What do we make of Brutus?
At the end of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Mark Antony declares him “the noblest Roman of them all,” but Dante locates him at the lowest point in the Inferno, spending his eternity being chewed in the mouth of Satan himself, or at least one of them: Dante’s Satan is three-headed, and the other mouths are occupied with Brutus’s co-conspirator, Cassius, and Judas Iscariot. The State of Virginia takes his famous declaration “Sic semper tyrannis!” as its motto, but then so did John Wilkes Booth. (A scholar at the Mises Institute once described Abraham Lincoln as an “American Caesar.”) The Liberty goddess in the Virginia state seal, who stands over the bloodied corpse and dishonored crown of an empurpled monarch, is in essence Divus Brutus, Brutus apotheosized, but who aspires to be a brute?
There’s Michael Cernovich, I suppose.
Cernovich is, among other things, the author of a self-published self-help book bearing the title “Gorilla Mindset: Timeless Strategies to Unleash the Animal within You.” He’s a familiar sort of alt-right knucklehead, one who talks a great deal about being an “alpha male” while living off a divorce settlement from his Silicon Valley–millionaire ex-wife. In June, he offered the princely sum of $1,000 to anyone who would disrupt a performance of Julius Caesar being put on by the Public Theater as part of the Shakespeare in the Park series at Central Park in New York, and he found two takers. One of them was Laura Loomer, a batty young woman formerly employed by James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas who only a few months ago was lamenting that wicked progressives would not allow a conservative to simply enjoy a play. (Mike Pence had been subjected to a homily from the stage after attending a performance of Hamilton.) The other was Jack Posobiec, an aspiring new-media celebrity of the sort who might one day grow up to be Cernovich, who was involved in the “Pizzagate” hoax and Seth Rich conspiracy-mongering. Both are veterans of Ezra Levant’s Rebel, which does not speak very well of Levant’s eye for talent.
At the moment of the assassination, Loomer stormed the stage, while Posobiec shouted “You are all Goebbels!” though it sounded like he was talking about gerbils, which, in spite of the generally low intellectual standards of rodents, might not have been proud to be part of the evening’s performance or part of its disruption.
This summer’s version of Julius Caesar depicted the Roman dictator as a man with funny-looking blond hair, wearing an ill-fitting Brioni suit with an overlong red tie, and . . . you get the picture: Trump as Caesar, assassinated by a gang of senators who are conspicuously non-white and (in part) non-male. The production has been controversial (Delta and Bank of America revoked their sponsorships of the performance), partly because the talk-radio Right takes offense to make a profit, but also because it coincided with the attempted assassination of Representative Steve Scalise by an enraged Democratic activist and Bernie Sanders supporter.
Defenders of the Public Theater’s take on Julius Caesar point out that in 2012, a similar performance cast a black man suggestive of Barack Obama in the role of the tyrant. But of course context matters: 2017 is not 2012, the Obama-Caesar version was put on in a much less high-profile venue, and it did not coincide with the attempted assassination of a member of Congress. (Representative Gabby Giffords had been shot the previous year.) But perhaps more to the point, progressives cannot help assuming that theater producers are, somehow, on their side, whereas conservatives cannot help assuming that theater producers are, by their nature, the enemy. Which is a pity for conservatives, who do not seem to be able to enjoy much of anything other than Toby Keith and old war movies anymore.
Not that they are entirely wrong about those theater people: The Public Theater and Shakespeare in the Park under the artistic direction of Oskar Eustis aren’t “political” in the sense that theater people normally mean by that word, but political in the most obvious, craven, and cheap sense of the word: A performance of The Winter’s Tale in 2014 featured two actual political speeches by Democratic politicians, one by New York mayor Bill de Blasio and another, near the end of the play, from Senator Chuck Schumer, who concluded his remarks with a rousing “Vote Democratic!” But there were also Muppets and much more, and very little that looked like the work of William Shakespeare. The Public Theater under Oskar Eustis is the opposite of “challenging,” but rather is an institution that cannot abase itself deeply or enthusiastically enough before the political powers in New York. It is embarrassing. It is in fact one of the reasons that I decided to stop writing the theater column in The New Criterion: If that is one of the crown jewels of New York theater, then maybe New York theater isn’t worth bothering about twice a week.
Mustering all the depth of character and keen personal insight characterizing the great American Millennial, Loomer told a writer from The New Yorker: “I redefined Shakespeare tonight.” With equal maturity, Posobiec wrote that the ensuing criticism illustrated only that “the whole world is still fixated on how jealous they are not to be me.”
In a conversation with Sean Hannity (of course it was Sean Hannity), Loomer framed her disruption of the show as a “free speech” issue, and the talking mouths of Fox News insisted that the production was intended to incite violence against Republicans. Which is to say, only a few months after ridiculing the “snowflakes” at Berkeley and Yale for their inability to hear an opposing point of view without taking to their fainting couches, the Right is wheeling out its own fainting couches and offering up an absolute avalanche of snowflakery.
On the particular point, Loomer and Posobiec are in the wrong. American public life already is ugly and stupid enough, and theaters (to say nothing of cinemas and music venues) already are so beset by boorishness and boobishness that adding to the sum of it ought to be considered an unforgivable crime. Conservatives ought to be resisting the coarsening of American life rather than leading it. Adopting the Berkeley-style heckler’s veto will not advance any worthwhile conservative end. Those activist-entrepreneurs who defend such behavior as “effective” have not given sufficient consideration to the question: Effective at effecting what? If you believe that entrenching sophomoric tantrum culture is anything other than a gift to the Left, you are mistaken.
But, still, sometimes the rules have to be broken, do they not? That is, after all, the question asked, if not quite answered, by Julius Caesar.
Dante assigned Brutus the lowest spot in hell because he was a betrayer — a double-betrayer and, possibly, a triple-betrayer. A betrayer because he did in his friend and benefactor, a double-betrayer because that friend and benefactor was also his rightful (or so Dante would argue) sovereign. A triple-betrayer, possibly, because Julius Caesar was to Brutus a father figure and, if we take Plutarch seriously, perhaps even his father: Caesar carried on a long and passionate affair with Brutus’s mother, Servilia. A famous story recounts that during the deliberations over the Catiline conspiracy, a messenger brought Caesar a note in the Senate, drawing the attention of Caesar’s bitter rival, the arch-conservative Cato the Younger. Cato demanded to see it, and Caesar handed it over: Seeing that it was a love letter from Servilia — his own half-sister — a red-faced Cato is supposed to have said: “Keep it, you drunk.” “So public and notorious was Servilia’s love for Caesar,” Plutarch reports.
But whether Caesar was his pater or simply his patronus, Brutus was torn in two filial directions. The Brutus who assassinated Julius Caesar was Marcus Junius Brutus, whose name recalled his famous ancestor, Lucius Junius Brutus, no less a personage than the founder of the Roman republic and the man who showed the last of the Roman kings, his uncle Tarquinius Superbus, to his grave. A man named Brutus could no more take the part of a would-be king than a man called Kennedy could go Republican. And therein is found one of those horrifying historical ironies that so fascinated Shakespeare: The first Brutus conducted an assassination that gave birth to the republic, and the second Brutus, acting on the example of his illustrious forebear, conducted an assassination that ended the republic and gave birth to the empire. The monarchical ambitions of Julius Caesar, as Mark Antony demonstrates in his famous speech, were plausibly deniable. Those of Caesar Augustus were not.
Worth noting: The Latin word imperator, from which the English “emperor” is derived, means “commander in chief.”
Brutus did not understand what violence and anarchy he was setting loose in the republic he believed himself to be defending. Neither do the little brutes in New York.