What if Free Outdoor Theater is the Greatest Threat to Our Democracy?
June 12, 2017 2:16 PM   Subscribe

Last night, shortly before the Tony Awards, Delta Airlines and the Bank of America announced that they would withdraw sponsorship from the Public Theatre over a production of Julius Caesar currently being staged in Central Park, which has been in previews since May 23. The production makes direct references to the current administration in the White House.

When the NEA distanced themselves from the Public production, the sleuths at BroadwayWorld.com discovered that a production of the same play, done at the Guthrie in Minneapolis, which made similar references to President Obama, was actually sponsored by Delta Airlines, and the NEA.

Julius Caesar’ should go, and all of these, too

The Public Theater has released a statement.


"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."
posted by roomthreeseventeen (62 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
The public withdrawals are pretty dumb but they came over the weekend right? Like, how they hell do they get corporate execs to agree to anything over the weekend?
posted by GuyZero at 2:20 PM on June 12, 2017 [2 favorites]


Cowards, all of them. I made a donation this morning.
posted by praemunire at 2:21 PM on June 12, 2017 [1 favorite]


I have never regretted moving away from New York more.
posted by corb at 2:23 PM on June 12, 2017 [2 favorites]


Probably frees up money for Bank of America to invest in less controversial projects with absolute moral clarity.

Like the Dakota Pipeline.
posted by maxsparber at 2:25 PM on June 12, 2017 [36 favorites]


Free speech! (As long as it pleases your overlords.)
posted by tobascodagama at 2:25 PM on June 12, 2017


I am totally in the camp that both the Obama and Trump productions are a bad idea. Not because it's offensive or promotes violence, but because it is incredibly hacky and in neither case seems to engage with or transform the original work in a meaningful way.
posted by cyphill at 2:26 PM on June 12, 2017 [16 favorites]


Feeling good about pulling all my money out of B of A this year.
posted by greermahoney at 2:26 PM on June 12, 2017 [2 favorites]


If they had withdrawn their support with the statement "Doing Julius Caesar with the current president is just so lazy," I don't know that anyone would have objected.
posted by maxsparber at 2:28 PM on June 12, 2017 [50 favorites]


Oh yeah, and I should totally add that the hackiness of the play in no way excuses the withdrawal of the sponsors.
posted by cyphill at 2:30 PM on June 12, 2017 [1 favorite]


I am totally in the camp that both the Obama and Trump productions are a bad idea. Not because it's offensive or promotes violence, but because it is incredibly hacky and in neither case seems to engage with or transform the original work in a meaningful way.

I don't see how one can fairly say that about the idea. It may very well be true of the production, and the idea isn't brilliant or even particularly inspired in itself, but stagings aren't made of a single idea. There are lots of interesting things that one can do with "casting" Shakespeare characters as a particular historical or public figure, the question is whether either production actually does. Which is hard to comment on without having seen them.

In any case, the fact that corporate sponsors are pulling money because they don't like the art is a good reason for people to make donations. I've always thought that the whole point of arts funding is to produce stuff that lots of people don't like. The market will tend to fund popular stuff (noting the distortions of the market due to privilege and prejudice), so donations and patronage are probably best directed towards stuff that is marginalised in one way or another, including simply because it pisses people off.
posted by howfar at 2:35 PM on June 12, 2017 [10 favorites]


because it is incredibly hacky and in neither case seems to engage with or transform the original work in a meaningful way.

Come on. The last Julius Caesar I saw was an all-black production set in an unnamed African country. Can you tell me, based on that much information, whether it was an interesting production or not?

(Also, if you're going to object to the existence of merely uninspired productions, my God, do I have a list for you.)
posted by praemunire at 2:41 PM on June 12, 2017 [25 favorites]


Indeed, it is a strange disposed time:
But men may construe things after their fashion,
Clean from the purpose of the things themselves.
posted by pyramid termite at 2:42 PM on June 12, 2017 [35 favorites]


All the outraged takes that put "art" in quotes make me think of one thing - the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art)
Exhibition
. A little hyperbolic, sure, but right-wingers seem to love interpreting anything that isn't to their taste as evidence of social decay.

