UPDATE Monday afternoon: The National Endowment for the Arts, which is facing a Trump administration effort to eliminate the agency, issued a statement distancing itself from the Public Theater’s Julius Caesar production “to correct a misunderstanding” about funding. Read more here.
EARLIER: On Sunday afternoon, a few hours before the Tony Awards, Delta Airlines declared that the Public Theater had gone beyond the boundaries of civil discourse with its production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in Central Park. After four years, the company abruptly ended its support of the house that Joseph Papp built. The next time you say to yourself, “I have to go to Washington, I should fly the official airline of the Public Theater,” don’t call Delta. They’re out of the free Shakespeare racket.
Not to be outdone, Bank of America, which has been writing much bigger checks to the Public for the past 11 years, settled for a whack on the backside, pulling its support of the production, which closes in a few days, while remaining the theater’s top corporate sponsor. At least for the moment.
The drama on stage at the Delacorte Theatre centers on the very public, very bloody assassination of Caesar after returning triumphant from war and declining the offer of the crown in order to remain in the peoples’ senate. In Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis’ modern staging, Caesar and his Slavic-accented wife Calpurnia look, and act, like Donald and Melania Trump, which is what got the executives at the airline and the bank in a lather. When Caesar gets Swiss cheesed by Cassius, Brutus and their co-conspirators, it looks like they’re offing the President. Kathy Griffin and Snoop Dogg did something similar recently, so it’s a thing.
“The graphic staging of Julius Caesar at this summer’s Free Shakespeare in the Park does not reflect Delta Air Lines’ values,” the company explained. “Their artistic and creative direction crossed the line on the standards of good taste.” Delta and BOA are not alone in taking offense at the production, though the night I saw it, the crowd was pretty benign about it all.
In such situations, I remind myself to pay special attention to what I’m humming, which usually indicates that my subconscious is working hard to get a message out. Yesterday afternoon, after writing up the story about Delta and Bank of America for Deadline, I found myself humming “Alice’s Restaurant.” Why? I wondered. Then I came silently to this part of the song:
“I went over to the sergeant, said, ‘Sergeant, you got a lot a damn gall to ask me if I’ve rehabilitated myself, I mean, I mean, I mean that just, I’m sittin’ here on the bench, I mean I’m sittin’ here on the Group W bench ’cause you want to know if I’m moral enough join the army, burn women, kids, houses and villages after bein’ a litterbug.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Kid, we don’t like your kind.’ “
Here’s the thing about satire: It’s usually crude and juvenile. It generally offends. It often provokes the ire of its targets, as was evidently the case here, when the President’s son Jr. tweeted his concern about the show and raised the issue of public support of such work.
But the Public Theater is not a nunnery. It’s the most productive nonprofit theater in the country. Its contributions to American theater start with Papp’s very radical idea of free Shakespeare in Central Park and extend through its history of producing some of the great works of our time, many of them rooted in the florid argot of protest and speaking truth to power: Hair. The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel. For Colored Girls. A Chorus Line. Bring In ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk. Hamilton. I’m not even scratching the surface.
Banks and airlines, on the other hand, share with Big Tobacco and Big Oil a history of supporting cultural institutions as a way of cleaning up their images. Their support comes from their marketing budgets – it’s advertising they can write off. The more enlightened among them know that somewhere, sometime along the way, they will smart from the bite of the beast they’re feeding. It comes with the territory. The supine corporate supporters here have responded to an act of satire with a hot blast of harrumph at a time when conservatives and liberals alike are fearful about the country’s direction. A time when banks and airlines are taking it on the chin daily for practices that “crossed the line.”
That is some gall over the cultural equivalent of being a litterbug.