Monday, October 4, 2010

Brustein in winter

Hub Review readers know I'm not a fan of Robert Brustein (above, in a wintry pastiche), and his tenure at the American Repertory Theatre (which he founded) I regard as a pretty profound failure - a long experiment which year after year, season after dismal season, disproved its own thesis.  For decades, in fact, Brustein wasted literally millions in public and private funds in a quixotic quest to "revolutionize" theatre in something like the way the wannabe communards of Columbia University (where he got his Ph.D.) thought they could transform politics in 1968.

Obviously, the A.R.T. managed no such feat.  Indeed, Brustein's idea that his critical eye could re-invigorate the entire American theatre (note the pretentious moniker he chose for his company) proved egocentrically overblown; America moved on without him, or his fellow travelers in Manhattan and the university circuit. After a strong start (with productions like The King Stag and Six Characters in Search of an Author, both of which were revived for years), the company soon found itself treading water, while clinging to a dated vision of the "cutting edge." It had the (very) occasional hit (like Anna Deavere Smith's Fires in the Mirror), but subscribers still missed most everything that mattered in the theatre over the past generation; they never heard from Tony Kushner, or August Wilson, or Caryl Churchill, David Hare, Sarah Kane, or Tracy Letts (and they saw several musicals, but none by Stephen Sondheim). Tellingly, when a living writer of real stature (Dario Fo, Sam Shepard) graced the theatre's stages, it was almost always with work done in the 60's or 70's; because while the A.R.T.'s internal culture was militantly avant-garde, it was obviously nostalgic in what it thought of as avant.

Part of the problem was that Brustein's theories leaned heavily on directorial intervention, and thus turned his theatre into a formalist hothouse hostile to writers engaging with the actual culture. Inevitably, this theory (like all theories) forced the A.R.T. to retreat into an academic and political bubble. But of course Brustein was operating inside an academic and political bubble, at Harvard. And Harvard's king around here, of course - and if the king wants to stage an ersatz revolution every season, the peasants inevitably show up.  Meanwhile Brustein's career had made him superbly connected within the academic establishment, while his position as one of the country's last nationally-published drama critics made most reviewers loathe to cross him. So there was no way to stop him; his reign of error ground on until 2001.

When he finally left, there was a leap of interest in his successor, Robert Woodruff, and judging from figures recently published by the Boston Globe, moribund attendance at the A.R.T. suddenly jumped. But something went down between Woodruff and the university administration - and he was soon pushed from his post (why this occurred remains a source of rumor and debate). After a search that lasted over two years - and three seasons of further decline - Diane Paulus was installed as Woodruff's replacement.

But the soap opera only continued. Paulus quickly alienated - then eviscerated - her staff, and pretty much dis-assembled what was left of the acting company. She installed her husband, a burlesque impresario, as manager of A.R.T.'s second space, and opened their private moneymaker, The Donkey Show, which I think is still running there along with other New Age strip acts, including web diva Amanda Palmer, who's starring in a sold-out version of Cabaret directed by her high school drama teacher (which is resonant in just so many ways).

A backlash began to form, of course, but Paulus hired other business associates to bolster her power, and many local writers, who are essentially rock fans rather than theatre fans, responded to her embrace of the club scene. Plus Paulus had a trump card in her gender; dim "progressives" (with images of the fatuous Larry Summers still fresh in their memories) were sure to howl if she were to be fired - even though it was widely known that she was almost never at her theatre, but was instead attending to her New York career (as her buddy at the Huntington, Peter DuBois, is also prone to do).

But wait, the world's still turning for the young and the restless. As the actors dumped by the A.R.T. began to be seen more around town (by audiences too smart to waste their time at the Loeb), they began to be viewed as local heroes. One, Will Lebow, even wrote an open letter to Harvard expertly skewering Paulus's bad faith. Even more damagingly, Rob Orchard, a former member of the A.R.T. staff, began to gear up at Emerson College what you could think of as a kind of academic "third way" - a theatrical season of genuine intellectual challenge that was also emotionally satisfying, and thus commercially viable. (Last month it began with a BAM, if you will, with two hits, Fraulein Maria and the Laramie Residency.) Finally, word came out that Robert Brustein himself, in a gesture of profound dismay, had resigned from the A.R.T. board.