It's nice how everyone is pointing out that previous productions have depicted Caesar as Obama without controversy, but I also think it's time the left stop expecting that revealing GOP hypocrisy will have ANY effect whatsoever. They obviously stopped giving a crap about logic, consistency or fairness decades ago.
posted by Soulfather at 2:49 PM on June 12, 2017 [10 favorites]


Tear him for his bad verses!
posted by dannyboybell at 2:52 PM on June 12, 2017 [10 favorites]


Can any person actually say what benefit beyond attracting attention these changes made? What the changes achieved or attempted to say? What the production reveals about Trump, our society or the original play? None of the theater critics seemed to think it was anything but a bad attempt to modernize and attract attention. "Julius Caesar starring Politician of the Day" is a tired trope. I wrote a version of it in high school. It's been done professionally at least dozens of times. Unless there are specific themes the production reveals or comparisons they are drawing it's lazy, uninspiring and deserving of ridicule. Yes, my judgments are not fully informed.. But also yes, it's a super unoriginal hacky idea.
posted by cyphill at 3:06 PM on June 12, 2017 [4 favorites]


Why do people think 'satire' with Trumpy getting killed is in any way meaningful? We need to see depictions of the Orange One as the killer, holding James Comey's severed head up in triumph and grinning like a banshee (like he does). Or as any of the slasher movie baddies (although he'd probably drop a chainsaw) or one of the LESS formidable supervillains (I'm thinking The Penguin). THAT'S how you do Trump-bashing art.
posted by oneswellfoop at 3:07 PM on June 12, 2017 [4 favorites]


Let's all be honest; Trump is more of a Crassus than a Caesar.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:09 PM on June 12, 2017 [14 favorites]


Since when do major sponsors abruptly pull their support, though, for "tired tropes"? You aren't much of a patron of the arts if you back out when single show doesn't come off very well. I'm not hugely in favor of this as a concept, but pulling money from an organization like this should be the sort of thing you do for the egregiously inappropriate or after a long pattern of misuse of the funds, and this is not evidence of either of those, to my way of thinking.
posted by Sequence at 3:09 PM on June 12, 2017 [18 favorites]


Obama’s Ides Of March: The Acting Company Production of Julius Caesar - an American Conservative review.
posted by Artw at 3:09 PM on June 12, 2017 [3 favorites]


What trash is Rome,
What rubbish and what offal, when it serves
For the base matter to illuminate
So vile a thing as Caesar!
posted by bigendian at 3:15 PM on June 12, 2017 [2 favorites]


Can any person actually say what benefit beyond attracting attention these changes made?

At the most basic level, it gives modern audiences a familiar context to better understand the themes of a work they might otherwise have dismissed as a bunch of old-timey people in togas running around stabbing each other with cardboard knives while talking funny.
posted by Atom Eyes at 3:19 PM on June 12, 2017 [34 favorites]


The last Julius Caesar I saw was an all-black production set in an unnamed African country. Can you tell me, based on that much information, whether it was an interesting production or not?

If you're talking about the 2012 Gregory Doran production with Ray Fearon and Paterson Joseph, then it was awesome.

Okay, I may be cheating a bit there. I just want more people to see it.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 3:25 PM on June 12, 2017 [5 favorites]


A Statement from the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund: 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.

posted by roomthreeseventeen at 3:26 PM on June 12, 2017 [4 favorites]


Also, Trump the Lesser on Twitter: '...when does "art" become political speech...'

