It’s time to kick Shakespeare out of the park.
In a time when everything around us seems politicized, even Shakespeare cannot offer a refuge—at least not when the Public Theater’s “Shakespeare in the Park” is in session.
A brief primer for those who don’t live in New York City and don’t know what its “Shakespeare in the Park” is all about: Every summer, New York’s Public Theater stages two Shakespeare plays in an outdoor amphitheater in Central Park. Seating is free, operating through a random lottery system, and scoring tickets is always a nice little coup. The productions themselves tend to be pleasant but populist, of the go-big-or-go-home variety, and often feature some big name actor playing the lead.
I recently received an email announcing that this year’s production—just one rather than two in light of the pandemic—would be The Merry Wives of Windsor. Not exactly top-flight Shakespeare, but what really caught my eye was the boastful mention of the production’s “complete all-Black cast.”
Now, let me make something clear: Just as I have no problem with an opera production casting a 50-year-old, 300-pound woman in the role of Isolde if it means we’re treated to a virtuoso vocal performance, I have no problem with race-blind casting that winds up putting black actors in the roles of Brits, Swedes, or Russians that Shakespeare, Ibsen, or Chekhov might not have recognized. Given Shakespeare’s carefree attitude towards all matters of historical or regional accuracy—his Danes, Venetians, and ancient Romans might as well all be 16th-century English ladies and gentlemen—my strong suspicion is that he would have taken contemporary multi-racial casting in stride.
The justification for multi-racial casting, at least in my mind, is that it’s simply who we are as a society, and so it is naturally who our talented and available actors are as well. Just as there is nothing wrong with a Shakespeare production in China using Chinese actors, a Shakespeare production in New York should go ahead and use the best actors available here, which usually means actors of all races. The message, to the extent that there is one, is that an actor’s race doesn’t matter.
A very different—indeed, the opposite—message is sent, however, when a production not only goes out of its way to cast all black actors in a Shakespeare play, but more than that, proudly announces the choice in its promotional materials. Needless to say, an email proudly announcing a deliberate white-actors-only production would quickly and deservedly find all those associated with it on the permanent unemployment line.
So what was the justification for this casual in-your-face racism? “Set in South Harlem amidst a vibrant and eclectic community of West African immigrants, MERRY WIVES will be a celebration of Black joy, laughter, and vitality,” the email explained. Black joy, laughter and vitality? Now, what exactly is “black joy”? Is it, perhaps, more uninhibited and exuberant than its pale, restrained white counterpart? And isn’t describing a black community as “vibrant” in 2021 roughly akin to conjuring up the stereotype of an “articulate black man”? The cringeworthy text read as if it came courtesy of the same geniuses who, after George Floyd was killed, decided it would be a dandy idea for a bunch of Democratic senators and representatives, for no apparent reason, to don some Ghanian kente stoles and kneel on the floor of the U.S. Capitol Building.
It is surely not a good omen when the text promoting an installment in an art form built on words is completely tone deaf, and I expect that the only ones who will fail to find this racial pandering utterly laughable will be the septuagenarian white liberal elites who live in the multi-million dollar real estate in the immediate vicinity of Central Park and their only slightly poorer cousins occupying the most desirable zip codes of Manhattan’s Upper West and Upper East Side.
As far as the rest of us, I expect I’m speaking on behalf of a lot of people when I say that our entire public life increasingly feels like a bad performance put on for someone else—a tiny subset of unrepresentative, outspoken activists, fellow travelers with outsized voices and their semi-senile patrons oblivious to the grotesque character of these dog and pony shows.
I love great art and think of it, at its best, as life’s single greatest pleasure. I used to believe that public funding of the arts was an unqualified boon, an indispensable lifeline for a critical public good and especially for the promotion of the kinds of classical repertory-type work that is no longer subject to copyright protection and that, therefore, may not provide quite the same incentive for the full range of market actors involved as they would get from boosting work in which one or more of them hold copyrights.
Because I believed it would help to protect such public funding, I even supported the Supreme Court’s controversial 1998 decision in National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley, which held that the government had the right not to fund art widely considered obscene and that this did not violate anyone’s First Amendment rights (such as the rights of the flag-burning, obscenity-peddling performance artist Karen Finley). As Justice Scalia wrote in a memorable phrase from his concurring opinion, “Avant-garde artistes such as respondents remain entirely free to épater les bourgeois; they are merely deprived of the additional satisfaction of having the bourgeoisie taxed to pay for it.”
