Julius Caesar Director Responds to the “Right-Wing Hate Machine” Criticizing His Trumpian Production

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Earlier this week, the Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar came under fire for depicting the eventually-assassinated Caesar as a Trump-like figure. People not familiar with the play, who didn’t see this production, and who thought Shakespeare (and therefore also the Public) was in any way promoting the idea of murdering political figures, were really upset. Some went so far as to say the production played some role in yesterday’s horrific shooting of a GOP congressional baseball practice.

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Public Theater Artistic Director Oskar Eustis, who also directed this production, spoke to the New York Times about the reaction, which he says he didn’t see coming, but also, as he sees it, doesn’t really have anything to do with his play. He says “all of this stuff is not about my production of Julius Caesar. This is about the right-wing hate machine.” He says before Brietbart wrote up the show, 20,000 people had seen it in previews, and there were “maybe eight, nine complaints.”

Now, though, “Those thousands of people who are calling our corporate sponsors to complain about this — none of them have seen the show. They’re not interested in seeing the show. They haven’t read Julius Caesar. They are being manipulated by Fox & Friends and other news sources, which are deliberately, for their own gain, trying to rile people up and turn them against an imagined enemy, which we are not.”

Eustis points to the production of Julus Caesar done in 2012 by a mentee of his, which depicted Obama as Caesar. “That production played all over the country. Not one peep from anybody.” So this is not about him, or the play itself. Rather, “This is really an example of what this kind of demagoguery does.”

The Public Theater has a long history of pushing envelopes with their productions. They are the original home of Hair and Hamilton, both designed to challenge minds and status quos. They’ve hosted conversations on the legacy of radical protest. They recently closed an all-too-timely rock opera version of Joan of Arc. Provocation is nothing new for them. This reaction, though, is not proportionate to the material. Again, the critics are treating the show like it’s encouraging or celebrating the idea of assassination. If anyone who actually saw the show or ever read the play believes that, they couldn’t have been paying much attention. Eustis says just as the script intended, “This production is horrified at [Caesar’s] murder.”

His real issue at the end of all this, is not with the individuals who got caught up in the outrage. It’s with the institutions who should have known better. While being interviewed by the New York Times, he does not mince words about how royally he thinks they screwed up. When the story started picking up steam, the paper broke the Public’s embargo and released their review early. That’s not normal behavior, and was a direct response to the frenzy stirred up by Brietbart and their readers. Rather than ignore or respond to the misplaced rage, they added to it. “That’s a perfect example of how we are allowing the right-wing hate machine to change our relationships to each other, and that is bad” Eustis told the journalist interviewing him. “You and I, and The New York Times and I, will recover from it, but still I think it’s not what we should be doing.”

Eustis says that he doesn’t blame Delta and Bank of America for pulling out as sponsors, since this is, after all a business. But the response has been powerful. He says, “there are an awful lot of people who have stepped up, without being asked, to express solidarity with us, in emotional and financial terms, because the stand that we’ve taken about freedom of the art, freedom of speech, the ability to do provocative work, the ability to do work that speaks to the real issues and anxiety of our time, is something they support.”

In that video up top, from a pre-show speech delivered by Eustis, he explains that Julius Caesar isn’t the great happy story of a tyrant taken down. Rather, the play “warns about what happens when you try to preserve democracy by non-democratic means.” It also warns of “the danger of a large crowd of people, manipulated by their emotions, taken over by leaders who urge them to do things that not only are against their interests, but destroy the very institutions that are there to serve and protect them.”

I suppose it’s only fitting that the protest of the play would take the same form.

You can donate to the Public here if you feel so moved.

(via New York Times, image: YouTube)

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Vivian Kane
Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.