‘Sic Semper Tyrannis’: Shakespeare in the Park’s Marking Trump for Death

By Al Perrotta Published on June 13, 2017

Sic Semper Tyrannis!

The audience before the young, gifted Shakespearean actor was stunned as he shouted those words. The line, uttered by Brutus after the slaying of Julius Caesar, means “Thus always to tyrants.” But on this night, the accused tyrant was not the Roman emperor but the Republican President of the United States. And the actor was not an aspiring thespian in a production of Julius Caesar. 

He was John Wilkes Booth and he had just murdered Abraham Lincoln.

One cannot help think of Booth when considering Public Theater’s current, controversial staging of the Shakespeare classic. The New York-based company has chosen to cast as Caesar a dead ringer for Donald Trump. The production opened last night to a standing ovation.

To those who don’t know the play or the history, Caesar is brutally stabbed to death by members of the Roman Senate. The budding tyrant meets a bloody, seemingly-fitting end. This is the graphic fate of the Trump look-alike. 

According to the New York Times in its celebratory review, the Public Theater’s artistic director Oskar Eustis decided on election night to stage the Trump-themed version of the play. (Would he have cast Hillary as Lady Macbeth had the vote gone the other way? And would the Times have called it “great, nasty fun”? Don’t even bother asking.)

Though the play goes on to present how the murder backfired on the plotters, the production is hardly a warning against the spirit of assassination. Even the Times admits “it flirts a little with the violent impulses it otherwise hopes to contain.” Flirts? More like tangos.

As Fox News noted, Trump finds himself “brutally stabbed to death by women and minorities.” That’s playing to the pent-up rage of a Manhattan crowd. Or as the Times euphemistically put it, “preaching to the choir.” David Marcus of The Federalist wonders if “Eustis and his collaborators thought New York City’s left-leaning audiences of Shakespeare in the Park would get a kick out of seeing Trump stabbed to death onstage by angry black people.” (He hopes this isn’t the case.)

The Fallout

Not everyone is cheering. On Sunday, two of Public Theater’s corporate sponsors pulled their support: Delta Airlines and Bank of America. “The Public Theater chose to present Julius Caesar in such a way that was intended to provoke and offend,” BofA tweeted, “Had this intention been made known to us, we would have decided not to support it.” Bank of America had backed the Public Theater for 11 years. 

Delta, which had been a sponsor for four years, went further. “No matter what your political stance may be, the graphic staging of Julius Caesar at this summer’s Free Shakespeare in the Park does not reflect Delta Air Lines’ values,” the airline said in a statement, “Their artistic and creative direction crossed the line on the standards of good taste.” 

Eric Trump was quick to thank the companies.

However, Time Warner β€” the parent company of CNN β€” is staying put. And why not? CNN’s Fareed Zakaria calls it a “masterpiece.”

Moreover, critics and scholars are wagging their fingers at us, accusing us of making “much ado about nothing.” You see, we simpletons are missing the message of the play. The point, Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt told The Guardian (after making a snide crack about the political “right”), is that it can be dangerous to get what you think you want. The assassination of a hated leader “could bring an end to the very republic you’re trying to save.” 

That’s true enough. One of the great tragedies surrounding John Wilkes Booth was his failure to recognize that with the Civil War over Lincoln was the best friend the South could possibly have. Instead, Lincoln’s death set loose a harsh Reconstruction on Booth’s beloved Confederacy. 

It’s also true that should anything happen to President Trump this country would explode.

However, it is also naive to think this production is meant to warn about the toxic atmosphere being created by the loath-Trump #resistance. No. It’s a wish-fulfillment for Trump-haters.

And make no mistake about the atmosphere. Among their fellow entertainers, we have Madonna wanting to blow up the White House and Kathy Griffin cutting off Donald Trump’s head. Among street protesters, violence is as common as bags of weed. Among pundits and professors, Trump is even worse than Caesar. Caesar was merely a tyrant. Trump is murdering the entire planet. (It’s half surprising last night’s show didn’t have Mother Earth herself out there, knife in hand.)

So what’s the effect when a leading theater company in the media capital of the world leaves Trump a shredded bloody hump on center stage? Does that add to the temperature or reduce the temperature?

If the world is a stage, what kind of players are we when we envision and mimic the violent demise of our democratically leader? What spirit do we invite? What responsibility do we bear? “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” 

This is Not Fiction

Last month, an Iowa school board member was forced to resign after posting that Trump “needs to be neutralized.” Mike Helle also said that “Trump needs to take in a show at Ford’s Theater.” This is an elected official calling for the murder of the President. A 2017 equivalent of a Roman senator.

Two weeks later, Trump did attend a gala at Ford’s.  (Read the Associated Press’s curiously-crafted account.)

Thankfully, the night was incident-free. 

Still, it is hard not imagining the ghost of John Wilkes Booth lurking in the wings. His final acting performance had been at Ford’s Theater just over two weeks before the assassination. 

Some 18 months earlier Booth took the stage there in a play called The Marble HeartWatching on, enjoying the performance was Abraham Lincoln. His sister-in-law, Mrs. Ben Hardin Helm, recounted how at several points in the play Booth seemed hostile toward the President. When his lines involved threats Booth would deliver them toward the Presidential Box with a glare. “Mr. Lincoln, he looks as if he meant that for you,” Mrs. Helm said. “He does look pretty sharp at me, doesn’t he,” Lincoln responded.

Likewise many are looking sharp at President Trump. And many have hearts of stone. Are there not those who, like Booth, believe “our country owed all our troubles to him,” and groans under his tyranny and prays for its end? That Trump is a “greater tyrant” than Brutus ever knew? That it would be a just “sacrificing” to be “an instrument of his punishment”?

Do I believe any of the actors in the production plan on following Booth’s lead? No. 

The point is this: We are in hostile, divisive, volatile and violent times not seen since the Civil War. It’s not just that Shakespeare in the Park is playing to the crowd. They are playing with fire. 

We must pray for the safety of the President.

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