Over the weekend the arts community stepped a little too close to the flame of their hatred for President Trump. They got singed, and by Sunday night they were backing away, looking confused and hurt.
The New York theater scene is so far left that it makes Hollywood look like the Chamber of Commerce. Picture a culture in which Sean Penn would come across as unremarkable and you’ll have some idea. The single most beloved and respected person in New York theater right now — Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator and star of Hamilton — isn’t remotely controversial in New York theater. Yet he publicly celebrated the release from prison of the Marxist-Leninist terrorist Oscar López Rivera, saying he was “sobbing with gratitude.” Oskar Eustis, the theater director whose stature in his community is comparable to Quentin Tarantino’s in film, chats amiably in interviews about being raised by Communists and describes himself as a “recovering Marxist.”
Marx, meet the marketplace. Two corporate sponsors have fled Eustis’s staging of the current Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar because of its undisguised Trump trolling. Before suffering multiple simultaneous perforation in a bloody spectacle, the doomed Roman looks and sounds like Donald Trump, right down to the curious yellow thatch of hair and the too-long tie. Eustis even has Donald J. Caesar make a joke about murder on Fifth Avenue, in case costuming his raucous fans in MAGA caps and American-flag shirts had left any doubt about Eustis’s intentions. Delta Airlines was not amused. “The graphic staging of Julius Caesar at this summer’s Free Shakespeare in the Park does not reflect Delta Air Lines’ values,” the carrier said in a statement, adding that Eustis’s “artistic and creative direction crossed the line on the standards of good taste.”
Delta is not only backing out of this production, it is terminating its role as the official airline of the Public Theater, which mounts the Shakespeare in the Park plays. Bank of America also withdrew, albeit only from this production, saying the staging was obviously intended to “provoke and offend” and adding that the bank would not have sponsored such an interpretation had it known about it. Other sponsors include Penguin Random House, the billboard giant Outfront, and the local ABC affiliate, which is owned by Disney.
Eustis’s conception probably struck him as no more than routine leftist theater shenanigans. But Shakespeare in the Park isn’t some scruffy off-off-Broadway church-basement offering. It’s one of the city’s cultural crown jewels, magnificently nestled in the idyllic confines of the beautiful, 1,800-seat Delacorte Theater, and its cachet attracts rich corporate-sponsorship deals. Yet corporations don’t want to alienate half their customers, much less be associated with murdering presidents in effigy. Eustis today must be realizing, like Kathy Griffin before him, that he went too far. That wouldn’t matter if revolutionaries didn’t have to eat, too. Being a daring, subversive Marxist is one thing but annoying Delta Airlines is quite another.
For sponsors of the Shakespeare in the Park festival to yank funding over artistic differences is extremely unusual, maybe even unprecedented. The arts community has at last discovered the limits of its leash, and found itself harshly snapped back.
The emerging cultural rule seems clear enough: Oppose the president if you wish, but avoid violent imagery, even in jest, and you don’t get a pass if you launder your murder fantasies through Shakespeare. Showing the president’s head cut off, or having him stabbed on stage every night, isn’t going to be condoned by corporate America. The Public Theater, which produces the Shakespeare in the Park plays, has been suddenly reminded that it receives city, state, and federal grants. Take public money and you’re answerable to the public. (The National Endowment stresses that it didn’t support this particular production but continues to support the Public Theater, a distinction that may not impress you given that the director of Julius Caesar and the artistic director of the Public Theater are the same person.)
So subdued was the theater world as the news about Delta spread that Sunday night’s Tony awards turned out to be almost completely Trump-free.
So subdued was the theater world as the news about Delta spread that Sunday night’s Tony awards turned out to be almost completely Trump-free. The evening was notably short on impassioned pleas, i.e., shrill grandstanding. What jokes were directed at Trump were few and mostly mild and there were even a couple of moments of (arguably) pro-Trump humor. The host, Kevin Spacey, mentioned the longtime voice of CNN, James Earl Jones, who received an honorary award, as “the most trusted name in fake news,” then later did a bit in character as Bill Clinton in which he mocked Hillary Clinton’s e-mail debacle. When Stephen Colbert appeared late in the show, to bestow the award for best musical revival, he awkwardly tried to segue into a contrived bit about Trump’s supposedly being a revival act, was rewarded with groans when he made a lame joke about the beauty pageant in Miss Saigon being the only one “whose dressing room our president has not walked in on,” and shot back, peevishly, “A lot of Trump fans here tonight!” You know your anti-Trump shtick is failing when a room consisting of 5,000 liberal Democrats doesn’t bite.
The evening was refreshingly apolitical compared with the Golden Globes and the Oscars last winter. Perhaps time is calming the kulturkampf platoons; maybe outrage fatigue has set in and the “luvvies” (as showbiz folk are derisively known in London) have resigned themselves to the reality of Trump’s presidency. In addition to that, though, I suspect a more practical motive. Hollywood is almost entirely privately funded. Not so theater. In accepting his Tony last night, Kevin Kline politely and without rancor to Trump saluted the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities, “without whom,” he added, “half the people in this room probably would not be here.”
President Trump is the first president who could conceivably zero out funding for the NEA or the NEH. Which is more important for the luvvie resistance — fighting the power or keeping the checks coming?
— Kyle Smith is National Review Online’s critic-at-large.