Trumpian ‘Julius Caesar’ dropped by sponsors

Pax Trumpana: “I thought it was shocking and distasteful,” said a Shakespeare in the Park fan.

Shakespeare’s play about Ancient Rome has entertained audiences for centuries. But two US firms have pulled their support from a production in New York. Why? Its lead looks a lot like Trump…

Yesterday, crowds gathered in New York’s Central Park to watch the first official showing of a free production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

Its lead actor, Gregg Henry, portrays the dictator Caesar in an oversized suit with a long red tie. He has blonde, scraped-back hair. He is a wealthy braggart with a gold bath and a fashion-conscious, Slavic wife. The play “takes onstage Trump-trolling to a startling new level,” wrote The New York Times review.

But not everybody is happy about this — because, as Shakespeare students will know, Caesar is stabbed to death halfway through the play. Two companies have dropped their sponsorship in response. The “graphic” show “crossed a line,” explained Delta Air Lines on Sunday.

It is not the first time that comparisons have been made between Trump and Caesar. Last year the right-wing Daily Caller described them as heroes who “overthrow a corrupt elite and reset the political establishment”. Meanwhile, left-wing writers have portrayed the two men as populist, power-hungry demagogues who threaten their country’s democracy.

These fears were shared by Caesar’s colleagues and friends in Rome’s senate, which is why they killed him. But Shakespeare does not advocate political violence; the republic then falls into a civil war, losing its democracy and re-emerging as an empire. The play is a “warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy by undemocratic means”, said the New York show’s director, Oskar Eustis.

America’s founding fathers were all dedicated scholars of Roman history. When creating their own republic, they looked to Rome to learn lessons from the past — in particular, how to stop a Caesar-like figure from seizing power.

Yet, as historian Daisy Dunn argued in January, Trump’s rise has “a distinctly Roman flavour”. And, like the Roman republic, the USA has “reached a height from which many fear it can only fall”.

Does history really repeat itself?

Et tu, New York?

Of course not, say some. Trump may not have learned the lessons of the Roman republic, but millions of others have. Paul Ryan and John McCain are not about to assassinate him, and the USA will not lose its democracy because he is in the White House. History is far more difficult than that — its events emerge for complicated, unique reasons. Suggesting otherwise is pure hysteria.

This misses the point, argue historians. Of course the details of history change, but human nature leads us to make many of the same decisions anyway: greedy leaders turn to corruption; ordinary people protest at inequality; violence leads to more violence. History simply cycles through these events, over and over. The question is: which bit are we about to repeat?

You Decide

  1. Is it wrong for the Public Theater to portray Julius Caesar as Donald Trump, considering he is assassinated on stage?
  2. Does history repeat itself? If so, why?

Activities

  1. Choose another era from history and write three lessons which you think people in 2017 should learn from this period. Share your ideas with the class.
  2. In groups, re-write and stage your own version of the Julius Caesar assassination scene. Be creative with the setting: which era and society will you set it in? (Find the original text under Become An Expert.)

Some People Say...

“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”

Karl Marx

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The Public Theater, which produces free Shakespeare in the Park shows every summer, says that it is not promoting violence. Supporters of Trump have argued that such an interpretation would never have happened to Barack Obama, although this is untrue — the Acting Company staged an Obama-themed Julius Caesar in 2012. This version received very little backlash, and the company was sponsored by Delta the next year.
What do we not know?
Whether more sponsors will pull out of the show. We also do not know the true intentions behind the play; it is no secret that the New York theatre world is highly critical of Trump. Hours after the sponsorships were pulled, the Tony Awards — which celebrate Broadway success — included frequent mockery and criticism of the president.

Word Watch

Shakespeare
Julius Caesar is a tragedy written by William Shakespeare in 1599. It focuses on the true historical events in Ancient Rome, with a few deviations. The most famous line — “Et tu, Brute?” — is fictional.
Caesar
Julius Caesar was born in 100 BCE. He achieved great success as a general by conquering Gaul (roughly modern France) and visiting Britain, and was popular with ordinary people. When the Roman senate ordered him to return unarmed, he instead returned with an army. This sparked a civil war. He won, and assumed full control of the government. Eventually he was named “dictator in perpetuity” (giving him power for life).
Slavic
Eastern-European. Trump’s wife, Melania, was born in Slovenia.
Republic
A state which is ruled by elected representatives, with an elected head of state (as opposed to a monarch or an emperor).
Empire
A group of countries which are ruled by a single monarch or state.
Paul Ryan and John McCain
Two high-profile Republican politicians: Ryan is speaker of the House of Representatives, and McCain is a senator and former presidential candidate.

Subjects

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