“Eighty percent of life is showing up.”
~ Woody Allen
From the Middle English publique, from Anglo-French, from Latin publicus; akin to Latin populus people
First Known Use: 14th century
(Source: Merriam-Webster online)
Back when we the aspiring wrote our first serious essays for public view in high school, one of our classmates would have the novel idea (novel for a 15-year-old) of opening the essay with a dictionary definition of a key word, such as “stream” or “consciousness,” say, to start off the proceedings. Other eager writers, deeply impressed, would then copy this technique, and at some point during the year, after reading dozens of such openings, your teacher would write in red on your essay, “You might try another approach.” Deflated, for you were really excited to try out your brilliant classmate’s technique for yourself, you nonetheless pushed yourself to find a unique way into the next essay. The same happens when we in the theater direct classic plays: We can’t repeat the same old formulas when approaching a classic, because what was old needs to feel new again: Artists look at a work by, say, Shakespeare, and ask themselves, Why this play? Why now? What could we do to bring it to life in the modern age, make it contemporary and meaningful to today’s theater-goer? Sometimes it works, this novel approach, and sometimes not so much, but one of the best things about art, even if done without easy success, and maybe especially then, is that it gets us, the public, talking about it.
So with all that in mind, and given the current controversy over the Public Theater’s production of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar in Shakespeare in the Park in New York City (and can I get a “Hail, Caesar”?), it seems a definition is in order. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary online, here are the definitions of public:
Definition of public https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/public
- 1a: exposed to general view : open b : well-known, prominent c : perceptible, material
- 2a: of, relating to, or affecting all the people or the whole area of a nation or state public law b : of or relating to a government c : of, relating to, or being in the service of the community or nation
- 3a: of or relating to people in general : universal b : general, popular
- 4: of or relating to business or community interests as opposed to private affairs : social
- 5: devoted to the general or national welfare : humanitarian
- 6a: accessible to or shared by all members of the community b : capitalized in shares that can be freely traded on the open market —often used with go
- 7: supported by public funds and private contributions rather than by income from commercials public radio public television
Your Miss O’ here hasn’t seen the now internationally famous production (free and open to the public (see definition 3a) in Central Park, closing today as they prepare their next offering (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Melania as Titania; I kid! Ahem), but I did teach the play itself for all of my 15 years in public (see definitions 2a, 3a, 5, and 6a above) high schools, as an English teacher. The play has been taught nationally since the early 20th century, I learned, as a replacement for what used to be called Rhetoric, when public speaking (see definition 3a above) began disappearing from the school curriculum. Julius Caesar the play is, as was the man himself, fabulously political, which is often unwelcome in America lately because too many Citizens (or Plebians, in Caesar) aren’t terribly educated on the whole about civics (a Greek and Roman idea with a Latin root in the word). Schools, as we know, are competing with lots of stimuli from the public arena (see definition 1a above), and teachers more often than not are having “to fight to teach,” as Miss O’s colleague of many years, Mrs. Little, was often heard to say in the years before she retired.
So what is a public? What is a republic? And what do they have to do with a theater in New York City called The Public Theater? I read yesterday of all these protests attending the Public’s production, protests carried out by a public consisting of people who have probably not heard of the play outside of a vague memory of suffering through Mrs. Ayers’s triple-matching test one semester of their sophomore year of high school (I mean, what the hell?). Doubtless the protesters of the Public had never read the play with anything like understanding, let alone seen a live production, or even sat through the entire movie with Marlon Brando in the pivotal role of Marc Antony.
What they are missing—and what anyone up in arms (an idiom which was once quite literally about raising ones weapons) about this event is missing—is knowledge, both of the subject matter and the play. (One could say the same about most any public protest, for one should always know deeply the why of any protest.) It’s easy enough to Google both the man or the play in Wikipedia (and anyone reading this blog won’t need to, more than likely, which is the futility of writing blogs like this), but chances are that even still, most Americans probably know more lines from it than they realize:
Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears…
…let slip the dogs of war…
Though last, not least in love… (“last but not least”)
Those might surprise you—these everyday things. Here are others, seen online:
Beware the ides of March.
Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar!
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Cæsar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar.
It was Greek to me.
Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
This was the noblest Roman of them all.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
This was the most unkindest cut of all.
Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods. (“a dish fit for a king”)
Not that I loved Cæsar less, but that I loved Rome more.
What Julius Caesar is, though, beyond the quotes, is a fascinating study in the greed for power desired by a few men who would lay waste to the land, their institutions, and the people they would lead in order to attain more of it. It’s a study, too, in the use of language, of rhetoric, to not only persuade but also hoodwink a crowd with conspiracy theory, getting the crowd to do the looting, killing, and army work in order to feed the hunger of one man’s desire for power. In other words, it’s an instructive play, and it’s a hard play, and its themes are and remain universal across civilized societies everywhere. And it took me years to understand it and to love it. That is Shakespeare for you. That is life for you.
