By Stephen Sachs
One play was written more than 400 years ago, the other last October. Both written by playwrights worried about the future of their countries. One author took months to pen his work, the other took one week. One writer has been dead 400 years, one is very much alive, chronicling the current political crisis of his time with a dire new play now playing on our Fountain stage. Both authors and their plays have been in the news in recent weeks, igniting a firestorm of national conversation on the role of theatre to express political outrage, and its fundamental right and responsibility to do so. The Fountain Theatre is a voice in that debate.
As many know, The Public Theater’s production this month in New York of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar drew fire from Right-Wing Conservatives for its depiction of the ruler as a petulant Trump-like politician with blondish hair and a sullen Slavic wife. Outrage from Conservatives targeted the play’s depiction of Caesar’s assassination, missing the larger meaning of the play, as if director Oskar Eustis was advocating the killing of the current president. Delta Airlines and Bank of America withdrew their corporate sponsorship. Right-Wing groups hired demonstrators to picket the venue and harass theatergoers. Protesters heckled the live performances and wildly stormed the stage to stop the play mid-show. The demonstrators’ feeble attempts may have halted a performance momentarily but, in each instance, the show went on. If anything, it drew national focus to the very thing it schemed to suppress. Art cannot be stopped.
Most discouraging to me, the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency that hails itself as providing all Americans with diverse opportunities for arts participation, distanced itself from the production by releasing a statement declaring that NEA funds were not used to support this staging of Julius Caesar. An ironic stance for a federal arts agency whose very existence Trump has vowed to destroy.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, the Fountain Theatre has been running our sold-out world premiere of Robert Schenkkan’s new play, Building the Wall. It is a riveting drama set in the near future exposing the vulnerability of one man caught up in the horrific unraveling of Trump’s anti-immigration policies. Robert and I knew the play would generate some interest from the press. Neither of us anticipated the avalanche that has ensued. We’ve been bombarded by interview requests from everywhere. The play and the Fountain production were featured in national news outlets across the country, like the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and TIME magazine. Plus international coverage in the UK and France. “Theatre in the Age of Trump” is now suddenly a hot topic.
The Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar and the Fountain Theatre’s production of Building the Wall coincided this month. Newspapers on both coasts featured stories on both productions, with Oskar Eustis and Robert Schenkkan speaking out boldly for not only the right, but the necessity of freedom of speech and unrestricted artistic expression in this country. The subject of ‘The Politics of Theater’ became a significant Arts cover feature in last Sunday’s Los Angeles Times.
The Right-Wing protesters who stormed the outdoor Delacorte Theatre in Central Park no doubt never read Julius Caesar and certainly knew little about it. They focused on the killing of the king, unaware of the greater warning the tale foretells: Beware when you get what you want. A tyrant in power mandated to save the republic can lead to the destruction of the very republic he vows to protect. Shakespeare demands us to recognize that more than a ruler is assassinated in this tragedy. It is democracy itself that is murdered.
Julius Caesar and Breaking the Wall expose the same fatal wound within ourselves. Our susceptibility to become what we hate. Rick’s slow and seamless transformation in Building the Wall, from well-meaning Trump follower to death camp superintendent is so nightmarish and appalling because it seems somehow plausible. This is how Schenkkan and Shakespeare caution us. This dark truth is perfectly crystalized by Shakespeare when Cassius warns, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” It is not fate, but weakness of character that forces a person to act against his will.
“The danger is always giving over your moral calculus to the state,” Robert Schenkkan has said. Fighting a tyrant does not mean imitating him. Julius Caesar no more advocates the killing of a king than Building the Wall promotes the mass detention and extermination of immigrants. Neither play is about genocide or the murder of a tyrant. Each is about the killing of social and political order, played out in the souls of specific human beings. Building the Wall is a razor-sharp two-character play that takes place in one room. Two people in extreme close up.
Shakespeare based his play Julius Caesar (some say he stole entire sections of it) from Plutarch’s biography of the ruler. Of his examination Plutarch said, “It is not histories I am writing, but lives.”
Plays, too, are about lives, not ideas. Good plays, plays that matter and live forever, have compelling themes and thought-provoking viewpoints and concepts but they are told through the dramatization of human lives. The power of Building the Wall lies in how it puts a human face on the inhuman. It reveals the dichotomy of opposites alive in one man: the wish to do what is right versus the inability to see, and speak out against, what is wrong.
For all of us at the Fountain Theatre, Building the Wall is more than a play. It is a defining moment, one of many that help set our compass as a company and as artists. Who are we? Why do we do what we do? What is our service, our responsibility, to the community, to our nation?
This administration fears artists for the same reason it has banned TV cameras from live press briefings. It is terrified that the American people will see the truth. Our role as theatre artists, like that of a free press, is to be truth-tellers. And to fight for the freedom to speak it, through art.
I am so proud that the Fountain Theatre took the stand of leadership in launching Robert’s new work, and that it continues to ignite this firestorm of conversation, artistic soul-searching and journalistic examination. That our world premiere production is not only still running after four sold out months but has been extended through August is a testament to its urgent necessity and the overwhelming will expressed by our audiences to engage.
When art and politics collide like this on a local and national level, theaters like ours, and the art we create, become indispensable not only to our city, but our nation.
Stephen Sachs is the Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre, Los Angeles.