The New York Public Theater’s production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”— featuring a decidedly Trump-esque version of the doomed Roman statesman — has sparked a mounting outcry: Right-leaning media outlets condemned the portrayal as vile and immoral; Donald Trump Jr. tweeted criticism, questioning whether the work was taxpayer-funded, and corporate donors Delta Air Lines and Bank of America made national headlines when they announced that they would withdraw their financial support from the theater.
“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,” Delta said in tweets Sunday.
But there was no such backlash in 2012, when a collaboration between the Acting Company and the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis — which also received financial backing from Delta — mounted a contemporary remake of “Julius Caesar” in which the title character appeared to reference President Barack Obama. Caesar’s character, of course, is brutally slain in the play.
“Because Caesar is cast as a tall, lanky black man, the Obama inference is a bit too obvious,” wrote MSP Mag of the actor, Bjorn DuPaty. “But it fits, sort of. Like Caesar, Obama rose to power on a tide of public goodwill; like Caesar, there were many in government who doubted Obama’s leadership abilities; and now that Obama’s first term has failed to live up to the messianic hype, there are plenty of people who — for the good of the country, you understand, not their own glory — want to take Obama down.”
The Twin Cities Daily Planet also noted the production’s effort to evoke the Obama era: “By the time we got to the OCCUPY ROME sign and the Faireyesque Caesar posters, I was watching through my fingers with my hands over my face,” reviewer Jay Gabler wrote, referring to Shepard Fairey, the artist who designed the iconic “Hope” Obama campaign posters.
Back then, outrage did not ensue; the American Conservative praised the casting choices, calling the production “riveting.” And Delta — which did not immediately respond to a request for comment — maintained its longtime support of the theater.
“Delta has been a generous supporter of the Guthrie Theater for decades and was a season sponsor in 2011-2012 when we co-produced ‘Julius Caesar’ with The Acting Company,” Elizabeth Deacon, associate marketing director at the theater, told The Post by e-mail. Delta continues to be listed on the theater’s website as a corporate sponsor contributing between $100,000-$249,000 annually.
As news of the recent controversy took off across social media, many were swift to point out the stark contrast between the current uproar and the absence of public controversy in 2012:
I mean, multiple people have done Obama-as-Caesar and it was never a thing. So this whole controversy now seems really weird.
— Jason Emory Parker (@jaspar) June 12, 2017
throwback to that time a NYC theater did Julius Caesar as Obama and the American Conservative called it "riveting" https://t.co/2Gasa4iicm
— Daniel Radosh (@danielradosh) June 11, 2017
Presidents portrayed as Julius Caesar in U.S. productions: Lincoln, Reagan, Clinton, GWB, Obama, Trump. (Caesar died in all of them.)
— Timothy Burke (@bubbaprog) June 12, 2017
For those of you saying "The left would be livid if Caesar was played as Obama": It happened. We weren't. https://t.co/BLaJf3wCto
— Mark Harris (@MarkHarrisNYC) June 12, 2017
Plenty of others noted that those who were outraged by the depiction of Caesar had entirely missed the point of Shakespeare’s work: The play is hardly a glorification or endorsement of assassination, but rather a cautionary tale, as Caesar’s murder leads to the collapse of Rome.
“Julius Caesar can be read as a warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy by undemocratic means,” artistic director Oskar Eustis in a statement on the Public Theater’s website. “To fight the tyrant does not mean imitating him.”
Some also expressed concern that the withdrawal of financial support from high-profile corporate sponsors would have a chilling effect on artistic expression. Within a matter of hours of Delta’s announcement, the National Endowment of the Arts issued a statement distancing itself from the production.
“In the past, the New York Shakespeare Festival has received project-based NEA grants to support performances of Shakespeare in the Park by the Public Theater,” the organization said in the statement. “However, no NEA funds have been awarded to support this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar and there are no NEA funds supporting the New York State Council on the Arts’ grant to Public Theater or its performances.”
On Monday evening, the Public Theater responded to the controversy with a statement reinforcing its commitment to the production:
The Public Theater stands completely behind our production of Julius Caesar. We understand and respect the right of our sponsors and supporters to allocate their funding in line with their own values. 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 a separate statement shared on Twitter, the theater thanked those who had offered solidarity and financial support.
This post has been updated.