Statements on Julius Caesar at The Public Theater Sponsorship Controversy

by Michael Eddy
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"Julius Caesar can be read as a warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy by undemocratic means. To fight the tyrant does not mean imitating him." – Oskar Eustis, Director

On Sunday, June 11, Delta Airlines withdrew their full corporate support from The Public Theater and Bank of America pulled their support from The Public's Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar. The production has drawn the ire of the political right for its depiction of the emperor with more than a passing resemblance to the current US president. The ensuing conversation in the theater and arts community over the last 72 hours has highlighted the odd-bedfellows relationship of corporate patronage and artistic freedom. 

We at Stage Directions also feel that our contributing writer Howard Sherman, through the Arts Integrity Initiative is doing some important coverage of this conversation and has an insightful perspective on the controversy. I urge you to read his detailed and thought-provoking look at the ongoing developments of this conversation at http://www.artsintegrity.org/so-are-they-all-all-honorable-corporations/

Delta's public explaination for its decision is: "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. Their artistic and creative direction crossed the line on the standards of good taste. We have notified them of our decision to end our sponsorship as the official airline of The Public Theater effective immediately."

Bank of America's statement notes it is only pulling support for this production: "Bank of America supports arts programs worldwide, including an 11-year partnership with The Public Theater and Shakespeare in the Park. 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. We are withdrawing our funding for this production."

 The Public Theater released a statement on Monday afternoon in response: "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."

Also supporting The Public are Actors' Equity Association and The Dramatists Legal Defense Fund.

Kate Shindle, President of Actors' Equity Association, released the following statement: 
"The Public Theater has a long tradition of producing thoughtful work that is in keeping with one of our most important traditions – the free exchange of ideas under the First Amendment. Julius Caesar has always been a provocative piece of theatre that asks the audience to think as well as to feel. Many, many modern-dress productions have used contemporary politicians and public figures to drive home the storylines that Shakespeare wove into his play. It's surprising that this has become so deeply offensive to Delta Airlines, considering that in 2012, Delta sponsored a season in Minneapolis in which the Guthrie Theatre staged a Julius Caesar which featured the killing of an Obama-like figure.”

"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." 

Broadway World reported yesterday that in 2012 Delta Airlines sponsored a production of Julius Caesar where an Obama-like figure was cast in the role of Caesar. Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported yesterday that the Trump Foundation's first donation in 1987 was to the Public Theater's Shakespeare Fest. In 2017 alone, Julius Caesar has been mounted in nearly a dozen Equity theaters across the country, including in Arkansas, Michigan, Oregon, and Colorado.

A Statement from The Dramatists Legal Defense Fund (DLDF) Signed by John Weidman, DLDF President and Ralph Sevush, DLDF Executive Director:
Yesterday, Delta Airlines and Bank of America announced their withdrawal of support and funding from the Public Theater and its production of Julius Caesar, currently running at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. After the production opened, Breitbart and other right-wing outlets on social media objected loudly to the production’s portrayal of Caesar as a Trump-like figure. In response to this interpretation of the character, Delta issued a statement yesterday that the production didn’t reflect their “values,” and the “artistic and creative direction crossed the line on the standards of good taste,” and Bank of America stated that the production “intended to provoke or offend,” as reasons for their withdrawal of support.

But good taste is a matter of opinion and an “intention to provoke” may be an integral part of a play’s mission. The works of Shakespeare are replete with representations of regicide, and potentially objectionable and graphic violence of all sorts, but Delta doesn’t appear to have had a problem with the “values” or “taste” of such depictions before. The fact is that, for hundreds of years, this particular play has been understood to be a critique of political violence, not an endorsement of it.  As Director Oskar Eustis explained, “Julius Caesar can be read as a warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy by undemocratic means. To fight the tyrant does not mean imitating him.” So those criticizing this production for endorsing violence against President Trump seem to be willfully misinterpreting it, for their own political ends.

Delta and Bank of America are private corporations that are entitled to support or not support anything they choose. However, the withdrawal of significant financial resources from a theatrical institution based on the content of its work is an act of political bullying that endangers public debate of the critical issues of our day. So we condemn the actions of Delta Airlines and Bank of America for undermining free expression, and we support the Public Theater and its courage in moving forward with its production, despite the potential cost to their institution.

 Be sure to see Oskar Eustis opening night speech at Julius Caesar and read his program note in our article: Oskar Eustis' Must See Speech and Berkeley Rep Responds to Julius Caesar Controversy