Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Julius Caesar, Philistines, Corporate Cowardice, and Active Misreadings

A couple of days ago, Curmie was actually casting about, wanting to take advantage of his newly-returned desire to write, but unable to find a topic of more than moderate interest, the latest escapades of the most corrupt presidency in history and its nearly-as-unethical opposition having long since passed the point of generating ennui. But the last couple of days have provided a new story, two new-to-me stories, and a story that I have come to realize is indeed a worthy subject for an essay. The Blog Gods have heard my plaint.

Tina Benko and Gregg Henry in the Public Theatre production of Julius Caesar.
Photo credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Today, Curmie does something he hasn’t done in a very long time: write about a topic while it’s still “hot.” Sunday, Delta Airlines and Bank of America both withdrew their funding of the Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar, literally the day before it officially opened. The play, which was in previews for about three weeks (and somehow was already reviewed) has caused controversy by portraying the title character as a Donald Trump clone: what New York Times critic Jesse Green describes as “a petulant, blondish Caesar in a blue suit, complete with gold bathtub and a pouty Slavic wife.” Subtlety does not appear to be this production’s strong suit.

Of course, Caesar is killed by his must trusted advisors about halfway through the play, a structural anomaly that makes Julius Caesar one of Curmie’s least favorite Shakespeare plays. Let’s face it, after Mark Antony’s big speech in Act III, we’re left with the longest dénouement in history. It’s really hard to bring off Acts IV and V because they’re, well, boring as hell.

But Curmie strays. You see, apparently this production’s assassination scene is more graphic than most, prompting further indignation from paranoid right-wingers: you know, the ones who call other people snowflakes. So the right-wing media ginned up an Astroturf campaign to apply pressure to the Public Theatre’s corporate sponsors. And the hegemons controlling those corporations—being devoid of any understanding of theatre, historical perspective, ethical sensibility, or moral courage—promptly capitulated.

Delta sniffs:
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. Their artistic and creative direction crossed the line on the standards of good taste. We have notified them of our decision to end our sponsorship as the official airline of the Public Theater effective immediately.
Apparently their vaunted “values” don’t include honoring commitments to theatre companies any more than they honor them to their customers. What Delta does with its money next year is completely up to them, and if they don’t want to be associated with one of the most famous and indeed prestigious theatre programs in the country, that is absolutely their prerogative, even if it is cowardly and ill-advised. But they’ve made a commitment for this year, and even if their high-priced legal team (which they need because their service is so terrible) can get them out of legal obligations, their ethical duty to support the Public Theater financially for the remainder of the season stands, even if they publicly disavow this production.

At least Bank of America understands that much… sort of. They, too, unethically withdrew funding from this play, although they did not completely sever relations with the Public. Still, they accuse the company’s production of an intention “to provoke and offend.” The former is certainly true. The latter might be true, but there certainly isn’t sufficient evidence to say that with any certainty. Bank of America, like Delta, is craven and culturally illiterate. Do they not get it that the whole point of Julius Caesar is that killing the title character is a Bad Thing? Perhaps the production does not make that sufficiently clear—it does sound more pretentious than profound—but the company’s official statement seems both apt and sincere. I quote it here in its entirety:
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.
That’s a good response to a pretty knee-jerk reaction by corporations who should know better. As Curmie’s netpal Jack Marshall wrote, “Corporate donors to the arts should give because they support art, artists and public access to art, not because they endorse or insist on any particular message or artistic vision.” Indeed, it would be foolish to expect any theatre company to intentionally avoid plays or interpretations of plays that would resonate with a contemporary audience. (Disclaimer for those who don’t know Curmie personally: my scholarly interest centers on modern adaptations of inherited, often classical, material. What I do, in other words, is to explore as a scholar precisely the kinds of adaptations and productions the Public and groups like them explore as artists.)

There have also, of course, been expressions of support for the Public: from other sponsors like the New York Times and from the New York City Comptroller, who sent copies of the play to the heads of the two corporations, with a note saying that “Art matters. The First Amendment matters. Expression matters,” and that the companies’ cravenness (Curmie’s word, not his) “undermines the very vibrancy of the cause you chose to support in the first place.”

But if the corporations were running scared without good reason, their pusillanimity pales compared to the National Endowment for the Arts, which is more concerned with covering its own collective ass than in being a legitimate advocate for art or artists. All they could muster was this:
The National Endowment for the Arts makes grants to nonprofit organizations for specific projects. 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. 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.
Way to fight for the cause, guys! Seriously, Curmie has (unsurprisingly) been an advocate for the NEA for years, but if this is how they’re going to act when the heat is on, we might as well do without.

