Obama / Trump / Caesar

Rob Melrose
10 min readJun 14, 2017
Zack Fine as Antony and Bjorn DuPaty as Caesar in The Guthrie Theater / Acting Company 2012 production Photo Credit: Heidi Bohnenkamp

Why Delta Airlines pulled their funding from Oskar Eustis’s Trump-inspired production of Julius Caesar and not from my Obama-inspired one

This week, Delta Airlines announced they are pulling funding from The Public Theater in reaction to its production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, in which a Trump-like emperor is assassinated by left wing radicals.

Contrast that with the production of Julius Caesar I directed in 2012 in which an Obama-like Caesar was stabbed by right-wing conservative conspirators. Starting in Minneapolis, the show — co-produced by the Guthrie Theater and the Acting Company — toured the country before a month-long run in New York. There was no public outrage, and Delta, which happened to be funding the Guthrie that season, did not pull their funding.

Even though Oskar Eustis’s wonderful Trump / Caesar production was in many ways an inverse version of the production I directed, the president-as-Caesar conceit worked beautifully and both productions come to the same conclusion — one that that should give comfort to Republicans, Democrats, and indeed all Americans: that no matter how righteous you think your cause is assassination as a way of changing a political regime has dire consequences and controlling history through violence is impossible.

In de-funding the Public now but not the Guthrie in 2012, is Delta saying they were OK with Obama’s assassination, but not Trump’s? Before answering, it’s important to tackle misconceptions in the press about modern dress productions of classics, as well as the nature of theater itself.

Modern Dress Productions

Will Sturdivant as Brutus and Bjorn DuPaty as Caesar Photo Credit Heidi Bohnenkamp

When a Shakespeare production is put into a contemporary setting, characters and events of the play don’t change. Caesar is still Caesar, Brutus is still Brutus, Rome is still Rome. Unless the lines have been rewritten or the play adapted, it is still Shakespeare’s play and Shakespeare’s story. The reason for updating sets and costumes is to illuminate the work for a modern-day audience.

In a contemporary setting, the audience is given a wealth of visual cues about the characters and the situation. Actors can bring nuances to their roles that we can identify with and recognize. A smooth, easy going Obama-like Caesar lends one feeling to the production, while a brash, boisterous Trump-like Caesar gives another. An actor in a toga can work, too, and of course it has. But often it feels like an actor reciting famous lines with no context and no life.

An added benefit of a production in a contemporary setting is that an audience can then use the events of Shakespeare’s play to reflect on current times. I would argue, however, that this is the secondary benefit. Interpretations that try too hard to make Shakespeare come down on a specific side wind up doing damage to the play.

The Nature of Theater

Bjorn DuPaty as Caesar and Kaliswa Brewster as Calpurnia Photo Credit Heidi Bohnenkamp

The wonderful thing about theater is that each character has a specific point of view. Each argues their side, and the playwright, or director, never has to reveal their own opinion. A production can provoke questions without giving definitive answers. It is in many ways an antidote to cable news culture. Spending two hours hearing multiple viewpoints engaged in dialogue rather than a shouting match is a far more useful way of forming a political opinion than by watching two opposing pundits for three minutes.

A play has the added benefit of exploring the emotional and physical aspects of a situation, not just the intellectual ones. And plays can explore issues from many points of view. Just because something happens in a play doesn’t mean that the playwright is advocating for it. When the title character in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is assassinated, some characters think it is a good idea, some characters think it is a bad idea. What did Shakespeare himself think? We will never know.

Directing Julius Caesar

Will Sturdivant as Brutus and Sid Solomon as Cassius Photo Credit Heidi Bohnenkamp

What we do know is that Shakespeare was a man of the theater, an actor as well as a playwright. He knew the spectacle of Caesar’s assassination would be gory, chaotic, and horrible. The conspirators dip their arms into his blood up to their elbows while senators flee screaming. This stage picture is in direct contrast to the cool, intellectual soliloquy that comes earlier, in which Brutus carefully considers the pros and cons of this dreadful act.

This is why it is important to see plays rather than only reading them.

The assassination is a transgressive, bloody act. And in case the audience at this moment still thinks that Brutus’s line of thought was correct, Antony delivers a powerful expression of outrage and emotional trauma. Brutus and Antony then have funeral orations giving opposing points of view. Whomever you agree with, one thing is clear, things do not go well for the conspirators. Brutus and Cassius wind up dead, and Rome is pushed farther down the path of tyranny toward the next Caesar: Augustus.

It is hard to imagine a production of Julius Caesar advocating the idea of assassination as a political tool.

Whenever a director starts work on a production of Caesar, whether in modern dress or not, he or she will inevitably think about the current political climate. In 2012, I thought, “Can I imagine a circumstance in which a small group of people would be so passionate about their beliefs and find the current situation so dire that they would resort to assassinating the president?” The Tea Party was in full effect, the birther movement well underway, and Mitch McConnell had stated that his main goal was to deny Obama a second term. It wasn’t hard to imagine one of these groups pushed to the point where they would consider violence.

I had recently read The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People’s History of Rome, in which Michael Parenti argues that Caesar was a man of the people who wanted to give land to the poor, while the conspirators were a group of wealthy elites who were threatened by this plan. The fact that Cato opposed Caesar during Roman times, and today we have the conservative think tank called the Cato Institute was another connection too good to pass up.