You're at least two and a half thousand years late for that, Skippy.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 3:33 PM on June 12, 2017 [20 favorites]


I get that it may be cathartic for a sympathetic audience in a way I'm not 100% comfortable supporting for any president, but who is Brutus or the rest of the senators here? Are any senators likely to take a principled stand to save our democracy or is this just wish fulfillment? Can anybody imagine Trump bravely walking into ruin not because he's too stupid to recognize it but because he actually believes "A coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant taste of death but once"? That's just really not who this guy is, so what is the comment being made here?
posted by willnot at 3:35 PM on June 12, 2017 [2 favorites]


Let's all be honest; Trump is more of a Crassus than a Caesar.

I know it's a joke, but this is Metafilter so -- Crassus was legitimately, genuinely, no-doubt rich as fuuuuuuuuuuuuck, even by all-time historical standards. Plus, he came from one of the most prestigious families in Rome, with a dad who was not only consul, but celebrated a triumph. Crassus rebuilt the family fortune after it was confiscated by a dictatorship, employing sharp business practices and being famously M.O.B.

Trump is, at best, [citation needed] on very single one of these fronts.
posted by joyceanmachine at 3:37 PM on June 12, 2017 [20 favorites]


Can anybody imagine Trump bravely walking into ruin not because he's too stupid to recognize it but because he actually believes

Refreshing my memory by looking at the text of the play, I guess Caesar does go on to give in to cowardice before being persuaded by his vanity to ignore the obvious danger, so maybe it is a better parallel for Trump than I had thought.
posted by willnot at 3:46 PM on June 12, 2017 [1 favorite]


Last tweet: Et Tu Jared
posted by sammyo at 3:46 PM on June 12, 2017 [6 favorites]


If they had withdrawn their support with the statement "Doing Julius Caesar with the current president is just so lazy," I don't know that anyone would have objected.

They have all been downhill since the JFK version.
posted by srboisvert at 3:52 PM on June 12, 2017 [1 favorite]


I know it's a joke, but this is Metafilter so --

OK, OK, I apologize to the memory of Crassus.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:59 PM on June 12, 2017 [7 favorites]


Let's all be honest; Trump is more of a Crassus than a Caesar.

Except that Crassus aspired to military service, and wished for his whole life to personally lead men into battle. I definitely find the comparison to Caesar insulting to the Imperator, and consider Trump to be a modern Cataline at best.
posted by EatTheWeak at 4:08 PM on June 12, 2017 [8 favorites]


One night, about halfway through our all-female production of Julius Caesar, one man in the front row stood up, mumbled loudly enough that we could hear him from the thrust stage, "Ronald Reagan never would have stood for this," and left the theater.

I still have no idea what the hell it was all about.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 4:12 PM on June 12, 2017 [22 favorites]


Metafilter: a bunch of old-timey people in togas running around stabbing each other with cardboard knives while talking funny.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 4:21 PM on June 12, 2017 [14 favorites]


We're more of a play-within-the-play.
posted by Artw at 4:35 PM on June 12, 2017 [14 favorites]


I don't know- Caesar spent a lot of time having sex with other people's wives to humiliate their husbands, if you believe semi-contemporary sources, and he rose through manipulating the mob in carefully staged moments. Meanwhile, far from stabbing him, modern senators won't even vote against his king-like agenda. I think there's definitely a lot that could be done there.
posted by corb at 4:39 PM on June 12, 2017 [6 favorites]


...but I also think it's time the left stop expecting that revealing GOP hypocrisy will have ANY effect whatsoever. They obviously stopped giving a crap about logic, consistency or fairness decades ago.

Every little bit helps. Many, many people are simply unreachable, but there are always lots of people who are coming of age, or who are otherwise just now starting to pay attention to politics. There's also a large mass of liberals who know Republicans are bad, but who don't yet grasp just how incredibly bad they are, because it defies all common sense. I know because I used to be one of them, and the relentless stream of examples that demonstrate the depth of their hypocrisy is what got me to where I am today.
posted by shponglespore at 4:45 PM on June 12, 2017


We need to see depictions of the Orange One as the killer, holding James Comey's severed head up in triumph and grinning like a banshee (like he does).

