Here is the controversy du jour:
New York’s Public Theater lost support from two high-profile corporate donors, Delta Air Lines and Bank of America, on Sunday amid intense criticism of its production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” which depicts the assassination of a Trump-like Roman ruler.
“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,” the company said in a statement on Sunday night.
“Their artistic and creative direction crossed the line on the standards of good taste,” the company said. “We have notified them of our decision to end our sponsorship as the official airline of the Public Theater effective immediately.”
Smart folks are snickering at this decision. “Julius Caesar” is clearly an anti-assassination play, they say, as anybody who’s read the play or seen it performed fully will know.
To paraphrase Shakespeare: The pundits do protest too much.
Yes, Julius Caesar is a play that ultimately delivers an anti-assassination message. Guess what? “Reefer Madness” is a movie that delivers an anti-pot message, but it’s enduring popularity … well, let’s just say its most enthusiastic viewers may not be taking “Reefer’s” prohibitionist message to heart.
There are a million examples in the history of art of wrapping spectacle in an “eat your Wheaties message” for the sheer sake of delivering spectacle. This way of telling a story reached real heights during Hollywood’s Golden Age, when the Hays Code required that movies ultimately have uplifting moral messages. As long as Jimmy Cagney converts in the last five minutes, he can slaughter as many gangsters as he wants during the preceding 90. Hypocrisy, they say, is the tribute vice pays to virtue. Put it on stage, though, and it can be beautiful, even stirring.
Which is to say: If you think the Shakespeare in the Park folks might be trying to intentionally provoke and provide a little bit of anti-Trump spectacle by figuratively murdering him every night for a few nights before thousands of onlookers — well, let’s says you might have a deeper understanding of how art sometimes works than what you’re being credited with by the Chris Hayses of the world.
One can understand the play and still think those involved thought it might be a thrill to depict Donald Trump being shredded by knives. *
*Or Gregg Henry, who plays Caesar. He always plays a great villain. Would love to see him in this.
Understand, I’m not getting into the ethics of “fake Nazi punching” or whatever we want to call this. I’m getting into the ethics of “insulting the public’s intelligence.” Liberals are acting smug because they understand literature better, they think, conservatives are mad — rightly — to be treated like rubes, and, well, round and round we go.
If we’re going to have the catharsis of watching Trump torn apart every night, let’s be honest. Let’s own it. But let’s not tell people they’re dumb when they can see pretty well what’s probably going on here.
See you at the theater!