Who is this ancient, yet curiously familiar, character we see before us each evening at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park? He’s said to be Julius Caesar, but he has a business suit, a white shirt, an overcoat, an awkward thatch of blondish hair. His red tie hangs notably below his belt. He speaks in a coarse and blustery manner. His wife is a chic blond Slav clad in jewels and designer clothes. He wears bronzer on his face. Hey, it’s . . . Orange Julius! Oh yeah, and — spoiler alert — he gets stabbed to death by his friends, his shirt nearly obscured by blood stains.
So the long-running Shakespeare in the Park festival production of Julius Caesar, mounted by the Public Theatre — which, true to its name, is subsidized by city, state, and federal institutions including the National Endowment for the Arts — is a comment on our current political climate. It’s a curious characteristic of the Left these days that they’re happy to take government money to assassinate in effigy the head of that government. Indeed, they’d cry that they’re being oppressed by monster fascist philistines if it were suggested that maybe taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be funding their violent whimsy and that the Chardonnay-sipping professionals in designer eyewear who compose the audience for the free Shakespeare in the Park productions are perfectly capable of paying for their own amusements.
When Donald J. Caesar first appears onstage, it’s to the sound of tacky electric guitars, with screaming hicks going bonkers in their Make America Great Again caps and American-flag T-shirts. “At least they’re not making it obvious,” deadpanned the guy behind me. The nice couple next to me walked out after an hour. When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and a blunt, unwieldy Trump-bashing mallet is the only item in the cultural toolbox right now. The self-described “recovering Marxist” Oskar Eustis, the director of this production as well as the artistic director of the Public Theater, says he decided on the morning of November 9 what the angle of his next Shakespeare production would be. My friend, it shows.
“Politics makes artists stupid,” noted Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal. “Not invariably, you understand, but often enough, and pretty much always when the politician in question is Donald Trump, the mere mention of whom can instantaneously reduce writers on both sides of the Great Ideological Divide to red-faced screeching.” Yes, but — both sides? How many pro-Trump movies, plays, novels, and TV shows are out there? At this point it would actually be daring, original — even “subversive,” the adjective of praise bestowed on every dull left-wing jeremiad in New York Times theater reviews — if anyone in high or even middlebrow culture went MAGA.
No doubt this Julius Caesar will be credited with being “gutsy” and “timely” and “incendiary,” but recall the nationwide CNN-led outrage that followed when a mere rodeo clown did a skit mildly poking fun at Barack Obama. The urban riots and protests with which Eustis sprinkles Julius Caesar, featuring youthful mobs spraying graffiti and emptying rubbish bins while shouting, “No justice, no peace,” might well be matched by actual protests and actual rioting if this or any other major New York play gleefully depicted the stabbing murder of Barack Obama. That would not just have been daring; it would have required Eustis to hire a 24-7 security detail.
It also would have been stupid. Trump is costing artists so many IQ points that taking up the pen these days is the equivalent of getting behind the wheel after eleven vodka tonics. Yet this isn’t even the worst crisis they face. The more disabling handicap is that Trump is making them boring. For two years, Trump has blotted out the sun, subsumed the national conversation. When considering how to do Shakespeare in 2017, “Let’s make it about Trump!” is absolutely the most predictable thought you could possibly have. It’s the first thing that would occur to a community-college theater major. It’s what Corky St. Clair, the pathetic stage director in Waiting for Guffman, would come up with.
No doubt this Julius Caesar will be credited with being ‘gutsy’ and ‘timely’ and ‘incendiary.’
And yet. In previews right now on Broadway is a Trump-inspired 1984, to be followed next month by Michael Moore’s one-man show about Trump. The Hartford Stage is doing Shaw’s Heartbreak House with businessman Boss Mangan done up in a “hideous yellow comb-over,” reports the Times, with actor Andrew Long channeling “Trump’s characteristic shrug-smirk-wince and his familiar seesaw of aggression and petulance.” Robert Schenkkan’s Building the Wall, to which Teachout was referring above, takes place in 2019 — after martial law has been imposed because Trump’s men detonated a nuclear bomb in Times Square and blamed it on terrorists. Also, they’re running a death camp for illegal immigrants. “Yes, a death camp, as in Zyklon B,” Teachout writes. A glance through the theater listings reveals that, from Berkeley to the Berkshires, more or less everybody in the theater world stands ready to “take on Trump,” some via offerings carrying titles such as The Bigot, Massacre (Sing to Your Children), or, more directly, Zombie Clown Trump: An Apocalyptic Musical.
You simply haven’t reached past the outermost membrane of your mind if your take on Julius Caesar, 1984, the rise of Adolf Hitler, etc., etc., is that it’s all Just. Like. Trump. Artists are forgetting the imperative: Don’t be lazy. Sloppiness, cant, cliché: These are the true enemies of art right now, not imaginary secret police and fantasy reeducation programs. You don’t get a license to be trite because all of your friends have the same obsession. You don’t get a pass on hyperbole because everyone in your intellectual silo is confusing The Art of the Deal with Mein Kampf. Art, even politically committed art, even art informed by anger, should strive for lasting significance. The Trump era is giving us art with a lifespan like last week’s rant on a political blog.
— Kyle Smith is National Review’s critic-at-large.