Robert Brustein and His Dads
You don’t have to share a gene pool to be someone’s kid. He doesn’t have to adopt you. Hell, he doesn’t even have to know who you are.
I hadn’t met Robert Brustein when he started shaping the way I think. By the time we met, I’d already purchased a second copy of The Theatre of Revolt, the first too dog-eared and underlined and notated in the margins to read yet another time. I’d already spent a lot of time picking the brains of two of his former students, who were running an off-Broadway company in New York. But what I learned from Bob, through his writings and after I got to know him, went way beyond a deepened understanding of Ibsen and Pirandello, even beyond an understanding of the place of theater in our culture, what it is and what it should be. His willingness to say what he knows to be true, no matter which friend or colleague or editor or university president he might alienate in the process, showed me just how I ought to approach my work.
Lately, I’ve been learning from him that you don’t have to retire just because you turn 65. Or 84, for that matter. Bob has two new books out, one that makes sense of Shakespeare, the man and his times, by looking at his plays, the other a collection of recent writings, Rants and Raves. And he has had time to write more plays since his retirement from his professorial post at Harvard and his leadership of the American Repertory Theatre, which he founded in 1980 and directed until 2002, just after he was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.
But this isn’t about what I learned. It’s about Bob and his two dads. Recently, when he received the U.S. Medal of Arts from President Obama, I couldn’t help thinking: Lionel Trilling would be proud. Maybe Max Brustein would be, too.
This story appeared in TheaterWeek magazine on November 7, 1994. Note that Rocco Landesman is no longer head of Jujamcyn and Brustein is happily remarried:
Schoolbiz: Two Fathers and Their Son
Max Brustein owned a wool factory in Rhode Island, with an office in New York’s garment district. A graduate of the fourth grade, he didn’t appreciate intellectual pursuits and once turned down his younger son’s request for a book. “You already got a book,” he reasoned.
He counted on taking his two boys into the business, and Marty, the elder, agreed. Bob refused, reducing Max to tears. But when the young boy started writing books, the wool maker tried hard to read them. It was painful for him though, when Robert Brustein announced he would go off to New Haven to head a drama school. “How much is Yale paying you?” the wealthy entrepreneur queried. “Twenty-four thousand,” the new dean of Yale Drama said. “I’ll give you $24,000 to stay in New York,” said Max.
Brustein rejected the offer, but not his father. After stormy times, the two became close, and Brustein recalls warm moments together, sometimes watching Lawrence Welk on television.
Marty, who gave up an interest in medicine and became a successful stock broker, said his brother “did the right thing” by going his own way: Better to risk alienating a father than to lose the chance to find out what you want to do.
Later, Brustein would risk relationships with artists he wanted to work with by writing honestly about their productions. And he would be an exceptional teacher, able to assert his own strong values without crushing other visions.
Robert Brustein’s first hero was Artie Shaw, and when he enrolled in what then was Music and Art High in New York, he studied clarinet and dreamed of becoming a swing band conductor.
At Amherst, he encountered Allen Gilmore, for whom medieval history mirrored the modern world. This time, he was sure his future lay in the distance past.
But after graduating from Amherst, Brustein wandered through the Ivies in pursuit of a teacher and a subject. At Brown, he discovered medieval history wasn’t for him. He apologized to Gilmore, who let him know it wasn’t necessary to imitate his teacher to retain his high regard. At Yale, Brustein discovered a stodgy drama school wasn’t a good place to develop an acting talent.
And at Columbia, he discovered a second father.
In Dumbocracy in America, one of Brustein’s wonderful collections of illuminating reviews of stage and society, ends with a piece about his mentor and model, Lionel Trilling.
The literary critic cared about culture as well as art, defining a nation not by its apparent consensus but by its internal debates. “It is nothing if not a dialectic,” he wrote. He feared an intellect divorced from experience and a democracy separated from the individuals and artists within. “A democracy that does not know that the [artistic] demon and the subject must be served is not a democracy at all.”
