Last Monday passed in something of a shocked haze. No, “shocked” is too strong of a word for it. Perhaps “bemused” or “confounded” would be more accurate. Just the night before, the news had dropped that Delta Airlines was dropping their sponsorship of the Public Theater due to the Public’s production of Julius Caesar as part of their annual free summer Shakespeare in Central Park. Bank of America also dropped their sponsorship of the production, though they did not cut off their sponsorship of the Public entirely.
There has been a lot written about the incident and its implications since then, so I won’t rehash the entire affair. This NYT article gives a concise summary of the chain of events, this NYT article analyzes the production history/context of Julius Caesar, the Daily Beast opines on the wrongheadedness of portraying the production as anti-Trump, and the Public Theater itself has a cogent statement in response, as well as video of the artistic director’s live remarks on opening night.
To deride people for misunderstanding (or having zero awareness, let alone understanding, of) the context and meaning of the imagery within Shakespeare’s play is, at best, unproductive and, at worst, intellectual self-back-patting. However, I also don’t think that the fact that the outrage comes from that specific image (a Trump-like figure being murdered) being divorced from its context (the play proceeds to conclude “oh hey maybe stabbing that dude was not such a good idea” quite unambiguously) is something to be brushed off without comment. What is implied is that the image of this authority figure is so sacred that enacting harm upon it is unforgiveable “bad taste.” This gets rather scarily into “insulting the dignity of the monarchy” and “Dear Supreme Leader” territory for me.
(And that’s not even touching upon the hypocrisy of the lack of outcry against similar imagery using other personages, notably Obama. Or the false equivalence between an image of violence that punches up and an image of violence that punches down with all of the weight of the history of a country in which the mob murder of black men has been a spectator sport.)
(There are also the disquieted ponderings about how this is not technically censorship, but at what point does a body outside of the government have enough power to become a sort of ruler? At what point is deciding for oneself to avoid getting on a ruler’s bad side due to vindictive past behavior on the part of said ruler actually the government’s hand?)
The other aspect I’ve seen discussed less is how the behavior of the corporate sponsors, who are certainly free to do what they want with their money and about whom we should not ever be deceived into thinking care about more than their own profit, demonstrates an understanding of and relationship to art that is superficial, consumerist, and hardly limited to corporations. Sponsors need to decide if they are sponsoring art – the continuous process of creation and subsequent community effect that I believe is vital to a functional society – or if they are buying a product: the theatre production, the painting, the published book. It brings to mind for me the issue of the drawing back from long-term investment in science and innovation. We need to be willing to invest in processes that, in the short-term, may create products that fail.
But more personally…
I was incredibly caught off-guard by the blow-up because I’d actually seen the show and was not particularly impressed.
The cast was strong as a matter of course (John Douglas Thompson is a living legend of classical theatre, as far as I am concerned), and the production values brought no complaint. I simply found it to be un-noteworthy to the extent that the last thing that I expected was a giant controversy and national argument about the value of art.
Was it worth seeing? Yes, I’d say so. Even before this controversy erupted, I would say that this production was effective in translating Shakespeare into something current and accessible. Was it a can’t-miss artistic event of the summer? Naaahhhhhh. I found the means by which the story was made contemporary to be by turns broad, superficial, and distracting. There are issues with how the production treats its traditional women. (Marc Anthony is played by a woman, whose funeral oration is one of the better executed moments, but Calpurnia and Portia don’t fare half as well.) But I do appreciate the civic ideal of free theater for the people that goes all-in with a big idea, even if the execution succeeds at maybe only 70%. I’d much rather see an interesting failure than the safe, polished success of a tiny idea that is intended to have no effect.
Once the surprise settled, however, I found myself still feeling unsettled, in a much more personal, emotional way that, while related to the Constitution and artistic freedom and civic discourse, was based out of something much more instinctual.
You gonna come for me where I live? In my own damn house?!
It’s like that gif of the white guy blinking brought to righteously offended, earrings-coming-off life.
You’re going to go after a play? In New York City? From the Public Theater?
It flashed me back to the January evening when my friends and I were in tech in Hells Kitchen, and we dropped into a bar after work that night… and found ourselves in the middle of a white pride meet-up.
In Hells Kitchen.
(That night was, incidentally, the closest that I’ve ever come to getting into a bar fight. Many thanks again to the friend who must have seen the intention in my eyes and grabbed my arm and dragged me out of there.)
It flashed me back to a few weeks ago, when I accidentally bumped a man with my bag as I was going down the stairs in at the 14th Street subway station. As he turned around, I realized that I must have made contact, so I apologized. He just stared me in the face and spat, “Fucking Chinese bitch.” I repeated my apology with no small amount of incredulity, and he just went on his way, calling “Go back to China!”
In the L station.
But through all of this, as invasive and shocking as these things are, I nevertheless feel a certain sense of gratitude. Because the reason that these things do feel invasive is because I do otherwise feel a sense of ownership. My reaction to incidents like these is not to feel displaced, but rather to feel the urge to defend what is rightfully my own place. This comes not only directly from being fortunate to have had those who have strongly welcomed me to this country, this city, this life, but also indirectly from the support and love that have shaped me to be confident in claiming what is mine.
Not in my backyard, utensils. I live here. And I’m not moving.