Dear Commons Community,
Kathy Griffin subjected herself to a torrent of outrage last month when she was photographed with a likeness of the decapitated head of Donald Trump. She has since apologized and has literally cried in front of cameras in response to the public chastisement and seeing sponsors cancel her shows.
On Monday, The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar opened to a firestorm of criticism over the use of an actor styled as President Trump portraying Caesar, and then knifed to death as part of the story. It has led to questions about the depiction of Trump as Caesar.
Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public and director of the Julius Caesar production, gave an interview about the matter. He first made the point that the play has often been used to depict world leaders and noted that a few years ago there had been an American production of the play in which Caesar was Obama-like, and no controversy had ensued. Here are excerpts from the interview.
“What were you trying to tell us about our politics today with this particular staging?
We have faced a transition and a set of electoral choices, which are clearly destabilizing our democratic norms. Now, the question is, How do we respond to that? What do we do about it? And this, if you will, is a progressive’s nightmare vision of that.
For me, the whole thing is an anxiety nightmare parable about our current state, and that’s why it looks the way it looks.
Is Trump Caesar?
Of course not. Julius Caesar is Julius Caesar. What we are doing is what we try and do in every production, which is make the dramatic stakes as real and powerful for contemporary people as we can, in our time and our place.
Did you anticipate the outrage?
No. But all of this stuff is not about my production of “Julius Caesar.” This is about the right-wing hate machine. Those thousands of people who are calling our corporate sponsors to complain about this — none of them have seen the show. They’re not interested in seeing the show. They haven’t read “Julius Caesar.” They are being manipulated by “Fox & Friends” and other news sources, which are deliberately, for their own gain, trying to rile people up and turn them against an imagined enemy, which we are not.
You know by this point that my mentee and dear friend, Rob Melrose, did a production in 2012 with Obama as Caesar. That production played all over the country. Not one peep from anybody.
So this is not about my play or my production of a play. This is really an example of what this kind of demagoguery does.
So you did not see this coming?
I thought there might be some fuss. I did not see this.
Did you give any kinds of heads-up to either your board or your donors?
No. I was not secret about what I was doing. And lots and lots of people saw it. Twenty thousand people saw it before anything went on Breitbart and there were maybe eight, nine complaints.
Did you get any queasy feelings when the Kathy Griffin controversy happened?
We noticed, and we went, “Whoops!” But, of course, we knew we weren’t doing anything like that. We were doing Shakespeare in the Park, for God’s sake. So we noticed, we talked about it, but, again, we didn’t think what we were doing was directly comparable to Kathy Griffin.
Do you think that what’s happened illustrates something about our culture today?
I don’t want to criticize anybody except The New York Times. The fact that you guys broke the decades-long precedent on embargoing reviews, in response to what Breitbart had done — because that’s what you did, because Breitbart ran a story, other people picked it up, and you broke your arrangement with us. That’s a perfect example of how we are allowing the right-wing hate machine to change our relationships to each other, and that is bad. You and I, and The New York Times and I, will recover from it, but still I think it’s not what we should be doing.
Did you try to talk anyone at Delta or Bank of America out of changing their financial relationship with the Public?
No. We had conversations. But we weren’t trying to talk people out of anything. It’s their money, they’re supporting us, they get to decide what to do with it.
You don’t give them preapproval of productions?
Never give that to anybody and never will. It would be dreadful if we allowed anybody to preapprove or censor what we do.
It’s complicated because we live in a country where government support of the arts is limited so you are dependent on private fund-raising.
Right. However, our private fund-raising is fine. We have a massive, loyal base of support that gives us a great deal of confidence that we’re going to be fine.
How much money did you lose over this production?
I shouldn’t talk about exact figures, but let’s just say that the loss of money is not the significant blow to us. We’re sorry we lost the money, but it’s not going to damage our operations at all.
Are you disappointed in Bank of America, given the long relationship you’ve had with them?
No. People have to do what they have to do. I’m not a banker. I don’t understand that. What I do understand is that there are an awful lot of people who have stepped up, without being asked, to express solidarity with us, in emotional and financial terms, because the stand that we’ve taken about freedom of the art, freedom of speech, the ability to do provocative work, the ability to do work that speaks to the real issues and anxiety of our time, is something they support.
If you were to do this over again, would you do anything differently?
No. This production does not hate Julius Caesar. This production makes some fun of him. I kind of think I’m not the first guy to make some fun of our president. Certainly not this president or any other president. This production is horrified at his murder.”
So what to do?
This is a complicated issue involving free speech, artistic license, and the role of the arts in a democratic society. Mayor Bill de Blasio characterized it as a “slippery slope.” It reminds me of a controversy in 1999 when an exhibit titled, “Sensation: Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection,” opened at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. One of the pieces, The Holy Virgin Mary, depicted Mary smeared in elephant dung and angels characterized as flying genitalia. Mayor Rudy Giuliani threatened to cut off the Museum’s city subsidy and remove the Brooklyn Museum Board if the show was not canceled. He singled out The Holy Virgin Mary as “sick stuff.” John Cardinal O’Connor called the show an attack on religion itself. The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights said it found the painting offensive. The fact is that the exhibit went on. Julius Caesar at the Public Theater should go on also but we must be concerned about the violence we promulgate in our society and culture.