ve been accused in the past of being a rigid conservative (The advantage of being non-partisan – no one likes you). However I can’t cotton to someone that hails form the gambling industry. They are a parasitic group and no you don’t have to go into that business to make money. He made a choice and now it sticks to him like used toilet paper.