Of course, this is a serious matter. The arts don’t matter to Americans… or, rather, they don’t matter to politicians (especially, but not exclusively, Republicans), and they don’t matter enough to voters to throw the rascals out. This production got nothing from the federal government and about 2/10 of a cent per New York State resident from the state. The NEA receives about 46 cents per American per year. By contrast, even in this era of Tory “austerity,” Arts Council England gets nearly $12 per UK citizen; in Germany it’s over $18.50, over 40 times the American per capita rate... and that's with the Euro at an all-time low relative to the dollar.  The result is that corporate (and foundation) sponsorship is inordinately important here. When corporations support art, it’s a good thing. When they start attaching strings—“you can only do pabulum”—that’s another matter. It isn’t censorship (despite what some lefties might say) but the result is pretty much the same (despite what some on the right would say). You’re not going to be prosecuted for doing this production of Julius Caesar, but remember that you’re getting almost all your funding from corporate sponsorship (remember, the whole idea is free Shakespeare in the Park, so box office isn’t in a position to make up the difference if the suits start thinking they should have approval rights for anything that goes up under their sponsorship).

Curmie knows something about this from having dealt with local businesses who sponsor summer stock or university theatres. He knows what some folks demand for just a couple thousand dollars. Make that a couple million, and the self-entitlement is likely to be thick on the ground.

Still, it is difficult to imagine what is going on in the minds of the execs at Delta and Bank of America. Do they think that theatre is somehow apolitical, when (Curmie would argue) it started as a means of consolidating power for the Athenian tyrant Peisistratus? Surely the political content of everything from The Oresteia to “Master Harold”… and the boys is manifest? Doesn’t every high school student know what The Crucible is really about? Was Tartuffe written in a vacuum?

Indeed, Curmie often uses two Shakespeare plays—Richard III and Macbeth—to illustrate the politics of drama. Question: which was written first? Unless you’re a Shakespeare scholar, you might not know off the top of your head. But how about this: Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, just about the midpoint in of Shakespeare’s career, to be succeeded by James I. Elizabeth loved stories of England’s history; James was Scottish, liked tales of the supernatural, and detested women. The title characters of both plays were actually the villains: Richard is defeated by Elizabeth’s grandfather; James traced his lineage to Banquo who, though murdered by Macbeth’s minions, was nonetheless prophesied to “get [i.e., beget] kings.” So: which play was written first, and when, relative to 1603, were they written? Q.E.D.

Finally, Curmie is obliged to respond to the paranoid delusions of some on the right who proclaim that if a Clinton or Obama were portrayed this way, the liberals would be incensed.  The facts say otherwise.  There was a joint production a few years ago by two of the country’s most prestigious troupes, the Acting Company and the Guthrie Theatre.  Here are snippets from three different reviews:
  • Noah Millman: “Caesar… is a tall, charismatic African-American politician; he doesn’t look or sound much like Obama…, but the audience is unquestionably going to read him as an Obama stand-in nonetheless.”
  • The Morning After arts/entertainment blog: “...Caesar is cast as a tall, lanky black man, the Obama inference is a bit too obvious.”
  • Jay Gabler: “...Bjorn DuPaty cutting an unmistakably Obama-like figure as the eponymous ruler.”  [in all cases here, emphasis mine]
Oh, and the director, Rob Melrose, says that “I think both Oskar [Eustis] and I are doing the same thing, which is, whenever you produce this play, you have to think about who is currently in power. I think when you encourage an audience to think that way, it brings the play into people’s lives in a way that’s palpable.
    There is no doubt that the Public’s production points more unmistakably to the current President than the previous one did to the one then serving, but that is hardly the same as saying that what was so readily apparent to several reviewers of the earlier production was somehow missed by everyone else.  Note, too, that one of the reviews quoted above was published on a site called The American Conservative, and another underscores Mr. Obama’s “[failure] to live up to the Messsianic hype.”  In other words, the authors are anything but Obamaphiles.  Yet neither they nor anyone on the left that Curmie can discover as much as batted an eye at the Acting Company/Guthrie production.  Moreover, such parody (or pastiche?) is either legitimate or it is not.  How some hypothetical audience of some hypothetical production may or may not have behaved (or might behave in the future) hardly seems relevant.

    The idea that plays, or productions of them, are somehow apolitical is patently absurd. Most productions that attempt to move Shakespeare out of period are fraught with peril (and the Public’s Julius Caesar may well an example of this phenomenon), but some (Ian McKellen’s Richard III, for instance) are brilliant. And, as Public Theater Artistic Director Oskar Eustis said in his curtain speech before the official opening:
    ...when we hold the mirror up to nature, often what we reveal are disturbing, upsetting, provoking things. Thank God. That’s our job…. The Public’s mission is to say that that the culture belongs to everybody, needs to belong to everybody, to say that art has something to say about the great civic issues of our time, and to say that, like drama, democracy depends on the conflict of different points of view. Nobody owns the truth. We all own the culture.
    Amen to that.

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