Artists Defend Shakespeare In The Park, Because Political Theater Matters

"Such discussion is exactly the goal of our civically-engaged theater," The Public declared.

As critics denounce a Trumped-up version of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” actors, writers and illustrators are pledging their support for one of New York City’s most beloved cultural attractions.

Every summer Shakespeare in the Park arrives in New York City, bringing with it free stagings of the Bard’s best works, sometimes updated to appeal to modern audiences flocking to Central Park to see a play.

This year, that was certainly the case. The Public theater’s update of “Julius Caesar,” Shakespeare’s famous play about the assassination of the titular Roman dictator, features a Trumped-up storyline in which Caesar, golden hair and all, wears a business suit instead of a toga. His wife Calpurnia dresses in silk and high heels, speaking with what’s been described as a “heavy Slavic accent.” An American flag can be seen waving onstage.

The decision to infuse the story of Caesar with the spirit of today’s political mania ― to base the main character on U.S. President Donald Trump ― was a bold one. (Though hardly unprecedented; for example, a 2012 American Conservative article recounts a version of the play with an Obama-esque Caesar.) Bold because in the production, the leader of Rome is assassinated, stabbed to death by senators who felt his death would be best for their troubled republic. So in director Oskar Eustis’ rendition, a figure that looks an awful lot like Trump dies at the hands of ardent critics every night of the play’s run.

When Fox News and the corporations sponsoring The Public Theater caught wind of the death, they, still digesting the bloody antics of comedian Kathy Griffin, bridled. Delta and Bank of America pulled their support for the play. Appalled citizens made their opinions known on Twitter, threatening to boycott the free program.

While the outrage machine seemed to be throttling forward, a few famous artists, actors and writers took to social media to disrupt the current of negativity and defend Eustis and the staging of “Julius Caesar.” While some did so by simply pointing out the fact that detractors were largely misunderstanding the very essence of the play, others began rallying support for the theater by pledging to see the show and donate to The Public.

New Yorker cartoonist Tom Toro promised to give those who donated more than $25 to The Public a free print of a themed illustration, which reads, “Just when you’re about to lose your faith in humanity, you see Shakespeare in the Park.” Actress Amber Tamblyn and author Joyce Carol Oates tweeted their intent to see “Julius Caesar” despite Delta’s lack of support. Others, like Nia Vardalos, shared links to The Public’s donation page.

While those strongly opposed to the “Julius Caesar” play have expressed that they don’t want their tax dollars used to fund what they have perceived as an anti-Trump artwork, the National Endowment for the Arts cleared up those concerns quickly: “No taxpayer dollars support Shakespeare in the Park’s production of ‘Julius Caesar,’” it announced in a statement.

And in response to those choosing to boycott The Public, a few individuals have in turn suggested boycotting corporations like Delta, who’ve pulled their support unwisely.

“Maybe we should be less concerned that Shakespeare in the Park staged Caesar & more that Caesar calls Trump to mind?” author Celeste Ng tweeted. “Just a thought, @delta.”

Those familiar with Shakespeare’s centuries-old work know the playwright presents Caesar’s death as a disastrous event for Rome. The murder is similarly depicted in The Public’s production as an inarguable mistake on behalf of those American democrats who felt deposing of a tyrant through violence and illegal means was an act of patriotism.

“’Julius Caesar’ is about how fragile democracy is,” Eustis wrote in a statement about the play before it even opened. “The institutions that we have grown up with, that we have inherited from the struggle of many generations of our ancestors, can be swept away in no time at all.”

In a more recent statement from The Public Theater, the organization affirmed that it stands “completely behind our production of Julius Caesar. We recognize that our interpretation of the play has provoked heated discussion [...] such discussion is exactly the goal of our civically-engaged theater; this discourse is the basis of a healthy democracy.”

The theater also reiterated that it in no way condones violence towards anyone. In fact, it makes the exact 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.”

Julius Caesar is slated to run at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater until June 18 as part of New York’s Shakespeare in the Park festival. Tickets are free.

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