Let’s start with the facts. New York City’s Free Shakespeare in the Park will officially open their production of Julius Caesar the day after two major sponsors, Delta and Bank of America, pulled sponsorship because the play depicts the assassination of Julius Caesar, who has been styled to look like Donald Trump. Critics have ranged from Breitbart, which compared the play to Kathy Griffin’s ill-fated Trump-themed photoshoot, to Donald Trump Jr., who wondered how many taxpayer dollars went to fund the production. (That would be zero, according to the National Endowment for the Arts.) The whole thing appears to have started because of this admittedly ingenious bit of aggregation and spin: Fox News headlining a piece “NYC Play Appears to Depict Assassination of Trump,” which was then widely shared among the conservative internet.
The Public Theater, putting on the production, shows no sign of backing down.
First, let us say that the conservative reaction is performative and intensely hypocritical. Caesar has been styled to resemble Presidents Lincoln, Reagan, George W. Bush, Obama and Trump. He’s died each time, in case you were wondering. In fact, Delta Airlines is still currently sponsoring a Minneapolis theater that depicted then-President Obama’s assassination as Trump five years ago. (The American Conservative hailed that production as “riveting,” even more impressive when you consider the writer probably worked his piece one-handed.)
The overall offense level is probably good for individual donations, but also raises an extremely important question: Have any of these people actually read the play?
Had they read it, they would find that the play is a round condemnation of assassination as a political tool. Brutus, Caesar’s closest friend, reluctantly joins a group of Senators that are conspiring to kill Caesar should he ever harm Rome. Though he’s been nothing but good thus far, the Senators fear the possibility that he’ll become a tyrant should he accept the kingship. They kill him in the most famous scene in Shakespeare, sticking around afterwards to make it clear that they’ve done so for the good of the republic. Rome more or less immediately descends into civil war. Brutus leads one side and Marc Antony the other. Lots of people die, Brutus by his own hand, and Marc Antony pays him tribute in the aftermath.
Where, in that summary, do you see anything about the assassination being a good idea? The entire point of the play is, in fact, about assassination being a tremendously bad idea. The New York Times agrees with me.
“Even a cursory reading of the play, the kind that many American teenagers give it in high school, is enough to show that it does not advocate assassination,” critic Jesse Green writes. “Shakespeare portrays the killing of Caesar by seven of his fellow senators as an unmitigated disaster for Rome, no matter how patriotic the intentions.”
Strangely, some critics on the left have joined in decrying the play. Their critiques are that updating the play to comment on current events is boring and hackneyed. They position themselves as purists, saying that Shakespeare ought only to be performed in togas. That’s stupid. One of theater’s only advantages over cinema is that it’s live and can be to a degree responsive to current events. We’ve been staging this play for 400 years; it’s ok for Caesar to wear a suit and tie in an attempt to draw crowds and raise questions about the play’s continued applicability to the events of the day.
So what gives?
A couple things. This may shock you, but conservative critics are not arguing in good faith. The conservative outrage is following a fairly predictable pattern: Take a gripe from the left and simply repeat it back to them. Good examples of this are the appropriation of "fake news” as a cudgel, Trump’s now-infamous “No puppet!” interruption of Hillary Clinton and the farcical attempts to hit Comey for “leaking” official government documents that he ensured would not be classified. Though conservatives control both legislative and executive branches of government, their ideological bankruptcy has prevented them from doing literally anything of substance with that power. So they must blame liberals for their own inability to function. The dog caught the car and is now complaining it doesn’t know how to drive.
The criticism of the Public Theater follows a familiar and ham-handed pattern. Conservatives notice a pattern in a certain genre liberal media writing: offense-finding in popular entertainments. Many websites traffic in this kind of content, and it’s just as odious when liberals do it as conservatives. To an observer not versed in modern progressive discourse, the aggressions found can be comically small and insignificant. For example, this legtimately absurd bit of argumentation. So conservatives turn the outrage machine against those that normally perpetrate it. It’s ghoulishly effective, in that now major corporations are running so scared that they’ll yank funding from anything that appears remotely controversial. The thing doesn’t have to actually be controversial; it just has to offend someone.
They should be here to praise Julius Caesar, not bury it. But since nobody appears to take the time to read past the headline, we’re left with another case of stupidity so profound it would be farcical if those perpetrating it weren’t controlling every branch of government.
Where do we go from here?
If it’s not clear to you already, counting on corporations to sponsor the arts seems kind of a dicey proposition at best for exactly this reason. Banks and airlines don’t care about the arts or the public. They care about the appearance of caring about the arts. Counting on major companies to be something other than profit-driven is going to disappoint you every single time, no matter how fire the memes on Denny’s Twitter account are. After the financial crisis, do you have any question about whether or not banks give a shit about you?
The paths forward are twofold. One, to create art that is so anodyne that nobody can possiblity criticize it. That’s how you end up with very elegant and boring metal monoliths in front of fancy office parks. Art approved bit-by-bit by large conglomerates like Delta and Bank of America will most likely not be art anyone is particularly interested in. Have you tried reading a seatback magazine lately? Not exactly riveting.
The second is more daring: Create art that comments on the day without regard for what bad-faith argumentation it might generate. That’s not always possible, and certainly we should not completely discount the possibility that critics are right, but as much as possible we should be rewarding art that provokes thought, that makes us consider our preconceived beliefs. That’s not a comfortable place but neither is eliminating freedom of thought and expression.
In the meantime, we humbly suggest that conservatives improve their reading comprehension.