So, Delta Airlines and Bank of America have withdrawn (or “suspended”) their sponsorship of the Public Theater’s Julius Caesar production. While these corporations are well within their rights to pull their money out of productions, their motivation is purely financial and has nothing to do with politics or values. In the process, they are making a strong statement about their willingness to abandon the First Amendment and any belief in allowing --- indeed, encouraging --- open, public discourse about controversial subjects.
In the case of the Public’s staging of Julius Caesar, “Fox and Friends” (and the right wing echo chamber) sounded the alarm nationally about the “horror” of this production (while not having seen it!) because Caesar is a Trump look alike with Calpurnia (his wife) speaking in an Eastern European accent. What a shock, a production of Shakespeare that is staged in a “contemporary” manner to put the play’s message in high relief. Let’s examine three significant points about this brouhaha: (1) a 2012 production portraying Caesar as an Obama look alike; (2) the message of the play; and (3) the First Amendment.
In 2012, the year Barack Obama won re-election as President, the Acting Company –-- a theater & education repertory organization founded in 1972 by legendary actor/director John Houseman --- presented a production of Julius Caesar in which Caesar was clearly an Obama look alike. Interestingly (?), there was no explosion of publicity or public outcry about this staging. Reviews at the time made no mention of Caesar being portrayed as an "Obama" look alike. Eric Grode in the April 17, 2012, NY Times said:
This modern-dress version features a smattering of “Occupy Rome” placards, as well as somber black suits by the yard. (At this point the most daring way to stage “Julius Caesar” would be in togas.)
While alluding to the “Occupy Now” movement of the time, there is no mention of Obama at all. In the April 9, 2012, Playbill review Andrew Gans quoted the director of the production, Rob Melrose:
“Julius Caesar is a stirring parallel to today's politics; a classic story of pride and envy, arrogance and honor, opportunity and tragic strategic errors," said director Melrose in a statement. "Written in one of his most productive times of Shakespeare's life, Julius Caesar blends the historic events of the reign of this iconic Roman Emperor with tragic elements and compelling language."
So, while it cites “today’s politics” there is no “outrage” over the Obama representation mentioned. Finally, on April 11, 2012, Karl Levitt wrote in Backstage:
Julius Caesar with its theme of taking action against the threat of perceived tyranny, has always been a favorite for contemporary treatment. Here we have women in the senate, the youngest soothsayer ever as a sort of cub reporter (Caleb Carlson), and the assassination of Caesar achieved with shiny letter openers. None of this distracts, because Shakespeare’s words are being given a pleasing incisiveness and the plot is afoot.
Again, no mention of Obama, but a strong explanation of why Caesar is “always . . . a favorite for contemporary treatment." And that leads to point #2.
Before the Central Park production began on Monday night Oskar Eustis, the Artistic Director of New York’s Public Theater, addressed the audience --- because the storm of criticism from Fox et al had already begun due to reports from the show’s previews that the Trump-like Caesar is bloodily assassinated. Eustis’s short address sums up what the play is about and why a contemporary staging is relevant and important.
"We stand completely behind our production of 'Julius Caesar.' We recognize that our interpretation of the play has provoked heated discussion; audiences, sponsors and supporters have expressed varying viewpoints and opinions. Such discussion is exactly the goal of our civically-engaged theater; this discourse is the basis of a healthy democracy. Our production of 'Julius Caesar' in no way advocates violence towards anyone. 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. For over 400 years, Shakespeare's play has told this story and we are proud to be telling it again in Central Park."
The play, then, is about the difficulties of maintaining a truly democratic state amid polarized, conflicting interest groups and it warns of the dangers of acting undemocratically. That sponsors have withdrawn their support (from the play, in Bank of America’s case, and from the Public Theater in Delta’s) is a sad commentary about how “the bottom line” is more important to these corporations than free speech --- and how corporations, in this case, are trying to censor a public production.
And that’s the final point. Whether it is a college campus or the stage of a theater, the importance of protecting and defending the right of anyone and everyone to express her/his thoughts and ideas is the lifeblood of a democracy. Bank of America and Delta are setting a sad example by withdrawing their sponsorship from Julius Caesar --- showing they care more about making money than defending First Amendment rights. These corporations could have issued a (strong) statement that they disapproved of the depiction of Caesar as our President without withdrawing their sponsorship. No one seemed to care that an “Obama” Caesar was “assassinated” five years ago but I guess Fox and Friends missed that production --- or maybe they were too busy looking for that President’s birth certificate and couldn’t be bothered. Apparently the Bard wasn't completely correct when he said, “What’s past is prologue.” (The Tempest)