In our production both Caesar and Brutus were played by African-American actors. As Caesar, I cast the tall, charismatic, and confident Bjorn DuPaty. He conveyed an ease and a grace that made him an effective leader of the people. Will Sturdivant played Brutus and is, in my opinion, one of the best speakers of Shakespeare’s verse on the planet. His voice is a combination of Sir John Gielgud and James Earl Jones. My inspiration was drawn from any number of smart, serious African-American conservatives — Clarence Thomas being but one example — who at times can find themselves in a conflicted alliance with their fellow conservatives.

The difference in these two characters was a beautiful contrast and their similarities made the “Et tu Brute?” moment of the assassination absolutely devastating. It is precisely this kind of specificity (whether the audience knows the decisions behind it or not) that brings fresh salience to a 400-year-old play.

In the current production, Oskar Eustis imagines what would happen if a group from the left also felt that they were justified in resorting to violence. It not hard to envision a group of “Bernie or Busters” or despondent Hillary voters reaching a point of desperation where violence seems like the only answer.

Regardless of the politics of the director, actors, or audience, the moment of this latest Caesar’s assassination is shocking and horrific. Elizabeth Marvel gives the performance of a lifetime mourning over the body of someone who looks like Donald Trump. It is moving, poignant, and heart-rending: a beautiful execution of the play Shakespeare wrote.

Why Defund One Caesar and not The Other?

Kevin Orton, Ray Chapman, Caleb Carlson, and Ernest Bentley in the Guthrie Theater / Acting Company Production Photo Credit Heidi Bohnenkamp

I think one key difference in the corporate response to the two productions is simply that most people who wrote about and talked about our production — the one with an Obama-inspired Caesar — actually saw the show, where it is clear that most of those outraged by The Public Theater’s Trumpian emperor either didn’t see the play or didn’t stay to the end.

The Breitbart article that started the controversy is — I kid you not — a review by someone who talked to someone who saw the show. This second-order correspondent also thinks the play ends with the death of Caesar, as if they are killing the bad guy at the end of a superhero movie. In fact, the assassination takes place in the middle of the play, the rest of which deals with the terrible consequences of this action. Shakespeare built the outrage into the text. Mark Antony is so outraged — for himself, and on our behalf — that outrage suffuses the play’s entire second half. If you see a production, you get outraged with the play, not against it.

Our Obama-inspired production also didn’t have any gestures that tipped our hand to say “this is definitely Obama.” We wanted to make sure audiences could make the Obama connection if they wanted to — or could ignore the connections if they only wanted to live inside in the circumstances of Shakespeare’s play. In Eustis’s production, the Trump connections are more overt : Caesar wears an overly long red tie, Calpurnia speaks with a Slovenian accent (or “Slavic” if you are writing for Breitbart). There is also much more humor and satire in the Public Theater production. Caesar usually is not a very funny play, and I tip my hat to Oskar Eustis for finding so many genuinely funny moments. That may have bristled some people as well, but Eustis is hardly the first person to make fun of the president.

In 2012, the producer of The Acting Company, was very concerned that this production was going to get us into trouble, and she really didn’t want us talking too much to the press about the concept. The reaction by Delta and Bank of America to the current production suggests that her fears then were well founded. I was content not to talk a lot to the press, because directors like the production itself, not interviews or reviews, to be the final word. So I was happy for the audience enter the world of our production without pre-knowledge of the interpretation — experiencing it for themselves in the moment.

And because I trusted in the work we were doing and in Shakespeare’s play, I was not worried that people would leave the theater thinking that we were advocating for the assassination of President Obama or being disrespectful to him in any way.

Non-Profits, Politics, and the Role of Theater in Civic Life

Noah Putterman, Sid Solomon, Bjorn DuPaty, and Zack Fine in the Guthrie Theater / Acting Company Production Photo Credit Heidi Bohnenkamp

In the 2008 presidential campaign, Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin said that people criticizing her were trampling her First Amendment rights. This was a low point in people’s understanding of our Constitution, and really hasn’t been properly corrected (the First Amendment, of course, protects people’s ability to speak freely about their governor — it doesn’t allow the governor to say things without being criticized).

Something similar is happening today with our understanding of theater and its ability to explore political themes. Now is a golden opportunity for us to correct this understanding, reminding theater boards, audiences, and funders about the important role the theater plays in the civic life of our nation. These waters are all the more fraught for non-profit productions that often depend on the good graces of image-sensitive benefactors.

Moreover, while non-profit organizations are legally barred from advocating in favor of a particular candidate or campaign in any way, that does not mean non-profit theaters must be devoid of any political discourse. To the contrary, theater was invented in Ancient Greece for the very purpose of exploring the aspects of life that can’t be expressed in a simple debate. All voting citizens went to the theater and it was an important part of being an informed person. I think the theater is a much better place to explore the nuance and the consequences of our politics than a TV show every issue is reduced to black and white, left side or right side.

In many countries, government is the primary funder of the arts. Germany, for example, spends forty times on the arts per capita than the U.S. In the U.S., individuals, foundations, and corporations do their best to pick up where the government falls short. For the most part, that puts the arts in America in a constant state of scarcity.

Ironically, the advantage we have is that in the event an arts-unfriendly regime comes to power, we are not dependent on government alone. European countries don’t have the same kind of individual, foundation, or corporate philanthropy.

For arts to serve their true civic function, all of our funders need to respect and understand the power of theater and its role in our political lives. They need to embrace that role and defend it, it even when it brings up issues that are unpopular and uncomfortable.