How Theaters Are Waging War Against 'Safe Spaces' in the Age of Trump

Two new productions in New York starkly illustrate liberal America’s anxiety: If 'Julius Caesar' reminds us that we’re cursed to repeat the past, then '1984' is a dire warning for the future

Tina Benko as Melania Trump in the role of Caesar's wife, Calpurnia, and Gregg Henry as President Donald Trump in the role of Julius Caesar in a dress rehearsal of The Public 'Julius Caesar' in NYC.
Joan Marcus/AP

NEW YORK – In November, president-elect Donald Trump accused the cast of the blockbuster Broadway musical “Hamilton” of harassment after they gave a curtain speech imploring tolerance from his administration at a performance attended by Mike Pence. In his Twitter tirade, Trump said that theater should be a safe space. Artists rejected that assessment and, six months into his administration, theater rightly remains anything but. Instead, cultural institutions, directors and writers are putting theater in the trenches of American politics, and in the line of heavy rhetorical and budgetary fire. 

Around the country, theaters are rearranging their schedules to produce works that speak to the politics of the day, and playwrights are busy penning scripts to make sense of the country’s divisive indignation. The quickest response was “Building the Wall,” a new play by Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Schenkkan that hits on race, religion and immigration – flashpoints of the 2016 campaign. Meanwhile, this year’s Pulitzer for drama went to Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat,” a study of Rust Belt working class despair.

This month, two new productions in New York starkly illustrate liberal America’s anxiety in the Trump age: The Public Theater’s controversial production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” and a startling adaptation of George Orwell’s “1984,” which opens on Broadway this week. According to these shows, the United States is either at risk of reenacting a familiar and fatal historical drama, or is on the verge of entering a new, terrifying dystopia. Pick you poison.

Shortly after the election, Oskar Eustis, the director of the Public, wanted to explore how an unsavory amateur politician managed to unsettle seemingly stable democratic norms. He looked to the Bard for inspiration and found 16th century insight in “Julius Caesar,” the tragic tale of ancient Roman regicide. He decided to produce it as part of the Public’s annual free Shakespeare in the Park series, staged under the stars in Central Park. 

The Caesar fashioned by Eustis is an ego-driven populist with a shock of blond hair, a taste for long red ties, and a leggy Slovenian wife, who he possessively grabs by the genitals. The visual satire is not subtle. But the 400-year-old portrait is uncanny: In the guise of Julius Caesar, Shakespeare presents a deft template of the petty authoritarian ruler who appears, again and again, across the globe and throughout history, wooing the masses with incendiary rhetoric, while ultimately only glorifying and enriching himself.

People arrive for the opening night of Shakespeare in the Park's production of Julius Caesar at Central Park's Delacorte Theater on June 12, 2017 in New York
BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP

Through Shakespeare’s words, this ruler is revealed: “Who is it in the press that calls on me?” Caesar demands dismissively at a rally. Later, in refusing to appear in front of legislators, he throws a tantrum. “I will not come,” he says. “That is enough to satisfy the senate.” At one point, the conspirator Cassius says of Caesar, “This rudeness is a sauce to his good wit.” In other words, it’s just locker-room talk. And, the senator Cicero, observing how Roman citizens construct their own truth, notes, “Men may construe things after their fashion, clean from the purpose of the things themselves.” So, negative news is fake news. 

If that template shares similarities with America today, so be it: Shakespeare was just telling it like it is, like it always has been. Eustis has called his production “an anxiety nightmare parable about our current state.” But the right wing media has construed it after its own fashion, and decided (based, apparently, on the impressions of a single offended audience member) that the play condones the assassination of Trump – an outrageously irresponsible misrepresentation. Nevertheless, a social media assault was unleashed, and corporate sponsors fled

What’s ironic, of course, is that protesting a play because it offends is a prime example of the political correctness that Trump railed against in his campaign and that his supporters claim to loathe. And never mind that the prestigious Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis staged a “Julius Caeser” in 2012 that featured a black Obama-esque Caesar that was supported by the National Endowment of the Arts and Delta Airlines, one of the sponsors that dropped its support of the Public’s production. “Julius Caesar,” like all of Shakespeare’s plays, is constantly reimagined for the modern world; this time, it has been reshaped into a political football.

Were the production’s critics to look closer, they would see in Shakespeare – and in Eustis’ staging – a clear condemnation of political killing and a candid warning to anyone who considers it. The set features posters, graffiti, flags and armbands that scream “Resist!”, the rallying cry of the anti-Trump movement. But if anything, “Julius Caesar” makes the point that society’s ills cannot be cured by a leader’s forced removal, and that to pursue this is to open Pandora’s dangerous and unpredictable box. The Public’s assassination scene was brutal, and the audience sat in stunned silence. No one, regardless of how they voted six months ago, rejoiced at this Caesar’s murder.

If “Julius Caesar” reminds us that we’re cursed to repeat the past (much like Phil Connors is cursed to repeat “Groundhog Day” in another of the season’s acclaimed Broadway shows), then “1984” is a dire warning for the future. Based on the 1949 novel by George Orwell, a grim account of life in an oppressive superstate, this stage adaptation debuted in London in 2014 – well before Brexit and Steve Bannon. After Trump’s inauguration, when aide Kellyanne Conway coined the Newspeak-like phrase “alternative facts,” the book leapt to the top of the bestseller list, and the play found a fast-track to Broadway. 

On stage, Orwell’s dystopian world is rendered first as a drab, claustrophobic sitting room, then as a sterile white laboratory where stewards of the state subject the rebellious citizen Winston Smith to torture tailor-made to his worst fears. The production is visually and aurally aggressive (your vision is regularly punctured by blinding lights, your ears assaulted by high-decibel static) as well as graphically violent – perhaps the closest thing to a horror film I’ve seen on Broadway. 

Both plays grapple with the ethics of insurgence. In “Julius Caesar,” Brutus declares, “We shall be call'd purgers, not murderers,” when he plots to assassinate the ruler he despises, maintaining that it is for the good of the republic. In “1984,” when Winston and his lover Julia are recruited to an underground plot against Big Brother, they are asked “You are prepared to commit murder?... To commit acts of sabotage which may cause the death of hundreds of innocent people?... To betray your country to foreign powers?" To each, they quickly answer “yes.” These are questions that come back to haunt Winston and, while extreme, warn against the values that are compromised when resistance has no limits.  

Despite its chronologic proximity, “1984” bears far less resemblance to our world today than Shakespeare’s rendition of ancient Rome. Orwell’s masterpiece is a portrait of an already-subdued society cowering at the mercy of tyrants whereas “Julius Caesar” portrays the decline of civic decency and a democracy on the verge of war with itself. The latter hits closer to home; between the two, Shakespeare is scarier.