BROOKE GLADSTONE: Of course, in our hyper-connected age nothing happens without a reason, preferably located conveniently within the same news cycle. Thus, Wednesday's horrific shooting was all about - Shakespeare.
STUART VARNEY: This shooting took place with a background, an environment of political violence, and we don't have to look far to remember Shakespeare in the Park.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: FOX’s Stuart Varney is referring to a production of Shakespeare's “Julius Caesar” mounted by the Public Theater in New York City, in which the title character is very clearly meant to be Donald Trump. Although the play has been running for almost a month, the right-wing media let loose the dogs of war when they discovered that – spoiler alert - Caesar gets killed.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Liberal left-wing nut jobs in Hollywood and Broadway have reached a new low.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The President Trump lookalike being stabbed to death on stage!
MALE CORRESPONDENT: If we had done that with Obama, if what Shakespeare in the Park did with Obama, forget it, they would – they would be all over it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Never mind that a Minneapolis production of “Julius Caesar” in 2012 did depict Obama as Caesar and no one was all over it. And never mind that “Julius Caesar” has been used as an allegory for contemporary leaders since – well, basically since its first performance in 1599. This was different, at least some of the play’s sponsors thought so.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Bank of America is the latest company to withdraw its funding for the Public Theater after their controversial production of William Shakespeare's “Julius Caesar.”
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Delta Air Lines announced its decision yesterday. The company stated, “The graphic staging of ‘Julius Caesar’ at this summer’s Free Shakespeare in the Park does not reflect Delta Airlines’ values."
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The president’s son, Eric Trump, thanked the companies in a tweet. He said dropping sponsorship was the right thing to do,
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Even the National Endowment for the Arts, which did not fund the production, felt the need to distance itself from it. Meanwhile, the pushback to the right-wing outrage has been less about artistic censorship then artistic illiteracy.
LOIS BECKETT: So “Julius Caesar,” not a pro-assassination play, at all, unambiguous.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lois Beckett is a senior reporter for The Guardian.
LOIS BECKETT: I mean, it’s a play about how an assassination ended democracy for 2,000 years in the West. That's what Oskar Eustis, the director, said. So to suggest that someone could go watch “Julius Caesar” and think that assassination was a great idea and get all excited about it is totally bizarre.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: To Beckett, the production’s message ultimately is aimed at the liberal members of the audience, although it certainly didn't go easy on the president.
LOIS BECKETT: Trump comes out in a red tie with this blond hair and he makes these big hand gestures and his wife has this like Slovenian accent. Octavius Caesar is dressed in this blazer with a bulletproof vest over it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Just like Jared Kushner.
LOIS BECKETT: And like – and he’s like checking his cell phone over someone's dead body. I mean, it is pretty broad. The audience loved it. You know, it’s just in the park, it’s outside; we like cheap jokes. But when it came to the point of the assassination, it was very sober. You’ll rarely hear 2,000 people just completely silent. And I thought it was staged very carefully too in that the actors onstage just really seemed overcome by the shock of violence. As we know from this week, violence enters in a way that is just stunning, and even people who were planning it seemed overcome by what they had actually done, and there was just blood everywhere. And one of the conspirators tried to say something like liberty or justice, and it came out as a whisper because ideology like that in the face of violence just sort of seems meaningless. I thought it was very powerful and captured the way that violence overwhelms any justification for it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Both Delta and the National Endowment for the Arts were connected to a 2012 production of “Julius Caesar” in which Obama was depicted as Caesar. In that case, I think it was right-wing conspirators plotting to kill him.
LOIS BECKETT: People noted it in reviews, and Obama’s kids didn’t take to Twitter to say that this was a horrible provocation. It just was a – play, and that was all right back in 2012.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what do you think’s changed?
LOIS BECKETT: What’s so scary, actually, about the political moment is that just a couple of days ago we would look at “Julius Caesar” and the idea of inciting violence against the President and that would seem so bizarre because there hadn't been, as now there has been, a left-wing person who has, as far as we know, maybe plotted an attack against Republican members of Congress. For that mishmash of ideological and, and perhaps mental health issues, we don't know, and that's what's scary about feeling, as we are, like caught in history. You know, looking at history from hundreds of years, like the pattern is clear but, actually, it’s the smallest things that sort of send us in another direction. Like with Kathy Griffin, if we didn't have that, would we have had this Shakespeare –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Would we have had this controversy?
LOIS BECKETT: Exactly, and, and yet, now theaters across the country are gonna grapple with this. I mean, that’s what’s so sad about the National Endowment for the Arts, which had this pretty hysterical reaction. They’re under attack and the Trump administration has suggested defunding them, and they're fighting a good fight to keep giving dollars to artists who need them all across the country. So I look at the National Endowment for the Arts and I say, you know, Trump is their boss and his sons’ voices are influential. And so, I don’t look at them in the same way that I do Bank of America or Delta, where, you know, Trump is not their boss.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Now, a few weeks ago, you did a roundup of theatrical performances that have tried to comment on the age of Trump. It’s a challenge, isn’t it?
