The Corner

Culture

Thoughts on that Shakespeare in the Park Controversy

Much has been made of the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar, in which a Trump-like Roman tyrant is murdered by a mob of women and minorities.

Two thoughts about that:

One: I reiterate my recommendation of James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough as the most enlightening book about modern politics that is not a book about modern politics. If you are going to make the presidency into a priest-king cult, then you are going to have ritualistic sacrifice-murders of the sacred person. The fact that we do ours in the theater or, as with poor dopey Kathy Griffin, on Twitter, is an improvement over ancient practice, even taking account of the bad taste involved.

Second: If you aren’t in New York and following theater, then you probably don’t know how bad that taste actually gets, and you probably don’t know how bad the Public Theater is, what an abomination Shakespeare in the Park has become, and just how awful director Oskar Eustis is. Of all the premier cultural institutions in the United States, New York’s Shakespeare in the Park is surely the most overrated.

As some of you may know, I had the pleasure of working as the theater critic at The New Criterion for a few years, during which I was obliged to sit through Eustis’s production of The Winter’s Tale, which remains to this day the most shameful and embarrassing thing I have ever seen performed on a stage.

How bad was it? How stupidly political? The show began with — I am not making this up — a campaign speech from New York mayor Bill de Blasio, in which he boasted about his plan to expand pre-kindergarten programs. I have enjoyed many productions that play around a little with Shakespeare’s scripts — Alan Cumming’s Macbeth and Sleep No More come to mind — but New York’s dotty Sandinista mayor is, whatever his other talents in life, not much of a dramatist. I have seen more stirring speeches at suburban zoning-board meetings.

Eustis’s The Winter’s Tale was enough of a mess when it was trying to be the play it was supposed to be, but Eustis — and let’s go ahead and reiterate that he’s directing Shakespeare in the Park — does not have much of an interest in Shakespeare. So The Winter’s Tale kind of fell apart and the stage was taken by — again, I am not making this up, there’s probably video somewhere — Muppets.

The only thing sillier than putting Muppets in the middle of a Shakespeare play is putting Chuck Schumer in the middle of one, and, right on cue, the senator showed up and delivered a campaign speech of his own, at one point shouting: “Vote Democratic!”

Theater directors like to pose as artistic rebels taking on the powers that be, but Eustis is in fact the opposite, prone before the powers that actually be in New York. He is an embarrassment not because of his politics but because of his pitiful pliance before power. Delta and other sponsors have walked away from Julius Caesar because they do not wish to be associated with the controversy over Trump-Caesar. They ought to have walked away long ago because the Public Theater puts on such bad work. They ought to have walked away because of the Public Theater’s low standards, because it is cowardly and boring, and because it is shoddy.

New York deserves better and would have better — if New Yorkers demanded it. But my sense is that much of the New York theater audience is made up of people who like going to plays less than they like having gone to them. New York’s cultural elites have a great deal more self-regard than self-respect, as Eustis’s continuing prominence demonstrates. There are a half-dozen outfits that could replace the Public Theater putting on summertime plays in Central Park. Perhaps that option should be considered.

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