Recently, the New York Public Theater staged a play on Julius Caesar in which he was played by a Trump-like character who was assassinated. Predictably, the decision to show such a thing was followed by intense debates over the politics of theater and the arts as a whole. While this is undoubtedly a complicated situation, we do believe that while the theater did have the right to stage the play, stopping the play after there was an obvious outrage over it being shown was the correct thing to do.
We believe that once news of the content of the play started to spread through the media, the artistic values of the play were compromised, meaning that the only part of Julius Caesar that mattered to people was the political side of things. And the message that was being sent politically was that violence towards the leader of our country was how we should learn to deal with our current issues at hand.
The United States is in an extremely divided place right now, and the general masses seeing and hearing about a story like this only intensifies these divides. Just as we saw with the Kathy Griffin Trump-beheading photo shoot: Griffin was technically right to do what she did (in terms of her freedoms as an American), but she was still wrong to do what she did. The same can be said about the New York Public Theater: while they were legally allowed to stage the play, doing so was the wrong decision. When art and politics are in the same conversation, it becomes a debate between what’s legally right and what’s morally right, and that debate is clearly seen in this case. There’s an important difference between “free speech” and “hate speech.”
Art is always going to be critical of current issues, and the freedom to be critical of those in power is a vital thread of the American fabric; there’s no doubting the importance of the arts in this respect. Without these freedoms, we no longer live in a democracy, so it’s significant that we don’t restrict these sorts of things. Art is the best way to vent political frustrations; whether it be via television, film, music, or the theater, and it is fully acceptable behavior to use these different forms of mass media to be critical on the people who make decisions that impact our everyday lives. But the type of aggression and violence incited by this current rendition of Julius Caesar took things a step too far, and that’s why we saw such an intense outrage over what occurred. We as a nation absolutely need to be critical of the leader of our country, but we need to still be respectful towards the Oval Office — without our respect and desire for the White House to steer us in the right direction, democracy doesn’t work.
As we previously mentioned, these situations are almost always complicated to sort out. Both those on the side of art and those on the side of politics make fair, valid points that can sway anyone to either side of the argument. the point of art should never be to suggest that violence in the answer (especially towards the President of the United States), but The New York Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar unfortunately did just that.
This editorial was written by Aaron Gash based on the opinions of a JAMS 504 editorial board.