Brustein, Robert S. 1927-
BRUSTEIN, Robert S. 1927-
(Robert Sanford Brustein)
PERSONAL: Born April 21, 1927, in New York, NY; son of Max (a businessman) and Blanche (Haft) Brustein; married Norma Ofstrock, March 25, 1962 (died April 9, 1979); married Doreen Beinart, December 20, 1996; children: (first marriage): Daniel Anton; Phillip (stepson); (second marriage): Jean and Peter (stepchildren). Education: Attended U.S. Merchant Marine Academy as a cadet midshipman, 1945–47; Amherst College, B.A. (magna cum laude), 1948; graduate study in drama at Yale University, 1948–49; Columbia University, M.A., 1950, Ph.D., 1957.
CAREER: Writer, theater critic, professor, and director. Actor playing some seventy roles in summer and winter stock and on television, 1950–57; Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, instructor in English, 1955–56; Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY, instructor in drama, 1956–57; Columbia University, New York, NY, lecturer in drama, 1957–58, assistant professor, 1958–63, associate professor, 1963–64, professor of English, 1964–66; New Republic, drama critic, 1959–67, 1978–, and contributing editor, 1959–79; Yale University, New Haven, CT, professor of English, dean of School of Drama, and founding director of Yale Repertory Theatre Company, 1966–79; The Opposition Theatre, host and writer, beginning 1966; London Observer, London, England, guest theater critic, 1972–73; Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, founding director and artistic director of American Repertory Theatre Company, 1979–2001, professor of English, and director of Loeb Drama Center, 1979–.
National Endowment for the Arts, panel member, 1969–72, 1980–; Sarah Lawrence College, trustee, 1973–77; National Endowment for the Humanities, panel member, 1974–75, 1981. Military service: U.S. Merchant Marines, 1945–47.
MEMBER: American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, Modern Language Association of America, Actors Equity Association, American Academy of Arts and Letters, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Phi Beta Kappa.
AWARDS, HONORS: Fulbright fellow at University of Nottingham, 1953–55; Guggenheim fellow, 1961–62; George Jean Nathan Award for best drama criticism, 1962–63; Ford Foundation fellow, 1964–65; George Polk Memorial Award for outstanding criticism, 1964; Jersey City Journal award for theater criticism, 1967; L.H.D. from Lawrence University, 1968, and Amherst College, 1972; LL.D., Beloit College, 1976; Arts.D., Bard College, 1981; Annual Award, New England Theatre Conference, 1985, "for outstanding creative achievement in the American theatre"; Tiffany Award for Excellence in Theater, Society for Performing Arts Administrators, 1987; Thomas De Gaetan Award, UITT, 1991; American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, 1995, for distinguished service to the Arts; Boston Theatre Award, best production of 1996, for Six Characters in Search of An Author; American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, 1997, for distinguished service to the arts; Career Achievement Award, Association of Theatre in Higher Education, 2000; named to Theater Hall of Fame, 2002; Theatre Professional Award, National Corporate Theatre, 2003; George Jean Nathan Award, for Who Needs Theatre: Dramatic Opinions; Pirandello medal; medal from the Egyptian Government for his contribution to world theater; Eliot Norton Award for Theatre; New England Theatre Conference Award for Excellence in Theme.
ESSAYS AND CRITICISM
The Theatre of Revolt: An Approach to the Modern Drama, Atlantic-Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1964.
Seasons of Discontent: Dramatic Opinions, 1959–1965, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1965.
The Culture Watch: Essays on Theatre and Society, 1969–1974, Knopf (New York, NY), 1975.
Critical Moments: Reflections on Theatre and Society, 1973–1979, Random House (New York, NY), 1980.
Who Needs Theatre: Dramatic Opinions, Atlantic Monthly Press (Boston, MA), 1987.
Dumbocracy in America: Studies in the Theatre of Guilt, 1987–1994, Ivan R. Dee (Chicago, IL), 1994.
The Siege of the Arts: Collected Writings, 1994–2001, Ivan R. Dee (Chicago, IL), 2001.
The Third Theatre, Knopf (New York, NY), 1969.
Revolution as Theatre: Notes on the New Radical Style, Liveright (New York, NY), 1971.
Reimagining American Theatre, Hill & Wang (New York, NY), 1991.
Cultural Calisthenics: Writings on Race, Politics, and Theatre, Ivan R. Dee (Chicago, IL), 1998.
Letters to a Young Actor: A Universal Guide to Performance, Basic Books (New York, NY), 2005.
