Thursday, June 15, 2017

Presidents and Emperors

Since I’ve been writing lately about the way I related to various events of 1967, I thought this week I’d write about yet one more: the performance of MacBird! I attended with, of all people, my mother. For readers too old or too young to remember back that far, MacBird! was a play by Barbara Garson starring Stacy Keach (at the very beginning of his career) and Rue McClanahan (long before she became the sexy one on The Golden Girls) that ran for almost a year at the Village Gate in 1967 and 1968, and which basically accused Lyndon Johnson of complicity in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Layering the actual details of the Kennedy assassination and LBJ’s subsequent assumption of the presidency over the plot of Macbeth (with some side-dollops of Richard III and Hamlet), the show in its day was considered too radical for a real Broadway house and was relegated to the West Village, then (as now) the Manhattan-theater-scene equivalent of Siberia.  My mother, already slightly radicalized and by then a card-carrying member of N.O.W., was curious enough to want to see the show. I wanted to see it too…and I apparently wanted to see it badly enough to suffer the ignominy of going along with my mother. (And, for readers who were never teenaged boys, let me assure you that that we are talking about serious ignominy here.) Besides, I told myself, who would actually see me walking down Bleecker Street with my mom?

It was June, the same June on the first day of which the Sgt. Pepper album was released— a major cultural watershed-moment in my own life, as explained in this space a week or two ago—and during the first weeks of which Israel won the Six Day War. It was also the month of the Monterey Pop festival, the precursor to Woodstock that catapulted both Jimi Hendrix and The Who to real fame in America and brought them both, particularly Jimi, to my personal attention. It was, to say the least, an interesting month, that month of my fourteenth birthday. And, as if all the above weren’t enough, it was also the month I went with my mother to see MacBird!.

No one, not then and surely not now, actually thought or thinks that Lyndon Baines Johnson might possibly have played a role in the assassination of John Kennedy. Nor did anyone imagine (admittedly impossibly) that Johnson’s subsequent rise to real power was best understood as some sort of mystically-conceived prequel to House of Cards, the Netflix series that is precisely about the ascension to the presidency of an unprincipled, corrupt demagogue, the character of whose wife truly does feel as though it’s been modelled at least on part on the character of Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s play. But it mattered little that the point wasn’t actually to indict the sitting president of his predecessor’s murder, but merely to suggest the ultimate corruption of the political process…and the way that the fate of the nation had somehow come to rest in the hands of someone whose primary focus was not on the welfare of the nation he was charged with leading, but with the furtherance of his own personal political agenda. It was, as is all biting satire, overstated. But it caught the attention of the public, seemed somehow to capture the spirit of the time, and had a respectable 11-month off-Broadway run followed by productions in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and elsewhere.

Johnson, remembered now primarily for his “Great Society” legislative package and for his “War on Poverty,” was in 1967 primarily perceived by America’s radicalized youth as the bogeyman of the Vietnam War, as the man primarily responsible for the tens of thousands of American casualties—more than 22,000 American servicemen and women had died in Vietnam by the evening I saw MacBird! with my mother—in a war regarding the legitimacy and reasonableness of which the American people were, to say the very least, strongly divided. It wasn’t the fairest assessment. LBJ inherited Vietnam from Kennedy, who—at least in a sense—inherited it from Dwight Eisenhower. (The first American servicemen to lose their lives in Vietnam died in 1959.) And Johnson was, in a real sense, playing a zero-sum game by trying to fight a war in a distant land that had the inarguably noble goal of saving an ally from being overrun by Communist forces eager to reunite Vietnam as a single entity under the totalitarian leadership of its ruling cadre and, at the same time, not having the popular support at home to do the job successfully and effectively. Instead, we attempted to shore up the troops of the unpopular non-communist regime without understanding just how little support its leaders had among their own people. It was, therefore, a loser’s game. And, as happens when people play loser’s games, we lost. But that was still years in the future when I was making my way from the subway to the theater with my mother in June of 1967 and praying I didn’t run into anyone I knew from school on a theater date with my mom.

