Robert Brustein and the American Theatrical Landscapeposted on September 30th, 2009 by Raphael Martin
Few have shaped the American theatrical landscape more drastically than critic, producer, academic, and former artistic director Robert Brustein. Brustein is truly a Man of the Theater, a rare epithet to bestow on the splintered profession that the theater has become today. A rare public appearance as part of the Peak Performances 09/10 season will no doubt be studded with his trademark intellectual and cultural provocation. A talk entitled “The Four Horsemen of the Cultural Apocalypse” suggests no less than the fractious and provocative rhetoric for which Brustein is known, both as a critic and formerly as an artistic director.
Brustein is perhaps most well known for founding two of the most important regional theaters in the United States: Yale Repertory Theater, the professional theater in residence at Yale University, and American Repertory Theater (ART) at Harvard. As dean of the Yale School of Drama, Brustein founded Yale Rep in 1966 with the goal of fostering collaboration between theater professionals and his students. As artistic director from 1966 to 1979, Brustein pioneered one of the first regional theaters in the U.S.
Unlike Europe, where many countries have a subsidized “national” theater, America’s geographic size and governmental ideology toward arts funding have kept the U.S. from creating an analogous central theater. Many argue that, instead of an exclusive “national” theater, our regional theater network—spread across the country—is our national theater. Brustein’s early envisioning of theaters such as Yale Rep and ART paved the way for this network to take shape.
Brustein and many of his repertory actors left Yale for Harvard in 1980. Under Brustein, ART became known for its bold experimentation and commitment to re-envisioning the classic repertory in boundary-breaking ways. Whether it was Spanish Golden Age plays with actors in skin-tight leather S&M outfits or Shakespeare’s Henry IV set during the Los Angeles riots, his commitment to a continual questioning of the classical repertory marked him as a sometimes great and always provocative artistic director.
That tireless prodding also makes Brustein a compelling critic with a reputation for speaking his mind. He has been theater critic of the New Republic since 1959, has published a number of volumes of theater criticism, and currently comments on politics for the Huffington Post. Perhaps his most famous sparring match was with African American playwright August Wilson, a verbal feud that erupted in 1996. At the risk of oversimplification, the heart of the debate could be summed up as two views of what American regional theater should be: Wilson believed there should be a separate, black-theater movement whereby African American artists would be able to focus on and control work pertaining to their cultural experience. Brustein countered with the view that “theater works best as a unifying rather than a segregating medium.” Their extended debate lasted for multiple years, with the two men brawling in the press, in essays, in American Theatre magazine, and at a special debate at New York’s Town Hall in 1997.
Brustein continues to be a cultural firebrand and a commentator who always lays his cards clearly on the table. The collection Cultural Calisthenics: Writings on Race, Politics, and Theatre (1998) is a fine example of his sometimes polarizing discourse. As critiqued by Robin Lippincott in the New York Times, “many of these essays … are concerned with how ‘extra-artistic considerations’—multiculturalism, gay rights, women’s issues and political correctness—impair current thought, including that of arts funding agencies.” Taking such a view in the late 1990s would have been contentious, particularly as arts funding has always been a delicate issue in this country. Here, Brustein comes on like a steam shovel.
Many find Brustein’s critical style aggressive and assertive, contentious and unpopular. I would argue that this theatrical renaissance man is living history in the American theater—one of the last great practitioners and thinkers our art form has.
Raphael Martin is Literary and Humanities Manager of New York’s Soho Rep.