NEW YORK • New York's Public Theater on Monday defended its production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar that portrays the assassinated Roman leader as United States President Donald Trump, after Delta Air Lines and Bank of America pulled their funding.
The non-profit theatre said it recognised that its contemporary staging of the play, which portrays Caesar as a magnetic, blond businessman with a gold bathtub, had provoked heated debate.
Actors and other artists threatened on Monday to boycott the two companies that ended their sponsorship.
"Such discussion is exactly the goal of our civically engaged theatre," it said in a statement.
"Our production of Julius Caesar in no way advocates violence towards anyone. Shakespeare's play, and our production, make the opposite point: Those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic means pay a terrible price and destroy the very thing they are fighting to save."
The two companies' decisions came after days of criticism online and in right-leaning media outlets that was amplified by Mr Donald Trump Jr, a son of President Trump, who appeared to call into question the theatre's funding sources on Twitter on Sunday morning.
"Disappointed in @Delta for turning its back on free expression. I've flown many thousands of miles with you. No more," tweeted playwright Beau Willimon, creator of the popular Netflix series House Of Cards.
Novelist Joyce Carol Oates tweeted that she would see the play "in thrilled defiance of ignorant would-be censors".
The play opened on Monday at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park as part of the Public Theater's free Shakespeare in the Park festival. It has been in previews since May 23.
All over the country, from Oklahoma to Oregon, theatres have been staging Julius Caesar this year as a way to chew over politics, power, democracy and authoritarianism at a moment when a populist leader with a fondness for executive power has moved into the White House.
Most of the productions take place without incident, but the Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis' has been engulfed in controversy ever since a bootleg video of the assassination of Caesar, who is styled and performed to suggest Trump, began circulating on the Internet last week.
Last week, the website Breitbart compared the play with the controversial online photo that showed comedienne Kathy Griffin holding a severed head that resembled the President. Criticism of the play reached a fever pitch on Sunday when Fox News reported that it "appears to depict President Trump being brutally stabbed to death by women and minorities".
Mr Donald Trump Jr joined in shortly after that report. "I wonder how much of this 'art' is funded by taxpayers?" he posted on Twitter. "Serious question, when does 'art' become political speech and does that change things?"
On Sunday, Delta said it pulled its support because the production "crossed the line on the standards of good taste", while Bank of America said the play was presented in a manner intended to provoke and offend. "Had this intention been made known to us, we would have decided not to sponsor it," the bank's statement said.
The two companies also received support on social media. "Kudos to @Delta for pulling $$ from 'play' portraying assassination of @POTUS," former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, a Republican whose daughter is deputy White House press secretary, wrote on Twitter. "No one should sponsor cr** like that."
The National Endowment for the Arts said in a statement that while it had given the New York Shakespeare Festival US$320,000 (S$442,600) over the past four years, no NEA funds were awarded to support the Public Theater's production of Julius Caesar.
American Express, which calls itself "the official card of The Public Theater", said on Monday it did not support this version of Julius Caesar, but did not say if it would drop funding.
On Monday, Eustis devoted his opening-night speech to a full-throated defence of the theatre's mission, which he urged audience members at the outdoor theatre to record on their cellphones and share.
"When we hold the mirror up to nature," he said, "often what we reveal are disturbing, upsetting, provoking things... That's our job."