A blond Julius Caesar in a business suit looks too familiar for comfort
Spoiler alert: Long before the ending to Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar is assassinated.
But some had been hoping to see a happier outcome — or at least a toga-clad Caesar — in the new production that opened Monday in New York in which the protagonist sports a modern business suit and blond hair — details that make him look suspiciously like a certain somebody.
Complaints by Donald Trump Jr., among others, that the staging hints at the assassination of the president have prompted corporate sponsors to yank their funding for the Public Theater, whose Shakespeare in the Park productions are a venerable New York tradition.
The exodus was led by Delta Airlines, which announced Sunday that it was withdrawing as the Public Theater’s official airline. “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 Airlines’ values,” the carrier’s statement said. “Their artistic and creative direction crossed the line on the standards of good taste.”
They were followed by Bank of America, which complained that the theater presented “Julius Caesar” in “such a way that was intended to provoke and offend.”
The National Endowment for the Arts also distanced itself from the escalating controversy with a statement on its website affirming that no federal funds had gone, directly or indirectly, to support the “Julius Caesar” production in New York.
Shakespeare’s 400-year-old drama explored the murderous political intrigue within the Roman Empire as suspicious senators conspired to kill Caesar, the war hero, to cut short his rise to the throne.
The latest production’s attempt to evoke a sitting president has touched off yet another round of soul-searching in the American left, as critics of Trump navigate the outer reaches of acceptable cultural commentary in a country that can agree on neither politics nor boundaries.
This month, comedian Kathy Griffin was dropped by CNN for posting a photograph on social media of a fake severed head that resembled Trump, and the network cut ties over the weekend with Reza Aslan, an Iranian-American scholar, for profane tweets about the president.
Although the new version of the Shakespeare classic does not mention Trump by name, there are several apparent parallels in this production: The Roman tyrant has a gold-plated bathtub and what one preview critic described as a “pouty Slavic wife.”
The production, which has been in previews since May 23, got little notice until the cri de guerre was issued last week by right-wing Breitbart News (“‘Trump’ stabbed to death in Central Park Production of ‘Julius Caesar’”), followed by Fox News.
From there commenced an intellectual tempest played out on the stage of social media. Supporters of the Public Theater say it is much ado about nothing.
They point out that a 2012 production of “Julius Caesar” at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater cast the tyrant as a tall, lanky African American with a resemblance to Barack Obama, and that sponsors of the theater, including Delta Airlines, did not raise an objection.
Other theater historians say that past Caesars have been styled to resemble Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln.
In a statement, the Public Theater said that Shakespeare’s play is being misinterpreted and does not promote political violence. After Caesar’s assassination, they note, the conspirators are driven from Rome, fight with one another and die miserable deaths — in the case of Brutus, by running against his own sword after being terrorized by Caesar’s ghost.
“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,’’ said the statement.
In New York, there was much outrage at the decision by sponsors to withdraw their backing from the popular theater. The decision was condemned with Shakespearean flourishes, and not just by the tabloid press.
“Et Tu, Delta?’’ read the headline of the New York Times, which is itself a sponsor of the Public Theater (and said it would continue its funding).
“What a mistake. Actually reading ‘Julius Caesar’ might help in the future. Your copy is in the mail,’’ New York City comptroller Scott Stringer said in a tweet directed at Delta and Bank of America.
But Keith Olbermann, a New York-based political commentator who hosts a web series for GQ, said the “Julius Caesar” production — like Griffin’s picture of the severed head — only gives ammunition to Trump’s defenders.
“Of course, they had the right to do it, but they didn’t have to do it. What purpose does it serve?’’ said Olbermann, a vocal Trump critic. “I’m trying to figure out who did the right thing in this equation and I haven’t found anybody yet. The only guy who comes out clean is Shakespeare.”
Outside the Delacorte theater in Central Park Monday evening, Rachel Sorteberg, an actress, was trying to get a ticket and didn’t seem troubled by the controversy.
“Shakespeare is always being re-imagined to make it more topical for people in their own era. Shakespeare doesn’t advocate the killing of a leader, but shows what can go wrong when the leader is removed by violence. Julius Caesar’s death set back democracy for hundreds of years,” she said.
She said that the withdrawal of sponsors might end up helping the Public Theater in the long run. “I think it is phenomenal publicity. It is exactly the kind of publicity that Trump might make hay of.”
6 p.m.: The article was updated with additional comments on the controversy and an interview with a would-be theater-goer as the production opened.
10:30 a.m.: The article was updated throughout with staff reporting.
This article was originally published at 8:10 a.m.
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