by John Ellis
The New York City Public Theatre’s famed Shakespeare in the Park finds itself embroiled in controversy over its production of Julius Caesar. Utilizing a contemporary setting, the theatre obviously intends for the audience to see President Donald Trump as Julius Caesar, or vice-versa. From the red tie, blue suit, penchant for tweeting, and the iconic “Donald hair,” the Public Theatre is making a not-intended-to-be-subtle statement with the portrayal of the character Julius Caesar. If you’re familiar with the play, you then know that Trump/Caesar is assassinated in Act 3 scene 1. For the record, I’m quite confident that the statement the production team is trying to make is not that President Donald Trump should be assassinated. More than likely, the statement revolves around things like authoritarianism and political violence.
That’s not to say that I find the artistic choice to be particularly poignant, deft, or tasteful. In fact, and having spent quite a bit of time around theatre artists, it feels boorish, bromidic, and reeks of the childish desire to flaunt a specific political ideology in the faces of the public at the expense of the story. Add in the fact that I am rarely a fan of any contemporary staging of Shakespeare, and I have zero desire to see the production, even though the tickets are free. That doesn’t mean that I want the production shuttered by the authorities, the director censored, and the Public Theatre branded with the first letter of whatever GOP sin they transgressed. I simply won’t be going. Alternatively, though, many professing conservatives are outraged over the production and the assassination scene in particular and do want The Public Theatre placed in the 21st century’s version of the stocks by the authorities.
Conservative websites and media outlets are calling the staging “particularly graphic” and are quick to point out that in the production Caesar is “brutally stabbed to death by women and minorities.” Both Bank of America and Delta Airlines have canceled their corporate sponsorships of the production; no doubt, more will follow. I’ve seen tweets, blog posts, and articles demanding government intervention to put a halt to the production.
As a conservative who once worked in the theatre, I have a few thoughts.
For starters, considering the enormity of the uproar over Kathy Griffin’s recent stunt and the negative ramifications being suffered by the comedienne, I can’t figure out what director Oskar Eustis was thinking. Actually, scratch that, I do know what director Oskar Eustis was thinking.
As a theatre artist who undoubtedly identifies as a progressive, he faced down the almost-sure-prospect of violent backlash and stood firm in his role as an artist and didn’t surrender his voice to the mob. For that, I applaud him.
Don’t misunderstand, I find the choice disrespectful, both to the office of the President and to Shakespeare. However, and that aside, not only do I support Eustis’ right to express his artistic voice in the manner in which he believes best serves his vision as a theatre artist/director, I also unequivocally defend his right to do so. I defend it as a conservative and as an individual who still loves the theatre. (By the way, if you want to read a glowing review of a “President Obama-themed” production of Julius Caesar, click here.)
Societies that allow artists to freely express their opinions through the uncensored making of their art are inevitably going to see lines crossed and people offended. As a conservative Christian, I’m frequently offended by pop culture. And as a general rule, I don’t engage the pop culture that offends me. However, and I can’t state this firmly enough, outside of the invisible hand of the free market, I do not want artists to be silenced and/or punished for expressing viewpoints that I find offensive, even if those viewpoints are presented in a manner that I find offensive.
I get that the left is afraid of free thought. Suppressing threatening ideas has become the de rigueur of progressivism. The cultural orthodoxy must not be challenged, after all; the god named identity politics demands the sacrifice of freedom of expression. Think safe spaces. And the left’s increasingly successful onslaught against the once solid bulwark of freedom of expression is scary enough. Add in that professing conservatives are engaged in the attack too, and I struggle with an unhealthy pessimism about our society’s ability to survive for much longer.
If we can’t broach any disagreement, we’re not far from totalitarianism. Truth can always withstand the onslaught of untruth, as long as society protects freedom of expression. We have no reason to fear the free expression of untruth. Sadly, professing conservatives of today are more concerned with the postmodern pursuit of pleasure and comfort than they are in truth. Both sides seemingly now want a dictatorship of their own making. Ultimately, though, once we eagerly enshrine a dictator, it won’t be long before we realize that it doesn’t really matter whether the dictator came from our tribe or not. Dictator is as dictator does.
