To boycott, or not to boycott over Trumpian 'Julius Caesar'

Gregg Henry, centre, as Caesar, in the play Julius Caesar at the Delacorte Theater in New York on May 21, 2017.
Gregg Henry, centre, as Caesar, in the play Julius Caesar at the Delacorte Theater in New York on May 21, 2017.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (REUTERS) - Actors and other artists threatened on Monday (June 12) to boycott Delta Air Lines Inc and Bank of America Corp after they pulled their sponsorships of a New York production of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar that portrays the assassinated Roman leader as US President Donald Trump.

The companies ended their support of the production by the nonprofit Public Theater on Sunday, hours after Trump's son Donald Jr in a tweet questioned whether it was art or political speech.

"Disappointed in @Delta for turning its back on free expression. I've flown many thousands of miles with you. No more," tweeted Beau Willimon, an American playwright and 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".

Actor Ron Perlman, known for his big screen depiction of  Hellboy, also condemned the two former sponsors. "Act accordingly," Perlman told his followers on Twitter.

On Sunday, Delta Air Lines 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 crap like that!"

The Public Theater said in a statement on Monday that it stands completely behind its production, and recognises it has provoked heated debate.

"Such discussion is exactly the goal of our civically-engaged theatre," it said. "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 National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) said in a statement that, while it had given the New York Shakespeare Festival US$320,000 over the last four years, no NEA funds were awarded to support this production of Julius Caesar.

"I wonder how much of this 'art' is funded by taxpayers? Serious question, when does 'art' become political speech & does that change things?" Donald Trump Jr wrote on Twitter on Sunday morning after seeing a Fox News story about the play.

Author and journalist Summer Brennan said adapting Shakespeare's work to different eras was a longstanding theatrical tradition.

She said she had seen many of the 16th century playwright's pieces set in different eras, including World War I and II, the American West, a health spa, and in outer space.

"Setting Shakespearean political tragedies and history plays in current or recent administrations is an important tradition. #DontBanTheBard," Brennan wrote on Twitter on Monday.

American Express Co, 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.

"The Public Theater puts on many shows. Our sponsorship does not go toward the funding of the production of Shakespeare in the Park and we do not condone this interpretation of the play," American Express said in a statement.

Delta and Bank of America ended their sponsorships less than 12 days after comedian Kathy Griffin faced a backlash after posing for a photograph with a fake severed and bloodied head resembling Trump.

After images were published on social media, Griffin lost sponsorships and jobs, including co-host of CNN's New Year's Eve coverage.