The Public and the Republic
Should you care to, there’s a solid Wikipedia article on the meaning of republic, and it’s worth a look at the history. At the time the play is set, and in real life, Julius Caesar was the head of the Roman Republic, which republic was an exercise in representative government that carries over to our American Democratic Republic today. At the time Shakespeare’s play begins, Caesar was about to be crowned emperor by the people, and the concern of the play is, and remains, our own concern today: Can we have representative government of the people with a king in charge, however idolized by the general populus? And is assassination (a word that first appears in print in Shakespeare) of the man who would be king ever the right choice? (Hint: No.) And why are crowds so easily manipulated and so goddamned fickle? The rise of Marc Antony is especially chilling. If you read nothing else, read Act III of the play: The assassination, the aftermath—ring leader (and yet noble) Brutus’s hasty act and unrehearsed speech, Antony’s vengeful use of that speech in his own rhetoric to turn the crowd to “mutiny”; and finally, the shocking turn of the grieving Antony into the gleeful victor as the crowds tear away on a killing spree: “Mischief thou art afoot. Take thou what course thou wilt.” In Act IV, he has his own nephew killed. And we and the people learn the hard way: Great a speaker as he is, devoted to Caesar as he is, Antony is really only loyal to Antony.
Coming Up Trumps
Yet another Shakespeare play resembles the present age of American politics: it’s Richard III, only with a president who is infinitely less intelligent if no less mentally unstable than Richard. But what the two have in common is a desperate need for power, accolades, and above all loyalty. Watch Al Pacino’s wonderful documentary and filmed version of scenes from the play, Looking for Richard, and you’ll see what I mean. And another Shakespeare play that comes to mind, in a painfully diminished form, is King Lear, where the old king divides his empire among his three children, demanding from each supplication and eternal devotion. And we all know how that turned out. Or we should—and it’s why education and the arts matter, matter, matter. Goddammit anyway. Because if you’d just read Shakespeare, you’d see that not only have we seen all this before, we saw it in language so far elevated above the National Tweet it makes your head do a Spicer spin. And yet Shakespeare might make some people feel, you know, stupid, or put down, because anyone can understand a tweet. And isn’t that all we need?
“Julius Caesar can be read as a warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy by undemocratic means.
To fight the tyrant does not mean imitating him.” – Oskar Eustis
The Public Theater (see definitions 1-7 above) is a terrific institution (https://www.publictheater.org), if hit-or-miss in terms of quality, so that the same theater that gives you Hamilton and Fun Home also gives you David Byrne’s (“not ready for prime time at ALL” according to friends) Joan of Arc and, according to some reviews, this production of Julius Caesar (Read Oskar Eustis’s statement here: https://www.publictheater.org/Julius-Caesar/). As to hit-or-miss: Who cares? Life is hit-or-miss (just ask our president and his two ex-wives, and probably his current wife, to say nothing of the business owners he screwed over), and unlike those folks who tell you “life is not a dress rehearsal,” Miss O’ would argue that life is ever that. It’s an experiment, and it requires engagement, adjustments, rethinking, and, sometimes, new costumes to keep up with the fashions of the times. It’s also worth remembering that, as Oscar Wilde said (pardon the cliché), “Fashion is a thing so hideous we are forced to change it every six months.” And most politicians, too, can and do become hideous—hence the need for term limits.
Speaking of term limits, most plays have a limited, and often terminal, run. Modern productions reinvent classic plays for a new age, and they, too, have a limited run. And this president, provided we don’t have an assassination attempt, a military coup, or war to end all wars, will also have a limited run. He’ll be sent packing, or will leave of his own accord to start up a TV network, or die of heart failure in office, or walk clumsily out after Inauguration in eight years, red necktie beating his face, as he heads to his gold-plated jet for rich living in his Tower till the end of his days. It’s a crapshoot, and yet we have to keep playing craps.
How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown?
~ Cassius to Brutus, Act III, scene i, Julius Caesar
Translation: Karma is a BITCH.
The personal is political, as the feminists say, and the political becomes personal, in the best and worst ways, depending on the will of a fickle public. I took a trip to Ireland in April and noticed that there really was a pub, or public house, on every corner, and it’s not hard to see why. We could use a drink. The Irish know that as well as anyone.
And a TRIP. Travel, for goodness sake. Travel. Get out of yourself. I can’t tell you how much better I felt about life, both during and after Ireland. Show up to life, sure, and then pay attention. And the more we, the people, can venture out and gather in public and LISTEN as well as protest, the better chance we’ll have to weather this latest political tempest. Ask Ireland about The Troubles, for crying out loud. This is nothing, I tell ya. And still we have to DO something about ours. So do that, and in a democratic way.
Sending love to all,