Maybe we should be shocked that some corporate sponsors of Shakespeare in the Park (notably Delta Airlines and Bank of America) are withdrawing support because the Public Theater’s new production of Julius Caesar parodies our current president’s style and graphically stages the assassination, but mainly we’re just saddened.
Our longtime Council member, the brilliant Shakespeare authority James Shapiro, discusses the controversy in a New York Times op-ed: A Trumpian Caesar? Shakespeare Would Approve. “If anyone would have understood the current controversy, it would be Shakespeare himself,” writes Shapiro, adding that “In his time, there was always someone taking offense, wanting a name changed or a line cut, demanding that the players be rounded up and thrown in prison.”
The Public Theater’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, spoke movingly from the stage on June 12 (a bit of social media video here) and reminded the audience that they were about to witness, among other great and terrible things, “the danger of a large crowd of people, manipulated by their emotions, taken over by leaders who urge them to do things that are not only against their interest but destroy the very institutions that are there to serve and protect them.”
The corporations that have withdrawn their sponsorship are engaging in the time-honored tradition of using wealth to control political speech in the arts. Theater, books, and other arts are one of the primary means we have to push back against political oppression. Our founders understood just how important it is for a society to have speech that is independent from patrons (who can control its content), so they provided for copyright law, which allows authors to independently support their work by earning money in the free market. Corporate support for the arts is important and commendable—as long as it’s not used to control speech. A strong and effective copyright regime is indispensable to the independence of the arts. We shouldn’t have to rely on corporations and other sponsors to support authors and artists.
Photo credit: Tracy Lee via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC