Have the Cowardly CEOs Who Pulled Their Corporate Sponsorships of 'Julius Caesar' Actually Read the Play?

In one day, Delta and Bank of America both dropped their sponsorship of the Public Theater’s rendition of “Julius Caesar” and its depiction of a very Trump-esque Caesar who is—spoiler alert—assassinated during the course of the production. Pressure is growing for other sponsors, including American Express and the New York Times to join them. As figureheads from dueling factions each try to rally the masses for their purposes—one in support of free artistic expression and against censorship, another admonishing on the limits of political satire—the fallout raises a more decisive question: Do these CEOs even know or understand Shakespeare?

Owing primarily to our erratic weather patterns, and the uncertain prospect of a too-cold, rained-out show on Tuesday, June 6, I was lucky enough to score tickets to the show without the lengthy wait in line—only the second time I have had the privilege of seeing Shakespeare in the Park during my eight years in New York. When I entered the theater, the set laden with modern protest iconography intrigued me outright, but my years of work in Manhattan’s human rights and social justice arena tempered my intrigue with caution over the possibility of a too-topical rendition that might fail to properly do justice to the source material or the current political inspiration. So when a highly Trump-esque Caesar appeared on stage, I admit, I was perversely delighted but also nervous—would the proper balance be struck?

To preserve artistic integrity, director Oskar Eustis made it a point to keep all original text intact, save for one choice line about “Fifth Avenue”; the actors’ considerable talents further enabled them to weave the modern themes into the classic text without any jarring impositions. Of course, the parallels between a 2,000-year-old Roman state and our political system today are understandably imperfect, and the superimposition of one onto the other was not attempted in lock-step.

Still, from an activist perspective, force-fitting the Trump vs. Resistance narrative onto a story that is actually about dueling factions in the ruling elite each trying to co-opt the anger of the masses, creates some issues. The imagery of an all people-of-color faction in the senate orchestrating a violent murder and overthrow, and only seeking the support of Corey Stoll's white Brutus to legitimize their plans is an uneasy image to process. The use of the chants of current popular protest movements like “Tell me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!” in support of the conspirators is also a bit discomfiting. Remember that this women- and minority-led rebellion against Trump-Caesar must ultimately fail against Elizabeth Marvel’s loyal Marc Antony and an Octavius who bears a resemblance to Jared Kushner, replete with tailored suit and military flak jacket. 

One would think that the most incensed Trump supporters would be pleased that the Resistance gets its comeuppance; that the specter of the overthrown Trump-Caesar haunts the conspirators to their graves; and that Caesar's allies ultimately emerge victorious and vindicated. As director Eustis said, “anyone seeing our production of ‘Julius Caesar’ will realize it in no way advocates violence towards anyone.” To state more plainly, anyone who knows Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” knows that it offers strong caution, not encouragement, about overthrowing a so-called tyrant, lest we become what we seek to displace.

In plain readings, or most faithful reproductions of “Julius Caesar,” it is easy to root for Mark Antony, especially after his stirring oration to the Roman public. What the Public Theater’s version allows for, is to pull in the audience, with its entrenched opinions about our real-life political theater, and force them to reinvent their conceptions and biases in the world of a political battle that has no clear good or evil, no heroes or villains. It would not be farfetched to imagine President Trump himself enjoying the production, both for its satirical value as well as for his character’s ultimate vindication and the failure of Caesar’s political rivals. 

This "Julius Caesar" is, at worst, an equal-opportunity offender, but more than that, it is a thought-provoking piece of topical theater. That right-wing news sources have spurred their viewers to actions over one scene implies that the crux of the play, and all its moral ambiguity and nuance can be boiled down to the one early scene—that couldn’t be further from the truth in this play, or in any of Shakespeare’s works. That two of the Public Theater’s corporate sponsors have already stated or implied that the production goes “too far” is an affront to the symbolic value of the performing arts, which do not offer literal prescriptions. 

The value of actually knowing the works of Shakespeare, and "Julius Caesar's" vital perspectives about rash actions and mob mentalities become, ironically, all the more important in the boiling down of this controversy. It seems Delta's Ed Bastion, and Bank of America's Brian T. Moynihan let their judgment flee to "brutish beasts," rather than allow themselves to realize that in "Julius Caesar" we are asked to complicate simplistic notions of political good and evil, not reaffirm them. Such simplicity is, to quote a familiar refrain from our own embattled Caesar, "Sad!"


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