In Trilling, Brustein found an “intellectual father” with whom he could share a deeply felt humanism along with an aversion to sentimentality, which simplifies and homogenizes authentic experience. The two had one little quibble:
Trilling found dramatic literature frivolous.
Brustein already knew a true teacher accepts those who don’t follow in his footsteps and that the best students forge their own paths. He would go on to share values and aesthetics with his own students, but his students would internalize his strength more often than his ideas, making their own marks on the theater.
Not everyone knows how well Brustein takes it. Rocco Landesman, who heads Jujamcyn, fears he’s disappointing his teacher/father-figure, much the way Brustein once worried over Gilmore’s response. “I’m outside the world and the world he cares about,” Landesman says.
Maybe, but Brustein is delighted when his former students succeed on Broadway. Or when they accept their Emmys and Oscars. He hopes they “will retain the hunger to express whatever brought them into a training program,” but he understands the realities that sometimes separate his students from the idea of resident repertory theater.
Landesman isn’t the only Yale DFA who took another road. “I think that program succeeded more than anyone has recognized,” says Joel Schechter, who chairs the theater department at San Francisco State and edited YaleTheater for many years after doing his doctorate there. He notes that in an era of declining daily papers and space for theater reviews, many of his classmates have published books instead. They have become dramaturges or teachers, or like Landesman, participate in other areas of theater. “Rocco is a fully literate and articulate producer,” Schechter points out.
Some of Brustein’s most loyal students are those who didn’t study with him. Gregory Boyd, artistic director of the Alley Theatre, opted to go to Carnegie, where he was accepted into a directing MFA, instead of Brustein’s Yale, which admitted him into the acting program. But Boyd learned to read plays by reading The Theater of Revolt. “Bob is in many ways the reason I’m still in theater,” he says. “After Shakespeare and Brecht and the promise of meeting girls, there has to be something that keeps you there…Bob demonstrates that an intelligent world view of the theater can still exist and can still be about quality and not about community outreach and all that horseshit…he was my mentor more than anybody else.”
Playwright Shelley Berc, who co-directed the Playwrights Lab at the University of Iowa, graduated from college as Brustein left Yale. Anxious to study with him, she postponed graduate school to do an internship at the American Repertory Theater—even though the A.R.T. had no internships then. “He let me use his library,” she recalls. He also gave her a chance to assist Lee Breuer on an adaptation of Wedekind’s Lulu, then advised her to study with Richard Gilman at Yale. “Now Bob reminds me I’m a critic as well as a playwright,” says Berc. “He makes me realize I can put those worlds together.”
When Robert Brustein flips a coin, it comes up heads and tails. He is a critic and a producer, an educator and an artist. In each of these roles, he can’t be labeled liberal or conservative. He is a tough rationalist who still feels the corporal presence of a wife who passed away almost 15 years ago. He is committed both to tradition and experimentation.
Brustein’s vision is complex. It often encompasses extremes rather than compromising between them. In his discussion of Ibsen in The Theater of Revolt, he foreshadowed his future work. One Ibsen play may suggest one set of values, another the opposite. Together, Brustein suggests, they present an unsynthesized dialectic, revealing irreconcilable sides of the playwright’s psyche. Some students feel betrayed when Brustein produces something that doesn’t mesh with the ideal he describes in his writings; these writings are sometimes extensions of his work at the A.R.T., but at other times, they are a corrective to it.
Brustein gives company members freedom to try what he’s not sure about. “Sometimes it turns out to be positive and brings us to areas I never could have imagined, and sometimes the freedom takes us down a dead end,” says Brustein, who knows that if he were reviewing some of his own shows, he would review them unfavorably. (In fact, he has disturbed some other critics who raved about his productions by commenting negatively about them in essays later on.)
Students who hope to sit at the feet of a guru discover his powers are limited. They come to understand not just his views but the difficulty he sometimes has arriving at them, not just the productions, but the problematic process behind some of them. And that, maybe more than anything, frees them to find the power within themselves.
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