The Public’s ‘Julius Caesar’ Ended Last Weekend, But the Controversy Didn’t

This weekend has seen a number of updates to the news story of the backlash against the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar: even as the play, whose depiction of Caesar as a Donald Trump-like figure led corporate sponsors like Delta and Bank of America to withdraw funding, was closing this weekend, it was still making headlines. As we pointed out last week, previous productions of the play have featured similar depictions of many presidents — including Barack Obama — with no protestation, probably because the play isn’t pro-assassination), and the ways that discourse is now manifesting in more unsettling, actual threats.

Nevertheless, this weekend saw protests against the play in Central Park, as well as the sending of violent emails… to the wrong theater. Not just the wrong theater, singular. Actually, any theater with the word Shakespeare in its name that happens to hold outdoor performances in park-like places was vulnerable.

As the New York Times reported, the stage in Central Park was rushed by two protestors during the assassination scene earlier this week. “Stop the normalization of political violence against the right,” they shouted. The Guardian also notes that, during the final performance, two other protestors shouted, “Liberal hate kills,” and “Goebbels will be proud.” Granted, this came in the wake of the shooting of GOP Whip Steve Scalise, and murder is always worthy of condemnation.

Caesar, however, is a ridiculous target for that message. As we and every other cultural publication have pointed out, it’s largely about the violent, chaotic aftermath of an assassination; the play, itself, is an admonition against political violence. It’s hard to watch the play and come out of it thinking, “Yes, political violence is a great idea!” It’d kind of be the equivalent of watching, say, Requiem for a Dream, and really wanting to take too many diet pills.

Beyond the protests, there were the violently angry messages — although, as mentioned, the Public didn’t see most of them. Malcolm Gay in the Boston Globe reported on messages received Shakespeare & Company, a theater in Lenox, MA — “one of several Shakespeare companies around the country that have been inundated with a flood of venomous e-mails, phone messages, and social media posts condemning them for the Central Park production.” According to that report, the theater received 40 emails aimed at the Public’s production. One, for example, wished the staff “the worst possible life you could have and hope you all get sick and die.” A theater company in Dallas received 80 such messages, including one telling them they should be “sent to ISIS to be killed with real knives.”

Raphael Parry of Shakespeare Dallas speculated for the Boston Globe on why, suddenly, all of these completely unrelated theaters were getting the Public’s hate mail. “They’re just doing a general Google search. When you Google ‘Shakespeare in the Park’ in the Texas region, our name pops up first, and they just go to town.”

Lastly, late last week, Rob Melrose, the director of the Guthrie production — whose Caesar was supposed to be Obama-adjacent, where the assassination was meant to be reflective of the rise of the Tea Party/radicalization of the Right wing — penned a fantastic Medium post on the controversy surrounding the Public performance. It thankfully goes deeper into the nature of modern dress Shakespeare, and Caesar‘s discourse of violence, than any articles surrounding the fuss — and certainly any controversy-stokers — have thus far. He writes:

The Breitbart article that started the controversy [surrounding the Public’s production] is — I kid you not — a review by someone who talked to someone who saw the show. This second-order correspondent also thinks the play ends with the death of Caesar, as if they are killing the bad guy at the end of a superhero movie. In fact, the assassination takes place in the middle of the play, the rest of which deals with the terrible consequences of this action. Shakespeare built the outrage into the text. Mark Antony is so outraged — for himself, and on our behalf — that outrage suffuses the play’s entire second half. If you see a production, you get outraged with the play, not against it.

Melrose also gets to the bottom of both the dangers and values of a system where art isn’t predominantly government funded, then urges corporate funders to understand the value of — and to not shun — theater that asks political questions:

In many countries, government is the primary funder of the arts. Germany, for example, spends forty times on the arts per capita than the U.S. In the U.S., individuals, foundations, and corporations do their best to pick up where the government falls short. For the most part, that puts the arts in America in a constant state of scarcity. Ironically, the advantage we have is that in the event an arts-unfriendly regime comes to power, we are not dependent on government alone. European countries don’t have the same kind of individual, foundation, or corporate philanthropy.

For arts to serve their true civic function, all of our funders need to respect and understand the power of theater and its role in our political lives. They need to embrace that role and defend it, it even when it brings up issues that are unpopular and uncomfortable.