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How Delta and Bank of America justified dumping Shakespeare in the Park

Photo: JOAN MARCUS/AP via New York Daily News

The Public Theater had a cool idea: stage Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in modern dress, with Caesar played by a Donald Trump impersonator. (Perhaps you recall that the play includes a bloody assassination.) Now Delta Air Lines and Bank of America have pulled their sponsorships, but their statements dance around their real justifications.

While liberals are calling Delta and Bank of America cowardly, I think they have a right to do what they did. When a sponsor endorses an arts charity, there’s an implicit set of boundaries on what the charity does. If, last year, the Public Theater had staged a production of Othello featuring a raging, impetuous Barack Obama impersonator, I imagine that its sponsors would have done the same thing.

The minefield comes in the justification. Criticize the production too much, and you piss off liberals. Maintain your support, and you alienate Trump supporters.

Delta bungled its statement on Twitter

There’s no official statement on Delta’s website. Strangely, the announcement appears on Twitter as a response to a complaint:

I wonder how carefully Delta has thought out this statement. The response took place 12 hours after the original tweet. If you visit Delta’s Twitter feed, you won’t see it, because it’s a reply. If you include replies, you still won’t see it, because of course the @Delta feed has hundreds of responses to people seeking customer service. Most people read Delta’s statement on the thousands of news articles about it, so why use such an obscure way to post it?

The statement as it stands is short but strange. Why should Delta’s position depend on “what your political stance may be”?

Here’s an how they could have written the statement honestly.

Delta has been proud to sponsor The Public’s Theater’s productions of Shakespeare in the Park. Its latest production of Julius Caesar, though, depicts the assassination of a venal figure who is clearly intended to represent President Trump. While our sponsorships don’t generally place limits on the artistic freedom of those we sponsor, this production crosses a line. We can’t in good conscience support a production that depicts the assassination of a living public figure. For this reason, we are withdrawing our sponsorship.

Bank of America also dances around the truth

Bank of America’s statement also appeared on Twitter, as a graphic. Here’s the post:

This statement does not appear on the Bank of America website and is not searchable, since it is a graphic. But since it’s a direct post and not a reply, at least it appears in the Twitter feed. And it’s more honest than the Delta statement — it quickly tells the story of what happened — “We sponsored this for 11 years, but they crossed a line.” My problem here is with these sentences:

The Public Theater chose to present Julius Caesar in such a way that was intended to provoke and offend. Had this intention been made known to us, we would have decided not to sponsor it.

Provoking and offending is part of what theater does. Shakespeare certainly meant to provoke and offend with his plays. I doubt that Bank of America means to say that it will only support productions that are inoffensive and fail to be provocative. The problem is the nature of the provocation, which the company would rather not get into.

The passive sentence that follows hides a multitude of sins. Bank of America is not saying who should have told the company about The Public Theater’s intention. The implication is that a theater producer has a responsibility to tell sponsors if the production is provocative. That’s a pretty challenging position — one that most producers would reject — hiding behind a simple little passive sentence.

And finally, I can’t resist pointing out that this statement should have an “it” after the “that” — or it would be both grammatically correct and shorter without “such a” before “way.” Get a copy editor.

Sponsorship is now a minefield

Sponsorships and boycotts are now fraught, because there is no end to the potential consequence of decisions to support or advertise anywhere.

Ironically, both Delta’s and Bank of America’s Twitter feeds have graphics indicating their support of Pride Week. Now liberals can love them for supporting gay pride and boycott them for pulling their support of a theater production that depict’s Trump’s assassination. Conversely, Trump backers can praise them for this decision and boycott them for the Pride images. There’s no escape.

As far as supporting theater, I think that sponsors and producers should meet at the start of a season and describe the series of productions they plan. The sponsor can withdraw if they find the productions unworthy of their support. You certainly deserve to know what you’re sponsoring. And this would allow the producers to seek sponsorship from other sources that are more closely in line with their production philosophy.

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One Comment

  1. Did Bank of America’s contributions consist of getting seats for people who had never heard of the show and had no idea the tickets were in their names?