What if Free Outdoor Theater is the Greatest Threat to Our Democracy?

(Wikimedia Commons)

What if we have all died and 2017 is actually purgatory? Instead of Sisyphus rolling a rock up a hill over and over, it’s just conservative and liberals engaging in back-and-forth, grab-your-wallet boycotts for eternity?

If you were paying attention to social media on Sunday night, you may have noticed Bank of America and Delta Airlines announcing on Twitter that they were backing out as sponsors for the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar. Earlier that day, Fox News ran a story with the headline “NYC Play Appears to Depict Assassination of Trump,” in which a grainy iPhone video showed the climax of the play, notable for the fact that “women and minorities” appear to stab a Trump-like figure to death on a stage that resembles the U.S. Senate.

Let’s back up. The Public Theater was founded in 1954 by Joseph Papp, who butted heads with parks commissioner Robert Moses when he tried to quash Papp’s free Shakespeare productions in Central Park by charging a fee for “grass erosion.” (Papp built a theater in the park instead, keeping the productions free.) The Public describes itself as “an advocate for the theater as an essential cultural force in leading and framing dialogue on important issues of our day,” so putting a modern-day spin on Shakespeare is not unusual for them.

As Bank of America noted in their public statement, they’ve been sponsoring Shakespeare in the Park for 11 years. And yet, on the eve of the Tony awards, Bank of America was shocked — shocked, they tell you — to learn the Public “chose to present Julius Caesar in such a way that was intended to provoke and offend.” (The production has been in the works since the fall of 2016—November 9, to be exact.)

Alex Ross, music critic for the New Yorker, was reminded of the House Un-American Activities Committee’s questioning of a theater director in 1938.

Delta explained they were withdrawing their sponsorship because “no matter what your political stance may be,” the Public’s “artistic and creative direction crossed the line on the standards of good taste.”

Daniel Radosh, a senior writer for the Daily Show, recalled on Twitter that another New York City theater company once portrayed Caesar as Obama, and the American Conservative found the production “riveting.”

Broadway World noted that Delta had no issue sponsoring an Obama-inspired Julius Caesar in Minneapolis in 2012. And many — many, many, many — people noted that Julius Caesar is actually a lesson in how assassination doesn’t always work out in the end.

For what it’s worth, the New York Times review of the Public’s Trump-ified Caesar maintains that the comparison actually doesn’t track very well:

[W]e are faced with the ways that Trump and Caesar never properly scanned, and an aftermath in which that confusion breeds more confusion. For one thing, Shakespeare’s Caesar is a war hero and, as smartly played by Gregg Henry, a deeply charismatic one. When offered the chance, three times, to become emperor, he chooses three times to remain a senator. This is more like George Washington than Mr. Trump.

UPDATE: The Public Theater released a statement on the incident, according to American Theatre magazine:

“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.”