CENSORSHIP: The Public Theatre’s Julius Caesar

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In many ways I’m glad that Shakespeare in the Park in New York City is causing such a fuss this summer.  It has been some time since we have had the arts’ nazis out in force because quite frankly our exhibits and productions were not controversial or even very interesting.  I hope we have finally passed that early part of a new century where we look back – a nostalgia fest – and are finally moving forward.

Of course Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare is hardly a new work.  The Public’s artistic director, Oscar Eustis,  has made some production choices that propel the play into today’s headlines.  Caesar looks a lot like Donald Trump with the bouffant blonde hair, the long red tie and the bulky physical presence.  Calpurnia, Caesar’s wife,  is tall and thin and speaks with a Slavic accent.  And Caesar’s assassination on the floor of the Roman Senate is bloody and graphic.  The liberal New York City audience loves it.  The Conservative Media is up in arms and demanding the play be censored as treason.

Ms. Sheaffer, a sales manager for Salem Media, a conservative-leaning media group, saw a performance on June 3. She described her dismay over the production in a conversation with the conservative radio host and comedian Joe Piscopo, then voiced her concern again to the media and politics site Mediaite, declaring “I don’t love President Trump, but he’s the president. You can’t assassinate him on a stage.” Mediaite made the most of the story, posting it with the headline “Senators Stab Trump to Death in Central Park Performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.”

Bank of America and Delta Airlines then got on board by withdrawing funding support for the production, with American Airlines and the National Endowment for the Arts clarifying that none of their funds for the Public Theatre had been used for this production.  It was CYA all the way!

Conversely NYC’s department of Cultural Affairs who also partly funded the production;  stated they are against any censorship. “Threatening funding for a group based on an artistic decision amounts to censorship,” said Tom Finkelpearl, the city’s commissioner of cultural affairs. “We don’t interfere with the content created by nonprofits that receive public support — period.”

Theater provokes a discourse, and we accept that — not every theater piece can please everybody,” stated a Board member of the Public Theatre.  “It’s an upsetting play, but if there’s a production of ‘Julius Caesar’ that doesn’t upset you, you’re sitting through a very bad production,” said Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright.

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Art as protest is important. We need these lightening rods now and then to remember how important freedom of expression is — especially in the theatre. A graphic murder on stage is very powerful. This makes me want to fly to NYC to see the production and give $$ to the Public. When Joe Papp died I thought, oh dear there goes another important institution. But they seem to be carrying on the tradition of reaching for that which is new and provocative. Corporate funding IS problematic. When you get in bed with Delta Airlines or Bank of America you might be getting more than a good night’s sleep.

This “Julius Caesar” is a deeply democratic offering, befitting both the Public and the public — and the times. If in achieving that goal it flirts a little with the violent impulses it otherwise hopes to contain, and risks arousing pro-Trump backlash, that’s unfortunate but forgivable. Mr. Eustis seems to have taken to heart Cassius’s admonition to Brutus when Brutus is still on the fence about taking action. “Think of the world,” he begs. It’s a line that cuts two ways.

The Delacorte production, vividly staged by the Public’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, bears the same message and, for good measure, comes with careful usage instructions. “Those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic methods,” Mr. Eustis recently explained in a statement, “pay a terrible price and destroy their republic.”

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