Sunday, August 3, 2008

What should an academic theatre be? Part II

In an earlier post, I pondered the arrival of new Artistic Director Diane Paulus at the ART, and how her resume seemed almost a parody of that theatre's notorious M.O. I simultaneously promised a second post on the problem of how to appropriately model an academic theatre. Given that we've had two such theatres operating in Boston for a quarter of a century without any serious public discussion of their respective stances, I felt some consideration of the topic was long overdue. Indeed, now I've decided to make this a quadruple, rather than a double, header, largely because I felt before attempting my own model of academic theatre, I might pause to consider at length how the ART/Huntington duet has played out.

But first I'll throw out what I feel is the underlying question this series should at least attempt to answer:

Why have an academic theatre at all?

Okay, more on that later. But let me say right away that I think neither Harvard nor B.U. really grappled with this question prior to the founding of either the ART or the Huntington. The ART pretty much appeared overnight in 1980 when Robert Brustein (at left) was booted from his deanship at Yale, and Harvard leapt at the chance of having him set up shop in the Loeb Drama Center (hoping no doubt he'd bring some of the prestige that had accrued to the Yale School of Drama with him). Likewise, in a kind of prestige-grabbing cascade effect, BU opened the Huntington across the river just two years later, in a move that was hard to perceive as unrelated to the ART's arrival. And it wasn't soon before the two institutions seemed to almost orbit each other in an artistic (or perhaps critical) sense.

To get at the nature of that symbiosis, I think I'll begin with its prime mover. A professor and then dean at Columbia and Yale during the tumultuous years of the sixties, Brustein had become known for his desire to instill a revolutionary politics within the drama long before he arrived in Cambridge (his books included Theatre of Revolt, Seasons of Discontent, and Revolution as Theatre: Notes on the New Radical Style). While proclaiming himself a revolutionary, however, Brustein was at the same time the consummate insider: superbly connected in East Coast academia (the leap, without a beat, from Yale to Harvard tells you as much), he also for decades filled one of the last paying "national" jobs writing on theatre (at The New Republic), and led a social life that included a redoubt on Martha's Vineyard and a "set" studded with artistic, academic, and media players and luminaries.

The irony of his lifestyle, of course, is hardly unusual in the academy, which is encrusted with "revolutionaries" comfortably ensconced in the establishment; and Brustein was at least a man of his word when it came to the theatre he ran: the American Repertory Theatre (a name consciously, if vainly, chosen for its national implications) was clearly committed to a modernist (later postmodernist) program of reform. The company seemed to see itself as a kind of intervention in its art form, openly injecting critical theory into its process in an attempt to revivify, if not revolutionize, the fabulous invalid. This was no doubt a heady notion in the ivory tower (the ART was a bit like a laboratory in which the physicists could tell the particles what to do), and in 1980 it was only part of a phalanx of theories by which professors had begun to usurp the authority of the authors and artists they supposedly studied - Barthes said the author was dead, and Foucault said knowledge was just a power structure, and Kuhn said empiricism was merely a shared paradigm; to the critical theorist, everything seemed up for grabs.

There were signs even then, however, that this revolution-by-proxy was essentially a virtual re-enactment of the sixties - now the "pigs" and "the establishment" were "the author" and "the canon," and the professors rather than the students were on the barricades. Such communal re-enactments are the bread-and-butter of social history, of course, so in a way that academic wave was no surprise. The problem for the ART, of course, was what theory, exactly, should be injected into the drama to make it flower in an appropriately revolutionary way. And while Brustein had long proved himself an incisive writer and analyst, once it came time to prove himself as a practitioner, he resorted, as so many had before him, to pastiche. The ART became known for a cool, almost clinical, presentation in an empty, Brechtian space. But within that notionally "epic" theatre frame, just about anything went, as long as it seemed somehow opposed to bourgeois convention in an orgiastic, Artaudian kind of way. Indeed, the youthful radical was always given the benefit of the doubt, while the apparent intent of the author was always suspect - a neat reversal which, by its own lights, obviously only traded one set of problems for another, and which didn't bode well for the enterprise's long-term success as a critical project.

Still, the theatre had some early triumphs, like Julie Taymor's The King Stag (above) and Six Characters in Search of an Author, directed by Brustein himself in his one burst of directorial power. Robert Wilson came back from Europe with a few visually (but not intellectually) dazzling post-surrealist extravaganzas, Philip Glass wrote some lesser works for the theatre, and Peter Sellars rolled giant pineapples through a couple of shows. And generally a loose link was formed with the circuit of bohemian stage artists running from Soho to the Continent and back (people like David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, and Susan Sontag often popped by).

But the list of immature, funereally mediocre, or vulgar productions began to mount; certain authors (like Williams, Stoppard, and even Shaw, for a while) were excluded from the playlist, the acting company remained highly variable, and the ART found itself in the embarrassing position of reviving King Stag and Six Characters over and over again, for well over a decade, to renew faith in its competence.