LOIS BECKETT: With Trump, the challenge is like he is an incredibly successful entertainer. He does really good shows. And now his whole administration is a thrilling drama that has family members and enemies inside and outside the White House. Being a journalist at a Trump rally feels like being an accessory to a performance artist. And so, the idea that you can, as an artist, compete with a entertainer-in-chief who’s so good is really hard. Trump rules the spectacle. And so, artists have to do something else and have to wrestle not with a lack of attention to what the President is doing or to his policies but trying to help audiences understand how to cut through the spectacle, understand how to orient ourselves where we’re overcome with knowledge of what's happened.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’ve said that political art at its best help us transcend petty squabbles and grapple with deeper, more difficult issues. Do you think that’s even possible anymore? I mean, the Public puts on a play warning against political violence and is accused of inciting it. If art’s ability to help us bridge the gaps relies on us having a shared set of facts and experiences, a shared language, and we've lost that, where does art fit in?
LOIS BECKETT: I’m not sure that art can necessarily bring us together in an easy way, but I think it allows us to think about politics, to experience our politics in a much smarter way than the data points or the policy proposals or the endless spin masters that we hear.
Before the election, actually, I went to Taylor Mac’s “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music,” which was literally a 24-hour show going through 240 years of American history nonstop. So you showed up at noon and you weren't allowed to leave ‘til noon the next day, and Taylor Mac, the artist who designed the production, sang constantly during those 24 hours.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bathroom?
LOIS BECKETT: Took bathroom breaks but like sort of right before and right after, so it was a –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
LOIS BECKETT: - it was a really quick break. So I went to see this performance art piece about American democracy the morning after the revelations that Trump had talked about women in the Access Hollywood tapes about sexual assault. And, you know, I had been stuck in the news listening to CNN and, and the people that we choose to comment on politics are people who used to be employed by campaigns and economists and even journalists, and we’re asking them like, what is America, who are we, what do we want as a country? And the language we have for talking about what America is or what it means to be American are so cheap and so impoverished and so lacking in history.
And so, that’s what I think art can do, is get us beyond the - was Trump's victory about economic anxiety or was it because people are racist, as if those two things were in opposition, as if racism and anxiety and class and poverty don’t all play into each other in very particular ways.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And how about wealth and the desire to protect it, since we now know that basically the Trump voter was the Romney voter.
LOIS BECKETT: Right, and the thing about art is that multiple things can be true at the same time. That's why you cannot say that “Julius Caesar” is about how assassination is great or how we should assassinate a leader. I think so much of what we’re dealing with right now are opposite things being true simultaneously. And art gives us a way to, to be in that experience and how our choices are not just about simple self- interest or one calculation but can be self-defeating and contradictory and change in ways that we don't understand, and we don't even realize it until after we've already changed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you mentioned Taylor Mac’s 24-hour musical marathon. I can imagine that kind of captive experience [LAUGHS] forces you into directions that you might not go. I just wonder what did his compilation of American song tell you, if anything, that you might not have realized without it?
LOIS BECKETT: One of the important reminders it had for me was how much violence and trauma are part of the American experience, not just today but he starts in the first hour of the show with this Scottish ballad, which is about Highlanders fleeing after they lose a war, about leaving a country for a new land with your home set aflame and having to start again.
TAYLOR MAC, SINGING:
Our boots lay in the snow
And our houses were burnin’
I will go.
I will go.
LOIS BECKETT: So many Americans have been refugees in different ways. The particular dream and optimism and buoyancy that is so characteristically American are founded in this way on violence and trauma and fear. And this violence that people experienced and then visited on other people in this chain of exclusion - from the beginning, we founded our own land on pushing other people out – meanwhile, stealing the culture and the songs and the art of the people that we imprisoned or cast out.
I was speaking, as one does now, to a neo-Nazi for an article, and he said, white Americans have their distinctive culture separate from Europe that is, is only American and, and only white. And I was like, oh, what, what part of American culture is, is only American and only white? And he was like Faulkner. And I was like, no, Faulkner [LAUGHS] is not only about white Americans, that’s crazy. And he really struggled, and finally he said, well, the mountain dulcimer.
[STRUMMING SOUNDS/UP & UNDER]
That’s a, a white ethnic instrument, and I was like, okay, so you want to create a white ethno state in North America where you don’t have to listen to jazz and you don’t have to listen to rock ‘n roll and you can only listen to the dulcimer. Like, who wants to be part of that country? I don’t want to be part of that country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] So, if you were the king of culture and you could force our Congress to watch a piece of art –
LOIS BECKETT: Oh, it would be Taylor Mac! Lock them in a room, have someone sprinkle them with glitter and feed them and make them sing little songs awkwardly together and think about the weight of American history, feel the weight of American history. We make so many decisions as if we just – you know, everything – only the things that happened in the past two years are relevant and everything that we have now is, is hundreds of years bearing fruit. I think that we could all do to, to sit with that for a little while.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lois, thank you very much.
LOIS BECKETT: Thanks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lois Beckett is a senior reporter for The Guardian.
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, secrecy, evasion, deflection and diversion.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media.