Ethics Observations On The “Shakespeare in the Park” Trump As “Julius Caesar” Production

In  New York City, Public Theater’s free Shakespeare in the Park festival this summer begins with  a version of “Julius Caesar“, in which Caesar is played by an actor made up and costumed to look like the current President of the United States, and Calpurnia (Caesar’s wife) is portrayed as a runway model with a Slavic accent. Some of the costumes include Anonymous masks and the infamous pussy hats. When Caesar/Trump is assassinated in the Senate, the murderers are women and minorities.

Oooo! Subtle!

The production has been in previews since May 23, and opens tonight at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Criticism of the concept,  theater and its financial supporters has been roiling all week, and many have compared the play to  Kathy Griffin’s severed Trump head stunt.  Fox News reported that it “appears to depict President Trump being brutally stabbed to death by women and minorities.” Well, yes, that’s right. Now some prominent corporate sponsors have publicly withdrawn their financial support, including Delta and Bank of America.

Delta’s statement:

“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,” Delta said in a statement on Sunday night. 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:

“The Public Theater chose to present ‘Julius Caesar’ in 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.”

Other sponsors, such as Time Warner and the New York Times, have stood fast. Said the Times:

”As an institution that believes in free speech for the arts as well as the media, we support the right of the Public Theater to stage the production as they chose.”

Ethics Observations:

[Do remember that I am a professional stage director, previously the artistic director of a professional theater for 20 years, and that I dealt with donors, individual, corporate, non-profit and government, all that time.]

1. Corporate donors to the arts should give because they support art, artists and public access to art, not because they endorse or insist on any particular message or artistic vision.

2. The Times statement was inadequate. Of course artists have the right to make their own artistic choices. The Times should have added that art and artists can only flourish when audiences and donors encourage and support risk and experimentation, as well as the freedom to offend and be outrageous.

3. Do theater companies have an obligation not to embarrass their corporate donors by presenting controversial works or interpretation of plays? Absolutely not.  Artists are liberal, usually extremely so. It has always been thus. A corporation that withdraws support because a play offends someone wasn’t contributing for the right reasons, and a theater company that allows its artistic choices to be dictated by money is a disgrace to its art form.

4. The comparison with Griffin’s Trump head is inapt. Her stunt had negligible artistic content, just disrespect, shock and hate.  Topical references in Shakespeare productions are hackneyed, boring and lazy, but the play is still there: Trump is just part of “Julius Caesar,” and gone by midway through the play. I don’t know if the Trump assassination was “intended to offend,” but there is a lot more to this event than giving offense.

5. Fox and other news media have described the production as the “Trump assassination play.” This is incompetent, misleading and culturally ignorant, since “Julius Caesar” isn’t “about” Ceasar’s assassination.

6. The real offense of the Shakespeare in the Park production is that the director placed his political agenda above his duty to do justice to the work, thus mistreating the text, the playwright, and the audience.

 Reviewer Joe Dziemianowicz  wrote:

As much as The Public Theater’s modern-dress production wants to make “Julius Caesar” into “Donald J. Trump,” the play itself doesn’t actually allow it. Yes, the production, directed by Public Theater head Oskar Eustis, uses the 45th President as a Caesar surrogate, but only a jumping-off place for this interpretation, which is novel and sensational and packs immediacy. But, alas, the production doesn’t follow through with other references that would ring true or conjure current personalities. It can’t; Shakespeare wrote a classic about a very different leader in the middle of a very different kind of power struggle.

And the reviewer is wrong, this concept isn’t even novel. In 1967, a (pretty bad) satire of “MacBeth” substituting Lyndon Johnson for the treacherous Scot—it was called “MacBird!”—amused war protesters and hippies no end, and was briefly a sensation Off- Broadway. (My company, the late American Century Theater, produced the only full revival since the original. Without a current President to hate, the production bombed.)

7.  Donald Trump, Jr. tweeted:

“I wonder how much of this “art” is funded by taxpayers? Serious question, when does “art” become political speech & does that change things?”

Serious question: Has Junior ever been to a play? Of course this production of  “Julius Caesar” is art; why the scare quotes? It would also be art of it was performed in Lithuanian, by midgets in tutus. Does he know what “art” is?  My guess is no, since art is often political speech, especially performance art, and it is always speech, so it doesn’t change “things” at all.  Do the names Aeschylus,  Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes ring any bells, Donald?

Never mind; I’m sure they don’t.

 

95 Comments

Filed under Arts & Entertainment, Business & Commercial, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Government & Politics, Literature, Social Media

95 responses to “Ethics Observations On The “Shakespeare in the Park” Trump As “Julius Caesar” Production

  1. Chris

    Dziemianowicz does a good job showing how the play doesn’t really make sense with Donald Trump as Caesar, but the big flaw that jumps out to me is that Caesar was killed because he was popular.

    • “that Caesar was killed because he was popular.”

      This, fellow readers, is precisely why 100 years of the history of Roman Republic decline can’t be summed up in a meme like bumper sticker blurb.

      And a great example of why memes and bumper sticker blurbs though amusing are incredibly deceptive.

      • Chris

        My pithy joke wasn’t intended to deceive anyone, tex, and I doubt that it did.

        • Whether or not memes are meant to deceive. They still do.

          • Chris

            I can’t wait to hear which Ethics Alarms readers were deceived by what I wrote…

            • Ooooh oooooh ME! Pick me! I believed every word!