I supported the decision while being fully cognizant of the fact that a near-universally acknowledged high point of Western civilization such as James Joyce’s Ulysses was viewed as obscene and banned in its own day. My reasoning, therefore, was not that I trusted the technocrats in charge of administering such programs always to get it right, but rather that if we did not give them the leeway to gauge the public’s barometer and withhold funding from art that flouts our community standards, the public will simply demand that the government cease all public funding for the arts.
Today, however, I find myself a member of that public demanding our governments—federal, state and local—cease all public funding for the arts. Today, the culture commissars in charge of administering such programs are no longer defending our community standards and are instead working hard to utilize art as means of imposing the divisive politics of a woke oligarchy on the rest of us.
Notably, for instance, this is not the first time that the Public Theater’s “Shakespeare in the Park” has used its substantial platform to stage political stunts. In an earlier display of poor taste, its 2017 production of Julius Caesar notoriously put a Trump clone in the title role so that it could enact his ritual assassination. Such two-bit theatrics diminish Shakespeare and our own public sphere.
While it shamelessly peddles such outrages, the Public Theater is permitted to operate as a tax-exempt non-profit, and as of the 2018-19 season, the last pre-pandemic year for which data is available, uses its nearly $94 million in gross receipts to pay, among other highly compensated employees, a $855,594 salary to its artistic director Paul J. Eustis, a $442,702 salary to its executive director Patrick Willingham and a $381,249 salary to its chief advancement officer Laurence Jahns. At the same, as Forbes has reported, the theater had received nearly $30 million in city, state, and federal funding between 2009 and 2017.
To be clear, contemporary art that is exclusively or largely privately funded is not much better. But the difference here is that we can tune—and increasingly are tuning—it out. Fewer and fewer of us, for example, are watching the self-indulgent awards showsand the underlying programming upon which the politicking entertainment industry is conferring its awards. Faced with diminishing profit margins, the moguls and private entities that produce this kind of fare will have to do some soul-searching and figure out how to stop alienating the masses upon which they depend for their pocket change.
But we have no similar choice when it comes to publicly funded arts. From a purely financial standpoint, The Public Theater couldn’t care less whether or not I sign up for the lottery to get my free ticket to their latest outrage. I and every other taxpayer are paying for them to spit in our faces either way. That needs to stop. If the technocrats that operate the public feeding trough will not defend us from such assaults, then we will defund them.
“Art lives from constraints and dies from freedom,” Leonardo da Vinci reputedly said. Artists painted into a corner are compelled to innovate their way out of it, while artists to whom every door is left open will take the easy way out. Perhaps the late 20th- and early 21st-century West, with no more constraints imposed either by Church or State, took it too easy on the arts and so yielded comparatively few great, lasting works and much that was forgettable. Seen in that light, perhaps the fact that the new woke inquisition is promoting time-bound, politicized works while kicking great art off of course syllabi and recommended reading lists and out of other public spaces will force great artists-to-be to find new ways to defy the censors and impress their designs upon us.
But maybe it is time to impose yet one further constraint: kick the arts off the public dole. Disconnect the ready lifeline offered by the likes of the bloated, doddering Public Theater. Let artists struggle to survive. Let them search for patrons and sponsors. Let them go avant-garde again and find their way back to the center like a phoenix rising from the ashes. Let them live in exile until they earn their return to our midst.
As far as this particular decadent production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, however, while it has already received its public funding, I will do my little part by not participating in this year’s free ticket giveaway. If you are here in New York, you might consider doing the same. Let the Public Theater find itself at pains to give its tickets away for free. And let Shakespeare’s own words from The Merry Wives of Windsor render a final verdict on this production, without your having to endure the pain of watching it: “Here will be an old abusing of God’s patience and the king’s English.”
Alexander Zubatov is a practicing attorney specializing in general commercial litigation. He is also a practicing writer specializing in general non-commercial poetry, fiction, essays and polemics that have been featured in a wide variety of publications. He lives in the belly of the beast in New York, New York. He can be found on Twitter @Zoobahtov.