Academic Freedom

Scholars See Bad Omens in Pulled Sponsorship of ‘Julius Caesar’

June 12, 2017

Verena Dobnik, AP Images
The title character in the New York Public Theater's production of "Julius Caesar" is made to resemble President Trump.

After Delta Air Lines and Bank of America pulled their sponsorship from the New York Public Theater’s production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, scholars were quick to lampoon the decision.

“I think the issue here is much more a sense of historical perspective on the role of literature and theater in public culture.”

This year’s free Public Theater performance sets Shakespeare’s drama in modern dress, and presents Julius Caesar as a figure resembling President Trump ­— complete with blond hair, blue suit, and gold bathtub, according to a review in The New York Times.

While the production faces conservative and corporate backlash for depicting the assassination of a Trumplike title character, scholars critical of the backlash said it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the play. But more important they said, it portends ill for public faith in the arts during the Trump era.

In a statement, Bank of America wrote, "The Public Theater chose to present Julius Caesar in such 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."

Similarly, Delta Air Lines said in a statement that the "graphic staging" of the play did not reflect the company’s values.

But scholars roundly agree: The play does not advocate for political assassination. It instead shows some of the problems that Caesar’s assassins are left with once their ruler dies, said Peter Davis, a professor emeritus in theater history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"This is a play in which the plotter and assassinators end up getting their just deserts," Mr. Davis said. "It’s not by any means encouraging political assassination."

The president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., was among many critics of the production to tweet his concerns about the play, asking how much of the production was funded by tax dollars.

 

 

This type of instant reaction shows a troubling level of cultural illiteracy, Mr. Davis said.

"It does demonstrate that people simply don’t know or haven’t read the play and they are simply jumping on some very superficial elements to the play that don’t represent the actual meaning and significance behind it," Mr. Davis said.

‘No NEA Funds’ Involved

The National Endowment for the Arts also quickly distanced itself from the controversy, releasing a statement clarifying that it had awarded no funds for the Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar.

"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," reads the statement. "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."

A spokeswoman for the NEA did not respond to The Chronicle's request for comment on Monday. President Trump has proposed eliminating the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities.

Interpreting Shakespeare with the lens of modern American politics is nothing new, said James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association.

For example, in 1967 the political satire MacBird! linked the assassination of President John F. Kennedy with the plot of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Mr. Grossman said. And in 2012, a production of Julius Caesar at the Guthrie Theater, in Minneapolis, modeled the title character after then-President Barack Obama. (Critics were quick to call hypocrisy on Delta, which sponsored the Guthrie’s season during which Julius Caesar was performed.)

"That was the brilliance of the playwright, that people have taken those plays and adapted them all sorts of ways, as parody, as commentary," Mr. Grossman said.

The play’s malleability, and how its interpretation changes with political cycles and directors, shows the importance of historical perspective for literature and public theater, he said. This interpretation of Shakespeare is not only aligned with theatrical traditions, but also presidential traditions.

"I think the issue here is much more a sense of historical perspective on the role of literature and theater in public culture," Mr. Grossman said.

“If a gigantic organization like the Public ... is put at such risk, what's going to happen to these smaller groups and these smaller organizations?”

For Charlotte Canning, a drama professor at the University of Texas at Austin, one of the more concerning parts of the situation was the NEA’s statement distancing itself from the controversy.

Ms. Canning, like other scholars, said she was confused because the play ultimately paints Caesar’s assassination in a troubling light. Still, the NEA’s statement reminded her of the culture wars, when artists didn’t always support one another, and Ms. Canning said she would have liked to see the arts endowment stand behind one of the country’s most prestigious and historic theater companies.

"If a gigantic organization like the Public does what you would think is a fairly safe choice of a play by Shakespeare, using an interpretation that’s been done before, is put at such risk, what’s going to happen to these smaller groups and these smaller organizations?" Ms. Canning said.

If this reactive sentiment toward theater productions gets worse, Mr. Davis said, it only shows that studying theater and the arts has more cultural significance than ever.

"I think art should be political. It should be relevant," Mr. Davis said. "Art is not just purely for aesthetic pleasure. I think art must be driven by societal needs, political issues, and all kinds of other things."

Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz is a breaking-news reporter. Follow her on Twitter @FernandaZamudio, or email her at fzamudiosuarez@chronicle.com.