The Public Theater’s ‘Julius Caesar’ and the cost of free speech

Crying havoc

Recently, a Fox News affiliate tweeted a story about an “NYC play” that appeared to depict the assassination of President Donald Trump. The tweet sparked outrage; Delta and Bank of America both pulled sponsorship, no doubt costing the theater a significant hunk of their budget. The tweet neglected to mention that play was the Public Theater’s production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, with the Trump analogue playing the eponymous role.

"There is tears for his love; joy for his fortune; honor for his valor; and death for his ambition." (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikipedia)

Caesar the valiant

I find this comparison deeply offensive. Julius Caesar was a brilliant, ambitious political and military mastermind. After being deprived of his inheritance, he began his career as essentially a trial lawyer, working his way up to supreme dictator of Rome. By his mid-50s he had earned every honor the empire could bestow. At the Battle of Alesia, he laid siege to the army of Vercingetorix while a second Gaulish army surrounded and laid siege to him; he still won. Donald Trump would have been destroyed by the confederation of Gauls and eaten alive by Roman politics. It’s only our obscene cultural wealth worship, engineered to keep every bumbling millionaire/billionaire miscreant afloat, that lets a soft-handed trust-fund baby like Trump even approach the same league as Caesar.

Julius Caesar's entire premise opposes assassination. Shakespeare — who did not believe in democracy — presents Caesar as unequivocally virtuous. Mark Antony calls him “the greatest man to stand in the tide of time.” Brutus, the play's other tragic figure, is conflicted over the assassination of Caesar not because assassination is bad, but because Caesar is good. Rome is depicted as a rabble of fickle, bloodthirsty rubes, and only Caesar’s mastery of the populace keeps it in check; his third-act assassination precipitates a decade of Roman civil war that ends with Octavian seizing control of the empire, dissolving the republic, and creating the principate. Hardly an endorsement of Second Amendment remedies.

Jered McLenigan's Mark Antony in the Lantern Theater's 2014 production. (Photo by Mark Garvin.)
Jered McLenigan's Mark Antony in the Lantern Theater's 2014 production. (Photo by Mark Garvin.)

It’s easy to defend the Public’s production on the grounds of free expression — and probably worth doing so — but a more complicated question lurks under it all that reminds me of the Lantern Theater’s ill-advised Julius Caesar back in 2014: a Japanese-themed production criticized as racist and culturally appropriative. Of course, that criticism stopped short of outright boycotts, but doesn’t there seem to be an essential conflict here? To put it another way: Is liberalism hypocritical for taking up arms against a production that seems at least a little racist, while fighting back to defend a production that seems to assassinate a political figure we don’t like? Do we only defend free speech when it supports our beliefs (“Trump is bad”), but not when it disputes them (“Anyone ought to be able to do anything they like with any culture they want”)?

Loving Rome more

It’s tempting to cry hypocrisy and wash our hands of the whole thing, concluding that speech has consequences and that the Public knowingly took that risk. But this kind of tu quoque bickering is unworthy of us. A more worthwhile consideration might be this: life in a free society gets complicated.

Open culture is complex, full of contradictory principles that often have no satisfactory reconciliation. Free expression remains a beautiful idea, sacred and worth defending; so is the dignity of cultures exploited by the West. What to do when these principles come into conflict? What happens when people use free expression to exhort violence, bigotry, or cruelty? These ideas are contestable; by their nature, there will never be an answer that works every time, in every case. Constant navigation between these principles is freedom  — and eternal vigilance, a constant questioning of whether or not we’re using it correctly, is its cost.

So, again, is the use of art complex or simple? Is freedom an easy rule, applied universally and without exception, or a set of principles that must be reviewed and reconciled every time? When we look at this conflict between complexity and simplicity, I think the argument becomes much clearer. We’re not talking about “liberal hypocrisy” when we say liberals will support one interpretation of Caesar but not another; we’re talking about applying different principles in different ways according to a vast set of variables.

John Gregory's Georgia marble bas-relief of a scene from 'Julius Caesar' on the Folger Library's Washington, DC, exterior.
John Gregory's Georgia marble bas-relief of a scene from 'Julius Caesar' on the Folger Library's Washington, DC, exterior.

Likewise, we’re not witnessing a demand for truth or virtue on behalf of the show’s critics — the Public’s production is necessarily too kind to Trump, and advocates against violence. Indeed, the Daily Caller asks us to imagine a Caesar depicting Barack Obama during his tenure, ignoring the 2012 Guthrie Theatre production that did precisely that

What are these arguments really about?

If you believe the world is simple, the complexity of the liberal mindset looks like hypocrisy. If you think the Good Guys (Your Guy) must be protected and the Bad Guys (Their Guy) must be criticized, it’s easy to seize on these competing principles. Free expression is sacred and inviolable when we burn Obama in effigy on the National Mall, but beyond the bounds of good taste whenever the slightest challenge gets posed to Trump.

The result is deeply frightening — a set of lèse-majesté proscriptions that protect a person who’d never protect the right to free expression himself (and has used the power of his office to try to suppress it). The complexity of a liberal society — one where defense of critical art is about who is criticized, when, how, and to what end — also makes it vulnerable to this assault by simplicity. The nature of fascism is to use that complexity, so essential to a free, multicultural society, as a shield at first, and then as a weapon against that society itself. 

Pointing out the weaknesses, contradictions, and ignorance inherent in criticism of the Public’s production is misguided. The hypocrisy of which those critics accuse the liberal arts has nothing to do with real moral commitment to truth, honesty, or principle. The accusations are a means to an end, and that end is the ascendance of their own tribe and freedom from the agony of figuring out right and wrong each time.

Better to leave all the hard choices to the tyrant rather than to the noisy rabble struggling to find a way to govern itself.

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