Berkeley Rep Responds to Controversy at the Public Theater

by Michael Eddy

Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Artistic Director, Tony Taccone offers his thoughts on the controversy swirling around The Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park in New York City.

“SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES…”

Over the past week, a controversy has emerged surrounding The Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar now playing in New York’s Central Park. As staged by director Oskar Eustis, the actor portraying Caesar is dressed to appear like Donald Trump. The famous assassination that occurs in the middle of the play has incensed political pundits from Breitbart and Fox News, provoking them to express their scorn and moral outrage and claiming that the artists involved are endorsing the murder of our president. Their reaction, in turn, spurred other citizens (the vast majority of whom had not seen the production first-hand) to pressure corporate sponsors Delta Airlines and Bank of America to withdraw their support of the production – which they did with breathtaking speed.  Mr. Trump’s own son added his fury to the fray by questioning the role of any corporation providing philanthropic support for the show, which he mockingly referred to as “art.”

These reactions are deeply troubling for two reasons.

Concluding that any production of Julius Caesar endorses assassination is, at the very least, misguided. Shakespeare spends the entire latter half of the play criticizing both the effectiveness of murder as a political strategy and analyzing the psychological and moral consequences of such a deed. Tyranny is never eliminated when the means of removing the tyrant are the same methods he used to seize power. The play, one could argue, is a condemnation of such actions. Any criticism of The Public’s production needs to include the full narrative of the story in order to understand the intentions of the artists. To do less is to foster ignorance.  And to manipulate the argument so as to defund or close the show is pernicious.

Secondly: Regardless of the debate over the content of the show, freedom of speech is the great gift of our Constitution. It guarantees that all of us have the right to voice our opinions. This tenet is critical to democracy, and to any society that aspires to engage its citizenry. It is especially important to artists, who not only have the right but the responsibility to describe their experience of the world. It is their job to not only entertain us, but to make us think about our society. To catalyze our imagination and to jolt us into action. To test our boundaries, sometimes uncomfortably. That is the job of the artist. 

Those supporting the arts are keenly aware of this. Or should be. Philanthropy is a risk, because art is a risky endeavor. But when philanthropists withdraw their support of any project without a deeper recognition of both artistic intent and our fundamental rights, they abdicate their role as leaders in the community. They become reduced to frightened players in the marketplace, as opposed to enlightened guardians of culture. And that’s not fake news. That’s just bad news for all of us.

Further information from Berkeley Repertory Theatre: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Be sure to read all the various interested parties statements regarding the sponsorship controversy in our article: Statements on Julius Caesar at The Public Theater and to see Oskar Eustis opening night speech at Julius Caesar and read his program note in our article: Oskar Eustis' Must See Speech