Today’s John Wilkes Booths have many more plays to master than just “Julius Caesar.”
On the eve of the summer theater festival season we can anticipate a revival of Shakespeare productions motivated by a heartfelt commitment to make theatergoers understand that when the bard had his various characters commit regicide, it was Donald Trump he had in mind.
Stage directors will outdo themselves in bloody and bloodier choreography as Macbeth, Claudius, Caesar, and Richard III are hacked, slashed, and stabbed to death in ludicrously elongated orgies of violence with each tyrant portrayed as a blond-haired, red-cravated Trump. Dutifully and predictably, in an expression of mass virtue signaling, the audience will hoot, howl, laugh, and applaud. A ticket stub will be bandied as a membership card to the “resistance.”
Some truly inspired director is sure to portray Duncan as Trump, so that Macbeth can spend a full five minutes frenetically stabbing him in his sleep, which should provide ample time for the Trump hating zealots to achieve their ultimate catharsis.
It’s a testament to the enduring genius of these plays that they will survive even these banal productions, which try mightily to reduce Shakespeare’s brilliant insights of the human condition to their own peevish politics.
Alas, these cardboard cutout interpretations of Shakespeare are nothing new. For decades stage directors trying oh so hard to be hip, cool, and “provocative” have been putting swastikas on Shakespeare’s villains — tragic flaws as armbands.
Regrettably and deplorably (can we reclaim that word?) this insidious agitprop is now a permanent fixture in opera productions as well. Not even Gluck is immune. The underworld creatures in Orpheus and Eurydice must now sport swastika armbands de rigeur.
Ironically the staging of classical theater and opera has been hijacked by an idiot class of propagandists who would have prospered in Goebbels’ Ministry of Public Enlightenment or Lenin’s People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment.
In the years prior to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, his murderer became more and more practiced in the powerful, poetic language of regicide. Between Fort Sumter in 1861 and Appomattox in 1865 John Wilkes Booth played Hamlet, Macbeth, and Brutus on stages north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line. As he became more and more agitated in his simmering rage at the President, he came to identify Lincoln as the embodiment of each of Shakespeare’s tyrants. Moreover, the Bard had provided him with language to forcefully articulate his cause.
In the Director’s Cut of my movie Gods and Generals we track Booth’s gradual radicalization as he performs Shakespeare’s regicides on stages in Richmond, Chicago, and Washington City, where Lincoln himself attended his portrayal of Macbeth. Mary Todd Lincoln later commented that during the “dagger soliloquy” she thought Booth had been staring directly at them, seated in a balcony box seat near the stage. After the performance Lincoln requested a visit with the star of stage and scene, but Booth turned him down. The awkward occasion is re-created in the film.
Some of Booth’s theatrical moments were uncannily eerie. On the very evening of the battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, Booth was on stage in Chicago as Hamlet. In the movie we pan over seemingly endless rows of corpses as Booth recites,
“…I see the imminent death of twenty thousand men,
That for a fantasy and trick of fame,
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain? O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!”
In fact, that very day 20,000 men in blue and gray lay dead at Antietam. In the logic of his own mind (which we are free to reject) Booth put the responsibility for the massive killing and the war itself on Lincoln.
In their sanctimonious frenzy, theatergoers cheering Central Park’s production of Julius Caesar may need reminding that American presidents have already been assassinated. Do they really revel in such political murder? Do they really want to see a sequel of Booth’s regicide? Do they think Booth is to be commended (or even celebrated) in murdering Lincoln because he himself felt entirely justified in doing so? Do these audiences cheer at cinematic renditions of Lincoln’s assassination and would they prefer Lincoln portrayed as blond-haired, sporting a red tie?
Perhaps they would like to see a remake of Oliver Stone’s JFK, with President Kennedy played by a blond-haired Trump lookalike so they could cheer as the president’s brains were splattered across Jackie’s pink jacket.
Assassination is an ugly business. It’s frightful in itself, in the violent murder perpetrated on the victim. It is ugly as well, because it seeks to overturn the public will and the established order. Its other victim is the democratic system itself, the ordered way in which political power is temporarily transferred from the people to their trustee.
In their mindless bloodthirsty revels at the Public Theater in Central Park, what critics and audiences are really saying is that John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald were right. If your anger is genuine, if your rage is justified, it’s more than OK to take the law into your own hands. It is, in fact, your duty.
Missed by the myopic stage directors and their bleating fans is that Shakespeare doesn’t make Brutus the hero of his play. Nor does he make Caesar its villain. As with all of his characters, they are entirely human in their complexity and contradiction. Shakespeare gave what turned out to be one of his most enduring lines not to Brutus, but to Mark Antony, who excoriates the assassins in his “Friends, Romans and Countrymen” peroration. Shakespeare was not unaware that Queen Elizabeth and her court would not look kindly on a sympathetic assassin.
Near the end of Gods and Generals there’s a scene between Booth and Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and his wife Fanny. It is entirely imagined, as Booth was indeed playing Brutus at a theater in Washington City at precisely the same time that Chamberlain was in the capital visiting his wife on a brief furlough. In their conversation backstage after the play, Fanny Chamberlain puts this question to Booth, “Do you regard yourself as the hero or the villain of Shakespeare’s play?” His reply is elusive, ambivalent. Perhaps he already knows what he will do and is fearful of betraying his sanguinary fantasy.
Try as they will, Central Park’s silly thespians will not succeed in shrinking the Bard to fit neatly into their own petty political box. He cannot be reduced to a bumper sticker for their anti-democratic “resistance.”
Shakespeare for dummies, indeed.
Ron Maxwell wrote and directed the Civil War movies Gettysburg, Gods and Generals, and Copperhead.