Delta and Bank of America take brave stand against free Shakespeare

The controversy over the Public Theater's production of "Julius Caesar" only hurts audiences

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published June 12, 2017 1:37PM (EDT)

Tina Benko as Melania Trump/Calpurnia; Gregg Henry as President Donald Trump/Julius Caesar; Teagle F. Bougere as Casca; Elizabeth Marvel as Marc Anthony in The Public Theater's Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar (AP/Joan Marcus)
Tina Benko as Melania Trump/Calpurnia; Gregg Henry as President Donald Trump/Julius Caesar; Teagle F. Bougere as Casca; Elizabeth Marvel as Marc Anthony in The Public Theater's Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar (AP/Joan Marcus)

It's been nearly four weeks since the Public Theater's production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" began performances in Central Park. Its debut was scheduled — and announced — back in the fall.

Yet it was only this weekend, most notably after Fox News reported, "A New York City play appears to depict President Trump being brutally stabbed to death by women and minorities" that some corporate sponsors decided their "values" had been offended and withdrew their support for Shakespeare in the Park. Because when you think of integrity, the first words that leap to mind are Delta and Bank of America, right?

The chyron on Fox News this weekend boldly announced that "Shakespeare in the Park depicts president's murder." Interesting fact: William Shakespeare actually wrote "Julius Caesar" about a Roman politician who lived a few years before the founding of the United States of America.

It's true that this production borrows staging elements from current events. Writing in The New York Times on June 9, critic Jesse Green noted "its depiction of a petulant, blondish Caesar in a blue suit, complete with gold bathtub and a pouty Slavic wife," while also stating, "Even a cursory reading of the play, the kind that many American teenagers give it in high school, is enough to show that it does not advocate assassination. Shakespeare portrays the killing of Caesar by seven of his fellow senators as an unmitigated disaster for Rome, no matter how patriotic the intentions."

Here's a spoiler, for the uninitiated: The politically motivated violence doesn't work out well. As the Public's artistic director Oskar Eustis said in a note on the production, "Julius Caesar can be read as a warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy by undemocratic means."

Yet, soon after the show started previews, Breitbart swiftly announced, "'Trump' Stabbed to Death in Central Park Performance of 'Julius Caesar.'" Shortly after, Fox News chimed in as well. On Sunday Donald Trump Jr. then took to Twitter to muse, "I wonder how much of this 'art' is funded by taxpayers? Serious question, when does 'art' become political speech & does that change things?"

Later that same day, Delta Airlines issued a statement via Twitter, "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 Air Lines' values. 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." 

Bank of America then followed suit, issuing a statement via a spokesperson: "The Public Theater chose to present 'Julius Caesar' in a way that was intended to provoke and offend. Had this intention been made known to us, we would have decided not to sponsor it. We are withdrawing our funding for this production." The company will continue its support for the organization, just not this staging.

The ignorance is breathtaking. The display of shock over a production that has been going on for weeks, the brazen "Well, how could we have known?" is galling. It also betrays an embarrassing ignorance of the goddamn plot of the goddamn show.

As several people have pointed out over the past day, boy, are the conservative media and corporate sponsors going to flip when they find out the storyline of "King Lear." And journalist Isaac Butler has noted that in 2012, The Acting Company did a version of "Julius Caesar" with an Obama-like lead — and Delta Airlines rewarded the company with a sponsorship a year later.   

Live theater — even when it's amateurish original productions and heavy-handed interpretations of famed works — is often difficult to access and prohibitively expensive. Yet plays, much like visual art and literature, are an essential nutrient to becoming a thoughtful, questioning individual.

I named my younger daughter after an intelligent, independent Shakespeare character. And I'm a middle-class parent who's been carting her children to the Public's Shakespeare in the Park shows — often arriving in the Central Park queue in the early edawn hours — since they were first-graders. They are better young women now for those warm nights outdoors, watching the sky darken as Lily Rabe instructs them on the human condition. Further downtown, the Public has long established its credentials as not merely a conservator of 400-year-old works but also as an innovator, both for its re-inventions of the classics and as the original home of groundbreaking musicals like "Hair" and "Hamilton" — you know, shows about politics and justice and history.

Challenging, complicated, non-jukebox musical theater is in danger. This summer, for the time in more than a decade, my own local theater company can't mount its usual Shakespeare in the Park productions, while it tries to fundraise for a single play later in the year. Delta and Bank of America, meanwhile, seem to have not always shown themselves to be the guardians of morality that they now wish to paint themselves as being. Instead they certainly appear to be more concerned about not alienating a volatile, vindictive leader than using their financial largesse for the good of the people.

It's mean-spirited and petty to the senior citizens and students and normal working people who enter the online lotteries and bring their lawn chairs to line up in the hot summer sun for tickets, just to be transported by the power of great storytelling.

But if Delta and Bank of America get the vapors over "Julius Caesar," perhaps it's just as well that they've revealed what fools these mortals be now. After all, they probably won't be happy to learn that the Public's next Shakespeare in the Park production later this summer features a leading character who's a real ass. 

Oh, and if you're asking the question, "When does art become political and change things?" The answer is "always." That's why it's so frightening to tyrants.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Bank Of America Breitbart Delta Drama Fox News Julius Caesar Public Theater Shakespeare In The Park Theater