              Sorry, Chris: I could not resist 🙂

              • Chris

                Excellent! My plan to trick the world into believing that Caesar was killed for one reason and one reason only has claimed its first victim!

                • where can I apply to be a loyal, faceless minion in your new empire?

                  • …I assume you DO request loyalty, right? After all, if the other side is asking it’s minions for loyalty (even if Comey refused) I would think one would ask in any case.

                    My prices for loyalty are a bit higher, it being a premium service these days. Think ‘Gold’ Obamacare plan instead of the usual ‘Silver’

                  • valkygrrl

                    Be my vassal, fealty runs both ways. So screw minion, be a knight.

                    • valkygrrl, The offer stands at Obamacare ‘Gold’ level healthcare in return for honest loyalty (as honest as faceless minions can be, given the profession.) Chris makes a worthy offer, and would be a powerful force, creating safety. And he has cookies.

                      Do you offer dental and vision? Body armor would be a nice perk, as well as a floating holiday or two.

                    • valkygrrl

                      My knights get all the perks of membership in an order of chivalry. Members of the most ancient and honorable order of the tiara gain the right to a special coronet on formal occasions, while members of the most honorable and pretty old order of the butterfly get to wear cosplay wings.

                      Beyond that, it’s straight homage for feif where you’ve the exclusive right to establish strongholds, crenelation is forbidden on buildings not your personal holding, from which you’re obligated to provide yourself and a levy of one in five men over the age of 14 when called to war (limited to 40 days per annum and in times of peace owe a halfpenny per year per peasant plus the usual 10% of produced commodities or the cash equivalent. Banal rights vest in you, if you establish a mill and require none other be used, it should cover your financial obligations all by itself.

                      It will be your privilege and obligation to administer the Queens laws in your holding as well as maintain roads from which you may charge tolls.

                    • hmmm… sound like a lot of work.

                      Chris, can you throw in Dental benefits and body armor?

            • It’s better and less embarrassing to admit you either made a very uninformed assertion or that you failed to explain the so-called connection you were trying to make.

              • Chris

                I’m not embarrassed by your pedantry, tex. The joke was clear and straightforward, and needed no explanation. There was nothing deceptive about it, and you haven’t laid out a case that there was; you’ve simply made snarky assertions. But please, inform us, your greatness, on exactly how badly my comment misrepresented history and pulled the wool over the eyes of the masses.

                • That you’re doing your best to kick up as much dust over this pretty well rests my mind that I analyzed your comment accurately.

                  But, by all means, keep chattering.

                  • Chris

                    You haven’t “analyzed” my comment at all; you’ve just made a nonsensical complaint about it, then when asked to explain that complaint, refused to. And I’m the one “kicking up dust?”

                • Mrs. Q

                  I couldn’t tell that was a joke Chris, however in all fairness I think a lot of nuance gets lost in translation with digital communication. Have a good day.

                  • Katherine Khorey

                    I thought the comment was in context of the play, not history, so it made sense to me that way.

                    • Chris

                      Thanks, Katherine (and yes, that was the intention).

                    • Interestingly enough, the context of the play ALSO emphasized the notion the assassins were trying to put an end to dictator, not an end to a popular guy (though the dictator was popular among many). So again… Chris’s attempt to smear Trump by projecting a Roman Empire meme devoid and historic nuance is still off.

                    • Chris

                      You must be really fun at parties, tex.

                    • Whatever needs to be said to help you sleep at night, Chris.

                    • Chris

                      Ok, tex: you’re a nitpicky, know-it-all asshole whose need to turn every conversation into a public dominance ritual is extremely off-putting, and makes you an unbearable boor.

                      Now I’ll sleep great!

                    • It’s fine. You simply said something abjectly stupid in another opportunity to smear Trump. But by all means, divert.

                    • Chris

                      I said nothing stupid, tex. FACT: Caesar’s popularity was among the reasons he was killed in the play. A fair reading of my comment would not lead anyone to believe that was the ONLY reason he was killed; but of course, you’re not interested in a fair reading, only in asserting your own imagined intellectual superiority. You just have to be right on this, even though you’ve given absolutely no cogent argument for why you are right. Pointing out this bizarre tendency of yours is not a diversion; it goes straight to the reason why this tangeant exists.

                      And it wasn’t a “smear” on Trump; it is a fact that he is an unpopular president, and a fact is not a smear.

                      It was a joke about how portraying Caesar as Trump doesn’t make sense due to the significant difference between them I pointed out; if I really wanted to “smear” Trump unfairly, I’d be supporting the play.

                      Sorry the joke went over your head.

                    • “Sorry the joke went over your head.”

                      Obviously I acknowledged that the role of memetic comments is to be amusing, while I simultaneously commented on their nature to deceive. So this little blurb of yours is off the mark.

                      You have such a tendency to take things personally.

                      “I said nothing stupid, tex. FACT: Caesar’s popularity was among the reasons he was killed in the play.”

                      And no, it isn’t. I seem to recall all the arguments made to kill Caesar had everything to do with what the anti-Caesar party saw as threats to the Republic and ultimately dangers to the people. Caesar’s popularity may have been the vehicle driving him to the top of politics. But it was indeed his politics that got him killed.

                      “but of course, you’re not interested in a fair reading, only in asserting your own imagined intellectual superiority. You just have to be right on this, even though you’ve given absolutely no cogent argument for why you are right. Pointing out this bizarre tendency of yours is not a diversion; it goes straight to the reason why this tangeant exists.”

