The Public Theater’s controversial Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar, featuring Gregg Henry as a Donald Trump lookalike in the title role, sent me scurrying to my classics shelf to answer the unasked question: Was Julius Caesar anything like Donald Trump? Well, they were both rich, promiscuous, colorful, vain, shrewd manipulators of popular opinion, beloved by many working-class people, insanely ambitious, and able to exploit the weaknesses of their respective political systems. They both bought popular affection with entertainments—Trump had The Apprentice, Caesar put on stupendous gladiatorial shows. They both had three wives.
That’s about it. Caesar was a brave and brilliant military commander whose men were devoted to him. Trump got five deferments and told Howard Stern that risking herpes while having lots of sex was his “Vietnam.” Caesar pardoned his enemies—maybe too often; Trump is still tweeting about Hillary and Obama. Caesar was keen on public works and civic improvements that actually benefited people, unlike the many hideous buildings erected by our president in his former life. Caesar employed the foremost scientists of the day to devise a calendar that lasted over 1,500 years; Trump has contempt for science and indeed any kind of expertise. Caesar was a widely read polymath and a great writer too: The Gallic Wars, his seven-book account of his conquests in Gaul, has tested students of Latin for 2,000 years with sentences like “The baggage having been deposited, we pitched our camp along the shore.” Our Donald is a proud ignoramus, and how likely is it that students in 4017 will be learning English by studying The Art of the Deal? About as likely as that the month of July, named for Caesar, will be renamed Trumpy.
On the whole, I would say Trump should be honored to be compared to Caesar, who is, after all, one of the towering figures of Western history. That’s not how his fans saw it, of course. After Donald Trump Jr. tweeted his objections, Delta and Bank of America withdrew their support, and the National Endowment for the Arts felt compelled to announce on its website that it had nothing to do with the production. The performance I attended was briefly shut down by two protesters who had to be hustled out of the theater and could be heard shrieking outside for sometime afterwards until they were arrested.
Still, I can see why conservatives are upset, although their claims to be shocked, shocked, at the portrayal of the assassination of a sitting president would carry more weight if they had protested when Minnesota’s Guthrie Theater put on the play in 2012, with a Caesar modeled on then-President Obama. And let’s not forget the comments of recent White House guest Ted Nugent, who called for Hillary to be hanged and told Obama to “suck on my machine gun.” No conservative outcry followed that incitement to violence. What bites the objectors, I’ll bet, is not the murder, but the satire: Gregg Henry has the lumbering gait, the expansive, impatient gestures, the super-confidence and vulgarity of our own pussy grabber in chief. (Speaking of which, Tina Benko’s Calpurnia is a dead-on Melania, complete with Slovenian accent, high-fashion costumes and general air of hauteur and boredom.) But Henry doesn’t play Trump as obviously repellent. He’s so buoyant with energy and fun you just have to like him, which makes his assassination a genuinely horrifying moment. It’s hard to rejoice in the killing of someone who makes you laugh. After the murder and Mark Antony’s funeral oration—thrillingly delivered by Elizabeth Marvel with a Southern accent, meant I suppose to convey senatorial smarm and false populism—the performance loses steam. But then, so does the play. Do you even remember the last act?