The depiction of a President Trump-esque Julius Caesar in the current Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar has caused two corporate sponsors to drop out due to controversy. As anyone who has taken world history knows, Caesar was stabbed to death by Roman senators in 44 B.C., and Shakespeare's assassination scene is one of the play's most famous moments.
Both Delta Airlines and Bank of America announced they would not be funding The Public Theater's production because of the scene, which was revealed when the play went into previews last month. Attendee Laura Sheaffer told Mediaite, "The actor playing Caesar was dressed in a business suit, with a royal blue tie, hanging a couple inches below the belt line, with reddish-blonde hair — just like Trump."
Sheaffer, who said she regularly attends Shakespeare in the Park, also mentioned how Caesar's wife Calpurnia has a Slavic accent. From Mediaite:
Sheaffer also noted that in the scene [before the assassination], the actor playing Trump Caesar steps out of a bathtub stark naked, which she said struck her as disrespectful, and a “mockery of the office of the President.”
In the next scene the Trumpian Caesar is attacked by the Senators and stabbed to death as an American flag hovers overhead, according to Sheaffer. “They had the full murder scene onstage, and blood was spewing everywhere out of his body.”
“To be honest I thought it was shocking and distasteful,” Sheaffer continued. “If this had happened to any other president — even as recently as Barack Obama or George W. Bush — it would not have flown. People would have been horrified.”
When the Public Theater announced that Julius Caesar would be performed this season in the park, they described the work thus: "Rome’s leader, Julius Caesar, is a force unlike any the city has seen. Magnetic, populist, irreverent, he seems bent on absolute power. A small band of patriots, devoted to the country’s democratic traditions, must decide how to oppose him. Shakespeare’s political masterpiece has never felt more contemporary."
— Hollywood Reporter (@THR) June 12, 2017
Bank of America released a statement yesterday, "Bank of America supports arts programs worldwide, including an 11-year partnership with The Public Theater and Shakespeare in the Park. The Public Theater present Julius Caesar in such a way that was intended to provoke and offend. Had this intention been made known to us, we would have decided not to sponsor it. We are withdrawing our funding for this production."
Delta Tweeted, "No matter what your political stance may be, the graphic staging of Julius Caesar at this summer's Free Shakespeare in the Park does not reflect Delta Air Lines’ values. Their artistic and creative direction crossed the line on the standards of good taste. We have notified them of our decision to end our sponsorship as the official airline of The Public Theater effective immediately."
Jesse Green, a NY Times theater critic, reviewed the show last week, writing, "Still, when the famous funeral scene arrives, and Marc Antony exposes not just Caesar’s sliced-up garment, as Shakespeare indicates, but also his bare, wound-ripped flesh, even theatergoers who loathe Mr. Trump may begin to wonder whether the production has a Kathy Griffin problem on its hands. Has it gone too far?"
To answer that, you first have to consider where it started. Mr. Eustis has said he decided to schedule “Julius Caesar” as the first of this summer’s Delacorte productions on election night in November. It was already his favorite of the Shakespeare tragedies, and it did not take much of a leap to envision the title role as a Trump precursor. The character as written is vain, self-serving and demagogic, cynically manipulating the whiplash passions of his followers.
Oskar Eustis, the Public Theater's Artistic Director and director of this production, wrote in an audience note that neither the play nor his interpretation advocates assassination: "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... Julius Caesar is about how fragile democracy is."
The Hollywood Reporter's theater critic Frank Scheck wrote in his review, "Here’s an unsolicited suggestion to artists of all genres: How about laying off mock representations of the murder of the president? As the Kathy Griffin imbroglio recently demonstrated, it’s generally not well-received. More to the point, Donald Trump has been president for less than a year — I know, it feels a lot longer — but using him to make satirical points has already become cliché."
And Newsday's reviewer Elizabeth Vincentelli opined, "Turning Caesar, an efficient leader, into a comic caricature makes little sense. It may be fun to watch but it also undermines the show’s powerful ambiguity. Another consequence is that many in the mostly liberal Shakespeare in the Park audience will unequivocally side with Brutus and Cassius — at one point the latter even turns up in a pink hat."
Trump's son Eric cheered the corporations' withdrawal:
— Eric Trump (@EricTrump) June 12, 2017
Others on Twitter rolled their eyes: