Does anyone remember last summer’s The Taming of the Shrew in Central Park? It opened with an entirely non-Shakespearean beauty pageant and talent show, led by a buffoonish figure costumed to look very much like a billionaire presidential candidate who has owned, and exploited, beauty pageants of his own. Coming in a production in which the entire cast was women, in a play that is widely considered to be misogynist in our era, it was a broad parody, a buffoonish portrayal of a political figure who had yet to consolidate his electoral power. But there was no mistaking that this was meant to be Donald J. Trump.
Now Trump is president and, by all accounts, he is once again on stage at The Public Theater’s Delacorte Theater—or rather Julius Caesar is on stage costumed to evoke the now-president, complete with a fashionable spouse who reportedly speaks in an Eastern European accent. Because Caesar is – as we all know – killed, the layering of present day politics in America over a 400-year old play (set even centuries) earlier is being said by some to have crossed a line. Lumped together with Kathy Griffin’s less classically oriented gory political theatre in which she posed with a bloody head, strongly implied to be that of the president, The Public’s Caesar quickly became a target for such media outlets as Breitbart and Fox News, even drawing a certain Donald Jr. into Twitter commentary.
“I wonder how much of this ‘art’ is funded by taxpayers?,” tweeted the presidential scion. “Serious question, when does ‘art’ become political speech & does that change things?” A Fox News tweet, headlined “NYC Play Appears to Depict Assassination of @POTUS,” was appended.
The tweet itself, for those inclined to look at such things analytically, undermined itself with its intellectual flabbiness. There is no hard line between art and politics, no absolute moment when one becomes the other. The Public Theater is hardly a stranger to melding the two, with shows ranging from Hair in the 1960s to Hamilton in 2015. It staged David Hare’s Stuff Happens and Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide. Always socially minded, it is at least as outspoken as ever under the leadership of Oskar Eustis, the proud and vocal product of a left-wing youth. Indeed, there has been very little at The Public during Eustis’s tenure that hasn’t been easy to examine through a political prism.
Yesterday, when pressure from Breitbart, from Fox, from the Trump family, reached a point when it may have seemed to them politically, corporately, and publicly untenable from a perceptual angle to underwrite (with many others) the production, Delta Airlines disavowed The Public, pulling their support from the theatre entirely. Bank of America followed suit, but somewhat more guardedly, only pulling their support of Caesar itself. In doing so, they gave the production – for which tickets are free – vastly more attention than it had already received. Even as theatre die-hards were focused on The Tony Awards, the story of the Trump-like Caesar exploded in the media.
In statements and tweets, Delta stuck to a singular sentiment:
No matter what your political stance may be, the graphic staging of Julius Caesar at this summer’s Free Shakespeare in the Park does not reflect Delta Air Lines’ values. Their artistic and creative direction crossed the line on the standards of good taste. We have notified them of our decision to end our sponsorship as the official airline of The Public Theater effective immediately.
Bank of America stated:
Bank of America supports arts programs worldwide, including an 11-year partnership with The Public Theater and Shakespeare in the Park. The Public Theater chose to present Julius Caesar in such a way that was intended to provoke and offend. Had this intention been made known to us, we would have decided not to sponsor it. We are withdrawing our funding for this production.
In a report for Deadline, Jeremy Gerard noted that the airline’s support fell in the $100,000 to $499,000 category of sponsorship; airline arts support typically takes the form of vouchers for flights or a bank of so much value that can be used to acquire tickets, though it’s possible that there was cash involved. Certainly, that’s the likely case with Bank of America, which like many corporations has philanthropic arms, though in recent years corporate philanthropy has become inextricably linked with marketing and public relations.
Does The Public have the absolute right to stage the works it chooses and in the manner it sees fit? Yes, it certainly does. It is an independent not-for-profit organization, and what it chooses to produce, to share with audiences, is entirely the responsibility of the staff and, by extension, the board of directors. Does it have an absolute right to sponsorship or donations from any particular organizations? No. That is the result of fundraising, of a cost benefit analysis on the part of any potential sponsor or donor. If they like the work, the mission, the initiatives, of The Public – or any arts organization – individuals, government sources, foundations and corporations may choose to support it.
But there’s no mistaking the actions of Delta and Bank of America as anything but political acts as well, cloaked in the guise of corporate sensitivity. While they have not said exactly what line has been crossed by Caesar, it doesn’t seem that it’s about blood or even gore. Shakespeare is filled with violence and its results, though typically in service of a larger message. But with their decision to publicly pull funding, and even sever a long relationship in the case of Delta, these corporations are saying to those who take offense at an obviously fictional portrayal of Julius Caesar as a Trump stand-in that they don’t countenance such things, that they are shocked, shocked to find politics on stage at The Public, even a mock assassination, and don’t want to be a part of it.
As a number of sources online have noted, Delta’s outrage seems rather selective. In 2012, The Guthrie Theatre and The Acting Company staged and toured a Julius Caesar with a slim black actor being “murdered” in the Senate as Caesar, midway through the Obama presidency. Some critics remarked on the parallel to the then-president, but Delta’s sponsorship there was unruffled. Why was the death of one presidential doppelganger OK while another crossed a line? I suspect the corporate PR department of Delta is unlikely to answer that question.
By pulling their support, have Delta and Bank of America censored Caesar and The Public? Are any First Amendment rights being trampled? On an absolute level – no. Media commentary cuts both ways. The participation of a member of the governing family, however, which has blended the personal and the political in countless ways, is the kernel of official censorship. Yet the show goes on (although it ends its brief run this week) and, so far as any reports have indicated, neither company attempted to get the production altered to make it more palatable to their tastes. Indeed, it’s unclear whether either company has had any representatives see Caesar in the park, or have made their decision, cloaked behind corporate statement, based solely on the media coverage.
