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People Are Really Mad Over This Trump-Evoking Julius Caesar Because Apparently No One’s Ever Actually Read That Play

Yes, this is a very big deal.

Over the last few years, it feels like the number of terrible people on the internet and TV who don’t understand what the First Amendment actually means has skyrocketed. You know the pattern: Awful person says awful thing–usually racist/sexist/what have you–then there’s a backlash and they lose their sponsorship/employment/speaking engagement. They and their supporters then inevitably cry “censorship!” and “freedom of speech!” because they don’t understand that the first amendment protects us from government retribution. It does not mean you can be an asshole with no consequences, and private businesses are free to dissociate from anyone they please.

But what if a person or business is punished in some form not for, say, spewing hate speech, but for criticizing the President? That’s the exact thing we’re supposed to be protected against.

This weekend, both Delta and Bank of America both withdrew their sponsorship from the Public Theater’s famous Free Shakespeare in the Park program over a production of Julius Caesar. Their issue was with the depiction of the eventually-assassinated title role as a Trump-like figure.

Now, the Public isn’t being censored by the government directly, but with Trump himself tweeting condemnations of those who criticize him, encouraging his followers to attack and/or boycott (see Kathy Griffin and Nordstrom, just to start), that line is, at best, really blurry. If Delta and Bank of America fear retribution for sponsoring this production, that should absolutely be considered censorship.

Delta sent a four-tweet response to everyone who’s been contacting them, either to criticize the play or their decision to pull their funding: “No matter what your political stance may be, the graphic staging of Julius Caesar at this summer’s Free Shakespeare in the Park does not reflect Delta Air Lines’ values. Their artistic and creative direction crossed the line on the standards of good taste. We have notified them of our decision to end our sponsorship as the official airline of The Public Theater effective immediately.”

Bank of America had a similar statement:

Um, yes, the intention was to provoke, if not to offend. That’s the point of pretty much everything the Public does. As longtime sponsors, these companies know that. So what makes this production different? Many of those who are upset are claiming that they’d feel the same way if this had been done in the Obama era, with a similar premise. Except that did happen, and no one seemed to be outraged then, on the left or the right.

Oh, by the way, it happened twice.

Yes, a Trump figure (played by Gregg Henry, aka Mitchum Huntzberger, which seems like the most perfect casting imaginable) is murdered onstage. That’s what happens to Julius Caesar. What was anyone possibly expecting? The company didn’t add any new lines to the 400-year-old play, so, presumably, it’s not so much a message of “yay, murder,” as it is an exploration of corruption, patriotism, and human failings. Even the show’s director (and company Artistic Director), Oskar Eustice, said the play “can be read as a warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy by undemocratic means.”

But just the thought of the image of Trump being stabbed (since the vast majority of those criticizing the play, which opens tonight, haven’t actually seen it) was too much for a lot of people.

Donald Trump hasn’t weighed in on this yet (although his son has), but you can’t claim he doesn’t have influence in situations like these. By keeping his comments to Twitter, Trump can ostensibly claim to be playing no part in getting Kathy Griffin fired, or the Public losing funding, or however many of his supporters boycott Nordstrom. But it is not normal for an American *President to comment on criticism of him, let alone to tacitly encourage retribution.

Companies are clearly afraid of being associated with artists who comment on the presidency, and since the nation’s public arts funding is, let’s just say, lacking, it forces those artists to choose between funding and freedom. We are edging closer and closer to a country in which the only art or speech deemed acceptable is that which Trump approves of, and that’s dangerous. No matter your personal leanings, political commentary cannot be off-limits for artists, because once that freedom is gone, it’s gone for good.

If you’d like to make a donation to the Public Theater, you can do so here.

(via Bloomberg, featured image: mifl68/Flickr)

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Vivian Kane (she/her) has a lot of opinions about a lot of things. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri with her husband Brock Wilbur and too many cats.