Et tu, NEA?
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Shakespearean Trump
Credit: Joan Marcus/The Public Theater/AP

The Public Theater is standing by its production of Julius Caesar after the controversy surrounding its depiction of the titular character in a mode that resembles Donald Trump. In an email sent to patrons, the theater wrote, “The Public Theater stands completely behind our production of Julius Caesar. We understand and respect the right of our sponsors and supporters to allocate their funding in line with their own values. We recognize that our interpretation of the play has provoked heated discussion; audiences, sponsors and supporters have expressed varying viewpoints and opinions.”

The Public Theater went on to explain that the discussion the show has provoked is precisely its goal as a “civically engaged theater,” arguing, “this discourse is the basis of a healthy democracy.”

The theater also responded to complaints that the depiction of Julius Caesar’s assassination advocates violence against President Trump, writing, “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.”

Later, before Monday evening’s performance, The Public Theater’s artistic director Oskar Eustis took the stage to thank the show’s sponsors and emphasize that neither the play nor the theater condones violence as a political tool.

“Neither Shakespeare nor The Public Theater could possibly advocate violence as a solution to political problems — and certainly not assassinations,” Eustis told the audience. “This play, on the contrary, warns about what happens when you try to preserve democracy by nondemocratic means, and again, spoiler alert, it doesn’t end up too good. But at the same time, one of the dangers unleashed by that is the danger of a large crowd of people, manipulated by their emotions, taken over by leaders who urge them to do things that not only are against their interests but destroy the very institutions that are there to serve and protect them.”

He also quoted Shakespeare’s Hamlet, saying the purpose of theater is to “hold a mirror up to nature.”

“When we hold the mirror up to nature, often what we reveal are disturbing, upsetting, provoking things. Thank God. That’s our job,” he said.

Previously, the theater has released a statement via Twitter expressing gratitude for the “outpouring of support” following controversy over its Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar.

The controversial take on Shakespeare’s Roman political thriller, which opened May 23, drew ire from Fox News and conservative pundits for its depiction of titular tyrant Julius Caesar as a blonde-haired, suited man who bears a striking resemblance to President Trump. The show, which stars Gregg Henry as Caesar and Elizabeth Marvel as Marc Antony, notably features Caesar’s death — a fact which has led sponsoring companies, including Delta Air Lines and Bank of America, to pull support and the National Endowment for the Arts to disavow the production.

In a statement posted to Twitter with the hashtag #WeAreOnePublic, The Public Theater wrote, “We are deeply grateful for the outpouring of support we have received around our free production of Julius Caesar. We continue to be guided by our values of openness, inclusion, and the conviction that in drama and democracy alike, the clash of opposing views leads to truth. The Public Theater has always been — and will remain — of, by, and for the people. Thank you for standing with us.”

The tweet came soon after the National Endowment for the Arts’ statement on Monday, which explained that no NEA funds (which consist of taxpayer dollars) were given to support the production: “The National Endowment for the Arts makes grants to nonprofit organizations for specific projects. In the past, the New York Shakespeare Festival has received project-based NEA grants to support performances of Shakespeare in the Park by the Public Theater. However, no NEA funds have been awarded to support this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar and there are no NEA funds supporting the New York State Council on the Arts’ grant to Public Theater or its performances.”

The statement from the NEA is particularly eyebrow-raising, given the fact that there is a long history of Julius Caesar productions using the text to liken the titular tyrant to contemporary leaders, including a 2012 Actors’ Company production in which Caesar bore a resemblance to President Barack Obama.

The NEA statement may come as a rebuttal to a tweet from the president’s son, Donald Trump, Jr., asking, “I wonder how much of this ‘art’ is funded by taxpayers? Serious question, when does ‘art’ become political speech & does that change things?”

The controversy began when conservatives, began decrying the similarities between Trump and the production’s portrayal of Julius Caesar. On Sunday, Delta declared that the production “crossed the line on the standards of good taste,” and Bank of America accused the Public Theater of presenting the play “in such a way that was intended to provoke and offend.”

However, the theater responded that Shakespeare’s classic play condemns assassination as a viable means of political revolt. Eustis previously argued that the production does not condone violence against a leader, saying in a statement, “Those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic methods pay a terrible price and destroy their republic.”

Julius Caesar
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