Like Der Spiegel's cover from February?
posted by shponglespore at 4:48 PM on June 12, 2017 [1 favorite]


According to @JohnJHarwood CNBC "Trump is inviting his Cabinet members to go around the table praising him"

Isn't that how KING LEAR starts? The Public picked the wrong play!
posted by pjsky at 4:52 PM on June 12, 2017 [21 favorites]


Wow, this is great. (Public FB link). The Public took the "we do not condone this production" statements, printed them out, and put them in people's Playbills tonight.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 5:32 PM on June 12, 2017 [10 favorites]


It occurs to me that, of the people who are likely to attend a professional nonmusical theater production in their own leisure time and of their own volition:
a) almost no one hates Obama, and
b) almost everyone hates Trump.

And b) is true of very, very many more people than just theatergoers in New York. This (along with a good old dose of unconscious racial bias and conservative outrage-seeking missiles) is, I think, why this particular production is a flashpoint.

I did not consider this a bold artistic choice, but I personally am a little cool on Shakespeare and bardolatry in general, no matter the costumes. The controversy immediately brought to mind another play that has a lot to say about violence, the American dream, and the Presidency, which I'm quite surprised to see (upon Googling) has been staged in the past couple of months. That's nervy, even at an Ivy League school.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:46 PM on June 12, 2017 [1 favorite]


According to @JohnJHarwood CNBC "Trump is inviting his Cabinet members to go around the table praising him"

Isn't that how KING LEAR starts?


Yes, that is exactly what an actor friend of mine said, at great length, in a Facebook rant that I was just pulling up to post for y'all (but you just cut to the chase and made his point so I won't).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:05 PM on June 12, 2017 [1 favorite]




It is oh-so-Metafilter that in a story about withdrawing support for art in fear of tyranny under cover of purported "taste", the discussion should focus on whether the art was worthy or radical enough.

"I've seen a plate of beans done this way dozens of times. I don't really care if it's dumped in the street in front of the food bank."
posted by aureliobuendia at 6:51 PM on June 12, 2017 [5 favorites]


Like, how they hell do they get corporate execs to agree to anything over the weekend?

And in the summer!
posted by maggiemaggie at 7:08 PM on June 12, 2017 [1 favorite]


None of the theater critics seemed to think it was anything but a bad attempt to modernize and attract attention.

You are wrong. (None of those reviews are unmixed, but none of them treat the choice as a stupid, pointless stunt.)

Perhaps more importantly, wanting people to have to disprove the default that a work of art must suck because your brain can't come up with any good applications of a very general conception underpinning it has got to be one of the saddest, most limiting approaches to art I've ever heard of. I haven't seen it yet; I don't know if I'll like it generally or in its conception; but I do know that I enjoy art precisely because it lets me share in the things other people can imagine that I couldn't.

(Yes, the Paterson Joseph production, which I thought was quite good.)
posted by praemunire at 7:14 PM on June 12, 2017 [3 favorites]


I feel like making Caesar look like Trump misses the mark. It would be a stronger commentary if Brutus looked like Trump and Cassius was Steve Bannon. Then maybe make Caesar like Obama. The play's really not about Julius Caesar, it's about the hubris of those who sought to overthrow him. But who in this formulation would be Mark Anthony? That I don't know.
posted by wabbittwax at 7:15 PM on June 12, 2017 [4 favorites]


Metafilter: a bunch of old-timey people in togas running around stabbing each other with cardboard knives while talking funny.

"Speak flags for me!"
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 7:40 PM on June 12, 2017 [3 favorites]


Caesar in suits is fine, but not in any way groundbreaking. It pretty much jumps off the page as boardroom manoeuvering and a big speech to the shareholders (plus daggers).
posted by Sebmojo at 7:48 PM on June 12, 2017


I quite liked the Obama version at the Guthrie, with all of its Occupy imagery, even though I really, really did not want to see him assassinated irl. Maybe it'll seem trite to me someday, but the times seem so different these days, that it could be an interesting contrast.