Henrik Ibsen, The Master Builder, 1982.
The Changeling, 1985.
Tonight We Improvise, 1986.
Right You Are (If You Think You Are), 1987.
Anton Chekhov, The Seagull, based on a translation by George Calderon, Ivan R. Dee (Chicago, IL), 1992.
Henrik Ibsen, When We Dead Awaken, Ivan R. Dee (Chicago, IL), 1992.
August Strindberg, The Father, Ivan R. Dee (Chicago, IL), 1992.
Anton Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard, based on a translation by George Calderon, Ivan R. Dee (Chicago, IL), 1995.
Henrik Ibsen, The Wild Duck, Ivan R. Dee (Chicago, IL), 1997.
Luigi Pirandello, Six Characters in Search of an Author, Ivan R. Dee (Chicago, IL), 1998.
Aristophanes, Lysistrata, 2002.
(With Gloria Pastorino) Luigi Pirandello, Enrico IV, Ivan R. Dee (Chicago, IL), 2002.
Nobody Dies on Friday, 1996.
Poker Face, 1999.
(Editor) The Plays and Prose of August Strindberg, Holt (New York, NY), 1964.
Making Scenes: A Personal History of the Turbulent Years at Yale, 1966–1979 (memoir) Random House (New York, NY), 1981.
Also adapted Shlemiel the First and Three Farces and a Funeral; wrote plays Divestiture and Chekhov on Ice; contributor of articles and reviews to numerous periodicals, including Harper's, New Republic, New York Times, London Observer, Encounter, Partisan Review, Atlantic Monthly, New York Times Magazine, New Theatre Quarterly, Theater, and Commentary.
SIDELIGHTS: Robert S. Brustein is well known and respected for his relentless devotion to quality in the theater. As James Reston, Jr., described him in American Theatre, Brustein is "the Protean master of all aspects of stagecraft, from acting to directing to producing to criticism and scholarship." As resident drama critic for the New Republic, Brustein has attacked what he sees as the debased standards of commercial acting, direction, and playwriting in America. He became the champion of innovation in the theater and is often considered the leading drama critic in the United States. But when he was appointed dean of Yale University's School of Drama in 1966, Brustein gave vitality to his rhetoric. Within ten years, wrote Steve Lawson in Horizon, the school "evolved from a somnolent conservatory into the foremost theatrical training ground in the country, providing a singular example of what can take place when a critic puts his ideas into action." Though Brustein has rarely enjoyed complete approval for his ideas and his methods—"he has had the unusual pleasure," noted Anatole Broyard in the New York Times Book Review, "of seeing himself described first as a firebrand of leftism, then as a fascist, for holding what is essentially a consistent view"—his achievements and his idealism make him an important figure in the theater today.
While a graduate student of dramatic literature at Columbia University, Brustein gained experience in the theater by performing with various dramatic groups, Off-Broadway troupes, and summer stock companies. Beginning an academic career in the mid-1950s, he started writing articles and reviews for professional journals and for such magazines as Harper's and the New Republic. The editors of the New Republic were so impressed with his abilities that in 1959 they chose him to succeed Eric Bentley as resident drama critic. Supportive of the decision, fellow critic John Simon described in Commonweal the quality of a Brustein review: "When practiced with the perceptivity, taste, wit, and style of Mr. Brustein, a review ceases to be a piece of timebound approbation or animadversion; it becomes a finished work of art, comparable to a short story or poem, in which insight and expression blend into a harmonious and long-reverberating utterance whose pleasures and meanings transcend their immediate function…. But the admirable thing about Brustein's critiques is that they place the individual into a context, so that what is being weighed is not just an author, for example, but the whole theater that produced him, and the whole society that produced that theater."
Lawson pointed out that Brustein, a student of the late Lionel Trilling at Columbia, "absorbed Trilling's credo that all literature is an expression of the culture that produces it" and applied this view to modern drama as a critic. What he saw in the commercial theater of Broadway and various repertory groups during the late 1950s and early 1960s was timidity, greed, and love of stars as opposed to genuine actors. Mirroring the adverse cultural effects of television and advertising, the American theater, according to Brustein, was in a state of artistic stagnation: innovation was being discouraged for fear of losing profits and/or prestige, and true talent was being ignored or stifled.
