As many readers will know, New York City’s Public Theater presented a production William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in Central Park earlier this spring (23 May-18 June, Delacorte Theater). The production became controversial and a lightning rod for harsh criticism and denunciation because director Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the house that Papp built, cast actor Gregg Henry, a tall man with blond hair, in the title role. The production was played in modern dress, and Henry’s Caesar wore a dark blue suit with an over-long red tie, making him resemble Donald Trump. As nearly everyone knows, in act three, scene two of the play, Julius Caesar is stabbed to death in the Forum by a group of senators who fear he’s on the verge of becoming a tyrant, ending Rome’s republic and taking it to one-man rule. It didn’t take much imagination to see that Eustis intended audiences to conflate the would-be tyrant who’s assassinated as our current president, Donald J. Trump, but protesters went further and proclaimed that the production, director, and theater wanted to see the actual president killed.
Following on Kathy Griffin’s execrable video performance this May in which she held up a prop severed head that looked like Trump, some people saw the Public’s Shakespeare in the Park as a step too far in its apparent expression of the director’s opinion of President Trump. Many artists and others who make their lives in the arts have made it clear that they oppose this president and his government, including his arts policies as epitomized in his budget proposal, released in March, in which he revealed his intention not just to cut the appropriations to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, but to eliminate their funding altogether. No previous president has proposed a budget that goes that far, and people in the arts are both frightened and enraged. (In my report on the 2017 Whitney Biennial, posted on 22 June, I quote from a statement on the museum’s website by Adam D. Weinberg, the Whitney Museum’s director, directly linking the museum and the Biennial exhibit to this issue.)
I referred to the Public Theater earlier as the house that Papp built, and I didn’t do that just because Joseph Papp did, indeed, launch what was long known as the New York Shakespeare Festival, the company that became the Public Theater sometime after Papp’s 1991 death. (For several years in between, it was known as the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Theater.) I intended to make a connection with the man who, in 1990 rejected a $50,000 NEA grant rather than sign an anti-obscenity “loyalty oath” that he saw as “an abuse of the fundamental ethic in artistic endeavor.” Papp considered the proposed restrictions to his “freedom,” his “privileged right to make my own judgment” according to “principle, taste and artistic standards” to be “unthinkable, if not downright subversive.” That set the standard and eventually other heads of important arts organizations followed Papp’s lead and, despite the great need for the grant money, which was vital in some cases, turned down NEA cash as long as it came with strings attached. Oskar Eustis, standing as he is on his predecessor’s shoulders—and in his shadow—is in a similar position. He, too, has stood his ground.
I have often acknowledged on this blog that I am just about a First Amendment absolutist. Except under the most extraordinary circumstances—incitement to violence, slander or libel, falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater, for instance—I do not believe in censoring any speech or artistic expression. I fiercely believe that the only proper response to speech (including symbolic speech such as visual art) you don’t like is more speech. The only proper response. (By the way, that doesn’t mean shouting someone down. That’s just a verbal form of censorship.) I have written about this often: “The First Amendment & The Arts,” 8 May 2010; “Culture War,” 6 February 2014; “The First Amendment & The Arts, Redux,” 13 February 2015. I said so again as recently as last Thursday in my post on the Whitney Biennial which confronted a controversy over a work of art on display. Let me state my position on this matter by quoting a line from Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards’s musical 1776. The character is Stephen Hopkins, the irascible delegate to the Continental Congress from Connecticut: “Well, I’ll tell y’—in all my years I never heard, seen, nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about. . . . Hell yes, I’m for debatin’ anything . . . !” You debate people when you don’t like what they’re saying, you don’t shut them down.