I did a mini lesson on the play for my AP Lit class on March 15, so they could contextualize allusions to it, even though it didn't make our syllabus. Despite being in Minneapolis, we don't have the budget to take the kids to many plays, and comparing different stagings isn't really AP exam prep anyway, but they seemed to think my description of the version I saw was interesting enough that it'd stick in some of their minds, which was my goal. I'm reading this just in time to mention it to the kids on the last day of school, so thanks!
posted by MsDaniB at 8:15 PM on June 12, 2017 [2 favorites]


That's just really not who this guy is, so what is the comment being made here?

"I bet I can provoke people into thinking about a compare/contrast on the ways Trump is and isn't like Caesar?"
posted by traveler_ at 8:42 PM on June 12, 2017 [1 favorite]


A worthy preface given by Oskar Eustis this evening is making the rounds:

"Like drama, democracy depends on the conflict of different points of view. Nobody owns the truth. We all own the culture."
posted by an animate objects at 9:38 PM on June 12, 2017 [2 favorites]


"I bet I can provoke people into thinking about a compare/contrast on the ways Trump is and isn't like Caesar?"

That's a stretch. You could literally do that for anybody. Hey, why not Hillary, with Bernie as Brutus, so you could compare and contrast the ways they are and aren't like the play's counterparts? Or have Batman in the Caesar role, with Plastic Man as Brutus and Archie Andrews as Marc Antony? Or Jay Gatsby as Caesar and Ivan the Terrible as Brutus?

You can literally compare and contrast the way anyone is and isn't like Caesar. But the comparisons have to make sense. Caesar succeeds to his position because he is good at it and ruthless, but oversteps his authority. Somebody needs to bring him down, but it's the hubris of the senators that thinks they have that authority when none of them is doing it for anything other than personal reasons except Brutus. Brutus fails by aligning with the malcontents against the monster, and Antony is the craven looking to take advantage of the situation for his own personal gain.

None of that is reflected in Trump. He's not a brilliant tactician elevated by his achievements. The GOP isn't doing anything to take him down. There's no unblemished saviour to be tainted by the opposition spurred to action. There's nobody waiting in the wings to take advantage of the fall with even a whiff of political acumen.

The Obama version hardly fits, either, except in the fever dreams of the NRA and their vision of Obama comin' to git their guns. Caesar has to be a "good authoritarian" - not a brutal dictator or able administrator or jumped-up idiot who fails his way to the top. He has to be a strong, capable leader who provokes jealousy among the unprincipled and concern among the principled. Just having two out of three isn't enough.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 7:01 AM on June 13, 2017 [2 favorites]


Wait 'till these people find out about YouTube and how cheap and high quality cameras for recording sound and motion together have become. Subversion via performance art could be everywhere!

And if you can't afford a camera, just to what Security Camera Theater does and use other people's recording systems.
posted by rough ashlar at 7:02 AM on June 13, 2017


Last tweet: Et Tu Jared

Now THAT is the seed of an idea.

Simulated Twitter/news sites. Via scripting it shows the viewer a version of the play from the viewpoint of a web browser. The 'electronic artists' could just use simulated twitter but could also use simulated cnn/fox news/'live footage' from cellphone cams. With the live footage - who knows what artists could show up?

It has the potential to suck, yes. It could also be xkcd time-lapse awesome also.
posted by rough ashlar at 7:16 AM on June 13, 2017


> I am totally in the camp that both the Obama and Trump productions are a bad idea. Not because it's offensive or promotes violence, but because it is incredibly hacky and in neither case seems to engage with or transform the original work in a meaningful way.

Unless you saw both productions, you have no standing to say this.
posted by languagehat at 7:50 AM on June 13, 2017 [1 favorite]


MacBird! is a 1967 satire by Barbara Garson that superimposed the transferral of power following the Kennedy assassination onto the plot of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Thus John F. Kennedy becomes “John Ken O’Dunc”, Lyndon Johnson becomes “MacBird”, Lady Bird Johnson becomes “Lady MacBird”, and so forth. As Macbeth assassinates Duncan, so MacBird is responsible for the assassination of Ken O’Dunc; and as Macbeth is defeated by Macduff, so MacBird is defeated by Robert Ken O’Dunc (i.e. Robert Kennedy). This action is significantly influenced by the Three Witches, representing Students, Blacks, and Leftists.

