Managing Backlash: ‘Julius Caesar,’ Donald Trump, and Shakespeare in the Park

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A blonde solon in an ill-fitting suit lying dead on the Senate floor, bloody knives held aloft by a cohort of celebrating conspirators. It’s an arresting image, the onstage murder of a man we all immediately recognize as Donald Trump under another name, and in today’s fraught political climate – perhaps more so than at any time in living memory – it’s unsurprising that it has erupted into a firestorm.

It doesn’t matter that other politicos have been cast in the role of the very famously assassinated Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s legendary play before (so much so that it’s been called a “common trope”), up to and including Obama. 2017 is not like other years, and Donald Trump is not like other presidents. Tensions are high, and inflammatory art has been known to result in real violence. This country feels like a tinderbox, and hushed conversations regarding how exactly the president might be prematurely removed from office frequently accent dinner dates, street corners, and office break rooms. And nobody is entirely sure who they can trust.

This is, I imagine, what pre-war feels like.

And there on the stage, New York’s Public Theater shows the president repeatedly and brutally stabbed to death by his opponents. The resulting conflagration is exactly what you’d expect from a country torn so sharply in two that the opposing sides no longer often speak; for some, this is harmless art. For others, it’s an incitement to violence. And consider that it wasn’t that long ago that our national conversation was “should we or shouldn’t we take to the streets to fight out our differences?”

The news today of the shooting of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise only heightens the urgency of this conversation. The heightened tensions of the day are already boiling over into political violence. The mess The Public Theater has stepped in is extremely serious.

Art, especially since the twentieth century, has thrived on controversy, so it’s certainly a surprise to precisely no one that The Public Theater would deliberately court it. But thus far, the controversy has cost them dearly, with two major sponsors pulling back the pocketbook, Bank of America withdrawing from the show and Delta Airlines severing their relationship with the theatre company entirely.

The Public Theater’s response to this slow-burn brouhaha has been restrained and largely through surrogates. Oskar Eustis, the show’s director, has of his own volition released a statement reiterating the central themes of the play: “Julius Caesar can be read as a warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy by undemocratic means. To fight the tyrant does not mean imitating him.” An admirable sentiment – but not one likely to stop the bleeding.

The fundamental misunderstanding behind Eustis’ comment is the idea that the facts matter more than the reaction, when the reaction – the emotion – is the thing you’re trying to manage. Because once the bad version of the story is out, there is very little you can do in the short term to make it go away; you have to sail with the wind right into the storm. To do otherwise – to point out that “well, other productions of Julius Caesar cast him as Obama” – does nothing to deflect. All it does is make you look like you’re disclaiming responsibility, which is exactly the wrong thing to do.

The trick here isn’t to apologize, to ask for patience, or point out the “real themes” of the play, which is just ingenuous. There is quite simply no earthly way you can credibly claim that this wasn’t done with the intention to provoke. Of course it was. You’re setting the most controversial president in generations on stage to be murdered during a period of very real societal and political alienation. Any response which doesn’t own that, which isn’t straightforward and forthright about the real intent of the production, is going to be read (and rightly so) as a transparent and frankly brazen attempt at manipulation, of saying what you think they want to hear just long enough for the heat to die down.

In other words, you manage the backlash by being frank about your intention, apologetic about your offense, and proffering concrete ways to mitigate it. If the concern you’re being confronted with is that you’re encouraging political violence – and that’s exactly the concern here – taking time before every performance to reiterate that that is not the case demonstrates you’re taking the responsibility of the stage, the responsibility of art to communicate, seriously, which could go miles toward rehabilitating your relationship with sponsors.

Whatever the course of action, when something as important as sponsor withdrawal is at stake, simply drawing a line in the sand and digging in your heels against all opposition is precisely the wrong course to take. Stubborn intransigence in the face of real anger simply exacerbates the problem while asking your sponsors to place their credibility on the line without any commensurate risk on your part.

The Public Theater's response, issued yesterday, is measured and sure, a restatement of its artistic principles and an acknowledgment of the debate it caused.

"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."

It’s almost perfect, but that brings us to the last point: as a way to contain the damage, its effectiveness is limited; it’s not going to stem the criticism, nor can it bring back their sponsors. This statement instead shines a bright light on the single biggest issue at the heart of this debate: the fraying edges of our democracy, which no statement of apology can fix.

The cultural divide between Right and Left, such as those terms apply, seems almost unbridgeable, and while it is certainly asking too much that a statement like this heal those wounds, that is almost certainly what it would need to do, because the controversy isn’t over the staged assassination of a political figure; Obama, Bush, Clinton, Reagan, and every president back to Lincoln, it seems, have all been assassinated by the mob on the floor of the Roman Senate at one point or another. They should have seen this coming, and they should have been prepared to address this to their sponsors long before the story got away from them. Where The Public Theater stepped into a minefield wasn’t in their production choices, but in engaging in political speech at all in the year 2017, where nothing and nobody is neutral, without anticipating the backlash, coming properly prepared, and discussing with relevant stakeholders .

And that might prove entirely unforgivable.

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