Charles Isherwood explores the recent controversy surrounding the Public Theater and explains why anti-Trump art needs higher standards.
The media tempest surrounding the Public Theater’s production of “Julius Caesar” in Central Park has filled fat column inches for days. In case you’ve been consumed by more weighty matters filling the headlines – I don’t need to remind you, I trust? — two of the theater’s corporate sponsors, Delta Airlines and Bank of America, withdrew their support of the company when it was learned that in Oskar Eustis’s production, the title character was depicted, none too subtly, as a simulacrum of Donald Trump. (The production was barely into its first week when an alt-right protestor rushed the stage.)
In the play, you will recall, things don’t go well for Caesar, as he is betrayed by his intimates and stabbed to death in one of the more famous onstage murders in Shakespeare – of which there are plenty. While this arts-funding scandal naturally raised a dark hue and cry in cultural spheres, it receded from the national discussion when a gunman opened fired on Republican congressman practicing for a baseball game.
These events were of course unrelated, despite an appalling retweet from Trump’s son Donald Jr. intimating a connection between the two – like father, like son. And yet occurring back to back, they did seem to underscore that the tide of virulence, paranoia and anxiety sweeping the country continues to mount as the days of an unruly and unsettling presidency tick by.
I attended a small rally supporting the Public Theater at Astor Place on Thursday, and then headed uptown to see the production about which so much digital ink has been spilled. I left in a state of some dejection. As many critics and Eustis himself have naturally pointed out, “Julius Caesar” is hardly a play that advocates the assassination of overweening political leaders. In turning to violent means, the assassins destroy themselves, and Rome’s already endangered democracy. Blood begets blood, and, as in many Shakespeare plays, the stage ends up littered with corpses of Romans noble and otherwise.
But there is a bit of sophistry involved in critics’ defending the production on the basis of the complexity of Shakespeare’s play and the ideas about rulership and politics it embodies. For as it is presented by Eustis, it would be difficult for most in the audience to see beyond the gaudily presented parallels between Caesar and Trump. The actor portraying Caesar, Gregg Henry, wears crotch-skimming brightly hued ties, and is married to a svelte younger beauty who speaks in a Slavic accent. Accompanying the production throughout is the vague, slightly distracting sound of someone outside the theater, or on its periphery, bellowing angrily. A pink knit pussy hat makes an appearance.
It was these ham-handed signifiers that the audience I saw the play with responded to with knowing laughter. No surprise there, of course: the overlap between Shakespeare in the Park regulars and Trump supporters is presumably infinitesimal. But as someone whose disdain for Trump probably equals anyone’s, I still came away feeling that, whatever Eustis’s larger aims — “ ‘Julius Caesar’ is about how fragile democracy is,” he writes, correctly, in a program note — the production was essentially exploiting Shakespeare’s play as a blunt instrument, inevitably inviting audiences to smirk at the cheeky parallels rather than engage with the play’s ideas on any deeper level.
Coming on the heels of the controversy surrounding the comic Kathy Griffin’s faux-beheading photo, for which she was publicly pilloried and immediately dumped by CNN as New Year’s Eve host, and the similar fracas that erupted when Stephen Colbert used a vulgar (and yes, homophobic) phrase to describe the relationship between Trump and Putin, the Public Theater’s production left me with the dispiriting sense that artists and performers, in their natural desire to call out the president and his policies for their inhumanity and their recklessness, are taking a page from his own puerile playbook.
Trump, after all, has flooded the Twittersphere with intemperate outbursts, unfounded attacks, vitriolic flights of character assassination. He is currently a potential defendant in a lawsuit accusing him of inciting violence during his campaign rallies. At those rallies, the atmosphere of brutality and hostility toward Americans who opposed his campaign practically seared your hand as you reached for the remote control to change the channel.
And it’s understandable, I suppose, that when a politician and his followers engage in this kind of brutal combat – and succeed in winning the presidency through it – it is natural for his opponents to attempt similarly hard-charging tactics. But for artists and performers to allow their own work to be tainted by the vulgarity spewing so regularly from the capital is dismaying to watch, and I’m afraid I would have to classify Eustis’s blunt-edged production as an exercise in obvious vulgarity.
To be clear, artists of course have a right to express themselves any way they choose. Tastelessness is sometimes a necessary tactic, a way of shocking the audience into awareness; goodness knows we are all guilty of becoming lulled into indifference by the endless onslaught of entertainment options blinking from all of our screens. But it’s also a cheap one, and it doesn’t supply the kind of stimulation and nourishment that resides in more restrained, ambiguous and subtle forms of art.
I am, of course, dismayed by the craven behavior of the corporations who pulled funding from the Public Theater. Most disturbing is the potentially chilling effect their decision could have on smaller regional theaters across the country, whose commitment to politically engaged works may now be endangered. As Jeremy Gerard reported in Deadline, theaters that happen to have Shakespeare in their name – and, naturally, there are plenty – have been assailed by vitriolic and even violent threats once the right-wing press began covering the Public Theater’s production. And speaking of craven, it is a thorough disgrace, although perhaps not a surprise, that the National Endowment for the Arts put out a statement, protesting rather much, that it had in no way given support to the Public Theater for the production. (Who even knows who’s running the NEA these days? Has Ryan Seacrest added it to his broad portfolio? I’m sure his nomination would sail through Congress.)
It is alarming that the corporate arts funding that is so necessary for art to thrive in America – given the puny budget of the NEA – may be in danger. Timidity on the part of corporations has become much more pronounced as the political sphere has become so radically polarized. But I worry just as much about the pollution of artists’ sensitivities by the juvenility and thoughtlessness that seems to be holding greater sway in the culture in the Trump era. None of us lives in a vacuum, after all, and we are all susceptible to influences that we absorb from the media. Those influences are fairly toxic these days. Some fine art has arisen from angry impulses and a virulent reaction against an oppressive political atmosphere. But most good art, and maybe all great art, has not.
Trump swept into Washington promising to “drain the swamp.” That immediately became a risible notion. What I fear is happening instead is that the toxicity of Washington is spreading into the culture, and the world of the arts, in ways that will ultimately be damaging. It is practically impossible, after all, to swim in a swamp and not get a bacterial infection or two.