Protesting Shakespeare in Central Park
Reflections on the Meaning of Anti-theatrical Controversy
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar, one that featured a Donald Trump lookalike. The assassination of Caesar, a key moral turning point in the play, prompted repeated right-wing protests until the production closed on June 19. Almost every prominent Shakespeare scholar in the country has been interviewed by one news outlet or another, and each one has agreed with the Public Theater’s Artistic Director Oskar Eustis, that the play “in no way advocates violence toward 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 things they are fighting to save.”
But the protesters didn’t care. The question is why — and what can we learn from this episode?
I wish we lived in a world where nuanced, scholarly accounts mattered to a larger cultural conversation. However, I think one of the most important points about this latest eruption of anti-theatrical outrage has been either missed or given short shrift: the right wing media who produced and promoted this controversy don’t care about what Shakespeare intended to convey in this tragic play, nor are they interested in its many complexities. The particulars of any one representation or production that are so important to humanists are practically beside the point for those on the attack, except insofar as they might be used to mobilize an assault on the theater into a rallying cry for their constituencies. Nothing underlines this more graphically than the fact that similar attacks were launched on a Shakespeare company in Dallas later in the month, one that was staging The Merry Wives of Windsor.
I have written about attacks on the theater as they took shape over more than three centuries in Great Britain and the United States, and it is almost always the case that they have a tendency to erupt when the very fate of a body politic is perceived to be very much at stake. In fact, the spread of an anti-theatrical controversy beyond the original site of protest is a barometer for measuring national crisis. What I have termed “body publics” — dynamic amalgams of groups and individuals organized around postures of dominion and influence — compete for hegemonic control over the political, social, and cultural scene at such moments. Whether we are talking about the rise of English Puritanism in 1630s; the outrage of those who refused to accept the political and religious settlements of the Glorious Revolution in England in the 1690s; the effort launched by religious leaders to tip the nation into a rebirth of religiosity in the aftermath of the deadly theater fire in Richmond, Virginia in 1811, or the Astor Place Riot in 1849, anti-theatrical protest arises less from concerns about the nature of the production itself than from an underlying desire to forward a certain set of political and ideological objectives.
Print media and pamphlet wars were used in earlier periods to foment anti-theatrical controversies; similar messages are now amplified across news programs and social media. There is also a long tradition of indifference to the script or production. Notoriously, William Prynne’s thousand-plus page tome Histrio-Mastix (1633) mentions no more than a few plays and then only in marginal references. Similarly, Fox News, Breitbart News, and other conservative sites were not interested in an actual debate about the meaning of Julius Caesar, nor were their audiences. As has been widely reported, very few of the people who were so vehemently outraged had actually seen the show and it seems that most have not read play. The goal was to focus on an incendiary tidbit — the assassination onstage of a Trump-like Caesar — to fuel the flames among the so called “base.” Notably, the right wing media paid no attention to a 2012 Guthrie production of Julius Caesar in Minneapolis that featured an Obama-like Caesar, because it didn’t suit their political purpose in the way that a Trump-like Caesar does. Delta Airlines, which sponsored the Guthrie’s production, pulled its sponsorship of the Public Theater’s Julius Caesar.
Does anti-theatrical protest damage democracy? Does it harm principles of free speech and the free exchange of ideas? These are conversations worth having: theatrical spaces are important public places for the rehearsal and analysis of cultural conflict. But we should be mindful of how such controversies are not just about culture: they are operating instrumentally at a broader and deeper political level as a way to rally a body public. In just this way, the attacks on the NEA4 in the 1990s were used by figures such as the Reverend Pat Robertson, who leveraged the controversy to expand membership in his Christian Coalition. Like these prior figures, which broadcast their message in radio and television, when Donald Trump Jr. tweeted about whether the American taxpayer supports The Public Theater, he invoked a very particular notion of who those injured taxpayers are. They are not supporters of the arts, queers, or people of color; such persons are occluded as taxpayers in these moments. The only taxpayers he is validating are those who elected his father.
So, what do you need to do at such a moment if you are a supporter of the arts, free speech, and independent judgment — all the hallmarks of a robust democracy? Make yourself visible, not just as a taxpayer, but as a member of a competing body public that stands in resistance to all that the Trump administration represents. Call sponsors that withdraw their support and let them know that you support the Public Theater. And be clear about what this protest is really about and what is at stake.
Because it is most definitely not about what Julius Caesar really means.
Lisa A. Freeman is Professor and Head of the Department of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago.