There are two types of clowns in Shakespeare: clever fools who speak truth to power (King Lear’s court jester, Feste in Twelfth Night) and actual idiots, written to be laughed at, who spew malapropisms and wind up magically transformed into asses. The alt-right agitators who interrupted Friday’s Shakespeare in the Park performance of Julius Caesar fell squarely into the latter category. While they may have failed in their primary goal of activist mischief – I happened to be sitting in the audience and can attest that the brief disruption merely added a frisson of excitement to an excellent, already electric production, so, thanks for that, dudes – they did manage one neat trick, turning one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedies, ever so briefly, into a comedy.
Certain segments of the Right have been stirred by news reports of this Caesar, in which the assassinated Roman emporer has been recast as a Trump figure. (There are also visual references throughout to Ferguson and Occupy Wall Street.) Charges of liberal hypocrisy were promiscuously levied – “The Left doesn’t like it when their tactics are used against their ‘expression.’ How many wd storm stage if ‘Obama’ was stabbed?” Laura Ingraham tweeted – though, as many have pointed out, an Obama-like Caesar had been offed in a 2012 production of the play at Minneapolis’ esteemed Guthrie Theater, with no attendant fuss. Beyond that, to interpret Julius Caesar as somehow pro-assassination is both illiterate and ahistorical. As the British critic and Shakespearean scholar Frank Kermode once wrote, “Shakespeare treats [Brutus] with delicate sympathy, but cannot have thought his act a right one.”
Still, with news of the production breaking so soon after Kathy Griffin’s gross, unfunny mock-beheading of Trump, a misreading – willful or otherwise – of director Oskar Eustis’ intentions was inevitable. But any good-faith critic of the show who actually sat through it would have to admit there’s zero celebration of violence in the staging. Indeed, quite the opposite: the gory stabbing of Caesar-Trump (subtly played by Gregg Henry) was horrific, eliciting audible gasps from the crowd; a woman sitting near me covered her face.
Seconds later, a woman dressed in black rushed onto the stage. It wasn’t clear, at first, if she was part of the show – throughout the performance, actors in street clothes portraying members of various mobs erupted from the audience – but the deer-in-the-headlights look in her eyes gave her game away. “Stop the normalization of political violence against the right!” she cried, ignoring what she’d presumably just seen, an opposite-of-normalizing staging of violence that had left the audience stunned. I’m guessing she’d assumed members of the liberal New York crowd would all be laughing and high-fiving and clinking champagne flutes at the fictional death of the fictional Trump, and that she’d timed her outburst for maximum buzzkill. The audience did cheer as she was escorted from the amphitheater by security. (She was subsequently revealed to be Laura Loomer, a blogger for a Canadian alt-right website.)
As the commotion unfolded onstage, a man sitting in the section to my left stood up, holding a camera phone, and began screaming, “You are all Goebbels!” He meant Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, but hilariously, he mispronounced the name so thoroughly, many people were simply puzzled. Turning to my friend, I whispered, “Why is this guy calling us gerbils?” His name turned out to be Jack Dogberry – oh wait, I’m sorry, Posobiec – an online conspiracy theorist who has promoted lies like PizzaGate. Charmingly, he would later post on Twitter, “I 100% pronounced Goebbels the correct American English way. Sorry, kraut-lovers.”
He was escorted out, too, and the show went on. Later, he’d lie online about witnessing “a Manhattan crowd roar with applause as President Trump was stabbed again and again on stage” – 100 percent false. (It’s here I’ll note that Posobiec has been granted White House press credentials.) We did roar with applause, however, after his ouster, when the disembodied voice of the stage manager came over the intercome with the perfect cue, pointing the cast to the line that comes right after the dying Caesar’s “Et tu, Brute?”: “Actors, please, let’s start up at ‘Liberty! Freedom!'”