Comment Of The Day: “Ethics Observations On The ‘Shakespeare in the Park’ Trump As Julius Caesar Production”

It was a pleasure to see eloquent and thoughtful teacher/blogger Curmie back commenting after a hiatus, and his timing could not have been better, as the controversy over the nightly assassination of a Julius Caesar who appears to be President Trump’s twin has become even more relevant since an anti-Trump zealots started picking off Republican Congressmen with his rifle.

Curmie is a theater professional with keen perspective on artistic freedom and a proven facility with ethical analysis. Here is his Comment of the Day on the post, Ethics Observations On The “Shakespeare in the Park” Trump As “Julius Caesar” Production:

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.

[Ethics Alarms note: “When an individual or group can accomplish its legitimate objectives without engaging in speech or conduct that will offend individuals whose basis for the supposed offense is emotional, mistaken or ignorant, but is not malicious and is based on well-established impulses of human nature, it is unethical to intentionally engage in such speech or conduct.”]

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.

18 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: “Ethics Observations On The ‘Shakespeare in the Park’ Trump As Julius Caesar Production”

  1. Would it have been unethical if the theater had assured sponsors that they were going to do a clean production of Shakespeare? Would the sponsors still have been at fault for withdrawing support from a different play than they had been promised?

    • What is a “clean production” of Shakespeare? Any such reassurances would have been false, since all productions, by necessity, must approach the text with some sort of point of view. And Julius Caesar is a deeply political play, so it would be very difficult indeed to try to detangle that one out. You would be left with nothing.

      • …and this is why we can’t have nice things… /snark

        I am an uneducated plebe, I will admit, and the arts as a high calling never impacted my circle. We have plays, of course, but routinely were censored as to content and style. I was in college before I knew you could even go against your sponsor’s politics or comfort zone.

        So I have little sympathy for the loss of sponsors. Play stupid games, and all that.

        I understand how those closer to the field may feel different.

    • I’m going to double down harder on something that I said to an earlier post, and that is that if a corporation ever actually supported a theater under the auspices of “Supporting the Arts”, their community relations manager should be fired. Corporations don’t exist as a public utility to write blank cheques to the black hole pockets of hobbyists, they exist to create profits for their shareholders.

      Any donation should (read: Must, except under some very unusual circumstances, and no, there isn’t an “It’s Art” exception) be under the auspices of creating utility for the corporation, and usually it’s billed as public relations. This idea that “The donors are supporting art for the sake of art, they knew it when they signed up and it’s wrong for them to withhold those funds it the art embarrasses the donors” is pure fiction concocted to make production heads feel better about taking corporate dollars, and it only lasts as long as they don’t embarrass their sponsors, because the moment they do, the cheques miraculously stop coming.

      • Contributions to the arts are essential aspects of responsible corporate citizenship, have great cognitive dissonance value, assist public relations, and enhance the brand. When they become a form of political lobbying, all of that is forfeit.

        • It’s also forfeit when it’s counterintuitive, and if it’s going to be forfeit one way or the other, why write the cheque?

          This might be a business culture/ethics vs. arts culture/ethics dissonance, but as someone working in finance for a large company that sells mainly petroleum, if any of our sponsees did a production about the evils of fossil fuels, whether or not they fell under the category of “Art”, we probably wouldn’t renew our sponsorship. And maybe we’ve just been lucky, or maybe the sponsees know it, but so far, it has not come up.

          • I mean… Absolute best case for your scenario: You’re absolutely right, and donating to the arts is a complete roll of the dice. Your sponsee might embarrass you and you can expect that at their whim, they could bite the hand that feeds with wanton abandon, because they’re “The Arts” and they have all kinds of special pleading.

            Why. On. Earth. Wouldn’t I sponsor damn near anything else, where I’d have so much more certainty of the PR I was buying?

            • Why does Exxon support the Corporation for Public Broadcasting? It’s virtue signaling, that’s all. “We do good things that don’t have anything to do with profits.” It’s still a valuable message. How often have companies been genuinely embarrassed by their arts donations? I can’t think of very many times in the last 50 years. It’s becoming more of a risk because of anti-free expression boycotts, but companies have a duty to resist that.

              • Well… Yeah…. Sure… That’s PR. Sometimes PR falls flat… But very rarely does a sponsee willingly bites the hand that feeds. Sometimes they do it inadvertently… Which is what I assume happened here…. ” How often have companies been genuinely embarrassed by their arts donations?” Well… Off the top of my head… Here. If nowhere else. And because it happened here, it shouldn’t surprise when the companies, reeling from scandal, pull back their dollars.

                Honestly, I think this is part of a culture of corporate weenism where managers are so afraid of negative covfefe, that they’ll allow demographics they never actually expected business from to dictate their practices. I don’t particularly like it, but I’m really uncomfortable with even suggesting that companies have a duty to spend dollars, specifically on things they don’t have a duty to spend dollars on, and even more especially when those dollars fund something that they see as negatively effects their bottom line over and above the cost of advertising.

      • My employer has a large Foundation that donates to local charity. We support the area food banks, support various aid programs, some theaters and Libraries, and so on. I sit on the donation committee, judging applicants.

        We have had some experience with the sponsored biting the hand, so to speak. That organization (and at times that entire genre) get banned from further donations forever. It is an unwritten rule, of course, but I have sat in meetings where Foundation Board members explain that we cannot even consider an applicant, and the reasons vary from bad PR to outright indignation from the past.

        HT is correct: while this is virtue signalling, we determine where the money goes, and pissing off the Board is a quick way to the poor house.

  2. I cannot help but point out that killing Julius Caesar was the only way to end his rule as he became dictator for life – whereas Trump’s rule will be up for grabs in four years’ time. No need to kill him off in a play. You could say the company was literally dramatizing the situation.

  3. Wecome back, Sir Curmudgeon. Isn’t Caesar the one who says he is willing to sacrifice everything for the good of the people (or something like that)? Not an expression we’ve heard from the POTUS.

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