Who killed Julius Caesar?  As Shakespeare tells it in his eponymous play, seven Roman senators famously joined the emperor’s long time friend Brutus.

Who’s trying to kill Julius Caesar at New York’s Public Theater? Hard to say, precisely, but some of the crowd are drawn from a deep and wide roster, some of them usual suspects, some not.   As has been widely reported recently, a new staging of Shakespeare’s play provoked outrage in certain quarters for its blunt depiction of the Roman emperor as a modern day president known (for starters) for his striking mop of orange hair and unfashionably long neckties. Delta Airlines pulled funding from the Theater as a result of public pressure. Bank of America pulled financial support specifically for this production at the Theater, although it appears their future funding for the theater in general will remain intact.

Other funders have maintained their financial backing, but it’s safe to say that The Public’s staging was specifically designed to instigate a ruckus. Social media outlets have boiled with opinions for and against the production, mostly from predictable perspectives. The departing corporate funders, always attuned to potential downsides, played it safe and decided it was better to claim they were simply concerned about nurturing collective civility. The message of their withdrawal, essentially was about not wanting to instigate unnecessary public animus, to say nothing of participating in something that many of their customers might consider distasteful.

Haven’t we been here before?

Sort of. When NEA funding for controversial works sizzled in the early 1990s, people shrieked that they had a right to insure their tax money was not spent on objectionable art.  Admittedly some of the pieces in question were rude, crude, even arguably questionable in terms of their artistic merit, but the culture wars were less about aesthetics and more about defining boundaries for acceptable human behavior and expression. It’s an argument that’s continued to this day, albeit in endlessly refracted, even kaleidoscopic forms.

The brouhaha around Julius Caesar is not the same insofar as it’s mostly about corporate and private money being spent on the arts. NEA grants come from public money. While the NEA has been a funder of The Public Theater for years, it recently issued a statement indicating that

“…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.”

American Express and the New York Times have both maintained their funding support for the legendary theater, but AmEx issued as statement that they did not specifically fund this particular production, nor “…condone the interpretation of the Julius Caesar play.”

Is it a good staging? Is the play worth an evening at the theater? I haven’t seen it, so I don’t have an opinion. But to quote a recent Nobel Prize winner for literature, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Without a doubt this was a staging designed to bait lions in power. It’s also important to note that it’s also not the only American staging of Julius Caesar this season. Many other companies around the country, including one in the deeply red state of Oklahoma have mounted productions of Julius Caesar designed to shine a theatrical light on contemporary society and politics. Arguably none of these theatrical provocations have been as incendiary as the one in New York.

Everyone knows that the power of media—live, printed, or electronic—to influence public sentiment is profound. But the power of politicians and their partisans to squash media, especially if the messages contained are distasteful, is far, far more important. I am not at all defending the choice to stage a blunt provocation simply to make people angry. But there should be no question as to whether The Theater has the right, even if they decide to be coarse, inappropriate, dumb, or outright inflammatory. You don’t like the show? Don’t go.  

That said, I simultaneously don’t believe that funders must hang around and pay up if they feel they cannot lend their names and resources to things they can’t countenance. Just like I wouldn’t want to buy a ticket to an show that espoused racists ideologies, I wouldn’t want to do business with a company that funded racist ideologies.

What matters here is that creatives of all stripes need the freedom to strut and fret without undo external influences. The concern is that money flees to the exits too quickly in ultra-partisan times.  Where outsiders, even those with checkbooks, may have the right to have an influence, it’s dangerous for them to cherry-pick what’s appropriate and acceptable, especially for organization like The Public which are committed to a diverse range of voices. I would argue that the thousands and thousands of ultra-violent depictions in television and theater and film about non-political subjects don’t seem to violate anyone’s sense of decency. Left and right seem to have no trouble with adultery, bloody body counts, embezzlement, thuggery, or your garden variety malfeasance. But political statements? Culture wars? Them’s fightin’ words, apparently.

Let’s not pretend. You might not like this staging of Julius Caesar. If you’re in favor of the current administration and you don’t like seeing your team lambasted—even assassinated on stage in costume—this show might make your angry. But beware. When outrage and anger turn to actual curtailment—when expressions get stifled so no one gets their hair messed up—the collect house lights on civil society begin to dim.

@michaelstarobin      or

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