                      See, you do this often. It’s cheap and it’s further diversion. I shouldn’t even address it now, but you do this all the time. You’re essentially complaining that someone has a disagreement with you and then describe it in overly dramatic terms. I mean, really?

                      This isn’t a tangent. You made a memetic comment in attempt to be amusing, it however is inaccurate and it is naturally an offshoot of your unbridled Trump hatred. I pointed out why such comments aren’t very useful.

                      You disagree. I’m cool with that. But you’ll note, I’m not crying that you disagree with me.

                    • Chris

                      I’m not crying either, tex. I’m laughing at you.

                    • Another item to file that under “things to help you sleep at night”.

                      I’ll consider my case rested.

        • Chris,
          You haven’t been paying attention recently; intent is irrelevant it’s how it’s perceived that’s important.

          Don’t you know wthat some ignorant person could use Progressive Magical Thinking, dig up your “Caesar was killed because he was popular” statement, and use it as proof to support their argument.

          • Chris

            And what argument would that be?

            • Chris,
              The needle on your Cranial Power Generation Potential gauge just took a big jump up.

              • Chris

                So…no actual argument, then, just made-up terms you think are way more clever than they are. Got it.

                • Chris wrote, “So…no actual argument, then, just made-up terms you think are way more clever than they are. Got it.”

                  No argument? Hmmm…..

                  I’m absolutely positive that you’re not this ignorant, so that means that you’re intentionally being obtuse. Of course there is that slim possibility that I’m wrong and it’s not intentional.

                  The point of my comment at June 13, 2017 at 10:34 am was that the point in my comment June 12, 2017 at 9:05 pm blew completely over your head, thus the reference to an increase in your Cranial Power Generation Potential.

                  When are you going to work on your comprehension?

                  See if the new points in this comment can sink into that thick skull of yours.

                  • Chris

                    Zoltar, if people have to click links to insults you made up on Urban Dictionary in order to understand your arguments, maybe the problem isn’t our comprehension, but your communication style?

                    • That was funny…

                      Sorry Z 🙂

                    • Chris wrote, “Zoltar, if people have to click links to insults you made up on Urban Dictionary in order to understand your arguments, maybe the problem isn’t our comprehension, but your communication style?”

                      That’s a reasonably fair question, but based on that reasonably fair question of yours I’ve just got to ask; how could you possibly know that the links were some kind of an “insult” unless you clicked on the links and interrupted them an an insult, which in-turn begs to have a follow up question; since you seem to think that the links were some kind of insult that means you did actually click on the links so your point is nothing but a deflection and the question now becomes did you not comprehend what was in the links?

                      The problem is still rooted in comprehension.

                      See how this works Chris? 😉

                    • slickwilly wrote, “That was funny… Sorry Z :)”

                      No problem. 🙂

                      P.S. Chris’ reply was actually right inline with some of the possible deflection replies, Chris does like to try and deflect. It pays to think ahead sometimes.

                    • Chris

                      Zoltar, I think it’s clear that they’re insults just from context; I didn’t click the links.

                      I could be deflecting, but I’m being honest when I say I’m not even sure what I’m deflecting from. I legitimately do not know what your argument is here, any more than I know what tex’s argument is. I made a pithy joke, and I’ve done my best to explain what I meant by it and why I think it was fair and not misleading. I haven’t seen the same effort put in by those critiquing me for the joke. In fact, I’m not even sure if you are critiquing me for the joke!

                      I’m not trying to be hostile here; I’m just asking for some clarity. Thanks.

                    • Chris wrote, “I didn’t click the links.”

                      Maybe you should have, it was relevant to the content of the comment.

                      Chris wrote, “I could be deflecting, but I’m being honest when I say I’m not even sure what I’m deflecting from.

                      Deflecting away from the fact that you didn’t comprehend the argument was which is confirmed by this statement “I legitimately do not know what your argument is here”. You didn’t bother to ask, you just went off the rails; it’s ok, you’ve done it before, I’m getting kinda used to it but that doesn’t mean that I’ll stop hammering your about your routine lack of comprehension.

                      Chris wrote, “In fact, I’m not even sure if you are critiquing me for the joke!”

                      More proof that you didn’t comprehend my argument and yet didn’t bother to ask until now. This is more proof that you didn’t comprehend the comments but yet your said “maybe the problem isn’t our comprehension, but your communication style” Proof positive that you were deflecting by trying to turn it around and put the blame on me. That okay, attack the messenger if you like, I can take care of myself including rhetorically.

                      Chris wrote, “I’m not trying to be hostile her…”

                      Hmmmmm… that doesn’t ring as being 100% truthful.

                      Chris wrote, “I’m just asking for some clarity.”

                      Why didn’t you do that before? Personally I think your real problem regarding comprehension is context related, which is likely the problem here too. It seems to be routine for you.

                      Here’s a brief review…

                      You stated “My pithy joke wasn’t intended to deceive anyone”

                      To which I replied, “You haven’t been paying attention recently; intent is irrelevant it’s how it’s perceived that’s important.”

                      I added this statement to that comment to address your joke, “Don’t you know that some ignorant person could use Progressive Magical Thinking, dig up your “Caesar was killed because he was popular” statement, and use it as proof to support their argument.” which was actually kind of humorous if you had clicked on the link and taken it in context with your own joke. But nope you didn’t do that, instead you replied with “And what argument would that be” which was nonsense based on the context of the comment you were replying to and it was clear that the points had blown over your head.