Throughout the Off-Broadway renaissance of the early 1960s, Brustein both singled out new talents for praise and castigated such bastions of the commercial theater as playwright Arthur Miller, the Old Vic Theater, and the Lincoln Center. For a time he had faith in what he called "the Third Theatre," defined in his collection of essays and reviews published under that title as an "underground expression … being developed in the cabarets, workshops, and studios where all assumptions are questioned, all shibboleths rejected, all dogma destroyed. A theatre, in short, where reality and joy are once more being combined and drama is once again becoming superb, gay, and wild." But in many avant-garde productions, Brustein detected self-destructive excesses equal to those of the commercial theater. Accordingly, he attacked the Third Theatre's anti-intellectualism, its sensationalism, its sexual obsessiveness, and its indifference to artistry, craft, and skill.
Though some saw this refinement of Brustein's position as an about-face, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of the New York Times Book Review maintained that the opinions in the reviews collectively published as The Third Theatre "spring from a consistent vision of what theater ought to be—a vision that does not compromise with fad, fashion, or philistinism. If Mr. Brustein ap-pears to have changed his mind, it is because circumstances have changed and in the process forced him from a position of radical assault to one of relative esthetic conservatism." Similarly, Julius Novick wrote in the Nation that although "events have revealed the radical Brustein to be something of a conservative, his position has remained essentially constant: he is merely now applying to the avant-garde the same vigorous standards he has always applied to other segments of the theatre." Brustein's view of a healthy theater, according to Lehmann-Haupt, is one which "preserves and enlivens the best of the past by reproducing, reinterpreting, and reinforming the classics; at the same time it reflects the soul of the present with new plays that genuinely confront the nation's nervous system."
Three years before the publication of The Third Theatre, Brustein was given an opportunity to work toward his ideal of a healthy theater. In 1966, bowing to student demands for change, the president of Yale University, Kingman Brewster, Jr., named Brustein dean of the School of Drama. Noting a correlation between the deterioration in theater and the professional preparation offered by the country's major drama schools, Brustein vowed to improve the quality of training at Yale. Besides adding a number of unorthodox professors to the faculty, he devised a curriculum modeled on British acting schools of practical training in fundamental dramatic skills—voice, speech, movement, and improvisation. He substituted for the major student presentations professional productions of such controversial plays as Megan Terry's Viet Rock and Arnold Weinstein's Dynamite Tonite, as well as adaptations of such classics as Prometheus Bound. Steve Lawson wrote that the "students were delighted. Older alumni, some of the faculty, and many New Havenites—who were used to seeing nice little plays or costume epics at the school—were horrified. Brustein, finding the greenroom (lounge) drab, ordered it painted red, and traditionalists howled. A modernized, la dolce vita-style version of the 17th-century comedy Volpone was staged, and outraged letters scorned this 'desecration' of a classic. But Brustein remained serene, and constantly repeated his slogan: 'We'll settle for nothing less than changing the whole face of the theater.'"
Rather than rely on the concept of a master teacher, or expert, to teach students a specific style of acting, Brustein instituted the Yale Repertory Theater Company to help students acquire proficiency in many different styles and techniques. Lawson declared this as "the first instance in America of a major theater company growing out of a drama school. (The reverse has often occurred)…. From then on new drama schoolers participated in a dual experience unavailable at Juilliard and Carnegie-Mellon, America's other leading conservatories. They were thrust not only into an academic training ground at the school but into a producing theater where the training would be put to the test." Newsweek contributor Jack Kroll wrote that that Brustein "performed a unique task, balancing the needs of a drama school and a professional theater with remarkable success. In the process, [he] dispatched an entire generation into the American theater, one that includes playwrights Robert Montgomery and Albert Innaurato, directors A. J. Antoon and Jeff Bleckner, designers Santo Loquasto and Michael Yeargan, actors Henry Winkler and Meryl Streep." Lawson summarized Brustein's innovations at Yale as "the work of an adversary turned impresario, a man obliged to put up or shut up, attempting through trial and error to found a permanent alternative to the hit-or-flop cycle of the commercial theater."
Brustein's tenure at Yale ended in 1979 when the university's new president, A. Bartlett Giamatti, decided not to renew his contract. Lehmann-Haupt suggested that the reason behind Brustein's departure was a difference of opinion on the true aims of a university drama school. Reviewing Brustein's Making Scenes: A Personal History of the Turbulent Years at Yale, 1966–1979, Lehmann-Haupt wrote: "If the book is in fact an act of revenge, it is at least a reasonably high-minded one. Great pains are taken to define the larger meaning of the disagreement between the antagonists—that is, the question of whether the drama school should have been turning out professional theater people, as Dean Brustein felt, or should have reoriented itself to the needs of Yale University in particular and of educational theater in general, as Mr. Giamatti appears to have believed." Brustein's argument, however, did convince Harvard president Derek Bok, who in 1979 appointed him professor of English and director of the Loeb Drama Center. As at Yale, Brustein also started a professional theater group at Harvard but named it the American Repertory Theatre Company, because, as Kroll explained in Newsweek, "it aims to put on 'universal works of art in a specifically American style.'"