In February 2006, the New York Theatre Workshop announced a production of Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner’s controversial, pro-Palestinian documentary play, My Name Is Rachel Corrie, to run from 22 March to 14 April 2006. After protests from Jewish groups and threats to withdraw financial support by contributors to NYTW, however, the theater decided to “postpone indefinitely” the production in order to set up some “context” for the performance (read: schedule defensive panels and other counter-events). Rickman and Viner denounced the decision and withdrew the play. Many First Amendment advocates and free-speech activists, as well as prominent members of the worldwide theater and arts community such as Vanessa Redgrave, Harold Pinter, and Tony Kushner, viewed the NYTW decision as a capitulation to blackmail and an acquiescence to censorship. NYTW never reinstated the production, which would have been the U.S. première, and Rachel Corrie ultimately had a commercial Off-Broadway run at the Minetta Lane Theatre from 15 October to 17 December 2006.
In 1999, after the opening of Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (2 October 1999-9 January 2000), then-New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and other critics publicly denounced one work in the exhibit, The Holy Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili, declaring it anti-Catholic because the artist used elephant dung among his media. Despite the explanations of Ofili, a British artist of Nigerian heritage, that the painting was a homage because elephant dung in his African culture is considered sacred, Giuliani and his supporters unsuccessfully tried to close Sensation and then moved to have the museum evicted from its city-owned building. BMA stood its ground and won its fight for freedom of expression in court.
In May 1998, the Manhattan Theatre Club momentarily caved under threats of violence and yanked their production of Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi, his contemporary retelling of Jesus’ birth, ministry, and death in which Jesus and his disciples are all depicted as gay. The play, which no one had actually seen or even read at this time (it wasn’t even finished), was assailed by conservative Christians and others as blasphemous and MTC suffered a vehement protest campaign that led to bomb threats at the theater and threats of death to the theater’s staff and the production’s company which nearly succeeded in canceling the play’s world première. (One caller left this message on MTC’s voice-mail: “Again, message is for Jew guilty homosexual Terrence McNally. Because of you we will exterminate every member of the theater and burn the place to the ground. This is a message from National Security Movement of America. Death to the Jews Worldwide.” McNally is, it might be worth noting, gay, but he’s Catholic, not Jewish.) Once again, free-speech advocates chastised the theater for bowing to pressure, with figures like playwrights Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, David Henry Hwang, and Larry Kramer publicly excoriating the theater for its action; Emily Mann, a playwright and the director of Princeton, New Jersey’s McCarter Theatre, also denounced the cancellation. Athol Fugard withdrew his play The Captain’s Tiger from the company’s schedule while other theaters stepped up to offer the play a stage. A week after announcing the cancellation, MTC reinstated the production. Similar protests arose wherever McNally’s play was produced, from professional regional stagings, to college productions, to community-theater presentations; when the 1999 London première was staged, a British imam issued a fatwa against McNally.
The protests against the Public’s production of Julius Caesar at first just succeeded in driving away two major sponsors, Delta Air Lines and Bank of America; Delta actually severed its longtime association with the theater as “the official airline of the Public Theater” while BoA merely dropped its support of the Shakespeare in the Park production. That lasted until outlets like Breitbart and Fox News got a hold of the story and geed up a frenzy of manufactured outrage. Then threats and insults of one kind or another started to be hurled at the Public and Eustis, including the demand that the play be taken off the stage. That seems to be the standard demand these days for a work of art some people don’t like: remove it from public view.
That painting at the Whitney Museum I mentioned earlier, Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, a rendering of Emmett Till’s mangled body at his funeral—the protesters wanted it removed from the Biennial; in 2010, Smithsonian Institution Secretary G. Wayne Clough ordered the removal of David Wojnarowicz’s video A Fire in My Belly from the National Portrait Gallery’s Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture in the face of protests (once again on the grounds of blasphemy); this past May, Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center removed artist Sam Durant’s sculpture Scaffold, which referenced the hanging of 38 Dakota Indian men in 1862 by the United States Army, from the June reopening exhibit in its Minneapolis Sculpture Garden in response to demands by Native American groups. The problem with these efforts is that, while no one forces anyone to see an offending work of art, censoring it prevents everyone from seeing it.
