Julius Caesar and the dangers of resistance rage
What happens when a resistance movement devolves into the cult of personality and violent authoritarian rule it once democratically sought to challenge? That is the urgent question Oskar Eustis and The Public Theater put before us in their new production of Julius Caesar at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.
With the radically increased levels of anger and division we are experiencing in this country in the wake of the Trump administration taking office, accompanied by a spike in hate crimes that often explicitly cite Trump’s ascendance as justification for the violence, it is hard to imagine any artist existing in this troubling new era and choosing to look away from it. Art challenges us to critically reflect on the deepest and most profound aspects of the human condition, one of which is rage, and therefore it is a subject well worth carefully examining at this pivotal moment in our country’s history.
The Public Theater holds back nothing in doing so, evoking Trump himself (in a brilliant and hilarious interpretation of Julius Caesar by Gregg Henry), the adoring entourage that surrounds him, and the amped-up pussy hat-wearing protesters papering over pro-Caesar propaganda posters with their own subversive messages of resistance. For an added dash of cultural relevance, there’s a link to House of Cards in this production: both Corey Stoll (Brutus) and Elizabeth Marvel (Marc Antony) have appeared in the Machiavellian political drama set in Washington, D.C.
As the play begins, Julius Caesar—clad in an ill-fitting suit, boasting an overly long bright red tie, and sporting aesthetically questionable blond coiffure while strutting alongside a hyperfeminine European trophy wife—is reveling in the heady euphoria of his rock star status before throngs of ecstatic supporters. Behind the scenes, horrified at the ever increasing tilt towards demagoguery he is witnessing, Cassius (expertly played by John Douglas Thompson) begins entreating Brutus to join the opposition as its leader. The two men form an alliance that will ultimately bring down the would-be dictator. What seems like a noble cause at the outset descends into unchecked bloodletting, and the madness that follows gives the audience great cause for concern about whether revolutionary movements can succeed without destroying the integrity of the democratic institutions they once championed.
As the saying goes, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” And it’s clear that millions of Americans are incredibly outraged by and paying close attention to what is underway in the halls of power right now. What lessons can we draw from Julius Caesar, then, as we seek to preserve our democracy and restore both justice and the rule of law to our fractured country? As Shakespeare would caution us, we should acknowledge our feelings of outrage but not let them reconfigure us into something else altogether.
Rage, if effectively channeled, can be a powerful and enduring energy source for the resistance. But it can also, if not placed in balance with other emotions, override the patience, logic, and long-term strategic thinking that are absolutely required to achieve the ultimate goal of creating a fair, just, and equitable society for all. Rage can also beget rage, creating an opening for opportunists like Marc Anthony to hijack and rebrand the cause as they storm in with a new caesar to replace his fallen predecessor. Ultimately, left to its own devices such outrage could betray us all, leading us to cry, “Et tu, Brute?” as Julius Caesar does upon discovering that he has been assassinated by a man he considered his friend.
Julius Caesar lends us a critical lens through which to view our troubling national climate and our intense emotions about it. Anyone seeking to better understand this moment, the rage it stokes in so many of us, and the danger such animus poses to us all—including those whose intention is to prevent the genesis of an authoritarian state—will find much to reflect on at this year’s production put on by The Public Theater.