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These were not the most unkindest cuts of all, but they still hurt. Yesterday, Bank of America and Delta Airlines ended their sponsorship agreements with the Public Theater over its current Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar, in which the Roman emperor is portrayed as a power-hungry president evocative of Donald Trump.
“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,” a Delta statement said, according to the New York Times. “Their artistic and creative direction crossed the line on the standards of good taste.”
Bank of America, which has sponsored Shakespeare in the Park productions in Central Park’s Delacorte Theater for 11 years, posted a similar statement on Twitter:
We are withdrawing our funding pic.twitter.com/MlaONF82FN
— Bank of America News (@BofA_News) June 12, 2017
The production, which is directed by the Public’s longtime artistic director Oskar Eustis and stars actor Gregg Henry as the titular, big-league Roman, began preview performances on May 23. Its portrayal of the plot to assassinate a despotic emperor as an allegory for our current political climate didn’t seem to raise many eyebrows at first.
“I don’t think it’s disrespectful for the president to be murdered on stage,” said one attendee interviewed by Inside Edition. “It’s not really the president, it’s theater. Everybody knows it’s theater.”
On Sunday morning, however, the Fox News program Fox & Friends broadcast a segment on the production. The co-hosts seem especially outraged that the production shows Caesar being assassinated “by women and minorities;” they repeatedly point out that “the ones doing the stabbing are women and minorities.” They go on to characterize the play as “assassination porn” for the left and suggest that its message is too partisan for the production to be receiving public funding — a sentiment echoed by President Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump, Jr., when he shared the segment on Twitter.
I wonder how much of this “art” is funded by taxpayers? Serious question, when does “art” become political speech & does that change things? https://t.co/JfOmLLBJCn
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) June 11, 2017
Fox correspondent Guy Benson ends the clip with a thought experiment: “If some show depicted Barack Obama as president getting assassinated, there would be a massive outcry.” Well, Shakespeare productions using the Bard’s texts as allegories for contemporary situations are very common, and as Broadway World pointed out, a 2012 staging of Julius Caesar by the Acting Company did just that. The show was co-produced by the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, with multiple critics picking up on the parallels between the Roman emperor and Obama. Apparently this did not spur “a massive outcry” or cause longtime Guthrie Theater sponsor Delta Airlines to withdraw its support.
Update, 6/12, 4:10pm: In response to Hyperallergic’s queries, a spokesperson from the Public Theater sent the following statement:
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, 6/12, 5:10pm: The National Endowment for the Arts refuted claims that the Public’s Julius Caesar production had received funding from the federal agency. In a statement on its website, the NEA explained:
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.
Update, 6/13, 4:45pm: Kate Shindle, the president of Actors’ Equity, the national union that represents some 51,000 actors and stage managers — including more than a dozen of the members of the Julius Caesar cast — released a statement in response to the controversy. It reads, in part:
All this pearl clutching really just indicates how profoundly people are missing the point. Julius Caesar is a cautionary tale about the dangers and consequences of a mob mentality against a ruler. The play actually goes out of its way to make the argument that violence and assassination are not the answer to political problems in a democracy.
Delta and Bank of America may, of course, choose to fund — or not fund — anything they want. But while Delta’s motto is to ‘keep climbing,’ the company’s actions this week have taken theatre everywhere down a peg. I hope our 51,000 members will remember this episode when choosing where to put their own hard-earned money.