                      Neither one of those statements in that comment were demeaning towards you or anyone in particular and I believe you must have somehow taken it that way, again your failure in comprehension.

                      So I’ll give you a break; go back and reread everything in context to get a clearer comprehension of what was written in this little side discussion and see if you can figure out where you initially went wrong and how you helped drove the conversation into a ditch. I already know my part in that equation.

                      I can do this all day, give up? 😉 😉 😉

                    • Chris

                      I absolutely give up.

  2. Yeah, this one’s on my radar, too.

    I agree with your take (go figure, right?), and I’ll tease out details in a longer post than this comment.

    Four brief observations, however:

    1). It is extremely rare (some would say unprofessional) for a review to be published before a show even officially opens. Whereas most of the commentary is about concept (which won’t change), reviewing a preview is tacky.

    2). If you want a really outrageously inadequate response, check out the official NEA statement, which says only that they didn’t fund this show.

    3). MacBird, like Ionesco’s Macbett, doesn’t pretend to be the original. This play does, but, as you say, this kind of contemporary overlay is definitely old hat by now. Donald Trump had announced his candidacy when I directed Macbeth in the fall of ’15. We didn’t do an especially political production, but–as a joke–toyed briefly with having “Make Scotland Great Again” buttons made. I should also note that the production of Woyzeck now playing at the Old Vic in London purports to be a “new version” of Georg Büchner’s play. What it in fact shares with the original is limited to a couple of character names (not the characters, just the names), about 10% of the plot, and precisely none of Büchner’s genius.

    4. Trump Jr.’s tweet asks a series of questions. You answered the last two; let me handle the first one: How much is funded by taxpayers? Answer: None by someone outside NY State. NY State taxpayers are saddled with paying approximately 2/10 of 1 cent per resident for the entire season (not just Julius Caesar). It may be a little higher for NYC residents; I haven’t yet found numbers for funding by the city.

  3. Well, haters gonna hate.

    And make no mistake, this is hate on display, with full virtue signalling hypocrisy.

    I ask you, if someone did this with Bill and Hillary, or (gasp) Obama, wouldn’t there would be pitchforks in the streets, even if it was done in a red state in the heartland?

    The heartland is watching, and quietly being convinced that both sides are not equal, by behavior such as this.

    • DC Guy

      Obama-as-Caesar was done several times, including by the Guthrie in Minneapolis. No hue and cry.

      • How about finding me a link and reference to another one of those “times”? Here’s the review of that production, and a photo. Casting a black actor as Caesar does not constitute “Obama as Caesar.” This was the review linked by a post claiming that there was no uproar about a using Obama as Caesar—based on the review, I’d say that this was because nobody thought that was what it was doing.

        • DC Guy

          Here’s another one:
          http://www.theamericanconservative.com/shakesblog/obamas-ides-of-march/

          From the article:

          “Which brings me to this production. Director Rob Melrose has set his Caesar at our precise historical moment, in Obama’s Washington, D.C. The capital is rocked by “Occupy Rome” protests. His Caesar (the suavely confident Bjorn DuPaty) is a tall, charismatic African-American politician; he doesn’t look or sound much like Obama (he more closely recalls Michael Jordan), but the audience is unquestionably going to read him as an Obama stand-in nonetheless, particularly when his opponents bear a marked resemblance to Eric Cantor (Sid Solomon’s snappy terrier Cassius) and Mitch McConnell (Kevin Orton’s cynical old pol Casca). Even Mark Antony is recognizable as a standard Democratic politician type, Clinton/Gore division.”

          ———-

          To be fair, I don’t think it matters either way. It’s fine to do Obama Caesar and it’s fine to do Trump Caesar, and the acceptability of one hardly hinges on the existence of the other.

          • DC Guy

            Egg on my face – that appears to be the same as the Guthrie production. It must have toured. I had thought they were different productions.

      • I cannot find that: do you have sources?

        • Here is another review.

          “And, because Caesar is cast as a tall, lanky black man, the Obama inference is a bit too obvious. But it fits, sort of. Like Caesar, Obama rose to power on a tide of public goodwill; like Caesar, there were many in government who doubted Obama’s leadership abilities; and now that Obama’s first term has failed to live up to the messianic hype, there are plenty of people who—for the good of the country, you understand, not their own glory—want to take Obama down.”

          • still sounds like no one knew what the play company was doing… to obscure to be a good counter to my question.

            • “Too obvious” means “too obscure” to you? OK, then.

              There’s also this review: “In this Caesar, Julius and his inner circle are dressed in crisp business suits, Bjorn DuPaty cutting an unmistakably Obama-like figure as the eponymous ruler.”

              The reason this production didn’t generate a lot of hue and cry wasn’t that nobody noticed the allusion. It was that nobody cared.

              • But Obama-like just means “black.” No effort was made to make him look like Obama. Obama doesn’t shave his head.

                • Surely there’s more to resemblance than mere physical similarity. And if the production generated responses that said the analogy was “too obvious” or “unmistakably Obama-like,” there was more than that… or, perhaps, merely being a black man in power, surrounded by Senators who wish him ill, is enough to link the story to Obama. The Julius Caesar now about to open seems a bit more ham-handed, and can (perhaps) be rightly criticized on those grounds, but that doesn’t mean that previous audiences for previous shows didn’t understand what they were watching.