In a 2006 Washington Post interview Garson said she was not seriously accusing Johnson of complicity in the Kennedy assassination:

“People used to ask me then, ‘Do you really think Johnson killed Kennedy?’ ” Garson, now 65, recalls. “I never took that seriously. I used to say to people, ‘If he did, it’s the least of his crimes.’ It was not what the play was about. The plot was a given.”[1]

The play parodies sequences from Shakespearean tragedies including Macbeth, Hamlet, and Richard III, albeit with Texas and Boston accents. The action follows MacBird from the 1960 Democratic National Convention, when he becomes John Ken O’Dunc’s Vice-President (“Hail, Vice-President thou art!”), to Ken O’Dunc’s assassination (at the urging of Lady MacBird), to a future Robert Ken O’Dunc victory over MacBird at the 1968 convention.

Macbird! started out as a short satirical sketch by Garson, a recent graduate of the Berkeley anti-Vietnam war movement. It was developed into a full-length play with help from writer/director Roy Levine (and Shakespeare).

The production, which opened a mere three years after the Kennedy assassination, was quite controversial. It has been said that pressure from local authorities was applied to theaters in New York who were considering it. The Village Gate was the only theater willing to defy this pressure and mount the play. Macbird opened there on February 22, 1967, and closed on January 21, 1968, after 386 performances.
posted by Postroad at 7:55 AM on June 13, 2017 [6 favorites]


I just wanted to say I remember Oskar Eustis from when he was the artistic director at Trinity Rep and he was a big friendly beardy man who was very nice to me the few times we met (I was little -- I think I went to the same elementary school as his kid? But different grades). He had a very large pleasant laugh. I would go with my mom to see A Christmas Carol every year and he reminded me of the Ghost of Christmas Present. I am glad to hear he is doing well!
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:09 AM on June 13, 2017


The controversy immediately brought to mind another play that has a lot to say about violence, the American dream, and the Presidency, which I'm quite surprised to see (upon Googling) has been staged in the past couple of months. That's nervy, even at an Ivy League school.

New York City Center is hosting a production from Encores! Off-Center in the middle of July. I can see the headlines now: "NYC play appears to depict the assassination of... wait, how many presidents?"

I've seen two different productions in the last year. I was not able to see the Yale Rep production, but I definitely watched the promo clips on YouTube
posted by mountmccabe at 11:04 AM on June 13, 2017


How do these various re-imagining productions of Shakespeare actually work? I assume the dialog remains the same, so are the differences just in sets, costumes, and characterization?
posted by stopgap at 10:16 PM on June 13, 2017


How do these various re-imagining productions of Shakespeare actually work? I assume the dialog remains the same, so are the differences just in sets, costumes, and characterization?

Usually, yes.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:03 AM on June 14, 2017 [1 favorite]


How do these various re-imagining productions of Shakespeare actually work? I assume the dialog remains the same, so are the differences just in sets, costumes, and characterization?

Well, yes to the sets and costumes, no to the "Characterization" - because a change to characterization would be, like, making MacBeth a nice guy or something. but yeah, it's really common to do things like set Romeo and Juiet in modern-day California or "Much Ado about Nothing" in 1980's Gibraltar or "Richard III" in 1930s Europe. Or "Hamlet" in modern New York City, with Hamlet struggling with his uncle taking over his father's business rather than Demark itself.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:29 AM on June 14, 2017 [2 favorites]


Hell, I once even saw a production of MacBeth staged such that all the characters were fast food company's mascots. So it was Ronald McDonald killing Colonel Sanders during the scene when MacBeth kills the king.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:40 AM on June 14, 2017 [3 favorites]


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