The show must not go on.
So sayeth some of President Trump’s most ardent fans, who spent the past week and a half attempting to shut down a production of “Julius Caesar” with a Trump-like character in the title role.
These Trumpkins — part of a bloc known for mocking political correctness, safe spaces and undue efforts to avoid offending the pwecious feewings of others — deemed the show politically incorrect, unsafe and offensive.
Peaceful protest would be well within their rights. But these illiberal cultural illiterates instead wanted curtains for the offending Elizabethan play.
They stormed the stage at multiple shows, including Sunday evening’s closing performance. They yelled and screamed inside and outside the open-air production — part of the Public Theater’s annual Shakespeare in the Park series — to drown out dialogue they disliked. They threatened violence, sometimes quite graphically.
Some even sent death threats to other productions of Shakespeare and other plays in other parks.
In this, they are more like Caesar’s plebeian partisans than they may realize: “It is no matter, his name’s Cinna,” a member of a murderous mob cries in Act III, Scene 3 of the play, before tearing apart an innocent poet with the bad fortune to bear the same name as a perceived enemy of the state.
The justification for these present-day disruptions and threats is that, at least according to (wrong) right-wing media reports, the production advocates assassination of a Trump-like Roman tyrant. But the only people lately threatening political violence in the name of “Julius Caesar” are those who wanted to shut this play down.
If these reactionaries had actually thought about the play, they’d realize its portrayal of the aftermath of assassination offers the opposite lesson: that “those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic means pay a terrible price and destroy the very thing they are fighting to save,” as the Public put it in a statement to theatergoers.
There’s a part of me that wants to rejoice that, 168 years after New York’s Astor Place riots (also inspired by a contentious interpretation of the Bard), the theater can still be a source of so much controversy. In recent months not just “Julius Caesar” but also “Hamilton” has brought a raucous and artistically challenging rialto to the center of national social discourse. The fabulous invalid lives!
Still, needless to say, death threats are not the type of intellectual engagement and social validation that most theater nerds were looking for.
The violent rhetoric of recent days is certainly no fault of the Public, even if, in choosing to portray Caesar with blondish hair, an ultra-long tie and a Slovenian-accented paramour, it clearly intended to provoke. But then, last year’s “Taming of the Shrew” production also had a Trumpian character — portrayed by a woman, no less — and earned no incendiary Fox News coverage.
Nor is this debacle the fault of a few misguided protesters alone.
After all, they were just firing the latest salvo in the ongoing war against the free exchange of ideas, that most precious and endangered of liberal democratic values.
Plenty of conservatives like to believe that illiberalism is confined to liberal college students. Certainly there is evidence that millennials are at the vanguard of hostility to free speech, both in the United States and Europe. But as I have written time and again, attempts to stamp out speech are not confined to young or old, or left or right.
Instead, End of History be damned, there is a growing sense on both sides of the aisle, and among all generations, that the free marketplace of ideas is broken. Everyone seems to believe that the inferior and dangerous ideas of their enemies are unfairly gaining ground; therefore, the words and beliefs of those enemies must be fair game for suppression. Perhaps by any means necessary.
And yes, attempts to shut down “Julius Caesar” — like attempts to shut down conservative campus speakers — are about objections to words and beliefs. They are not about protecting politicians or vulnerable minority groups from physical harm, despite the claims of would-be censors. If this were really about blocking public entertainment that put lives at risk, you’d find more Trump fans and college students alike disrupting football games.
In “Julius Caesar,” Shakespeare hinted that he expected his play to offer lessons for generations to come, though perhaps not the ones his characters believe they are offering.
“How many ages hence/Shall this our lofty scene be acted over/In states unborn and accents yet unknown!” declaims Cassius, after proudly smearing himself with the slain Caesar’s blood.
Censors willing, let’s hope Cassius’s prediction continues to hold true.