Yesterday Delta Airlines pulled its sponsorship from New York’s Public Theater over their production of Julius Caesar which depicts Caesar as Trump. The first of this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park productions, Delta said that the production “does not reflect Delta Air Lines’ values. Their artistic and creative direction cross the line on the standards of good taste.”
Later that day, Bank of America withdrew its sponsorship of the production, but not The Public Theater at large, saying that while they “support art programs worldwide,” this Julius Caesar was presented “in a way that was intended to provoke and offend.”
As we saw with the Kathy Griffin photograph last weekend, there is little the right loves more than to chastise liberals for their perceived “bad taste.” No doubt Delta and Bank of America’s decisions were influenced by articles from Breitbart and Fox News condemning the production. The Fox News article is filled with triggers for right-wingers, including the statement that “the production is partially taxpayer-funded through the National Endowment for the Arts,” another way to chastise the already-meager funding we provide the arts in America.
Donald Trump Jr., the Sonny Corleone of the Trump crime family, had this to say about it:
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
And culturally illiterate Mike Huckabee, never one to miss an opportunity to play the offended party, chimed in as well:
— Gov. Mike Huckabee (@GovMikeHuckabee) June 11, 2017
Perhaps Huckabee should stick with Cats.
Right-wingers love to be outraged over…well, everything, but they especially love to take offense at art, because it allows them another chance to show off their moral superiority. Historically, theater has always been a ripe target for them: in the 1930s, when political theater received subsidies through the WPA’s Federal Theater Project, they feared that plays advocating for political change would cause riots and protests. Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty, an agitprop one-act about cab drivers deciding to strike, became the most challenged American play of its time, getting banned everywhere from Boston to Seattle. Orson Welles and John Houseman’s famous production of The Cradle Will Rock, a Brechtian musical about the plight of workers, was banned from being performed on stage, leading to their now-famous decision to perform the show in the audience with only a piano accompanying them. There is as much evidence of these plays causing workers to strike as there is evidence of Medea causing women to murder their children, but they don’t care – in their minds, outrage trumps ignorance. (No pun intended.)
And this isn’t just run-of-the-mill ignorance, either: this is a fundamental misunderstanding of a 400-year-old play that almost everyone with a high school degree has encountered. Nowhere in the play does William Shakespeare advocate assassination – like his greatest tragedies, it is marked by an ambivalence towards Politics with an uppercase P, but understands that, when confronted by dictatorship, assassination is not a useful method to save democracy. As in the case of Rome, it only makes the situation worse: thirteen years after Caesar’s assassination, Octavian crowned himself Augustus Caesar, putting an end to the Roman Republic and its tradition of democratic rule.
I can understand not liking art that purposely offends or denigrates those who disagree with it, but when art is meant to only serve ideology, the result is propaganda. The best art, and the best theater, allows for a myriad of interpretations, and Julius Caesar has always been reinterpreted to reflect the political culture surrounding it. When Orson Welles staged the play with his Mercury Theater in 1938, he set it in Mussolini’s Italy, and in its most famous scene, Cinna the Poet was murdered at the hands of the Secret Police. This production received government funding through the Federal Theater Project, never mind that at this point, the United States had yet to take a stand against Hitler or Mussolini, and Hollywood’s Frank Capra, himself an Italian immigrant, was even mulling the possibility of a biopic of Il Duce. But Franklin Roosevelt, and Federal Theater chairwoman Hallie Flanagan, understood that art could not only be a way to put people to work, it could also spark conversation and give people an experience outside ourselves. This new Caesar stands in the same tradition as the productions that have come before it, and must be seen in its proper context. (For a more detailed explanation of Caesar interpretations, read this article from Vox by Alissa Wilkinson.)
Theater has been a place for politics and art to converge since Ancient Greece, and The Public Theater’s history is marked by groundbreaking art that has changed the way we see the world and ourselves in it: Hair, A Chorus Line, The Normal Heart, Fun Home, and of course, Hamilton, all started there. Our culture would not be what it is today without those musicals and plays, and for Delta and Bank of America to withdraw their sponsorship from the theater and its production is a gross misjudgment that I suspect will cost them more than it will earn them.
And get this: when the Guthrie Theater staged Julius Caesar in 2012 with Caesar-as-Obama, who sponsored the production? Why, none other than Delta Airlines.
Full Disclosure: I am a former Public Theater employee. I have not been in contact with the theater about this situation, nor did anyone from the theater ask me to write this article.
Jeremy Fassler is a writer and journalist living in Brooklyn, New York.