                  Years ago, I directed a production of Evgeny Shvarts’s The Dragon as a favor to a friend who was hosting a conference of Russian scholars (i.e., scholars of Russia, not from Russia). The bad guy in the play is clearly intended to represent Stalin. I didn’t give him a big mustache. I didn’t need to. Everybody got it, just as everybody seems to have gotten it that the Caesar of the Acting Company/Guthrie production represented President Obama.

                  The more important point, however, was made earlier by DC Guy: ” It’s fine to do Obama Caesar and it’s fine to do Trump Caesar, and the acceptability of one hardly hinges on the existence of the other.”

                  • The Park Production comes in a very different context: month of death-wishes for this President, and the Kathy Griffin stunt. And if I was going to intentionally evoke Obama, I’d make it clear, wouldn’t you? This Caesar looks like Cory Booker.

                    • Curmie

                      I’ll grant the different context, but the producers could hardly have predicted, say, the Kathy Griffin stunt: the antagonism, yes, and perhaps therefore the possibility of something like that, but they surely had developed their concept long before Griffin. As for whether I’d “make it clear,” the answer is “maybe.” My philosophy as actor and director is not to show the audience, but to allow it to see. The present production clubs spectators over the head. I think it would be more effective were it more subtle, but that’s a question of aesthetics, not ethics.

                    • I don’t disagree, Curmie. My only point is that alluding to the current President and making the character the President are materially different conceptually.

  4. The Donald as Julius Caesar is like Barack Obama as Nobel Peace Prize winner; both are horribly wrong for the part!

    • Chris

      That’s funny.

      • “That’s funny.”

        Heh, that reminds me of a classic scene from ”Goodfellas,” the exchange between Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) and Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill.

        “Funny how? I mean, funny like I’m a clown? I amuse you? I make you laugh? I’m here to fuckin’ amuse you? How da fuck am I funny? What da fuck is so funny about me? Tell me. Tell me what’s funny.”

    • dragin_dragon

      I had totally forgotten about this exchange, Tex. I thought it was one of the few actually funny parts of the movie. I howled. Thanks for finding it again.

  5. The Wednesday Woman

    Isn’t the assasination the tragic error in “Julius Caesar”? By that reading, the play shows how breaking rules of order to depose a duly elected leader only causes more destruction, no matter how well intentioned.

    This production could be really interesting if it followed through on that angle, but it sounds like no one involved even thought past the act of assassination. That seems artistically and intellectually sloppy to
    me. The whole concept also seems like something the radical 16-year-old running the high school Shakespeare Club could come up with. Only the Shakespeare Club would be a more productive use of the funding.

    • That seems artistically and intellectually sloppy to me. The whole concept also seems like something the radical 16-year-old running the high school Shakespeare Club could come up with.

      Whatever gave you the idea that this production would be more intelligently done than a radical 16 year old in high school would do? From where I sit, I cannot tell the difference.

  6. Hal

    Not one of your better commentaries. Rather snarky and a bit too ego-centric, I’m afraid. But I remain a loyal reader and supporter of Ethics Alarms. Thank you for your continuing thoughtful civic insights.

    • How is this egocentric? That fact that I have direct experience with the issues involved is relevant experience and expertise to what informs the analysis. Or, if you like, a bias…in any event, I’m obligated to note it.

      I read the whole post again, and there was only one hint of snark, at the very end, regarding Jr’s tweet.

      Serious question: Has Junior ever been to a play? Of course this production of “Julius Caesar” is art; why the scare quotes? It would also be art of it was performed in Lithuanian, by midgets in tutus. Does he know what “art” is? My guess is no, since art is often political speech, especially performance art, and it is always speech, so it doesn’t change “things” at all. Do the names Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes ring any bells, Donald?

      Never mind; I’m sure they don’t.

      He deserves it. The question “when does “art” become political speech & does that change things?” makes everyone who reads it dumber.

  7. Sarah B.

    Just as a hypothetical scenario, with the understanding that it is not the situation described above, what if a big name donor, American Airlines in stead of Delta perhaps, said that they would provide funding only for Shakespeare’s plays when they signed up. Given that this has been modified from the one the bard wrote, would that be unethical? Or do donors get to say anything like that? (The only theatre on my hometown can show three movies on staggered showtime times, so I have no knowledge of this stuff. Some years ago, it was a culture shock to learn that people did these plays, they weren’t just books.)

    • Shakespeare is in the public domain, and anyone who made such a donation would have to specify no concepts or line changes or cuts, which many companies would never agree to. But if a donor wanted to pay for an authentic Shakespeare festival, that’s cool….but the company would be obligated to follow the limitations.

  8. This version of Julius Caesar is pandering and promoting an obsessed political “cult”.

    I think it’s time to buy an island in Fiji and check out of this screwed up society where everywhere you turn, every day of the week, every hour of every day, there are people and the media showing us just how consumed they have become with their political hate. We’re doomed I say, doomed.

    No I’m really not going to just give up and let the idiots have the country, but I literally know people that are moving out of this country to get away from the insanity that the anti-Trump cult has become. What the fuck are We the People going to do to restore sanity to our country; tell me, what? 😦

  9. You’re wrong on #1. Actually, you aren’t wrong, you simply ignore the overriding ethical obligation of corporate executives. Their #1 obligation is to their shareholders. When a particular sponsored message or artistic vision DAMAGES the value of the shareholder’s investment, then they better revisit. Otherwise, management is behaving unethically, because it is not their money.

