What I learned from a way-off Broadway production of 'Julius Caesar'
The “Julius Caesar” staged by the Public Theater in New York City has lost sponsors because of the director’s choice to style Caesar after President Trump (complete with a Slavic-accented wife Calpurnia), setting the stage for the brutal murder of someone who looks a lot like our sitting president. But when I saw it, I was less bothered by any implicit threat of assassination than by the way the production distorted the timeless play in an unnecessary bid for relevance.
The play comfortably stands on its own; the actors were talented and at their best in the scenes that were not encumbered by pussy hats, gold-plated bathtubs and other visual ties to the current political moment. I would have loved to see them stage the show straight. Thankfully, I am getting a chance at a do-over.
I was less bothered by any implicit threat of assassination than by the way the production distorted the timeless play in an unnecessary bid for relevance.
I have spent this week rehearsing for an amateur, seat-of-our-pants production of “Julius Caesar” (planned before the Shakespeare in the Park controversy). Our cast of eight is putting together the show over five nights of three-hour rehearsals squeezed in after work each day. Learning my lines on this schedule is the closest I have ever gotten to a runner’s high: that combination of pain and exhilaration. Pressed for time, I have practiced only my cues and my replies. In rehearsal, I am constantly startled by the lines of my scene partners, which I have not gotten around to reading ahead of time.
It is not the ideal way to prepare a professional production (though it does resemble the methods of Shakespeare’s actors, who each had only cue scripts, not complete texts), but it has a breathlessness to it that feels particularly apt for this play. Conspirators, soldiers and plebeians alike are constantly overtaken by events; their only moments of silence are sickly, not peaceful.
One of the most potent pauses follows Caesar’s famous lines “Et tu, Brute?” and his death. Before Cassius attempts to rally his allies with shouts of “Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!” the conspirators stand in awed silence that quickly becomes awkward.
Conspirators, soldiers and plebeians alike are constantly overtaken by events; their only moments of silence are sickly, not peaceful.
But their pause is too short to be able to plan the next move. Soon Mark Antony is there, and they must decide in that moment whether or not to kill him. They let him live, and he stirs up the populace. The last act of the show is a carnival of death.
Brutus, the protagonist and one of the lead conspirators, embodies the exhaustion of the story. He spends the show not sleeping. He paces in his orchard; his wife complains of his unquiet; he summons servants in the middle of the night and then regrets keeping them from bed, saying, “I should not urge thy duty past thy might, I know young bloods look for a time of rest.” But he finds none himself, agitated by sorrow, unable to collect himself.
In acedia, we fail to love the world but do not turn our love to any other object either.
The frenetic activity of my parts in our way-off-Broadway production feels rooted in acedia, one of the seven deadly sins. Acedia is frequently rendered in English as “sloth” but can also be understood as “sorrow.” In the adult Sunday school at my church, the Dominican friars taught us that St. Thomas Aquinas contrasted acedia with vainglory or pride. In vainglory, we love ourselves too much, letting that love eclipse our love of God and others. In acedia, we fail to love the world but do not turn our love to any other object either. Aquinas sees acedia as the source of not only of faintheartedness but spite (a sour-grapes-style downgrading of the thing we ought to love) and distraction (filling our lives with busyness to keep us from having the leisure to love as we ought).
Something of that restlessness seems to have motivated the Public Theater’s staging. Rather than anchoring the production in Shakespeare’s text, the play went chasing the current zeitgeist, the same way Twitter erupted in “covfefe” memes after President Trump’s famous typo. Being quick to retweet and to riff does not make us rightly responsive; it can be a way to outrun our responsibilities.
I will be glad to get some sleep when our “Julius Caesar”closes this Saturday, and I can stop living the fevered life of Casca the conspirator. In my examination of conscience, I will try to stay on guard against recasting myself in his role: someone who cannot respond virtuously to tyranny because he has become unrooted from his proper loves.