Performance

Before the Trump-Inspired Julius Caesar, There Was Orson Welles’s Anti-Fascist Staging

The current, controversial Shakespeare in the Park show owes a more than superficial debt to Welles’s landmark production.

Corey Stoll and John Douglas Thompson in The Public Theater’s free Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar, directed by Oskar Eustis, running at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park through June 18 (photo by Joan Marcus)

Days before Kathy Griffin’s infamous photo shoot, audiences at the first preview of the Public Theater’s Trumped-up production of Julius Caesar witnessed an even more lurid attack on the presidential body. In the heart of Central Park, actors dressed like modern Senators lined up to stab a Caesar sporting a whorl of golden hair and an overlong red tie. Like Griffin, the Public shed supporters for its grizzly display. Last week, Delta Air Lines withdrew funding from the theater, followed by longtime partner Bank of America pulling its sponsorship of the current production. It seems that, for Delta’s and Bank of America’s money, one of the most political works in the Bard’s canon should be defanged, relegated to its original setting of the distant Roman past or some kind of nebulous now.

It wasn’t always like this. In Shakespeare’s day, plays were often freighted with Elizabethan politics and contemporary references. Today, a Trumpian double may jar those accustomed to seeing their Caesars in bed sheets, but the Queen’s and Chamberlain’s men invited modern parallels by dressing in modified garments. It was only in the post-Restoration 19th century that period-appropriate togas and laurel crowns landed in earnest on the brows of Booths and Barrymores.

The Mercury Theatre production of Caesar (June 1938), photo by Herbert Kehl for Coronet magazine (image via Wikimedia)

Then, in 1937, Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre launched with an intrepid adaptation of Caesar. Adapted, directed by, and starring a 21-year-old Welles as Brutus, the production was boldly staged and costumed to suggest Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. More specifically, the staggered beams of light penetrating the set evoked the “cathedral of light” effect seen at Nuremberg Rallies. This would have been readily recognizable to the audience — the 14th such rally for the Nazi party had been held only two months prior to the premiere. While a handful of previous productions had transposed Shakespeare onto the 20th century — among them a Macbeth set in the trenches of World War I and a 1923 Cymbeline with contemporary costuming — the heat of Welles’s Caesar hadn’t been felt from the canon since the plays were new and young Will and his company dodged the queen’s censors.

Welles’s anti-Fascist Caesar was a sensation. It moved locations, from the Mercury to the larger National Theatre, where it still commanded standing-room-only crowds, and it received such acclaim that Welles cast a touring company to play cities across the US. Columbia Records committed audio highlights of the performance to vinyl, and the original cast was photographed in color for Coronet magazine, wearing the great coats, Sam Browne belts, and jackboots that were then the modish staples of Fascism. The play had Hamilton-level hype.

The effects of Welles’s production are still felt today. Its bare-bones scenic design and use of lighted transitions set a new standard for minimalist stagecraft, while its modern dress and blocking, complete with Nazi salutes, opened the door for every staging that has since claimed contemporary resonance. Now, Mercury’s Caesar is being invoked in defense of the current production in Central Park, which owes a more than superficial debt to Welles’s work.

The Public production, directed by the theater’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, appears at times to be adapted from Welles’s original blocking, nowhere more than in the death of Cinna the Poet. In a revolutionary departure from the conventional staging, which calls for a mob, Welles restored the brief, often cut scene and had Cinna, mistaken for a conspirator of the same name, apprehended by a group of shadowy figures resembling the Gestapo, who questioned and ultimately killed him. The scene became the show’s calling card as a warning of Fascism’s threat to intellectuals. In Eustis’s conjuring, the movement is much the same, though the Gestapo is swapped for a crew of soldiers in riot gear, who aim their rifles at Cinna while he insists on his innocence, crying “I’m Cinna the Poet!” The scene might be read as auguring a hostile administration’s assault on art, and with the loss of the sponsorships, the prophecy’s been fulfilled.

Orson Welles as Brutus in the Mercury Theatre production of Caesar (June 1938), photo by Herbert Kehl for Coronet magazine (image via Wikimedia)

Ultimately, what makes Eustis’s riff objectionable in comparison with Welles’s landmark production may be how little it deals in the play’s richest resource: ambiguity. Dressed in khaki trench coats, Welles’s Brutus, Joseph Holland’s Caesar, and Martin Gabel’s Cassius evoked the specter of Fascism — which could possess anyone — more than Mussolini, Hitler, or Franco specifically. No one player wore a telltale toothbrush mustache, and that kept it from being received as a parody.

By comparison, the singular gaudy mane and turgid bearing of Eustis’s Caesar are unmistakable; it’s clear why some viewers might find his onstage death to be an act of petty liberal vengeance. By the time the play makes a jarring tonal shift to the agonizing of Brutus, it’s too little too late. Gregg Henry’s performance as an SNL-ready dictator is so loud as to mute the text’s moral grays and refute the going argument that the production supports Shakespeare’s thesis that assassination is a bad and bloody business. Straining against his script in pursuit of an easy target, Eustis asks us to do the impossible: laugh at a Trumpian Caesar and then cry for the consequences of his death. By all accounts, Welles’s production was surprising and, most importantly, prescient in warning of an incipient political threat, while also remaining faithful to the Bard’s verse.

It may seem improbable to think of a Fascist Julius Caesar as somehow subtle or open-ended, but Welles’s mark on modern Shakespeare underlines an important takeaway for how to broach the present: Caesar can be (a kind of) Hitler, Caesar can be (a kind of) Trump, but he can’t be Trump, because Trump could only play one stock role in Shakespeare — that of the clown.

Julius Caesar continues at the Delacorte Theater (Central Park, Manhattan) through June 18.

Correction: This review stated that Stephen Adly Guirgis plays Cinna in the Public’s production; though he was originally cast in the role, he did not end up appearing. We regret the error, and it has been fixed. 

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