    A media company, such an the NYT or Time Warner, can retreat behind the “freedom of expression is core to our business” principle. Neither a bank or airline has that luxury. Nor can you claim that a CEO, any CEO, should be utterly blind to the “art” that they sponsor. If you can’t imagine an art project or film that would be DIRECTLY INIMICAL to the interests of Weyerhauser or Georgia-Pacific or Big Pharma or virtually any other corporation, then you have a very limited imagination. Delta’s CEO sure as heck isn’t to be expected to blithely continue sponsoring a 2 hour film festival that’s nothing but footage of horrendous airline crashes interwoven with airline personnel behaving badly, no matter how artfully done.

    Whether a corporate sponsor chooses to put limits on a donation before hand, and whether the beneficiary chooses to take it with those limits, is completely up to them, and either arrangement is ethical. So is yanking the money whenever one chooses.

    Only children think that they deserve to continue to be cared for even when they make their caretaker look bad…. so yes, an artist of any sort has an ethical obligation to not crap in their patron’s living room. If they do so in a fit of creative genius, then at least they should have the integrity to own it, and accept the bum’s rush gracefully. And nobody should be objecting to the bum’s rush on “ethical grounds.”

    • Nope. Yanking financial commitments when there has NOT been any limitations on the donation to an arts organization is unethical. The donation is to support theater, not theater with a particular political message. If a company is so terrified of controversy it shouldn’t give to theater companies.

      A politically provocative version of Julius Caesar has been as normal as any other version since Orson Welles did his brownshirt JC in the Thirties. Theater is successful when people come to see the play and talk about it. If Delta and BOA made that show possible and the contribution was to support theater, then they got exactly what the donation was made for.

      They need to learn what they are contributing to.

  10. Sue Dunim

    In my opinion, the best production of Henry V yet staged.

  11. Hey! Another one of those issues where we disagree on. See, we really aren’t the same person. Maybe it’s because I didn’t spend 20 years as an artistic director, but I don’t see it. I don’t see how filtering political speech through the ephemeral gossamer of “art” gives it special immunity to political criticism. We’re artistically killing an effigy of the president? How is that different that Griffin?

    When you said;

    “The comparison with Griffin’s Trump head is inapt. Her stunt had negligible artistic content, just disrespect, shock and hate. Topical references in Shakespeare productions are hackneyed, boring and lazy, but the play is still there: Trump is just part of “Julius Caesar,” and gone by midway through the play. I don’t know if the Trump assassination was “intended to offend,” but there is a lot more to this event than giving offense.”

    For instance… I wouldn’t take it as far as Donald Junior, perhaps, and I have been to productions, (most recently “Mom’s the World” which I expected to loathe, but actually kind of enjoyed.) but my only quasi-cultured brain doesn’t see the distinction. Would Griffin’s decapitation of Trump be more “artistic” if she had dressed up as Perseus and modeled Trump’s locks into snakes?

    And this idea that companies support the art to support the art. Why on Earth would you think that? If they were to actually think like that, they would be failing at the most fundamental level of fiduciary duty. A corporation’s primary goal is to provide revenue for their shareholders. Period. Full stop. If they spend money on social causes, it must be done in such a way as to provide utility to the corporation in the form of good PR or advertising. You’re donating to green initiatives, sports centers, or race car drivers? Ok, but they better as heck put your logo on a sign. Sponsees absolutely have a duty not to embarrass their Sponsors, and if they do, they have every reasonable expectation to be dropped like a hot potato and to never get sponsored again.

    • “Would Griffin’s decapitation of Trump be more “artistic” if she had dressed up as Perseus and modeled Trump’s locks into snakes?”

      Yes.

      Political criticism is fine. When have I ever said it wasn’t? Silencing artists who say things you don’t like is not fine. Taking money away from theater companies—virtually no theater companies can break even without charity–is virtual censorship. This is Shakespeare, and drama, no matter how distorted.

      And this idea that companies support the art to support the art. Why on Earth would you think that?

      That is how they represent their contributions, as virtue signalling for the arts. They should be treated according to their own pretenses. Here’s the deal: when they represent their contributions as “We give to PBS to ensure that they are kindly to our point of view while we simultaneously deceive t6he public into thinking we give a damn about quality television,” then they can act accordingly without being called unethical and censorious.

      • “Political criticism is fine. When have I ever said it wasn’t?”

        I could be reading this wrong, but when you first wrote in 2012, and then repeated in your first Griffin decapitation post:

        “Criticism, satire and humor regarding any U.S. President, living or dead, is fair, ethical and within the realm of the freedom of expression that makes America great. Incivility, disrespect, denigration, hate and incitements to violence directed against any President, living or dead, is wrong.”

        I interpret that to mean: it’s criticism unless it also happens to be disrespectful, hateful or an incitement to violence, which is what you (rightly, I think) labelled the Griffin pictures as. I fail to see the difference between pictures depicting a woman holding a decapitated head, and six actors taking turns stabbing the president multiple times. I don’t think the context of the rest of the play changes the depiction in the first act. It seems the definition of disrespect, hate and incitement to violence.

        This argument seems to revolve around context… and it’s impossible to ignore the context that Trump is probably the single most hated person on Earth and will receive more death threats in the next five minutes than I will in my lifetime. He’s perceived as a bigoted, misogynist xenophobe, and called “Literally Hitler” in a time where punching Nazis is chic. There is no universe where I believe the cast, crew, and directors were unaware of this context,and following that they did it anyway. They lined up minority and female actors to stab to death the character who is literally called Donald Trump… And for what? It makes no sense in the context of Shakespeare… No… This was hate shoehorned in as murder porn. And I bet the audience cheered.

