Julius Caesar Production Closes, But Debate Over Art And Politics Likely to Rage On
Conservatives won't have Julius Caesar to kick around anymore.
The latest production in the Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park series is closing Sunday — presumably bringing an end to demonstrations outside of the Delacorte Theater but unlikely to quell the raging debates over exactly whom is entitled to free speech, under what circumstances and over the limits of artistic expression. Those debates are not likely to subside, especially as the appetite for creative works tackling an array of political themes continues to grow.
Protests against the Shakespearean production escalated online and provided hours of talk radio and cable news fodder over the past week, but they reached a fever pitch in real life during Friday night's performance when one woman rushed the stage just after the third act's assassination scene and another man stood in the audience shouting at the actors and other theatergoers for supporting the show.
Laura Loomer — it is unclear if that is her real name — recorded her short outburst and later posted the video online, the New York Times reported. In it she is heard yelling, "Stop the normalization of political violence against the right," and "This is violence against Donald Trump!"
The actors on stage stopped the performance as Loomer was escorted out of the theater. However, at the same time security was maneuvering her off the stage, Loomer's protest partner, an unnamed man, began invoking Nazi propagandist, Joseph Goebbels. "You are all Goebbels! Goebbels would be proud!" he screamed over and over.
"It was really confusing," Amanda Fuller told NPR. Fuller and her husband Chris, attended the Friday night performance.
"A big part of the production was blurring the lines between the performers and the audience so we weren't sure if it was part of the performance or not," he said.
When the action on stage resumed — with the lines "liberty and freedom" — "the whole audience burst into applause and stood up a full standing ovation for about 30 seconds. It was really powerful," she added.
The sudden eruption of outrage by conservatives is over the play's depiction of the slaying of the title character — cast and costumed to resemble President Donald Trump. They also complain that the scene during which several senators take a turn at stabbing Caesar, and which Shakespeare is believed to have written in 1599, is especially bloody. (In 2012, according to the New York Times, another American production of the play depicted Caesar as President Barack Obama.)
As a result of public outcry, after three weeks of a controversy-free run, two of the Public Theater's corporate backers — Bank of America and Delta Air Lines — yanked their sponsorship of the show. Delta issued a statement saying the show's "artistic and creative direction crossed the line on the standards of good taste."
Anger over the production took on new life after the shooting rampage by a lone gunman in Alexandria, Va., Wednesday that left House Majority Whip Steve Scalise in serious condition as of Saturday and four others shot and wounded. Following the baseball field shooting, some conservatives argued that the play's graphic images of the president being murdered and the photo of Kathy Griffin holding up the severed head resembling Trump that circulated on the Internet in May both serve to stoke hatred and violence from the left toward Republicans.
But — bad taste or not — in this time of hyper-partisanship, the public appears to have an insatiable appetite for politically themed material. And it's not limited to fiction.
The semi-contemporary classic ode to journalism All the President's Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, which chronicles the Washington Post's Watergate investigation, is experiencing a revival. Book sales are on the rise and the LA Times this week reported that it may get a made-for-TV makeover. Additionally, there may even be a TV or film version of the duo's sequel, The Final Days, which recounts the days inside the White House leading up to President Richard Nixon's resignation.
As of Sunday, two of the 10 most read nonfiction books on Amazon — Al Franken's Giant of the Senate and J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy — touch on the political climate of the day, while The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood is the most read fiction book and the second most sold fiction book on the site. Atwood's fable is set in a fictionalized United States ruled by a mono-theocratic government that has stripped women of their civil rights. And the Hulu adaptation of the novel became a smash hit for the video streaming service.
A stage production of George Orwell's dystopian classic 1984, about a man charged with creating fake news as an employee of the Ministry of Truth, is in previews before it opens in New York City on June 22.
"It's quite something to bring it to New York now, in this political climate," Duncan Macmillan, who co-authored and co-directed the Broadway adaptation, told NPR.
During a preview performance on the same day President Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, the audience became raucous.
"[It] was like a sort of volatile town hall meeting. People were shouting out 'resist!' People were arguing with characters and applauding certain sentiments," Macmillan recalled.
The play debuted in London in 2014 and was both a critical and financial success.
Book sales have also soared in recent months, triggered in part by Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, who in a televised interview uttered the now infamous "alternative facts" phrase.
In a New York Times interview, Macmillan explained the urgency behind the Broadway production. "I think the feeling was, we have to do it now," he said. "If we don't, we'll miss our chance."
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.