The Public Theater’s free production of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, which came under fire for its bloody assassination of a leader resembling President Donald Trump, officially opened at New York’s Delacorte Theater in Central Park Monday night after three weeks of previews with an impassioned speech from director Oskar Eustis on the importance of art and the true messages of the play.
His speech came as sponsors Delta Air Lines and Bank of America pulled their funding for the Public Theater, criticizing the bloody nature of the show — which is the first of the theater’s two Shakespeare in the Park offerings this summer.
Eustis, who is also the Public Theater’s artistic director, offered no apologies on Monday night as he patiently walked the opening night audience — including actress Amber Tamblyn — through the play’s themes and its attitude toward violence.
“Anybody who watches this play tonight—and I’m sorry, there’s going to be a couple of spoiler alerts here—but will know that neither Shakespeare nor the Public Theater could possibly advocate violence as a solution to political problems, and certainly not assassination,” he said in a video tweeted by Tamblyn. “This play, on the contrary, warns about what happens when you try to preserve democracy by non-democratic means, and again, spoiler alert: It doesn’t end up too good.”
In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the Roman politician is assassinated because members of his government feared he had grown too powerful. The Public’s production cast Scandal actor Gregg Henry in the title role — costuming him in a suit and long tie instead of a toga, and giving his wife Calpurnia (Brotherhood star Tina Benko) a Melania Trump-makeover, Slavic accent and all.
Delta Air Lines previously sponsored a production of Julius Caesar at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater in 2012, which portrayed the title character as a black politician resembling then-President Barack Obama, BroadwayWorld reported. That production, which also ended in Julius Caesar’s death, was not protested.
Explaining how the theater tries “to hold a mirror up to nature” and how that “when we hold the mirror up to nature, often what we reveal are disturbing, upsetting, provoking things,” Eustis remained firm that the anger coming the show’s way was misdirected.
He ended by stressing that art doesn’t just express one political point of view. “The Public’s mission is to say that the culture belongs to everybody, needs to belong to everybody,” Eustis said. “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.
“At the same time, 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,” he continued. “This warning is a warning that’s in this show, and we’re really happy to be playing that story for you tonight.”
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On Sunday, the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., tweeted about the controversy, asking, “how much of this “art” is funded by taxpayers? Serious question, when does ‘art’ become political speech & does that change things?”
Middle son Eric Trump tweeted Monday after Delta and BoA pulled their sponsorship, calling it ” the right thing to do.”
Their protest was met with a statement from The Public standing by the show, tweeting that they will “continue to be guided by [their] values of openness, inclusion, and the conviction that in drama and democracy alike, the clash of opposing views leads to truth.”