I thought I would talk for just a few minutes this evening about the uses of speech, and about the most politically troubled production of Julius Caesar this great city has ever seen, which, of course, took place in November 1864.
That production was a specific use of speech intended to help build the statue of William Shakespeare on the Literary Walk in Central Park, right about where 70th street would meet 6th avenue on the grid. The benefit was held on Nov. 25 of that year by a group of popular actors. The statue itself is sculpted by John Quincy Adams Ward, who also did the statue of George Washington in front of Federal Hall down near the stock exchange.
Anyway in the middle of act 2 of this benefit production of Julius Caesar, the one that was supposed to raise money for the statue, the fire department burst in with another use of speech, one that is generally frowned upon: They shouted “fire” in a crowded theater, in this case the Winter Garden, which had 2000 people in it. They had good reason to do so. There had been a terrorist attack. A splinter group from the Confederate States of America calling itself the Confederate Army of Manhattan had set fires in 19 hotels, PT Barnum’s American Museum, and, yes, also the Winter Garden, in a bid to overwhelm the fire department and burn down New York City in retaliation for the burning of Atlanta.
No one was hurt in the attempt to burn down the Winter Garden in the middle of Julius Caesar, because of another interesting speech act. If you go back and read the New York Times account of the failed attack, the writer, who isn’t bylined, credits the actor playing the lead role of Brutus for some extremely quick thinking: He told the audience that there was nothing to fear, which was of course a lie, the place being in fact in serious danger of burning down. The lie calmed the crowd, and Brutus convinced everyone to file out in an orderly fashion, which they did, and all went home with a good story tell, rather than being trampled to death and then burned up on top of it. The actor, as I’m sure a lot of you already know, was Edwin Booth, who starred alongside his older brother, Junius Brutus Jr., as Cassius, and, in the role of Mark Anthony, his younger brother, John Wilkes, who, perhaps obviously, coveted the role of Brutus.
140 days later, on Good Friday, the youngest Booth brother used speech in a couple of different ways. First, he made a point of shooting president Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head on a laugh line, which Booth hoped would mask the sound of a gunshot. That didn’t work, so he jumped onto the stage, but of course he didn’t shout Mark Anthony’s most famous line, “Lend me your ears.” He shouted “Sic semper tyrannis,” a line attributed to Brutus, although it’s not in the play.
“Sic semper tyrannis”, which means “ever thus to tyrants,” is an odd bit of speech. It had its heyday in the US around the time of the Revolutionary War, but it wormed its way into a certain grimy province of the national psyche that refuses all rule and all governance and perceives only lawlessness as freedom. “Sic semper tyrannis” is on the state flag of Virginia, where it was put shortly after Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861. It’s also in the state song of Maryland, which was also adopted during the Civil War, and has also remained unchanged since. “Sic semper tyrannis” was on the t-shirt Timothy McVeigh wore when he killed 168 people by blowing up the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. In plain terms, since our nation’s Civil War the apocryphal final words of Brutus to Caesar seem to be an excuse for violence, an excuse to own slaves, an excuse to kill public servants, an excuse to murder scores of people in what Timothy McVeigh was not alone in thinking of as a battle between, and I quote here from one of his letters, “Free men and socialist wannabe slaves.”
As a committed socialist, it’s hard for me not to take the sort of thing personally, as I imagine it might be for many of you. Sic semper tyrannis, from Booth and McVeigh and from Jefferson Davis, spoken to Abraham Lincoln and to every person of color and to 19 children in the Murrah building, seems simply to mean, “You were asking for it.”
Republicans, you’ll have noticed if you look at any right-wing media, do not have much use for socialism. Their rhetoric against it – against me and you – has become increasingly violent as the party tacks farther and farther toward people like McVeigh, who want to see the state destroyed by any means, including a fertilizer bomb. The party has moved closer to these folks for I would say the better part of 40 years.
The Republican line against birth control and women’s healthcare is that abortion is the moral equivalent of the holocaust. Its objection to gay rights is that marriage equality emboldens child molesters. Its objection to environmental stewardship has long been that environmentalists are crazed hippie terrorist radicals. The party contends that pacifism is the tacit endorsement of tyranny.
There’s another form of that word again. At every step, Republicans have sought to conflate sensible policy positions that would reduce death and misery with actual, literal violence. In the past the suggestion that anyone to the left therefore deserves physical violence has often been communicated in ambiguous, deniable terms, but more and more, Republicans are simply saying, “knock the crap out of that guy,” which our president in fact did say in so many words during his campaign.
Millionaire Congressman Greg Gianforte did violence to a reporter personally, and his constituents elected him anyway. They cheered him on, because reporters are stuck-up elites – tyrants, who are asking for it.
The women who don’t want to bear another child, the children themselves, who must have school lunches or new textbooks or insulin, the gay couple that wants to get married, these people are all tyrants in the eyes of the right, and the response to every criticism of racist or misogynist or homophobic violence, or even a denial of garden-variety cruelty, is deadening in its sameness, its literal Brutality: Sic semper tyrannis, sic semper tyrannis.
When wicked people beat up protestors, when they murder abortion providers, when they shoot up gay clubs, when they gun down people of color in the sanctuaries of their churches, they are heroes to themselves, Brutuses striking a necessary, lethal blow. Not everyone on the right strikes those blows, but increasingly, and vocally, many approve. They are resisting tyranny.
To this awful, diseased perspective, the only cure I can conceive of is a production of Julius Caesar. Brutus is, of course, a tragic figure, one who plans the ignoble act of murder for what he thinks are the noblest reasons, only to see it spoiled by harsh, familiar reality: corrupt colleagues who are only interested in money, the death of innocent people like the poet Cinna, his wife’s suicide. To everyone mumbling “sic semper tyrannis,” Shakespeare has the answer of Brutus’s inevitable defeat at Phillipi, prophesied by the ghost of Caesar himself. Among the many lessons of Julius Caesar is this: You can unleash violence, but you cannot control it.
It is dreadful news that someone shot the Republican congressman Steve Scalise. It is probably too much to ask for some self-reflection from the people who have for decades quietly condoned political violence in terms too slippery for condemnation but not quite innocent enough to go unnoticed. Donald Trump, Jr, for instance, seems to want people to believe that the Public’s production of Julius Caesar is the larger culprit. It isn’t, but it might be able to tell him who is.
From the bottom of my heart, I hope Steve Scalise pulls through. I hope when he gets out of the hospital, he realizes that nobody needs an M4 and that everyone should have access to the same kind of healthcare he receives, which would not be consonant with his current list of policy positions. I don’t wish him dead, I wish him understanding. In the same way I hope the sponsors who have abandoned the Public, Bank of America and Delta, discover a good higher than their share prices; maybe that would compel BofA not to illegally foreclose on people who lost jobs in the recession it helped cause. Maybe it would compel Delta to stop trying to kill export insurance for small businesses. We are on the left because we believe our policies will ultimately make life better for people who disagree with us, as well.
But to every assassin, to everyone who would abridge the rights of two men or two women to be happy and unmolested together, to everyone who would deny his fellow citizen birth control or food for her children, to everyone mumbling “sic semper tyrannis,” Caesar’s ghost has our answer: “You will see us at Phillipi.”