It has been 17 years since Shakespeare in the Park at the Public Theater last produced Julius Caesar, set in classic Roman togas. In the meantime, New York’s stages have played host to Caesars of many persuasions. 2005 brought Daniel Sullivan’s post-apocalyptic Broadway smash featuring Denzel Washington. In 2013, the city was treated to two innovative versions of the play: Phyllida Lloyd’s critically acclaimed production set in a women’s prison (imported from London to St. Ann’s warehouse in Brooklyn) and Greg Doran’s contemporary African interpretation for the Royal Shakespeare Company at Brooklyn Academy of Music Perhaps inspired less by these more recent competitors than by Orson Welles’s 1937 polemic of Caesar as fascist, Oskar Eustis, Shakespeare in the Park’s 2017 choice for director of Julius Caesar, recruited actors from TV political dramas House of Cards and Homeland and presented Caesar as a figure with more than passing similarities to our current President, Donald Trump.
Predictably, the response has been mixed. Though the New York Times review praised the production, outcry at staging a mock assassination of President Trump has led Bank of America and Delta Airlines to withdraw corporate sponsorship of the event. American Express took to Twitter to clarify that its funding of the Public Theater did not support the Shakespeare in the Park program in question. Of the Public’s four largest corporate sponsors, only The New York Times has refused to distance itself from Eustis’s decision. For his part, Eustis has argued that the chaotic aftermath of Caesar’s assassination and his assassins’ tragic suicides are a vigorous argument against trying to “fight for democracy by undemocratic means.” This argument has fallen on the deaf ears of corporate counsels, whose priority is defending their employer’s reputation amongst customers of all political persuasions, not the creation of art for its own sake. That said, perhaps a good Samaritan might have told Delta Airlines, which cited the play’s “graphic” nature in pulling its funding, that, no matter its staging, the plot’s pivotal moment features the stabbing of a man by dozens of his best friends.
But could it have been otherwise? The choice to produce Caesar, one of Shakespeare’s most openly political plays, in 2017, seems to demand a staging awake to contemporary concerns. The director’s artistic confidence in addressing the modern political moment in his work is to be lauded. What may, however, be less laudable is Mr. Eustis’s lack of confidence in the moral imagination of his audience. Mr. Eustis asks us to see Donald Trump in Julius Caesar. In doing so, he not only courted controversy, but also closed off other possible contemporary interpretations. Is there nothing of our President in Marc Antony (played by Elizabeth Marvel in Eustis’s production), whose humor and charisma inspire the people of Rome to revolt against the patrician conspirators, and who then liquidates the republic?
Inhabiting the mind of the Bard is impossible, but many Shakespeare scholars have persuasively argued that he set his plays in exotic locales to avoid Elizabethan political censorship. When his pursuits turned even remotely contemporary, the result was the unrelentingly dull Henry VIII. While Shakespeare’s choice to avoid explicitly naming characters after his contemporaries was a pragmatic one, it was also artistically liberating. Julius Caesar is an examination of the power of politics to reduce both cities and the consciences of men to rubble. Had Eustis presented the play on a bare stage, its resonance would have been no less profound. Or even, perhaps it would have a greater impact. Shakespeare’s audiences were farther removed in time from the characters of Julius Caesar than modern audiences are from Queen Elizabeth I’s court, but no doubt saw their own circumstances reflected in the play as clearly as Mr. Eustis saw our own. When Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible, he did not feel the need to mention red scare witch hunts. Use of allegory might sometimes seem like a retreat from artistic integrity, but Mr. Miller’s decision to do so is probably the reason his work is still read today.
In other words, Shakespeare demonstrated a sensitivity to commercial imperatives that Mr. Eustis chose to dismiss. After all, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s company at the time he wrote Julius Caesar, was patronized by the English Crown. Though the Public’s star-studded Shakespeare in the Park program is certain to find the cash to continue operating, the response from Delta and BoA raises important questions about corporate support for the arts. Shakespeare in the Park is rightly famous for the quality of its productions, so sponsors have found it easy to attach their names to it and generate some good feeling about their brand. But corporate sponsorship of art is not without risk, as Delta and BoA have learned. Without demanding creative control, there is no way to guarantee that a company’s dollars are not funding works its customers might find distasteful. Incidents like these may make some sponsors wary of attaching their names to similar functions in the future. The Public, as well as many smaller and less well-endowed outfits may find corporate largesse less and less accessible as a result.
This is a problem because corporate sponsorship has for many decades helped make art more readily available to the average American. The arts may find themselves relying more and more on private funding if President Trump’s budget, which eliminates the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), were to pass. In fact, Donald Trump Jr. has already jumped on the recent fracas to call public arts funding further into question, despite the fact that the Public received no funding whatsoever from the NEA. If artists are to accept funding from companies, though, they must be clear-eyed about the reason for its giving: It is not for the love of art, but as a marketing tactic. In the absence of a strong commitment to public funding, which is unlikely any time in the next four years, American artists may have to get creative if they plan to attempt commentary on the controversies of modern day, or else settle for lower production values than those to which they have grown accustomed, which is not impossible. (The amateur production of Julius Caesar I directed for the Underground Shakespeare Company of West Philadelphia cost $127). In doing so, they ought to take solace in the fact that artists, even ones as heralded as the Bard himself, have played this game since time immemorial.
Mr. Eustis’s Julius Caesar has received good reviews, and I hope to see it myself before it closes. Unfortunately, the uproar surrounding its production has, in the end, said a great deal more about the state of corporate philanthropy in the art world than it has about our broader political moment. The Public and Mr. Eustis have made the choices they felt necessary to produce great art. We can only hope that the rest of the arts community does not pay the price for it.