Caesar, Censorship, and What Happens Next For Shakespeare in America

Full disclosure--this blog post isn't about The Fern but rather about the controversy surrounding The Public's production of Caesar. As an Artistic Director I have many thoughts, which I've written below- this blog is long and filled with gifs, but hey, that is the way I roll.  Also there may be some cursing this post--you've been warned that I'm a nerd and I like to curse. Carry on! 

What the heck am I even talking about?  Well last week a huge scandal surrounding The Public’s Julius Caesar has erupted.  Large sponsors (looking at you Delta & Bank of America) have pulled funding and the National Endowment of The Arts has distanced itself from the project.  

But the real story here, isn’t the controversy surrounding the concept itself (I’ll go all Shakes nerd here in a minute or 5) but the story is about the dangers of censorship and the general lack of arts knowledge in America today.  Additionally, Shakespeare Companies ACROSS AMERICA are receiving death threats -- so our first amendment rights to make art is getting bullied into silence. Well we, especially now, cannot be silenced.  We must not go quietly into the night because bullies threaten us--now is the time to stand and fight for what we believe in.

I will say as a theatre producer, the balance of staying true to ones’ artistic beliefs while appealing to an audience & sponsors is a hard one—like super hard. However as artists we have a responsibility to ‘report’ the times.

nerds.gif

Ok here is some nerdy theatre history, but super important to my point.

The ancient Greeks (the folks who like started Theatre as a thing) believed that one experienced art because of Catharsis. Wikipedia, the leading source in all knowledge *sarcasm* defines Catharsis as "Catharsis (from Greek κάθαρσις katharsis meaning "purification" or "cleansing") is the purification and purgation of emotions—especially pity and fear—through art or any extreme change in emotion that results in renewal and restoration."

Catharsis is ESSENTIAL to art, because if it weren’t what would be the point?  We, as audiences, should look at a piece of theatre not just as entertainment, but as an excuse to experience these feelings (that we may not love in ourselves) by watching someone else having to go through them.

Part of the beauty of Shakespeare’s works (especially the tragedies) is that every human has these emotions, but through his words, we are able to experience them in a ’safe’ manner (although the actors having these emotions night after night may go a little cray, but hey, that is our job).  Playwright Tony Kushner has said “The guarantee that you have when you come to a theater is that nothing is going to happen to you that will actually produce bodily harm … Consequently, you can allow yourself to be open to a variety of experiences that, if you had to experience them on the street might actually wind up in your death or dismemberment.”

So I guess the point I’m getting at in this History nerd part of my long blog post is that theatre is meant to make you feel things, especially the uncomfortable things. We show you a part of ourselves so you can tap into that in yourselves. You (the audience) gets to sit and ponder on what comes up for you as we are murdered, we kill, we encounter the darkest emotions humans can—for you. So you don’t have to. It's pretty powerful stuff.

Yay on to Shakespeare nerdom.

The outrage over this Caesar production, astounds me, because at its heart Caesar isn’t about ‘YAY lets kill the ruler.’  I mean, yes on the page Caesar (the ‘tyrant’) is killed, but when you dig deeper, when you look past the facade that it is a play about a dude that one group calls a tyrant, you’ll see that the play is not ‘Yay lets kill the ruler’ but more like, ‘If you kill the ruler there will be dire DIRE consequences for you and everyone you love. 

Very similar to Macbeth (another tyrant—seeing a pattern)?  Macbeth kills the King, and yes he becomes King, by the end of the play he’s lost everything that really matters in his life.  Shakespeare was quite literally saying, ‘hey don’t kill the king, bad sh*t will happen’ when he wrote Macbeth. He wrote it right after the gunpowder plot and is a warning that, ‘you fu*k with the king, you end up dead.’