One of our best weapons against totalitarianism is the ability to freely dissent through the artistic expression of ideas, no matter how abhorrent broader society finds the expression of those ideas. This is why the quickness with which my tribe grabbed pitchforks and torches over the Kathy Griffin photo is disturbing. Conservatives are rightly calling out the suppression of freedom of expression by the leftists on college campuses. It’s dangerously hypocritical to become angry over the terrorism of the left that’s enacted on conservatives (think Charles Murray, Ann Coulter, and Ben Shapiro) and then turn around and do the same thing to liberal provocateurs.
Of course, the rejoinder from many conservatives will be that The Public Theatre is funded with public moneys. Except, as I’ve already pointed out in footnote 3, it really isn’t. Even if it were, though, even if The Public Theatre received 100% of its funding from the federal government, that wouldn’t justify any attempted silencing by partisan groups.
If as a society we are going to use tax dollars to subsidize art (which I’m opposed to), then that art is most definitely protected by the first amendment. According to our country’s ruling document, the federal government cannot “[abridge] the freedom of speech.” CanNOT. The federal government cannot tell The Public Theatre how to stage their production of Julius Caesar. To be clear, the federal government can’t tell The Public Theatre how to stage their production of Julius Caesar to begin with.
Yes, I understand that it’s a violation federal law to threaten the POTUS, and I understand why that law is a good and just law. But, come one, let’s be honest, neither Kathy Griffin nor The Public Theatre threatened President Trump. Even if you were simply to move from their artistic expressions to holding them culpable for the demented actions of others who’ve misunderstood their artistic expressions, you’re on a slippery slope. Think of it this way, if we (conservatives) can silence liberal artists because we don’t like their grotesque imagery of President Trump, then they (liberals) can silence conservative Christian pastors who preach the truth of God’s Word that same-sex relationships are a violation of God’s holy standard. Liberals can lean on the vague and mostly unprovable contention that it’s hate speech that incites violence. Attacking and weakening freedom of expression is a double-edged sword that will always swing back the other way.
Conservatives need to back away from the “un”thinking that is often the hallmark of entrenched tribalism. If The Public Theatre’s staging of Julius Caesar offends you, don’t go. Write a blog post about how you’re not going to go. If you’re a business owner who provides grants to artistic organizations, withhold your money from The Public Theatre. But, do not demand that the federal government intervene. Remember, what goes around comes around. To continue to prosper and flourish, our society needs the free exchange of ideas, no matter how much we may dislike the ideas being presented.
 In my experience, artists have a greater martyr complex than do evangelicals. As a general rule, artists aren’t happy unless they’re being oppressed.
 Not that I was going to go anyway.
 An irony in all this is that Shakespeare in the Park receives zero federal tax dollars. It’s almost entirely funded by private donations with a small percentage of the funding coming from the State of New York.
 Not to mention that by the time of the Griffin photo, the play had already been blocked. In fact, Equity rules may not have allowed the production to reblock and recostume even if the production team had wanted to. I don’t know, I haven’t checked the timeline, nor have I kept up with Equity’s rules.
 Truth will also always outlive society’s suppression of it. See the growth of Christianity in China, for example.
 To be clear, I find Ann Coulter disgusting, and I am not a fan of Ben Shapiro, to say the least.
 As if often pointed out, people sometimes incorrectly apply the first amendment to situations which the first amendment has nothing to say. For example, if a NFL owner doesn’t want to hire a quarterback because he doesn’t like the fact that the quarterback kneels during the national anthem, he is free to not hire that quarterback. Through his actions, the NFL owner is also freely expressing his thoughts. The government cannot compel that owner to hire the quarterback. On the flipside, if you as the fan agree with the quarterback, you are free to express your thoughts by refusing to patronize the NFL team or the NFL in general. The first amendment does not protect any of the parties involved from all ramifications of their expressions of thought. In the larger picture, though, society as a whole has jettisoned freedom of expression as a larger ideology. That’s what some people are referring to when they reference the first amendment. Their inarticulate use of the Bill of Rights doesn’t undermine their valid point, though. We need to learn to discern the difference between the two uses of the first amendment in arguments.
 Specifically, liberals can claim that those preachers are inciting people to enact violence against Presidents who affirm same-sex relationships.