But removal hasn’t been sufficient remedy for the aggrieved parties. Protesters wanted both Open Casket and Scaffold destroyed, though only the Durant sculpture was actually dismantled and burned. (The Whitney refused to remove Schutz’s painting from the Biennial.) I find this problematical beyond the act of censorship the removal demand represents: it smacks of book burning, one of the most heinous acts against human thought anyone can commit. It’s the province of totalitarian governments like the fictional one in Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451 and the very real one in Nazi Germany. The puritanical priest-prophet of 15th century Florence, Girolamo Savonarola, burned books he deemed “immoral”—a judgment of which he, alone, was the final arbiter. Modern-day dictators and would-be dictators like Augusto Pinochet in Chile in the ’70s and Bosnian Serb nationalist leader Ratko Mladić in the ’90s burned books of their enemies and opponents. The Taliban and Isis burn books and destroy art works and cultural treasures of which they disapprove. This is the line into which protesters in our own democracy fit when they demand the removal and destruction of paintings and sculptures which they claim harm or distress them.
Like the Corpus Christi protests, warnings of death and other assaults were phoned into Eustis’s home, targeted at him, his wife, and his daughter. One call, picked up by Eustis’s 26-year-old daughter, threatened, “I want to grab you by the pussy”—a clear evocation of Trump’s offensive “locker-room talk” during the campaign. “Your husband wants Trump to die. I want him to die.” (This kind of verbal assault spilled over to other theaters around the country unconnected to either the Public or the Julius Caesar production. Whether this is a case of tarring all theaters with the same brush or ignorance on the part of the callers isn’t clear. Considering the spelling in some of the e-mails, I’m inclined to go with the latter.) At the final performances of the play, activists invaded the stage at the Delacorte Theater or shouted from the audience: “Goebbels would be proud,” yelled one protester, referring to the Nazi propaganda minister of the Third Reich, on the closing performance on Sunday, 18 June, as he stormed the stage.
In a statement published by the theater, Eustis affirmed:
We recognize that our interpretation of the play has provoked heated discussion; audiences, sponsors and supporters have expressed varying viewpoints and opinions. Such discussion is exactly the goal of our civically-engaged theater; this discourse is the basis of a healthy democracy.
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.
In an interview with Michael Paulson of the New York Times, the Public’s artistic director asserted:
Those thousands of people who are calling our corporate sponsors to complain about this—none of them have seen the show. They’re not interested in seeing the show. They haven’t read “Julius Caesar.” They are being manipulated by “Fox & Friends” and other news sources, which are deliberately, for their own gain, trying to rile people up and turn them against an imagined enemy, which we are not.
The director pointed out that five years ago, director Rob Melrose staged a production of Julius Caesar for the Public that had an Obama-like Caesar. “That production played all over the country,” said Eustis. “Not one peep from anybody.” Furthermore, he insisted when asked “Is Trump Caesar?”: “Of course not. Julius Caesar is Julius Caesar.”
What we are doing is what we try and do in every production, which is make the dramatic stakes as real and powerful for contemporary people as we can, in our time and our place.
Eustis acknowledged, “This production makes some fun of him”—as it does of “this president or any other president.” The director made public statements reminding people that Shakespeare’s play does not support the assassination and, in fact, warns audiences that violence is no way to preserve democracy. Indeed, Julius Caesar’s death precipitates the very danger the conspirators were trying to avert when Caesar’s nephew, Octavius, seizes power as Augustus Caesar and the Roman republic becomes an empire. “This production does not hate Julius Caesar,” averred Eustis, ending his comments by stating firmly and unequivocally: “This production is horrified at his murder.”
But all this was to little avail. The opponents to the Public’s production of Julius Caesar had gotten up a head of steam and it seemed nothing could stop them. After the 14 June attack on Republican congressional baseball players in Virginia that left Steve Scalise, a representative from Louisiana, gravely wounded, Donald Trump, Jr., appeared to link the shooting with the performance at the Public. He also tweeted: “Serious question, when does ‘art’ become political speech & does that change things?” I guess he doesn’t know that it’s irrelevant since political speech, just like artistic expression, is also protected under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution—so, no, it doesn’t change things.