Will there be a backlash to the actions of these companies? Will those who support The Public and free expression in the arts now make their feelings known to these companies, and others that might jump on the bandwagon? It’s very likely. It’s also possible that those who support these decisions will affirm it as well. People will refuse to fly Delta and keep their money with Bank of America, even as others will opt in to the carrier and the financial institution. Beyond merely expressing support and dissent, the era of dueling boycotts is probably upon us. Delta and B of A may find they have become the preferred outlets for the right and even the alt-right. By making this choice in their support, and withholding of support, of the arts, they have become politically-tinged corporations, aligned with a certain point of view.
The true danger here is that supporters of the arts will begin to interrogate possible beneficiaries of their intent for each and every undertaking, keeping funds from organizations and initiatives that might be aligning themselves politically by making any comment, right or left, Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative. After all B of A judges that the production set out to “provoke and offend.” No doubt Eustis wanted to provoke, that’s his stock in trade. But offend? That’s less clear.
Will the fear of media backlash force organizations to choose between commenting in any manner through their work on what the prevailing issues of the day may be and gaining public or private funds to do their work? Could this be the harbinger of a forced conservatism in the arts, because so many companies cannot survive without the infusion of donated funds?
It’s worth noting that the National Endowment for the Arts felt it necessary to make clear it had not supported The Public’s Julius Caesar:
The National Endowment for the Arts makes grants to nonprofit organizations for specific projects. In the past, the New York Shakespeare Festival has received project-based NEA grants to support performances of Shakespeare in the Park by the Public Theater. However, no NEA funds have been awarded to support this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar and there are no NEA funds supporting the New York State Council on the Arts’ grant to Public Theater or its performances.
The issue evolving with Caesar in Central Park is the canary in the coal mine, and an emblem of the potentially Faustian bargain one strikes when asking for major donations. Fortunately, The Public can sustain itself even with hundreds of thousands of dollars of lost support, but they are among the largest of theatres in the country. Indeed, they make take a page from the political playbook and raise new funds off of this action against their work. But smaller companies might not be so well positioned, resulting in a flight to safer work to avoid what has just happened. Strangely enough, it is the commercial theatre, which relies solely on ticket sales for revenue, which may be in the safer position to make political statements, as was the case with the cast of Hamilton sharing thoughts with Mike Pence. Their contract is directly with the audience, and if the work finds partisans for partisan messages, then the shows will run.
Vastly more people will hear about the Trumpian Caesar than can possibly see it. They will form opinions based on media accounts, and they can and will debate whether it’s right or wrong, proper or improper, wise or foolish to stage a show in which a presidential stand-in in killed, even in the context of a classic work, taught in many high schools, where few will be surprised by the emperor’s untimely end. But the actions of Delta and B of A, especially at a time when the administration in Washington has expressed a desire to shutter both the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, risk being the first steps in a new cultural McCarthyism. That serves no one who believes in free expression, whatever they have to say, no matter how ugly or difficult what they have to express may be to hear, no matter what their politics may be. Everyone should be concerned.
UPDATE: June 12, 2017, 5:30 pm: The Public Theater released a statement this afternoon in response to the controversy surrounding Julius Caesar. It reads, in full:
We stand completely behind our production of Julius Caesar. We recognize that our interpretation of the play has provoked heated discussion; audiences, sponsors and supporters have expressed varying viewpoints and opinions. Such discussion is exactly the goal of our civically-engaged theater; this discourse is the basis of a healthy democracy. Our production of Julius Caesar in no way advocates violence towards anyone. Shakespeare’s play, and our production, make the opposite point: those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic means pay a terrible price and destroy the very thing they are fighting to save. For over 400 years, Shakespeare’s play has told this story and we are proud to be telling it again in Central Park.
UPDATE: June 12, 2017, 7:00 pm: The Dramatists Legal Defense Fund has issued a statement of support for The Public Theater. It reads, in part:
Good taste is a matter of opinion and an “intention to provoke” may be an integral part of a play’s mission. The works of Shakespeare are replete with representations of regicide, and potentially objectionable and graphic violence of all sorts, but Delta doesn’t appear to have had a problem with the “values” or “taste” of such depictions before. The fact is that, for hundreds of years, this particular play has been understood to be a critique of political violence, not an endorsement of it. As director Oskar Eustis explained, “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.” So those criticizing this production for endorsing violence against President Trump seem to be willfully misinterpreting it, for their own political ends.
UPDATE: June 13, 2017, 8 am: From Oskar Eustis’s remarks before the opening night performance of Julius Caesar on June 12:
Julius Caesar warns about what happens when you try to preserve democracy by non-democratic means and again, spoiler alert, it doesn’t end up too good. But at the same time, one of the dangers that is unleashed by that is the danger of a large crowd of people manipulated by their emotions, taken over by leaders who urge them to do things that not only are against their interest, but destroy the very institutions that are there to serve and protect them. This warning is a warning that is in this show and we’re really happy to be playing that story for you tonight.
What I also want to say, and in this I speak, I am proud to say for The Public Theater past, present and I hope future, for the staff of The Public Theater, for the crews at The Public Theater, for the board of directors of the Public Theater, for Patrick Willingham and myself, when I say that we are here to uphold the Public’s mission, and The Public’s mission is to say that the culture belongs to everybody, needs to belong to everybody, to say that art has something to say about the great civic issues of our time and to say that like drama, democracy depends on the conflict of different points of view. Nobody owns the truth. We all own the culture.