A couple of weeks ago several Trump supporters disrupted the New York City Shakespeare in the Park production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” According to news reports, right-wing activist and Rebel Media’s Laura Loomer “livestreamed” herself rushing the stage. As seen in her video, Ms. Loomer rushed onto the Delacorte Theater stage during the scene where Caesar is assassinated and yelled “stop the normalization of political violence against the right! This is unacceptable … this is violent!” The crowd mainly yelled for her to get off the stage or booed as she compared the production to ISIS and yelled “shame!”
Pro-Trump activist Jack Posobiec also posted video of the incident on Twitter. From the audience, Posobiec yelled to the actors and the crowd “you are Goebbels,” referring to the Nazi minister of propaganda.
“You are all Nazis like Joseph Goebbels … You are all inciting terrorists! The blood of Steve Scalise on your hands!” he yelled, in reference to the shooting of Republican Rep. Steve Scalise and three others at a softball practice in Washington DC.
On various social media platforms liberals jumped on the incident like vultures on roadkill, ridiculing the ignorance and lack of sophistication of Trumpers like Loomer. “Look at these idiots! Do they not know the difference between theater and reality? They’ve never even read Shakespeare!” Animating the ridicule was the assumption that coastal city-dwelling liberals are smarter, better read and more culturally sophisticated than MAGA bumpkins like Loomer and Posobiec. But are they? Isn’t this exactly the kind of condescending attitude that caused the Clinton campaign to actively promote Trump during the Republican primaries as one of the “Pied Piper candidates” (along with Ted Cruz and Ben Carson) who, if nominated, could easily be defeated in the general election? We all know how that turned out (notwithstanding Democrats’ current efforts to blame the entire fiasco on “Putin”). Could it be that once again the Trumpsters know something that the liberal establishment cannot acknowledge?
According to Aristotle, the power of tragic drama consists in its capacity to elicit “catharsis” in the audience – specifically, catharsis (or purging) of the pity and terror we cannot but feel in the face of terrible events. But there can only be catharsis if there is an audience; philosopher Stanley Cavell defines the audience in a theater as those to whom the characters in the drama are present but who are not present to the characters themselves.
This explains the folly of the Trumpers in Central Park. Rushing the stage cannot stop Brutus and Cassius from killing Caesar (i.e., “Trump”) because the audience cannot make itself present to either assassin; all it can do is stop the performance (which it failed to accomplish in any event). But stopping the performance cannot have been the protesters’ purpose; the real purpose is to stop a reenactment of the Scalice tragedy, that is, to stop a potential Brutus from assassinating our Caesar, Donald Trump. Did Loomer not know this? How could she have been so confused? Did she not know she was part of an audience?
It is often said that it is impossible to write tragic drama in the modern (never mind post-modern) era. If true, that is surely because there is no audience for tragedy today. An audience in the theater does not intervene in the drama on stage not because the conventions of the theater prohibit it (as a matter of decorum) but because the audience knows that there is nothing they can do to stop or alter the drama unfolding no the stage in front of them. The audience at a performance of Julius Caesar would know that the only people who could possibly avoid the tragic end are Caesar, Brutus and Cassius themselves, but they also know that none of those individuals will (as a matter of fact) alter their behavior and so avert their respective fates. That is the tragedy – it is all so unnecessary, yet at the same time inevitable. The audience may experience catharsis – relief from the pity and the terror that dramatic suffering elicits – only because the pain unfolding on stage belongs to the characters who experience it, their lives being separate from our own.
In the 21st century the fact of human separateness is eclipsed, like the dark side of the moon. Everything that happens anywhere in the world is news – information delivered directly to one’s “personal device” (smart phone, tablet, personal computer, television set) in real time, as it happens, usually with live streaming video and expert commentary. But if everything that happens is news – and therefore of legitimate concern to me (for what else is “news” if not what concerns me, what I need to know?) – it follows that nothing is news. Furthermore, if everything I do and say and think is news – instantly reported and published to the world in my Twitter or Facebook feed and monitored and collected and recorded by the U.S. government – it follows that nothing, no aspect of or occurrence in my life belongs to me and not equally and simultaneously to you and to everyone else.
We can attend performances of Julius Caesar in Central Park but we cannot overcome the fact that there is no audience for tragedy when there is no such thing as privacy – because when privacy has disappeared (which is to say, when what is private consists in what is hidden and kept secret) there is no way of distinguishing between one life and another, or between an actor and a character. For just as Ms. Loomer was apparently unable to distinguish between Julius Caesar Roman Emperor on stage and Donald Trump the U.S. President, so we ourselves have no way of determining whether Loomer herself was acting or not – whether she was motivated by genuine concern for her country or by a desire to post a live video and increase her follower-count on Twitter. Most likely, Loomer herself had no way of knowing either.
I am not looking for a way to say that Loomer and her fellow protesters ought to be viewed as heroes. I am saying that those liberals who mock her ignorance are implicitly claiming to know something that they cannot know. What they cannot know is that there is a clear boundary separating what happens on the stage and what happens everywhere else, because in the age of Trump, it is clear that tragedy and comedy and farce have merged and become one, and in that merger of genres the theatrical has left the stage and entered irreversibly into our world.