Delta Airlines has become quite the bizarre, censorious and politically confused art critic, having found itself in the center of two controversies overs the last year. First, it chose to screen on its flights a version of Carol without any women kissing. Then, as a seeming compensatory corrective, it decided to also remove an old Chris Rock comedy special due to his usage of the word “faggot” in a joke.
Now, once again, the pop cultural PR-concerned/deficient company is at the heart of an arts-oriented controversy. As you may have heard, the airline announced last Sunday that it was pulling funding from New York’s Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar, due to the production’s representation of the assassinated leader as an unmistakably Trump-like figure. Bank of America also withdrew funds from the project, and, perhaps most unsettlingly, the National Endowment for the Arts released a statement reassuring people that it had no involvement in the play’s funding.
If anything, the corporate backlash has elevated the Shakespeare play to a level of national discourse it might not’ve otherwise achieved: the production received a standing ovation when it opened in Central Park last night.
The idea of the production sparked social media outrage from the Right, with people (including Breitbart — surprise!) rushing to equate it to the likes of Kathy Griffin’s far more contextless beheading photo. (Which, you know, didn’t occur within a highly nuanced political morality play, and was purely stupid, though also highly undeserving of the attention it got from any side.) The condemnation echoed across Twitter until someone called Delta out for sponsoring it — and from there, they buckled under pressure. As the New York Times reports, Bank of America, also a sponsor, quickly followed suit — though unlike Delta, they only pulled their sponsorship from this production. Delta, rather, declared a more overarching dissociation:
Their artistic and creative direction crossed the line on the standards of good taste. We have notified them of our decision to end our sponsorship as the official airline of the Public Theater effective immediately.
Now the National Endowment for the Arts — who’s currently being threatened by the Trump administration’s budget proposal — is seeing it necessary to go to clarify their distance from the production. As Deadline reports, they released a statement:
The National Endowment for the Arts makes grants to nonprofit organizations for specific projects. In the past, the New York Shakespeare Festival has received project-based NEA grants to support performances of Shakespeare in the Park by the Public Theater. However, no NEA funds have been awarded to support this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar and there are no NEA funds supporting the New York State Council on the Arts’ grant to Public Theater or its performances.
Interestingly, as Mic points out, Delta had also sponsored the Guthrie Theater (another important theater nonprofit) five years ago, during a production of the play wherein many critics interpreted the production as an Obama allegory. It’s unclear how obvious this implication was beyond the fact that the lead actor playing Caesar was tall and black; similarly, the Public production never refers to the character as Trump, but physical clues and his Slovenian-accented wife very blatantly evoke our dear leader. Back in 2012, Delta did not withdraw, or even threaten to withdraw, their funding, and there was no social media backlash. (Granted, the political importance of social media backlash has developed exponentially over in the last five years.) And from a cursory glance I just took, it looks like the NEA also donated a $25,000 grant to the Guthrie in 2012.
To be clear, it’s not that Delta should’ve also withdrawn funding from the Guthrie — they just shouldn’t fucking withdraw funding for either. The funny thing, as many have already mentioned, is that productions with Caesar as Obama-adjacent or Caesar as Trump-adjacent could both work — the beauty of many of Shakespeare’s renderings of history is that he scarcely depicts saints or monsters. (If a director wants, they can sculpt a character more in one direction or another, but beyond Iago in Othello, Shakespeare always avoided this.) You can have a sympathetic Caesar, or one who does seem legitimately threatening to democracy. One could even, if they directed it a certain way, make the use of a Trump-like Caesar into a conservative statement, depicting his adversaries as rabid conspirators. (The Public’s agenda, though, is pretty clearly not along these lines.)
In no way is Caesar, based on the way society crumbles post-assassination, a “pro-assassination” play. In fact, a review of the Guthrie version presuming it to be Obama-related saw the assassins as a Tea Party metaphor:
Like Caesar, there were many in government who doubted Obama’s leadership abilities; and now that Obama’s first term has failed to live up to the messianic hype, there are plenty of people who—for the good of the country, you understand, not their own glory—want to take Obama down.
Caesar is killed because people fear his alleged potential to become a tyrant, but also because they have their own agendas. The assassination in no way fixes society. Caesar mostly isn’t about whether Caesar would’ve been a good or bad leader, but rather asks undyingly potent questions about the efficacies/dangers of violent dissent, questions that can literally be sculpted to any politician and political moment where there’s unrest among any side. Of course, whether or not you think the easy relevancy-courting trend of modeling characters after whoever the current president might be makes for good or innovative art is another story — but this isn’t a question of what’s good.
“Julius Caesar can be read as a warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy by undemocratic means,” Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public, wrote on the theater’s website before this controversy even erupted, because it is indeed embedded in the play. “To fight the tyrant does not mean imitating him.” Eustis further insisted, “The difficulty in determining the protagonist of Julius Caesar — there are at least four credible candidates — is not a formal weakness of the play, but rather essential to its structure. When history is happening, when the ground is slipping away from under us and all that is solid melts into air, leadership is as flawed and transitory as the times.”
Despite the way Shakespeare morally complicates Caesar‘s every narrative turn, however, the usage of Trump as a symbol — and the onstage assassination of that symbol — led us here, because of current cultural sensitivities (and, as often turns out to be the case, those sensitivities here come from the Right.) The Public Theater is by no means “mainstream” in the way, say, a Katy Perry song might be, but they’re a thriving nonprofit relying heavily on corporate generosity. As we know, that’s a finicky position to be in once politics become involved.
Given this, it’s pretty bold for the Public to have been so overt in their symbolism — bold enough to transcend our assumptions about what a play with corporate backing might choose to do. I wonder, however, if this controversy won’t make the play all the more successful — in the same way that people have discussed states upping the ante on their environmentalism in the wake of Trump’s Paris Climate pullout, it seems that Delta and Bank of America’s philistinism has just provoked a wildly excited response.
On social media, Julius Caesar was suddenly trending yesterday, and the country seemed shockingly attuned to one of Shakespeare’s more contemplative tragedies. Because of social media, any attempts to silence a discourse make it so much louder; this could be something of a saving grace for political art in the next four years (as corporations and even, say, the NEA might decide to distance themselves from such work), though it also — as in the case of Kathy Griffin — can see people cluelessly trying to tap into the politicized zeitgeist.
Indeed, this controversy isn’t all frustrating: at least certain Republicans are engaging with art in a way they otherwise wouldn’t! Even if they’re trying to force money out of the pocket of one of the country’s most vital and socially committed theaters, it seems like they’re simultaneously slowly learning something. Like Twin Peaks’ Dougie, slowly learning the English language by quoting whatever he hears, Mike Huckabee reiterated that Julius Caesar is a “play!” Good job, Mike Huckabee!
It’s also teaching the Trump children, whose education appears to have been sadly deficient in this area, about the arts! The president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., also took on a Dougie-ish tone on Twitter, revealing that he’s learned that a play is “art.” Yay Donald!
Donald Jr.’s younger brother Eric, sadly, hasn’t yet grasped that the theater isn’t real life, and has lauded both Delta and Bank of America for not killing his father:
The Trumps have a way to go, but if you’re already au fait with the joys of the theater, then you may be interested to know that William Shakespeare’s “play” is free to the public, and is at the Delacorte Theater until June 18.