How Outrage Built Over a Shakespearean Depiction of Trump

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But the production is also explicit and graphic, featuring a blond, Trump-like Caesar in a red tie, whose bloody stabbing is seen as offensive and inappropriate to some who have seen it. They, along with Breitbart News and Fox News, have driven a campaign on social media against the Public that has prompted two corporate sponsors — Delta Air Lines and Bank of America — to withdraw their support of the production, and a third, American Express, to distance itself.

“It was appalling,” Laura Sheaffer said in a radio interview. “Shocking.”

Ms. Sheaffer, a sales manager for Salem Media, a conservative-leaning media group, saw a performance on June 3. Three days later she described her dismay over the production in a conversation with the conservative radio host and comedian, Joe Piscopo, then voiced her concern again to the media and politics site Mediaite, declaring “I don’t love President Trump, but he’s the president. You can’t assassinate him on a stage.” Mediaite made the most of the story, posting it with the headline “Senators Stab Trump to Death in Central Park Performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.”

The reaction from the artistic community could not have been more different. “It’s an odd reading to say that it incites violence, because the meat of the tragedy of the play is the tragic repercussions of the assassination,” said Bill Rauch, the artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which is presenting a “Julius Caesar” throughout this year. “The play could not be clearer about the disastrous effects of violence.”

Still, the wheels of conservative media — as well as some other outlets — were already in motion. Breitbart and The Blaze jumped in, citing Ms. Sheaffer, along with Newsbusters, a conservative media watchdog. Television’s “Inside Edition” quoted an unidentified audience member on camera saying, “I didn’t like that they made this person who looks like Trump get assassinated.”

On Sunday, “Fox and Friends,” the Trump-friendly morning show on Fox News, gave the outrage its largest platform, running multiple segments on the story. “Notice, nobody has a problem with it on the left,” said Pete Hegseth, a “Fox and Friends” host who appeared with Mr. Trump during his presidential campaign. “Nobody seems to care. It’s only us talking about it.”

That got the attention of one of the president’s sons, Donald Trump Jr., who mused : “I wonder how much of this ‘art’ is funded by taxpayers? Serious question, when does ‘art’ become political speech & does that change things?”

That prompted the National Endowment for the Arts, whose funding had been threatened by the Trump administration, to issue denying any financial connection to the production. By Monday, the N.E.A. website had a pop-up disclaimer reading “No taxpayer dollars support ’s production of Julius Caesar.”

The City of New York, by contrast, is sticking with the Public, which it supports financially.

“Threatening funding for a group based on an artistic decision amounts to censorship,” said Tom Finkelpearl, the city’s commissioner of cultural affairs. “We don’t interfere with the content created by nonprofits that receive public support — period.”

The Public has been in a defensive crouch, answering questions only by written statements. Numerous trustees contacted on Monday declined to comment, saying that the theater had asked them not to speak.

The board members play no role in approving the theater’s programming or production choices, but many are on the board because they endorse the artistically risky programming associated with the Public.

On opening night, several prominent artists reiterated their commitment to the theater. Alec Baldwin, the foremost pop culture interpreter of Mr. Trump on “Saturday night Live,” said that supporters of the Public need to make up the lost funding. “I called up Eustis and said let’s get a bunch of people together and fill in that hole — get some people who want to raise that gap,” Mr. Baldwin said.

Shakespeare in the Park costs about $3 million a year to run; the Public would not specify where that money comes from, but Bank of America has been the program’s “lead corporate sponsor” for the last 11 years. And runs are limited; the last performance of “Julius Caesar” is scheduled for Sunday.

“We stand completely behind our production of ‘Julius Caesar,’” Mr. Eustis said in an email to the theater’s supporters Monday afternoon, after a day of meetings about the controversy. “We recognize that our interpretation of the play has provoked heated discussion; audiences, sponsors and supporters have expressed varying viewpoints and opinions. Such discussion is exactly the goal of our civically engaged theater; this discourse is the basis of a healthy democracy.”

Mr. Eustis added: “Our production of ‘Julius Caesar’ 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 thing they are fighting to save. For over 400 years, Shakespeare’s play has told this story and we are proud to be telling it again in Central Park.”

And, even as some corporations backed away, other key donors, and the artistic community, remained supportive.

“It’s an upsetting play, but if there’s a production of ‘Julius Caesar’ that doesn’t upset you, you’re sitting through a very bad production,” said Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. “It’s clear that the corporate sponsors who pulled out are just being cowardly and caving in to a lot of cranky right-wing people because Breitbart and Fox News told them to.”

Jennifer Goodale, a program director at the Jerome L. Greene Foundation, which gave $250,000 to support the program this summer and was described by the Public as the program’s “lead foundation sponsor,” said that her foundation would continue to back Shakespeare in the Park.

“Theater provokes a discourse, and we accept that — not every theater piece can please everybody,” she said.

The New York Times, which has sponsored Shakespeare in the Park for 20 years, is also continuing to back the program. The company’s contributions are in-kind, not monetary, according to a spokeswoman.

Ms. Sheaffer, whose impromptu stage review helped kick off the controversy, said on Monday she had no regrets about challenging the Public. “I grieve for the theater, but the reality is there has to be consequences,” she said.

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