The Public Theater’s controversial interpretation of Julius Caesar opened in Central Park last night as part of the theater’s annual, free Shakespeare in the Park festival. In a speech to the audience, the theater’s artistic director Oskar Eustis delivered a rebuke to his critics and a testament to the clear importance of the play’s message.
Over the weekend, Bank of America and Delta Airlines pulled their sponsorships of the show because the production’s titular character is modeled after Donald Trump, and gets killed. Even though, throughout the play’s 400-year-old history, Julius Caesar always ends up getting stabbed to death (even when portrayed as Barack Obama), people were simply horrified that this version of Caesar met the same fate. The National Endowment for the Arts also freaked out, scrambling to clarify that it had nothing to do with the production.
Of course, when these companies pulled their support from the Public, they also abandoned an annual tradition that allows lower-income people to be a part of theater, all because our president is a fragile baby who must be swaddled at the cost of art and those who aren’t immensely privileged. Clearly, political and accessible theater is more important than ever before, as Eustis said in his speech.
After giving a painfully unnecessary but probably legally smart explanation that the Public Theater does not actually condone violence as a political solution, Eustis explained that Julius Caesar warns about “what happens when you try to preserve democracy by non-democratic means.”
“Spoiler alert,” Eustis said, “it doesn’t end up too good. But at the same, one of the dangers that is unleashed by that is the danger of a large crowd of people manipulated by their emotions taken over by leaders who urge them to do things that not only are against their interest, but destroy the very institutions that are there to serve and protect them.”
Eustis went on to declare that the Public Theater’s mission is to say that “the culture 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,” Eustis said. “We all own the culture.”