Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Brush Up Your Shakespeare

The recent brouhaha over this summer's New York City Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar begs the question: can people really be that stupid?

OK I know things have been touchy, especially since Republican congressman Steve Scalise was shot by a Bernie Sanders supporter last week. The Trumpers are taking full advantage of the unfortunate incident to promote their world view that Democrats, liberals, progressives, Trump detractors, in other words, all the people who are destroying this country, are entirely responsible for the acrimony that is currently dividing the land. Then comes this Fox News report: New York is staging a play where an actor dressed as Donald Trump is assassinated at the end of the play. Given that limited information, even I would be appalled. Much as I can't stand Trump and all he stands for, I cringe at any suggestion that the president of the United States could or should be assassinated.

But let's get real, this is William Shakespeare. His Julius Caesar is a 400 year old play that everyone in this country with a high school education should at least be tacitly familiar with. For starters, there has been a long standing tradition of producers taking liberties with the staging and timelines of Shakespeare's plays. Then there's the work itself; the title character, no matter who he is dressed up to look like, doesn't get assassinated at the end of the play, but smack dab in the middle. The rest of  Julius Caesar deals with the consequences of the assassination. Things don't work out so well for the the conspirators, for Rome, or whatever government the producers wish to evoke, or in fact, for democracy. The play is after all, a tragedy, at least if you're paying attention.

The moral of the story, expressed in Cliffs Notes fashion that one would think, everyone should be able to understand is this: "be careful what you wish for."

Given that, the genius of producing the play with Caesar dressed as Trump, sends a not too subtle message to Trump detractors, myself included, that perhaps our single-minded obsession with the premature termination of this presidency by any means, needs to be re-examined.

That point was lost on many Fox viewers, (aka Trump supporters), who saw the on-stage murder of a character who looked like Trump, as a credible call to assassinate the president. At least two major corporate sponsors pulled the plug on their support of The Public Theater, the producers of the play. Even Shakespeare himself is taking a hit. Taking a cue from the president, who is himself chronologically challenged, repertory theaters around the country have been receiving threats from right wing nut jobs, because they too produce plays by that no good leftist snowflake known as "the Bard".

The nonsense started to calm down a bit after conservative media star Laura Ingraham tweeted: "How many would storm the stage if Obama was stabbed?" As many were quick to point out, in 2012, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis staged a production of Julius Caesar where the title character was indeed dressed up to look like Barack Obama. Hardly anyone complained. It turns out that Delta Airlines, one of the sponsors who pulled the plug on their contributions to The Public Theater, continues to support the Guthrie, despite its alleged affront to the former president.

After it became clear that the hysterics were unjustified, with egg on their face, many of the play's detractors wisely dropped the subject.

But there are still folks out there who just don't, or won't get it. Here is a New Yorker article about a pair of right wing activists who disrupted the New York play during the murder scene. Not surprising, right wing commentators including Ingraham, and Donald Trump's personal lap dog, Fox's Sean Hannity, support the hecklers, proclaiming their removal from the theater, and subsequent arrest for trespassing and disorderly conduct, is a violation of the pair's "freedom of speech."

It just so happens that the other day was the anniversary of the Watergate break-in. I watched a TV documentary made by Robert Redford commemorating the event. It got me thinking about Richard Nixon and his fall from grace. Those of us who remember him tend to think of Nixon in broad generalities, his arms raised above his head while both hands give the "V" for victory salute, his head shake, his scowl, and his unfortunate, most famous quote, "I am not a crook." But Nixon was a very complicated man who accomplished a great deal of good, along with the bad, during his presidency. His fall was indeed as they say, "Shakespearian". I'm no expert on the Bard but I'm certain that you can find comparisons in many of his characters, King Richard II perhaps, or one of the King Henrys, to Richard Nixon.

Trump is not complicated in the least and is anything but Shakespearian. He's more like a cartoon villain. The one that comes immediately to mind is Snidley Wiplash, the mustachioed archenemy of the aptly named Royal Canadian Mountie, Dudley Do-Right from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. OK I'm dating myself, another one that comes to mind is Mr. Burns, the ancient robber-barron owner of the local nuclear power plant on The Simpsons. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if Trump views the greedy, narcissistic Mr. Burns as a role model.

On the other hand, Shakespeare has Caesar say this shortly before he is murdered:
I could be well moved, if I were as you.
If I could pray to move, prayers would move me.
But I am constant as the Northern Star,
Of whose true fixed and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
The skies are painted with unnumbered sparks;
They are all fire and every one doth shine.
But there's but one in all doth hold his place.
So in the world: 'tis furnished well with men,
And men are flesh and blood, and apprehensive.
Yet in the number I do know but one
That unassailable holds on his rank,
Unshaked of motion; and that I am he
Let me a little show it, even in this:
That I was constant Cimber should be banished,
And constant do remain to keep him so.
Come to think of it, didn't the Donald say something very similar, in not so many words, at the Republican convention in Cleveland last summer?
I alone can fix it.
Maybe there is something to this Trump/Caesar comparison after all.

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