Shakespeare loved to do this—he was the ultimate critic of the times.  Richard II—yea not so much about a terrible king.  More about a commentary on Elizabeth’s taxation rules.  He did this with most of his tragedies. He was such a super smart badass #ShakespeareCrush

Off the top of my head I can’t think of a sitting president who has NOT been depicted as Caesar—its a trope that is done with most new presidents and even some old ones.

Additionally Caesar denies the crown 3 times and can we really see our sitting President doing that?

Personally, if I was going to depict a president I believed to be a ‘tyrant’ in one of Shakespeare’s plays, I would choose Lear or Richard III (who was actually related to Trump--that is just funny) but that is just me.  Maybe Claudius in Hamlet—there are plenty of terrible characters in Shakespeare. The biggest point is that Caesar is not one. Sure, you can play him as an Authoritarian, however at the end of the play the folks who kill him are dead and the ones who stay true to him (Marc Antony, Octavius) are the ones in power.   

Here is the part of the blog where I talk arts education!

 From https://twitter.com/bubbaprog

From https://twitter.com/bubbaprog

Perhaps people wouldn’t be so upset if they had more access to the arts in schools or in their community.  I was reading twitter (yes I know, it's a terrible idea) and came across this beauty  -----> Yes Brenda, all the other Caesars were about killing Caesar.  It's a big part of the show.  

Now I’m not going to call Brenda stupid, but I will call her uneducated and uninformed.  You can still have a college education and be uneducated--I know plenty of folks with advanced degrees who couldn't tell you what any play is about.  

The first time I read Caesar I was 12 (but we’ve established I’m a nerd).  The second time was for class in the 9th grade for a drama course and 12th for an English class.  I was taught this play in school.  However I also went to school in a time where the arts were taught.

This is what happens when you’ve never been exposed to Shakespeare (like SO many people in America) or even worse, you’ve been exposed to Shakespeare taught or done poorly. The lack of exposure to the arts makes for an uninformed population

THIS is why we need arts education.  This is why both children and adults NEED be exposed to affordable art. We, sadly, live in a culture where the arts are perceived to be an unnecessary luxury (the NEA receives around $0.46 per person) whereas Germany allocates $20 per person for the arts. A government which does not contribute to the arts will have a population which doesn't value the arts because they aren't exposed to it. If a child isn't exposed to theatre growing up, they probably won't think of going to the theatre as an adult.  Arts education is more important than ever and we MUST continue to fight for the right that every human deserves art. 

The Dangers of Censorship

Why put a gif of 2 cats being censored? Because the censorship completely unnecessary and ridiculous!

When theatre/art starts to be censored by a ruling body, when they tell us what we can or cannot present based on whatever arbitrary rules they’ve defined, the ruling body has effectively told the audience (as humans) what we can and cannot feel or experience these emotions. 

This is why in a regime the artists are usually some of the first ones first persecuted.  Regimes think that art/theatre may say/do things that makes you think, ‘I feel scared, depressed and alone—my best bet must be to murther the king.  Thanks Hamlet! That thought would never have crossed my mind if I hadn't seen this Shakespeare Stuff.’  We know that 99.99% of humans do not do this but insecure rulers will always start censoring—it is a sign of insecurity and ignorance.

I’m not going to go into how dangerous major company pulling funding out of a play based on heat from people — they are private companies and it is their right.  I will speak to my horror that the National Endowment for the Arts has distanced itself from the production.  To be clear the NEA did not provide funds for this production but the NEA’s mission"gives Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities.” 

By giving into the uninformed people who are decrying the production rather than standing up and saying, ‘The plot of Caesar is not about killing a ruler but is about violence begetting violence--However they want to stage the production is well within their first amendment rights’ the NEA is effectively opening doors to censors. Maybe because the NEA is on the verge of being eliminated, they are trying to be political and keep their heads down--however the likelihood that the NEA will be cut anyway is pretty high so I wish the NEA would just come out and stand behind the artists--go big or go home.

We theatre producers and other artists must continue to stand up and say ‘we will not stop telling these stories’ because we won’t—it is our job.

--Jessica Hunt