Saturday, June 24, 2017

Playing Politics: Reflections on the Public Theater Controversy

In retrospect, it was dangerous to put on a play that depicted the murder of the nation’s leader at such a politically unsettled time. The country was divided and facing troubling questions about how secure and long-lasting the head of state’s tenure in office might be. It was bogged down fighting an overseas insurgency, pitting its forces against followers of a religion that some argued could threaten its very existence. Indeed, there were frequent rumors that domestic members of that same faith were plotting violent attacks that could bring down the government and usher in despotic rule by foreigners.

The time was 1601, the place was England, and the drama in question was, according to later court testimony, “the play of the deposing and killing of King Richard the Second,” likely William Shakespeare’s historical drama The Life and Death of King Richard the Second. Shakespeare’s own company staged the play at the request of some supporters of Robert Devereaux, the Earl of Essex, who had recently returned in disgrace after failing to suppress a rebellion in Ireland. Feeling he’d been backed into a corner by his enemies after his defeat abroad, Essex launched a desperate gamble, planning to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I’s government. Some of his co-conspirators decided that, in order to gain the support of Londoners, they should commission Shakespeare’s troupe, known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, to perform one of the older plays in their repertoire, which depicted the downfall and eventual death of an English king who was known for his ineffectual leadership. Given that he was working with men who were shortsighted enough to stage a play that proclaimed their intentions in advance, it’s not surprising that Essex’s coup ultimately failed. Elizabeth had him and many of his followers executed for treason. She was understandably shaken by the plot; months later, she supposedly asked the writer William Lambarde, “I am Richard II, know you not that?”

Luckily for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, they seem to have escaped any sort of punishment for their involvement in the plot. One of the actors in the company, Augustine Phillips, testified at the subsequent trial that the company hadn’t really wanted to put on Richard II, since it wasn’t a new or an especially popular play, but that Essex’s supporters had offered a large enough sum of money to make it worth their while. It’s just as well that Elizabeth let the Lord Chamberlain’s Men off, since a harsh punishment might have brought Shakespeare’s career to a premature end. Some of his fellow playwrights, such as Ben Jonson, were imprisoned and tortured for writing works that offended the authorities. Theatre could be a dangerous undertaking because of its potential for making politically controversial or subversive statements.

Shakespeare and company’s brush with the law in 1601 echoes down to the present day, when the Public Theater’s recent production of Julius Caesar has drawn conservative outrage for its depiction of the title character as a figure vaguely resembling Donald Trump. Never mind that previous productions have drawn parallels between Caesar and virtually every prominent political figure of the past few centuries (including Barack Obama), or that Oskar Eustis, the director of the Public’s production, has explicitly stated that he’s using the play to show the futility of political violence. Individuals such as Donald Trump, Jr. and Peggy Noonan have tried to draw parallels between the production and the recent shooting of Republican congressmen and staffers, members of the alt-right have tried to disrupt the Public’s performances, and many classical theatre companies across the country with no connection with the Public have received complaints and threats simply for including Shakespeare in their names or programming.

Some of these conservative figures have expressed concern that the Public’s Julius Caesar may have been funded in part by taxpayer dollars (it hasn’t been), which points to one of the underlying issues that appears to be driving this controversy. There’s a sense that art in general, and theatre in particular, should never be political, particularly if it’s going to receive public money. Shakespeare, according to this view, should remain timeless, removed from immediate political concerns and inoffensive to all. But advancing these notions ignores the sort of historical truth demonstrated by an incident like that ill-fated production of Richard II in 1601: theatre is always liable to become politicized. Indeed, the fact that plays like Richard II or Julius Caesar keep getting revived, over 400 years after they debuted on the London stage, is testament to theatre’s ability to reinvent itself anew to reflect changing times and circumstances. We lament the creative stasis that Hollywood’s endless cycle of remakes and sequels seems to represent, but we eagerly look forward to the latest spin on Hamlet or Macbeth, even though they’ve been staged countless times before. The row over Julius Caesar in Central Park this summer may say something troubling about our current political situation, but it’s a testament to theatre’s ongoing power to keep highlighting such troubles, and – hopefully – to spur constructive debate.

– Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for WBUR's Cognoscenti page and HowlRound. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.

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