Julius Caesar is another opportunity to show outrage

Scandal over Trump imagery is bogus

It is only fitting that in this season of fake news there is plenty of exaggerated outrage to go around.

Consider the latest kerfuffle over the Public Theater’s production in New York City of “Julius Caesar,” in which Caesar is a Trumpian figure with blond hair, odd hand gestures and a wife with an Eastern European accent.

Breitbart and Fox News were aggrieved that the play appeared to show President Donald Trump assassinated on stage under an American flag.

And if there was any doubt why this was terrible, the hosts of “Fox & Friends” also noted that “women and minorities” played some of the senators who did the deed — a reminder of the old right-wing horror of horrors: cross-gender and cross-cultural casting of Shakespeare productions.

Ever alert to having their brands associated with controversies — aside from ones they create themselves — Bank of America and Delta Air Lines swiftly pulled support: the bank for this production and Delta for its sponsorship of the Public, which presents the Shakespeare in the Park series of which this performance is a part.

The commentators stoking this scandal are following a familiar playbook.

They are using this production to get attention and get back at liberals.

If young college students can block Charles Murray, author of “The Bell Curve,” which argues that genetic factors linked to race help determine financial success and social status, from speaking at Middlebury College, and activists can get corporations to pull ads from Breitbart and “The O’Reilly Factor,” conservatives ought to be able to attack the Public, as liberal a cultural bastion as they come.

Call it competitive outrage — we see your college protests and raise you a theater boycott.

Who started this one-upmanship is not important and is probably not knowable.

The outraged in this case know, or at least should know, what actually happens in this 400-year-old play that is assigned reading in many high schools and colleges.

And if they bothered to look beyond the scene in which senators stick it to Caesar, they would also know that this play is really about the futility and danger of using violence for a purportedly good cause like restoring democracy.

The end of the Public’s production, which I saw in previews last month, leaves you wishing Caesar were still lounging in his bathtub with his wife Calpurnia.

In addition, the Public has hardly broken ground by trying to give its Caesar some contemporary credence.

Directors have often adapted Shakespeare to reflect modern realities.

Steve Bannon, the former Breitbart executive and now the president’s chief strategist, once wrote a hip-hop screen adaptation of the tragedy “Coriolanus” set in Los Angeles during the Rodney King riots.

And in 2012, the Acting Company put on a production in which Caesar was a Barack Obama-like figure. Fox hosts seem not to have noticed.

But we should give them a pass since back then they were working very hard to figure out, along with Trump, if Obama was born in the United States.

The Public’s productions will go on, as Oskar Eustis, who is the theater’s artistic director and directed this production, told The Times. 

The Public, which premiered important works like “Hamilton” and “Sweat,” enjoys a broad base of support, including from The Times.

(Full disclosure: I am a member of the Public, too.)

Of course, a smaller arts organization subjected to similar pressure might have buckled under it.

For now, I expect the queues for “Julius Caesar” at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park will grow even longer after this bogus scandal. (Shakespeare in the Park is free, but you do have to line up for tickets.)

The play has strong performances, and Eustis makes some bold and some poor choices.

People will disagree with the Public and they might even be offended, but seeking to shut the play down is overkill.

Those feeling queasy about the assassination scene should consider what Caesar says before it: “It seems to me most strange that men should fear/Seeing that death, a necessary end/Will come when it will come.”

Vikas Bajaj is a columnist for The New York Times.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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