Despite his efforts as an academic to change the theater, Brustein has not abandoned his critical role as cultural watchdog. In Critical Moments: Reflections on Theatre and Society, 1973–1979, he laments our lack of a national theater, one where, wrote New York Times Book Review contributor Broyard summarizing Brustein's argument, "we can see ourselves Writ large, where we can weep or applaud together. Like the country itself, the theater has degenerated into mutually exclusive and competing groups." Brustein asserts in The Culture Watch: Essays on Theatre and Society, 1969–1974 that partly because of the influence of television and advertising, plays are often judged according to their impact rather than their merit, and personalities, or stars, frequently usurp the credit due the entire theatrical company; moreover, talented young actors often betray their gifts by going to Hollywood for "personal aggrandizement," "career advancement," and "media opportunism." Lawson quoted Brustein as saying: "'To be a great artist in America—if that's possible—you have to develop a great character along with your art. It's one of the few places in the world where the culture does not support you. You have to become monastic and hermetic and obsessive. The culture is the adversary!'"
Some critics objected to Brustein's indictment of popular culture, particularly his view of Broadway. Richard Schickel, for example, discussing Making Scenes in the New York Times Book Review, did not consider it "necessarily betrayal of regional repertory ideals, as Mr. Brustein does, for individuals and works to move from the provinces to Broadway or to the mass media. Good is good, no matter where you find it, and creative people need the recognition—and the money—they can find on the national stage…. What one should aspire to, if one cares about theater, is not a rigid segregation of the two theaters, but free passage between them, to their mutual profit, their mutual refreshment." In the Nation, Novick wrote: "Brustein has wit, but I wonder about his sense of humor; he never seems to unbend. 'How can one love the theatre,' he asks, 'unless it functions as the instrument of some higher purpose?' Millions can and do, but Brustein does not want to…. Fortunately, he writes cogently even about what he doesn't like."
Brustein continued to publish challenging collections. In Dumbocracy in America: Studies in the Theatre of Guilt, 1987–1994, Brustein gathers a number of reviews and essays which first appeared in the New Republic. Brustein terms the "Theatre of Guilt" the typically domestic American drama he ranks as beneath the classics and serious avant-garde productions. Jack Helbig in Booklist noted that Brustein's outspoken opinions, including the title piece, can sometimes "set off a firestorm of angry rebuttals. Brustein's frankness, however, guarantees that every one of his witty, articulate, and fiery essays about theater and art are well worth reading again and again." Brustein is, according to a critic in Publishers Weekly, "a vehement defender of high art against what he sees as the encroachments of popular culture, political correctness and multiculturalism." Reston, writing in American Theatre, found the essays in this collection to be "splendid, and I wish there were more of them. Whether Brustein is taking on political correctness as the disqualifier of the artistic impulse, debunking multiculturalism, reporting on the 'arts wars,' or uncoupling the junction between politics and art, the author is piercing, devastating and passionate."
In 1997, Brustein publicly debated black playwright August Wilson before an audience at New York Town Hall. The focus of the debate was the presentation of race in American theatre, with Wilson arguing that only black artists could correctly present black culture and concerns, while Brustein argued that such a view encouraged racial separatism. "We've provided drama—if not enlightenment," Brustein remarked after the well-mannered discussion moderated by Anna Deveare Smith. John Sullivan in American Theatre noted: "I came away from this much-talked-about interchange with huge respect for the participants."
Brustein elaborates on the points he made in this public debate in written form in a piece included in Cultural Calisthenics: Writings on Race, Politics, and Theatre. The author again emphasizes his belief that artistic quality, not race or other social categories, should be the determining factor in funding and casting, and that there should not be separate black theaters. Brustein also addresses many other topics in this collection of criticism and social commentaries. In Publishers Weekly, a reviewer noted, "The book's strongest sections … display the author's impressive ability to discern a director's concept and to evaluate whether it serves the playwright's script."
