Theatre Bites: Julius Caesar (In Defense of Shakespeare in the Park)

A popular leader is given more power than any who came before him. Subsequently, a group of self-interested politicians seek to be rid of him. A soothsayer warns the leader to be wary. He is not and is assassinated by the politicians. Civil war breaks out, resulting in an even more powerful leader by the action’s end.

Above is my best attempt at a synopsis of Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare’s ~1599 play. Straddling the line between history and tragedy, Julius Caesar doesn’t quite fit  into the categories usually associated with Shakespeare’s work. It is a good play (if very male-centric) and provides the English language with some of Shakespeare’s most famous lines:

  • “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
  • “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.”
  • “Cry Havoc! and let slip the dogs of war.”
  • “Beware the ides of March.”
  • “Et tu, Brute?”

However, I was not planning on doing Julius Caesar for Theatre Bites.

While I love the play, I had first to dive into others from Shakespeare’s canon. So, yes. I had assumed it would be awhile before I got to the machinations of the Roman Republic.

Events from the past few days have changed my plans.

In case you have not heard: two corporations, Delta Airlines and Bank of America, have chosen to pull their financial sponsorships of the Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park. This event is a yearly tradition of providing free professional productions of Shakespeare’s works in Central Park in New York City.

The decision was made over the controversy surrounding the currently running production of Julius Caesar, which features a Caesar that looks and reads like the current President of the United States. And as I’ve said in the synopsis above, Caesar is killed.

Both corporations pulled their funding after the President’s son and FOX News openly derided the production on social media.

Now, we can have a conversation about whether this particular design choice works or not. But the decision to pull funding for a program that provides FREE access to the arts because of a production’s design choice is not in “good taste” is both baffling and unfortunately unsurprising in today’s political climate.

While I cannot speak to the production itself, it is clear, to me at least, that we as a society (including the largest businesses among us), should want everyone to have access to the arts and humanities.

Sometimes the productions that theatre companies put on are not what I want to see, but I want them to continue to create work.

It’s the only way for the arts to survive and thrive. By taking away funding, Delta Airlines and Bank of America are saying that they will not support work they disagree with, which flies directly in the face of a pluralistic democratic society.

In Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, one of Caesar’s strongest supporters, gives a funeral oration to rouse the anger of the citizens of Rome against the conspirators who killed Caesar. In it he says:

O masters, if I were disposed to stir
Your hearts and minds to mutiny and rage,
I should do Brutus wrong, and Cassius wrong,
Who, you all know, are honourable men:
I will not do them wrong; I rather choose
To wrong the dead, to wrong myself and you,
Than I will wrong such honourable men. (III, ii)

I fear that we no longer live in a society of honorable men, with decisions like the ones made by Delta and Bank of America stoking that fear. I want to believe that artistic works of all stripes have their place in American society, but I am no longer sure that all of American society from any political party does.

I have complete faith that the Public Theatre will be able to continue their programming as scheduled, including Shakespeare in the Park, due to their other sources of income, but I have to wonder what will happen to smaller companies who don’t have such a large base of financial support. Will they be unable to take theatrical risks without fear of financial retribution? Will they do the same artistically safe works in order to keep what little sponsorship they have?

I hope not, for all of us.

Theatre is a place for risk, a place for an audience to engage with a world they might be unfamiliar with, tackle ideas foreign to them.

Sometimes productions make choices that might upset or confuse the audience, but it is a rare theatrical work where that choice was not made intentionally, or where it did not have any value.

I won’t get the chance to see this production of Julius Caesar with its controversial design, but I want there to be other productions of works that engage with the world we live in today. If we stifle works that critically engage with our world, then can we really support the arts?

I started Theatre Bites at the behest of The Nerd League editors who (thankfully) want more discussion of theatre in the world. I also started the column to articulate why I think theatre (and by extension the arts and humanities) are an essential part of daily life. I still believe that, and will continue to write about plays that engage with the world today.

Sometimes theatre provokes controversy, as it did this weekend, but unless someone is actually physically under attack, there is no reason to pull funding because you disagree with what the art is saying.

In the winter of 1790, George Washington, our first Commander in Chief, attended a production of Julius Caesar in New York City.

Washington was a well known lover of theatre, attending over 100 plays in his lifetime and quoting theatrical works and themes in his public and private writings. Theatre has been a part of our culture since its founding, and has been the subject of praise and controversy since the first actor stepped out of the chorus in ancient Greece.

In the United States, theatrical works have been banned, Congressional committees have scrutinized dramas, and at one point in 1938,  the director of the Federal Theatre Project (a New Deal program that was the most controversial) was asked if Shakespeare’s contemporary, Christopher Marlowe, was a Communist.

Suffice it to say, we in the United States love our drama, but sometimes struggle with theatre when it deals with real world issues. George Washington sat and enjoyed an evening of Julius Caesar. Shouldn’t we all be allowed the opportunity to do so as well, even if it could offend? I think so, and if the production hits a nerve, then perhaps: “more relative than this: the play’s the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” (Hamlet, II.ii)

Theatre Bites is a Thursday column of The Nerd League featuring theatrical pieces that affect our current lives. These are hand-picked by our in-house theatre nerd, currently a doctoral candidate in theatre studies.

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