Shakespeare in the Park: When all the world's a stage for outrage

The Public Theater’s 'Julius Caesar' adds kindling to the national shouting match that’s become characterized by anger and insults – so much so that three-quarters of Americans in a new poll say incivility has become a 'national crisis.'

Joan Marcus/The Public Theater/AP
Tina Benko (l.) portrays Julius Caesar's wife, Calpurnia, and Gregg Henry (center l.) portrays Caesar during a dress rehearsal of The Public Theater's Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar in New York. Teagle Bougere (center r.) plays as Casca, and Elizabeth Marvel (r.) is Marc Antony.

It began even before opening night Monday of the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of “Julius Caesar.” In this version, Caesar is a President Trump lookalike. There’s the hair. The red tie. His wife even speaks in a Slovenian accent.

This won’t spoil the play for anyone who has seen or read it (as many of us did in middle school), but Caesar is murdered. And it’s not pretty. But as word spread of the Public Theater’s version, the backlash mounted swiftly. Conservative commentators cried foul and corporate sponsors dropped their support. And now Shakespeare has become the latest subject of an increasingly bitter and often vitriolic war of words playing out between partisans on social media, news shows, and political blogs.

The Public Theater’s “Julius Caesar” adds kindling to the national shouting match that’s become characterized by outrage and insults. Some online headlines have suggested that The New York Times (a Shakespeare in the Park sponsor) is “sponsoring an assassination depiction of Donald Trump.” Social media posts have characterized the play’s critics as literary dolts and supporters as liberals without morals who advocate violence against the president.

The theater has long been a place for political commentary and reflection. Previous productions of Caesar have included sitting presidents, including Presidents Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan, without the same kind of anger directed at the Public Theater and its artistic director Oskar Eustis. In 2015, a female Caesar was murdered in Act 3, wearing a white pantsuit. In the 1930s, Orson Welles staged a version with a Mussolini-like Caesar.

Mr. Welles obviously didn’t have to deal with social media. But today's outrage comes amid a national dialog that appears to become more driven by backhanded tweets by the day. And in a time when the very idea of civil discourse about politics, the arts, and media seems nostalgic. When all the world's a stage for outrage, how do the arts hold up a mirror to society without becoming a magnifying glass?

“If Shakespeare becomes a means of public debate, that’s a good thing,” says Peter Holland, a Shakespeare professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. “Of course it provokes us. But if it’s a good production, it provokes us to think but not to passively agree.... To me, it’s the only real reason to be doing the play.”

And for anyone who knows the play, it doesn’t promote assassinating a sitting president. If anything, it’s a stark warning against turning to political violence. After the Roman senators succeed in killing Caesar, they're unable to take back control of Rome and the city eventually falls. “The idea that Caesar is a play that advocates political assassination is just bizarre,” he says. Instead, the message is that if you “choose political assassination, it may be the destruction of what you want.”

Still, Mr. Holland adds, directors and playwrights have taken to modernizing Shakespeare’s work with contemporary political figures to compel audiences to think critically about today’s political landscape.

'Art has something to say about the great civic issues'

In a spirited defense of his version of Caesar, Mr. Eustis said before Monday’s performance that “art has something to say about the great civic issues of our time.... Like drama, democracy depends on the conflict of different points of view. Nobody owns the truth, we all own the culture. “But art's ability to provoke constructive cultural conversation is often lost in the endless stream of social media posts and attention-grabbing headlines that glorify scandal and conflict.

“It’s become much more widely accepted that we can talk in crass, crude, and personalized forms to vilify our opponents,” says Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University and coauthor of “The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility.” This kind of language attracts eyeballs to tweets and to headlines, he says. “In terms of politics, this coincides with the rise of polarization and the division of Americans into two camps with firmer and firmer boundaries.”

Certainly, the Trump-like Caesar isn’t the only recent cultural flashpoint that has ignited this kind of verbal warfare. After photos surfaced of comedian Kathy Griffin holding a fake severed head in the likeness of Mr. Trump, she was fired from CNN. She also received death threats. Singer and actress Jennifer Holliday was similarly threatened after she announced she would perform at Trump’s inauguration. She canceled her performance.

Incivility as a 'national crisis'

Some political and cultural observers say they haven’t seen this kind of bitter divide and hatred over politics since the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War.

“We’re eight months after that election, and eight months later people who voted for Hillary are still demonizing people who voted for Trump, and people who voted for Trump are still demonizing people who voted for Hillary,” says Carolyn Lukensmeyer, executive director of the nonpartisan National Institute for Civil Discourse. “It’s a tragedy of our commons at this point.”

In many ways, says Ms. Lukensmeyer, the 2016 political campaign legitimized the kind of base language, outrage, and vitriol that’s commonplace on social media. “We have come to a place where it’s almost a social norm – where it’s legitimate – to use language that’s very disrespectful.... That phenomenon did get legitimized by people running for the president of the United States of America.”

To be sure, the president hasn’t held back when going after his opponents on Twitter. Just this week he called former FBI Director James Comey “cowardly.” He’s called women unattractive, made fun of disabled reporters, and early on regularly questioned whether President Obama was an American citizen.

“He made it legitimate for people to say whatever is immediately on their minds,” says Lukensmeyer. And that kind of communication, she says, where everything is delivered without filters and is raw and emotive begins to erode the very foundation of a society “that is capable of collaboration in a way that’s productive.”

It’s also beginning to affect the public. According to a new poll from Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate that attempts to measure national civility, three-quarters of Americans say that incivility is such a problem that it’s become a national crisis, so bad that the vast majority of respondents say that it’s causing the country to lose its international stature.

In an effort to curb the tide of incivility,  the National Institute for Civil Discourse launched its Revive Civility and Respect Campaign. It’s starting off in Maine, Ohio, Arizona, and Iowa with events that bring together people who hold different views on the same topics. The aim, according to the organization, is to help communities begin changing “the tone of our democracy.”

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