Brustein continued to demonstrate his ability to challenge American theater in The Siege of the Arts: Collected Writings, 1994–2001. In addition to the expected reviews and articles about people involved in and buildings that house such productions from the New Republic, Brustein also includes a section on the problematic state of theater and the arts in general in the United States. He argues that correctness, political, moral, and aesthetic, are undermining the American arts. Writing in the Library Journal, Russell T. Clement called the collection "informed, insightful, and at times provactive."
While many of Brustein's nonfiction books comment on the state of theater, he has also published more practical works to help his cause. Letters to a Young Actor: A Universal Guide to Performance offers Brustein's advice on how to become a serious, well-rounded, employed actor, no matter where that career currently is. Primarily targeted at theater actors, Brustein covers every aspect, including what type of education to acquire (a college degree is best), the various acting methods, and how others play a role in an actor's development. Jack Helbig in Booklist called it an "ambitious, informative book."
Brustein's dedication to quality in the theater ultimately engenders respect from others as well. John Simon admitted in Commonweal, "I sometimes indulge in millenarian fantasies about what would happen to the American theater if half a dozen critics of Brustein's excellence were unleashed upon it in strategic positions. I believe that this might prove its rebirth and salvation; I also believe that it will never happen. But let us rejoice that there is at least one Brustein; even that is miraculously in excess of what the present American Theater deserves." "On the basis of the record he keeps of our theater," concluded Philip Roth in the New York Times Book Review, Robert Brustein "would certainly qualify as one of our most valuable cultural historians. What makes him to my mind the most important drama critic in America as well, is that to his melancholy task of distinguishing … between the genuine and the fake, the inspired and the commonplace, he brings an erudition and intelligence of the highest order. His analyses and judgments reflect the critical clarity of a first-rate mind, and rise out of a deep knowledge of dramatic literature, and the taste of a cultivated man." He added, "His language, though on occasion a little swollen with metaphor, is generally clear, rich and witty. But his distinction as a critic is not that he possesses all the equipment; rather, that it is employed in the service of a strong moral concern for the quality of the lives we live."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Brustein, Robert, The Third Theatre, Knopf (New York, NY), 1969.
Brustein, Robert, The Culture Watch: Essays on Theatre and Society, 1969–1974, Knopf (New York, NY), 1975.
Brustein, Robert, Making Scenes: A Personal History of the Turbulent Years at Yale, 1966–1979, Random House (New York, NY), 1981.
American Theatre, January, 1995, James Reston, Jr., review of Dumbocracy in America: Studies in the Theatre of Guilt, 1987–1994, p. 56; April, 1997, John Sullivan, "Lila, Meet Pogo. I Believe You Already Know Mr. Brecht," p. 64.
Booklist, September 1, 1994, Jack Helbig, review of Dumbocracy in America, p. 14; March 1, 2005, Jack Helbig, review of Letters to a Young Actor: A Universal Guide to Performance, p. 1126.
Chronicle of Higher Education, Terry McCabe, "Brustein: Center Stage for Better and Worse," biography of Robert Brustein, p. B15.
Commonweal, March 11, 1966, John Simon, review of Seasons of Discontent: Dramatic Opinions, 1959–1965, pp. 669-672.
Horizon, February, 1978, Steve Lawson, "Brustein at Yale: A Former Critic Has Turned an Academic Setting into a Training School for Actors and an Incubator for Playwrights," biography of Robert Brustein, pp. 36-40.
Library Journal, September 1, 2001, Russell T. Clement, review of The Siege of the Arts: Collected Writings, 1994–2001, p. 181.
Nation, August 25, 1969, Julius Novick, review of The Third Theatre, p. 152.
Newsweek, July 3, 1978, Jack Kroll, "Yale: Exit Brustein," biography of Robert Brustein, p. 76; April 28, 1980, Jack Kroll, "Harvard vs. Yale Onstage," p. 101; February 10, 1997, Jack Kroll, "And in This Corner …," p. 65.
New York Times Book Review, November 7, 1965, Philip Roth, review of Seasons of Discontent, p. 2; June 2, 1969, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of The Third Theatre, p. 43; Anatole Broyard, review of Critical Moments: Reflections on Theatre and Society, 1973–1979, p. 21; April 6, 1981, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of Making Scenes, p. 17; April 26, 1981, Richard Schickel, Making Scenes, p. 11.
Publishers Weekly, August 1, 1994, review of Dumbocracy in America, p. 64; September 28, 1998, review of Cultural Calisthenics: Writings on Race, Politics and Theater, p. 84.