        “That is how they represent their contributions, as virtue signalling for the arts. They should be treated according to their own pretenses. Here’s the deal: when they represent their contributions as “We give to PBS to ensure that they are kindly to our point of view while we simultaneously deceive the public into thinking we give a damn about quality television,” then they can act accordingly without being called unethical and censorious.”

        Is it virtue signalling? Sure. Is it obvious? Maybe not, unless you think about it for a while. Would it be as effective if everyone put that amount of thought into it? Probably not. But at that point, if corporations could not buy goodwill with sponsorship dollars, the ethical thing for them to do it to not sponsor anyone.

        Corporations aren’t set up so as to benefit the arts or write blank cheques. If the definition of “sponsorship” the arts tells uses is different from the ones corporations use, it’s irrelevant because at the end of the day, the corporation decides whether or not to sign the cheque. Corporations are set up to provide utility for shareholders, and if there isn’t even a perceived utility, if there is in fact a cost over and above the dollars spent, then it isn’t even a close call. And if that means that theaters are afraid to poke at their patrons… Don’t take their money. I mean, obviously there is some kind of market for this kind of high brow gutter humor. Maybe we’ve moved past the point where it’s a corporation’s job to subsidize the hobbies of wealthy people. Open a Patreon account.

        • “six actors taking turns stabbing the president multiple times.”

          You have to see the difference, unless you are saying that “Julius Ceasar” is unethical to stage. There is context, and the context makes it intellectually clear, if not viscerally clear, that this isn’t “the real” Trump, and is part of a larger set of messages, many 500 years old.

          This is what Fox’s “assassination play” is an important misrepresentation, and who I’ve flagged it more than once.

          • I mean… If the argument is that that actor isn’t actually Donald Trump, then we’re all aware the head Kathy held up wasn’t really Trump either, right? Because the argument that the role isn’t actually Donald Trump, confuses me… I mean, you might want to tell the production, because they’re referring to the character as Donald Trump, dressing him up as Donald Trump, and having the people perceived as the most disenfranchised by Donald Trump as his murderers. If they didn’t mean that to be Donald Trump, they’re definitely courting confusion.

            • He’s not referred to as Trump. He’s referred to as Caesar! It is Trump placed in a parallel universe/history, which makes it art, and also makes it bad art, because it’s incoherent. This was the distinction I was making with the Obama Julius Caesars. It’s like a side-insult that takes you out of the play. the play gets in the way of the insult, and the insult interferes with the play.

              No such nuance holding up a model of Trump’s blood head.

              • In the play, sure…. not so much outside of it… But even so, that hits me as a fig leaf. It’s the same kind of logic that would have let Griffin get away with saying that she wasn’t holding Donald’s head, it was a bloody guinea pig on a flesh colored bowling ball and you just don’t understand her art. We know who the character was, we know what they were saying and all the prevarication on Earth, all the special pleading you can muster… Won’t change the fact that front and center, millions of people are seeing knives sunk into an effigy of the president.

              • It’s like a side-insult that takes you out of the play. the play gets in the way of the insult, and the insult interferes with the play.

                Okay, I begin to see the point with that statement. Still agree with HT in that it involves knives sinking into an effigy of the president.

      • “Taking money away from theater companies—virtually no theater companies can break even without charity–is virtual censorship. This is Shakespeare, and drama, no matter how distorted.”

        Except art with a political message is also speech, and no donor should be brow beat into continuing to pay for speech he/she vehemently disagree with. This very much parallels campaign donations being considered a form of speech.

        Sure, donations for the sake of art are fine. But if a particular performance is obviously making more politics and less art, there’s no ethical principle compelling a disagreeing donor to continue donating if they think their continued support will be to push a narrative grossly out of line with their values.

  12. If I was the one assigned to be the producer of this production, I would have replaced the director as soon as I caught wind of the concept in production meetings, if replacing the director had been overridden by the board I would have immediately resigned the position and permanently left the company. I have actually been on the board of directors of a theatrical company and I’ve been part of a production where the director was replaced two weeks into rehearsals; that’s not a “trust me” rationalization it’s a fact that these kinds of things actually happen and I’ve personally seen it happen.

    All the arguments about this being the theatrical company exercising its artistic license to stage, cast, and costume the show in a manner of which they choose (which is true) and the actions in the show being equivalent to knives sinking into an effigy of the president (which is true) I think are secondary to a core problem; I think it boils down to the theatrical company promoting of an obsessed political cult wing that wishes “harm” to the President of the United States and for this reason the perception of this “act” is that it’s unethical, regardless if the theatrical company has every right to stage the show as it chooses – “After all, art is art. [Theatrical/artistic] freedom. Right?”. Just because a theatrical company can do something “artistically” doesn’t make it art any more than this is “art”…

    “Art” can be used to justify unethical actions.

    I’m going to add this; it’s my opinion that the motives for staging the show in the manner in which they did, shows that their intentions were almost certainly inline with exactly what I stated as the perception, so in my mind the motives would also be unethical.

  13. Side point but reasonably valid point about artistic license in the production of a classic play. There are going to be people in the audience that have never seen a Shakespeare production and may never ever see another Shakespeare show again after seeing this production and this taste is the taste the company wants to leave in the mouth of these newbies as a way to remember a timeless Shakespeare classic and bring them back to the theater again and again?

