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.
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 Now some prominent corporate sponsors have publicly withdrawn their financial support, including Delta and Bank of America.
“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.”
[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.