If you are a theatre artist or enthusiast (and let's face it, if you're reading this blog, you probably are), then by now you have heard about the kerfuffle over the Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar, in which the title character is styled to evoke Donald Trump, and is assassinated in an apparently very bloody fashion (full disclosure, I haven't seen the production). This depiction has incited such outrage among certain segments of the population that two of the production's corporate sponsors, Delta Air Lines and Bank of America, withdrew their support, and another of the Public's corporate sponsors, American Express, has gone out of its way to let people know they are not financially tied to this particular show.
The fact that some ruffled right-wing feathers made Delta and Bank of America drop their support like a hot potato is disturbing enough, but as I was reading about the controversy, what really struck me was a tweet from Donald Trump Jr. that read, “I wonder how much of this ‘art’ is funded by taxpayers? Serious question, when does ‘art’ become political speech & does that change things?”
As many artists and individuals were quick to point out, all art is political in some way, and depending on who you ask, being political is its main function. And as anyone who has ever had 10th grade English knows, Julius Caesar has always been a political play, dating back to its original publication in the 17th century. The play focuses on the treacherous navigation of public good versus personal gain, the corrupting influence of power, and the dangers of an unchecked leader whose popular rhetoric may mask sinister intentions (staging and casting choices aside, how can you not do a production of this play in 2017 without drawing parallels to the current state of American politics?). And it's not like this is the first production of Julius Caesar to incorporate current events into its concept.
Trump, Jr.'s comments are a shot across the bow, an attempt to undermine and intimidate not just theatre companies, but all artistic communities, by calling into question whether taxpayers should be funding art whose messages or implications offend them. As is the case with most things tweeted by the Trump family, it's a bs argument, because there are no taxpayers dollars funding this production, but it deserves the attention of all artists. It's a slippery slope from questioning whether art should be funded because its content or presentation offends someone to outright censorship, and now more than ever, we as a society cannot allow voices to be silenced, especially when they are pointing our challenging and uncomfortable truths about the world.
If the fallout from this rumpus is that theatres around the country decide to play it safe for fear of losing sponsors/donors or offending people, we all lose. Theatres, and all artists, need to stay strong and continue to produce work that is thought-provoking, socially and culturally relevant, and yes, maybe a little controversial. If we need inspiration, we need look no further than the Public's Artistic Director, Oskar Eustis, who said in his Julius Caesar opening night speech, "When we hold the mirror up to nature, often what we reveal are disturbing, upsetting, provoking things. Thank God. That's our job."
- Kristen M. Scatton