Moreover, the theatre's stance was not merely threatened by its own performance, but by larger trends. Once again, the times they were a'changin', and the modernist project (or at least the reformatory arm to which the ART clung) was in trouble. Modern architecture had transformed inner cities into wastelands, and serialism had nearly destroyed classical music; probably no other artistic movement had been responsible for quite so many obvious disasters. And slowly, despite the Stalinist attitudes of the thoroughly modern academy, postmodernism began to adopt strategies to avoid future horrors. Indeed, some of the major talents of the early days at the ART were quickly absorbed into the larger culture, but not for the reasons a reformer would have liked: Taymor became famous for the way her puppets tickled the fancy of the bourgeoisie, while Glass's reputation blossomed because his minimalism sneaked tonalism back into the concert hall. In short, the ART's postmodernism began to undo its modernism. At the same time our national politics underwent a thorough retrenchment; revolution, and even liberalism, went out in the 80s, never to return; politically, the ART was no longer part of the ferment, but instead was itself a kind of artifact. Meanwhile structuralism exhausted itself, the influence of critical theory declined, and eventually "the author" came roaring back via Harold Bloom and others.

And slowly the ART began to drift, although some of its early stars (like Glass) kept coming back, other members of the Soho/boho circuit took bows (Anna Deavere Smith dropped by), and the company finally staged Shaw (directed by David Wheeler, who became its lifeline to "traditional" theatre). But the whole project felt somehow moribund; again and again one left the ART slightly irritated but unmoved. Whatever effect the company was going to have on the larger culture had come and gone long ago, and at least half its productions were reliably bad. And the authors had had, in a way, their revenge on Brustein and his theatre: texts were somehow perceivable though all the postmodern camouflage, and the lingering impression of show after show was of the greatness of the play overshadowing the tinny posturing of its production. The company's Shakespeare usually felt overcomplicated, attenuated, or cruel; its Chekhov, dogmatic and forced; its Shaw, condescendingly arch; certainly none of these great authors had been made more "alive," more vibrant or relevant (indeed, ART productions were by and large duller than "traditional" ones). The experiment that was supposed to revive theatre, had, instead, been shown up by it.

But the experiment got a new lease on life via a twist on its object, thanks to Robert Woodruff, the ART's second artistic director. Woodruff, an undoubted directorial talent, held on to certain modernist ART traditions (often via co-productions with the now-defunct Theatre de la Jeune Lune), but also began to push the company toward the amplifications of pop - rock music in particular, but also the general sphere of mediated electronic entertainment and identity. The idea had a certain kind of appeal - the only "revolution" left with any street cred was the technological pop revolution, after all - which, admittedly, was a pseudo-revolution leading to isolation, not community (once a central tenet of theatre), but which via its transcendence of politics had enjoyed undeniable staying power (enhanced, no doubt, by the endless advance of its technology). Sheer popular success had always been the secret wish beneath much of modernist theory anyhow, and the cresting edge of cultural vacuum that theorists like Derrida and Baudrillard once surfed had clearly been bested, and utterly subsumed, by the ironic, knowing emptiness of pop. The ivory tower had already intuited that its arcane theories could be cut free from Marx and Hegel and re-framed as the herald of globalized, digitized market culture - and Woodruff began to re-orient the ART's "revolutionary" mission toward this new dispensation. Now authorial intent, once an elitist straightjacket on the masses, was re-conceived as mere pre-millennial baggage, a kind of beautiful ghost to be pondered nostalgically, but only as a benighted "background" for the au courant noodlings of the design team.

John Campion in Robert Woodruff's Oedipus Rex.

That Woodruff himself made complex, insightful stage pictures (in the end, that's what the ART's theory comes down to), and in general conjured an atmosphere of doomed extremity, made his shows compelling, for the most part, and at least partly justified his method. Indeed, for a season or two, it seemed his presence had rejuvenated the whole enterprise: aside from Woodruff's own work, the 2003 season, featured three startlingly good imported productions (The Syringa Tree, Foreign Aids, and the far side of the moon), and most of its homegrown efforts, like Dido, Queen of Carthage, you could at least make a case for. But things quickly began to fall apart again: the theatre's classical productions were sometimes all but unwatchable (Three Sisters, Romeo and Juliet), the rock'n'roll proved trickier to integrate into a theatrical frame than Woodruff had imagined (The Onion Cellar), and new movie adaptations went thud (Wings of Desire, Donnie Darko). Soon the Board moved in, perhaps motivated not merely by the variability of his output - which was certainly no weaker than Brustein's - but also by his prickly personal presence, and an M.O. which subtly undermined much of what the elderly academy held dear.

Meanwhile, over at the Huntington, a kind of philosophical riposte to the ART had taken shape, again with mixed results -

ah, but that's yet another post.

1 comment:

  1. One of the most amusing happenings in the later Brustein years was the production of one of his own plays.

    Nobody Dies On Friday was a one set, living room drama about the time Marilyn Monroe spent at the home of Lee Strasberg. Strangely, it seemed to be exactly the type of play that Brustein had been thrashing against through most of his critical career. (As a side note, Alvin Epstein was wonderful as Lee Strasberg.)

    Making Scenes, Brustein's memoir of the Yale years, is a great read and I wonder if he won't write another about his Harvard tenure. Some great material in there,(Sam Shephard leaving Boston in hurry, Robert Wilson's The Civil Wars.)