    Jack,
    Would you choose to costume the Phantom of the Opera in a clown costume with a half of a big smiling clown face mask; or how about costuming the cast of Oklahoma as Amish; or how about making Sweeney Todd to look like Trump and have him slitting the throats of modern day Democrats look alikes? How far is it okay to push artistic license before it is a clear distraction to the contents of the actual show, almost to the point of changing the words in the script?

  14. It seems a bit surreal to me that we were talking about this just yesterday.

  15. Curmie

    Sorry if I’m flaying a deceased equine…

    Not surprisingly, I suppose, I’ve been thinking a lot about this story lately—enough to post about it twice on my own blog. Not having seen the production, I can’t say for certain that it does or doesn’t do X or Y. But I wonder if what we’re dealing with here is a variation on the theme of the Second Niggardly Principle.

    A couple of points first. Drama, especially in the West, has always been political. I would argue (although I suspect the majority of my fellow theatre historians would disagree) that the Dionysian Festival, generally regarded as the birthplace of formal theatre (although there was almost certainly theatrical activity of some kind before that) was created less to honor Dionysus—a rather obscure demi-god worshipped primarily in Asia Minor—than to consolidate the political power of the tyrant Peisistratus.

    Whether or not this is the case, it is unquestionably true that the Dionysia was used as a site for political speeches (e.g., Pericles’ funeral oration), and that the plays themselves commented on contemporary events (e.g., the Oresteia on the reforms of Ephialtes three years earlier, or Oedipus Tyrannos on the plague). Old Comedy—the plays that would have been contemporaneous with the work of the great Athenian tragedians—was explicitly political, often vulgar, and uniformly iconoclastic. These comic critiques of the powerful were seen by the state as an important part of the cultural life, much as the Feast of Fools became a staple of the medieval calendar. Similarly, Americans knew we were going to be all right after 9/11 when David Letterman started telling Bush jokes again.

    It is also true that I know of not a single book, article, conference paper, or lecture on Julius Caesar that suggests that the assassination of the title character in the play is a good thing. And this is not mere consequentialism: killing Caesar wasn’t a bad idea because things fell apart thereafter, but because things would always fall apart after such an event. The notion of basileus, “Divine Right,” was central not only to the political but also the (Anglican) religious doctrine of the era. In other words, I find it difficult to argue that any production of Julius Caesar could be said to be apolitical, or to advocate violence against a ruler (of course, I use this last term loosely, to include President Trump). Thus, it is extremely unlikely that any production company of stature (and the Public Theater certainly qualifies) would <intentionally promote the course of action adopted by Brutus, Cassius, et al. in the middle of the play.

    Finally, as has been mentioned here earlier, adopting production concepts which attempt to bring a classic work explicitly into the present by underscoring parallels between characters and well-known contemporary figures has a long history, including previous productions of Julius Caesar which may not have been quite as explicit, but were apparently sufficiently clear that contemporary critics picked up on the allusions immediately.

    All that said, a couple of other points need to be made, as well. First, it is undoubtedly true that the theatre community in general is not supportive of Mr. Trump’s presidency. They don’t like his politics, they don’t like his dishonesty, and they don’t like him. A rift that has always existed between artists and the GOP has widened in recent years, and the enmity towards the Trump administration is real, whether or not justified.

    Moreover, Julius Caesar is, in my opinion, one of the poorer-structured of Shakespeare’s plays. Even though the murder takes place at about the midpoint of the play, it certainly seems like the climax. And that’s where the on-stage action is. The ensuing two acts are, as I’ve suggested elsewhere, pretty dull. So the disintegration of Brutus’ ideal new world just isn’t as interesting as the assassination of a political leader, especially if the killing is staged in a particularly realistic and histrionic manner, as appears to be the case in the Public’s production. So whereas it may be wrong to think of this as an “assassination play,” it’s understandable.

    That is, seeing the Public’s production as a call to arms remains an inaccurate reading, but it is perhaps foreseeable. And Oskar Eustis, the director, seized upon what a friend of mine (also a PhD in Theatre) refers to as a “wouldn’t it be cool if” concept. These almost always sound great in theory, but ultimately end up unable to integrate the production and the original text. That is, the fact that no serious scholar thinks Julius Caesar promotes violence matters a whole lot less if the play being produced has been sufficiently altered by “concept” that it ceases to be Julius Caesar. Again, without having seen the show in question, I can’t comment further.

    What does seem entirely possible is that Eustis and his colleagues set out to make their production relevant to a 21st century audience: a worthy goal. But they may have gotten too cute. I still stand 100% behind their right—legal and ethical—to do a play like this, and I still regard Delta’s and Bank of America’s withdrawal as morally craven and hypocritical. (I already knew that about Fox News.) But the furor had to have been anticipated as at least a plausibly predictable response to the production. Moreover, portraying Caesar as they did was unquestionably an intentional tweaking of President Trump and his supporters. That the “correct” reading of the production almost certainly runs directly contrary to the hype generated by the right-wing media may be irrelevant. The Public bears some responsibility, not for threats or incitement or anything like that, but for willfully playing “us vs. them” games and widening the gulf that separates left and right.

    • See, this is why I’ve missed you! This would be a Comment of the Day on Ethics Alarms or Theater Alarms, and now I want to read your two blog posts on this topic. Terrific job, Curmie–thanks.

      • Curmie

        For some reason, the link to my blog was automatic in an earlier comment, but not when I was actually talking about it. (I’m asked to include a URL when I’m trying to do exactly that.) Anyway, anyone interested can go here for my first response, and here for a slightly more scholarly follow-up.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s