NEW YORK — For Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater and director of the “Julius Caesar” production in Central Park that has ignited a political firestorm, one of the saddest outcomes is the position that the nation’s embattled agency for supporting the arts has been compelled to take.
“So far, three major corporate sponsors and the NEA have felt it necessary to distance themselves from the show,” Eustis said in an interview Thursday. “And I feel just heartsick for the NEA. That they’re forced to distance themselves from a work of art — oh, my God.”
Eustis was referring to the statement the National Endowment for the Arts issued Monday, after the Public’s production of Shakespeare’s storied play came under attack from ultraconservative websites and even from one of the sons of President Trump, who questioned whether it was taxpayer-supported. They targeted the production because of the obvious references it draws to the current president and the depiction in the play of the assassination of its Caesar-as-Trump figure, played by Gregg Henry.
“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’s grant to Public Theater or its performances,” the NEA declared, in what struck many in the arts world as an extraordinary act of disavowal. It came as two high-profile corporate supporters of Shakespeare in the Park, Delta Air Lines and Bank of America, withdrew financial backing, and a third, American Express, said that its contributions go exclusively to the Public’s main theater in downtown Manhattan and it did not condone the interpretation staged in Central Park.
As has been widely noted, conservative voices were nowhere to be found protesting a production of “Julius Caesar” mounted by Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theatre and the Acting Company in 2012 in which Caesar was played by a black actor, invoking comparisons to then-President Barack Obama. Delta Air Lines was one of the sponsors of that production, too, and it never backed away from its funding. All of this history has persuaded Eustis that we have entered a frightening chapter in the cultural wars in which snippets of information are disseminated on the Web and elsewhere to discredit a piece of political art.
“The thing that’s new is that somebody is using the arts as a way of manipulating people and lying about the arts,” he said. “That’s the new toxic element in our culture.”
There does seem to be a newly supercharged atmosphere in this country, fueled by supporters of the president who want to vilify political dissent of any kind in the performing arts. It’s only been a few months since Trump went after the Broadway cast of “Hamilton” for reading a statement at a performance attended by Vice President-elect Mike Pence in which the actors implored the incoming administration to be mindful of the nation’s demographic diversity. “The theater must always be a safe and special place,” Trump tweeted afterward. “The cast of ‘Hamilton’ was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!”
Of course, Trump’s requirement that theater be “safe” is laughably inane. One of theater’s mandates is to rock the boat, not to sit by, demurely, in the hull. And surely, Eustis, as head of one of the most influential U.S. theater companies — birthplace of “Hair,” “A Chorus Line,” “Hamilton” and other memorable plays — understood that by including specific allusions to the current president in a play with powerful points to make about democracy, he was not projecting an interest in a “safe production.”
“I felt my job as director was to try to make the issues of ‘Julius Caesar’ as pertinent, as present, as visceral, as alive as they could be for the audience,” he said. “The fundamental question in ‘Julius Caesar’ is what do you do to protect a democracy when a demagogue is threatening the thing that you love. My job is how do you make the audience feel that.”
Eustis acknowledged that underlying the production is a belief that we are headed down a dangerous path. “The election of Donald Trump and the Trump phenomenon is threatening our democratic norms,” he said. But the takeaway, he added, is anything but what the production’s enemies are alleging: “No one can sit through my production and think, ‘I can go out and kill somebody.’ ” As he noted, the play is a kind of eulogy for democratic government, for after the Roman experiment with it failed, it disappeared for 2,000 years. “So in the end, Caesar is triumphant and the Roman democracy is over.”
“My fear is that we’re going to have a climate where the level of discourse turns into what happens to Antony in the mob scene,” he said. “The people are led to destroy the thing they want to preserve.”
As for the Public’s future in this climate, Eustis said, “This is damaging for us and we definitely lost money, and nobody likes losing money. But we will survive it.” More worrisome is what he describes as the possible chilling effect of the episode on smaller theater companies and arts organizations that might find themselves in the crosshairs of groups seeking to intimidate or silence them. “That terrifies me,” he said.
Still, he has no intention of changing paths. Eustis notes that despite the backlash, not a single aspect of the production has been altered. “The key element of our brand,” he said, “is a theater that believes we have a place at the table for the discussion of the great issues of our time.”