That’s the rub, isn’t it? Art people like Donald Trump, Senior or Junior, can ignore—it’s meaningless to them (unless it’s a portrait of the Donald he can charge off to his foundation). That’s why President Trump can blithely propose to zero out the miniscule government support for the arts this country parsimoniously and grudgingly provides. In terms of the national budget, it’s insignificant—but it’s annoying, like a fly buzzing around in the Oval Office. Those pesky artists!
But let it turn political or socially conscious . . . . Whoa, Nelly! Then we got trouble. Because art can make people listen—and, more dangerously, it can make them think. Vaclav Havel’s plays made a generation of Westerners think about the Soviet communist domination of Eastern Europe and what that made life like there. Athol Fugard made people see apartheid the way South Africans saw it day to day, and it was painful and ugly. Their art traveled the way no history book, essay, or political lecture could. It touched people. Larry Kramer’s plays and David Wojnarowicz’s paintings and sculptures made people look at what gay life and the AIDS crisis was like for the people living inside it. Turn that kind of spotlight on an American politician or a political philosophy or a proposed policy and something might happen. Better put the kibosh on that, double quick! Can’t let that imp out of the bottle.
But the Constitution won’t allow adversaries to censor it. They can try to go after the financial support for the art or the art’s presenters—that’s what the opponents to My Name Is Rachel Corrie did—and it worked for a while. The challengers to the Public’s Julius Caesar took aim at that, too, but it didn’t succeed this time—and, as far as I’m concerned, Delta and BoA looked craven for buckling. So the forces who don’t want to see art of which they disapprove and don’t want others to see it, either, fall back on the last resort of the fearful: violence—or the threat of violence. The Manhattan Theatre Club turned tail and ran in the face of that, but found their courage again when they were assailed by their own constituency—theater artists. Oskar Eustis and the Public, true to the spirit of Joe Papp, stood up to the scare tactics and prevailed.
Forgetting for the moment that the Public’s Julius Caesar was never advocating assassination—not of Caesar nor of Trump—the real message of the production, the warning that William Shakespeare was sending and that director Eustis made contemporary and relevant, is one we all have to hear, and hear again, and hear often. And, yes, it is political—not partisan politics, or the “intrigue or maneuvering within a political unit or a group in order to gain control or power,” as the American Heritage Dictionary defines it-—which is what Little Trump meant (because it’s the only kind he or his ilk knows about, I imagine), but “the art or science of government or governing, especially the governing of a political entity, such as a nation, and the administration and control of its internal and external affairs”—a bigger, more august matter. In that context, we must heed the advice of Walter Lippmann from his 1939 essay “The Indispensable Opposition” (I’ve republished the entire essay on Rick On Theater, and I strongly recommend everyone read it—http://rickontheater.blogspot.com/2011/11/indispensable-opposition.html.):
We take, it seems to me, a naïvely self-righteous view when we argue as if the right of our opponents to speak were something that we protect because we are magnanimous, noble, and unselfish. The compelling reason why, if liberty of opinion did not exist, we should have to invent it, why it will eventually have to be restored in all civilized countries where it is now suppressed, is that we must protect the right of our opponents to speak because we must hear what they have to say.
Like it or not, we have to hear what the people we disagree with say. Doing politics in an echo chamber, which has become the practice for too many politicians in this country for too long, is dangerous—not to mention just plain counterproductive. Donald Trump doesn’t think he does, and he doesn’t like to, but he, most of all, has to hear what opponents and critics have to say. Lippmann’s analogy is most apt: He likens listening to our opponents to paying a doctor “to ask us the most embarrassing questions and to prescribe the most disagreeable diet.” We recognize, Lippmann held, “that if we threaten to put the doctor in jail because we do not like the diagnosis and the prescription it will be unpleasant for the doctor, to be sure, but equally unpleasant for our own stomachache.”