I was brought back to that whole experience just this week as I read about the turmoil the Public Theater’s production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar has engendered, turmoil serious enough to prompt two major funders, the Bank of America and Delta Airlines, to withdraw their support for the production.  Of course, all this controversy will paradoxically make it impossible to get tickets to see the show, but that, of course, was hardly the goal...which was to signal the former sponsors’ lack of interest in having their corporate names attached to a biting piece of overtly political theater that is openly and sharply disrespectful of the current President and First Lady, and which they feared could possibly be taken as calling for the assassination of the former.

Gregg Henry plays Caesar as Trump, depicting him as a self-absorbed, preening tyrant who bathes in a golden bathtub that matches his shock of golden hair. His wife Calpurnia, played by Tina Benko, dresses extremely well and speaks with a distinctly Slovenian accept. You get the idea. Any student of Shakespeare knows that Julius Caesar is far more about Brutus than it is about its own title character, somewhat in the way The Merchant of Venice is far more about Shylock than Antonio, the actual merchant mentioned in the title. (Brutus has at least four times as many lines as Caesar, and the psychological tension—the exquisite psychological tension—that gives the play its relentless, unsettling energy derives from Brutus’s efforts to negotiate his way through a maze of conflicting obligations relating to comradeship, patriotism, honor, and duty.)

Nor is the notion of “updating” Julius Caesar to suggest its enduring relevancy anything new: as recently as 2012, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis featured Bjorn DuPaty dressed up and made up to look eerily like Barack Obama in the title role in a production that appears not to have offended any major corporate sponsors at all. Of course, the concept there was to warn the public about the vulnerability of our first black President, not to encourage his murder! So here we have the same play, the same lines, the same plot—and even the same update concept of presenting Caesar as our sitting president—and yet the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production has provoked twin tidal waves of emotion, one responding as though the production were openly to be promoting the murder of Donald Trump and the other as though the principle of free speech itself were somehow to depend on Delta Airlines renouncing its right to choose to which cultural events it wishes to lend its name and where it wishes to spend its money. Both sides are just a bit overstated.

The function of art in society is to irritate and to provoke. But to imagine that the specific thing the Public is trying to provoke with this production is the murder of President Trump is really to misunderstand the play.  The key to the play, both as I remember understanding it in eleventh grade when it was explained to us by Mr. Bergman and as I understand it today, is to show how, although the assassination of Caesar was undertaken by people who surely felt themselves to be acting in their nation’s best interest, Caesar’s murder a true catastrophe for Rome…and, at that, one from which the Roman Republic never recovered. Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE. Civil war ensued. Within a few years, Caesar’s adopted heir, Octavian, emerged as emperor of the newly-invented Roman Empire and democracy was gone from Roman soil for millennia. By acting violently to preserve democracy, the conspirators managed to destroy it instead.

The enduring brilliance of Shakespeare’s play lies in the questions it manages obliquely to ask. How far can the citizens of a republic legitimately go to preserve their nation by removing a leader working at cross-purposes with what they perceive to be the nation’s best interests? Who among the citizenry have the right to self-select as the nation’s saviors…and at what point does it matter that the path to salvation lies in violence?  Does the fact that no assassins can say with certainty what the consequences of their lawlessness will be mean, ipso facto, that all instances of extra-judicial violence are morally wrong…or merely ill-advised? Students of the Bible will think of Pinchas, valorized in the Torah precisely for having been so repulsed by the decadent, vulgar behavior of a fellow Israelite that he took it upon himself personally to serve as that individual’s judge, jury, and executioner. Students of history who feel deeply regretful about the failure of the famous plot to murder Hitler in the summer of 1944 will surely not feel that it is always wrong to act unilaterally to defeat a brutal tyrant. The simplest of assertions—that violence is always wrong, and that citizens may never act on their own violently to solve their nation’s problems—becomes far more complex in the discussing.

To the extent that the Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar will usher its audience into the complexities of that discussion, it should be hailed as a legitimate piece of provocative theater. To the extent it reminds all who view the play just how devastating the consequences of even the most well-intentioned act can be, it will serve not as a spur to violence but, just to the contrary, as an argument against violence and lawlessness. To the extent that the Public’s production promotes the view of its artistic director, Oskar Eustis, that Shakespeare’s ultimate point is that “those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic methods [will ultimately] pay a terrible price and destroy their republic,” it should be hailed by all as a civics lesson for us all.

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