Not that that matters, really. But it's touching somehow; the dream is once again over, and once again we'll have to carry on. Brustein has had to abandon his brain-child, and I'm sure that hurt (as has its eventual artistic fate). In a recent exchange with former Globe critic Ed Siegel, Brustein even sounded a little defensive when Siegel hinted at what the rest of the city is saying out loud - that Orchard's ArtsEmerson has taken over the high-end cultural space Paulus's ART has evacuated. Which led Brustein to describe many ART productions as "light-hearted," a statement which I think made many readers' jaws drop. The ART was never light-hearted - not ever; it didn't know how to be; it just didn't have that generosity of spirit. That was part of why so many people hated it. In his comment, Brustein lists a series of shows (most of which I saw) which, it's true, were all intended as comedies, but generally relied on the crassest kind of humor to put over that idea; watching them was like watching Robespierre or Lenin do stand-up. And they were all so cold - "comedy" at the ART was seen as the formal flip-side of the theatre's usual chilly, rarefied post-surrealism. You could argue that at their best, the brutal shenanigans had a point - but then again, perhaps they were just playing to the cruelty of the Harvard home crowd (not for nothing did Harvard birth the legendarily nasty National Lampoon).

And at any rate, I wonder if Diane Paulus is really so far from Brustein's true legacy - that is the legacy of the "revolutionary" sixties filtered through Soho in the seventies. Amusingly, when Paulus does attempt a "straight" ART-style show, like Paradise Lost, she comes up with something remarkably like what Brustein used to produce on a regular basis (indeed, something like what she actually used to see when she was a student at Harvard!). Clearly, Paulus thinks these two modes are compatible - and I have a hunch she's right; or rather that all she has really done is commercialize the dream of orgiastic freedom that floated beneath the supposed rigor of so many ART productions. The few times I interacted with Brustein (he didn't know who I was at the time), he struck me as an avuncular, but inveterate, snob - and that snobbery certainly reverberated throughout his theatre. And it's that snobbery which gave Paulus her opening; all she has really done is down-market Brustein's vision to the bourgeoisie he despised. So sadly enough, the lion in winter set his own trap.

What's actually interesting about Paulus, in fact, is not her hand-me-down aesthetics, but the way in which in her commercial ambitions she's an avatar of the university system in general, which for the last generation has been talking about how important it was to "leave the ivory tower behind." Well, now they've left it, and taken up residence at the disco and the mall. And Brustein has seen his faux revolution put in the front window, with a price tag on it. The funny thing is - it was crass then. And it's crass now. Plus ├ža change, as they say in Au Bon Pain.


  1. My only encounter with Brustein was the morning after a Halloween party in Watertown. I had slept on a sofa that night because I was unable to get a ride back to Jamaica Plain where I lived at the time, but I had made my way to Cambridge, and so I ordered breakfast at the 1369 in Central Square still masked. A few tables over was Brustein and his crew. Brustein spent much of the time giving me dirty looks that indicated he either didn't like my Scaramouche costume (which I admit wasn't that great) or the fact that I the management had let me enter armed with a fencing foil.

    Let me stress, he spent almost his whole time giving me dirty looks.

  2. My two interactions were brief, but did not reveal a generous soul. One was particularly telling. When I saw the ART's first production of "Waiting for Godot," with Mark Linn-Baker, I had, at the time, the play pretty much memorized, and I was stunned to hear Linn-Baker saying lines that weren't in it. (Yes, the ART added lines to Beckett!) My friend knew his way around the Loeb, and after the show asked if I'd like to go back to see Linn-Baker and ask where those lines came from. Of course I said yes - so off we went to the dressing rooms. We found Linn-Baker at the door, chatting with Brustein. We complimented him on his performance, but then I asked him my question. They both seemed stunned that we had noticed the additions. Linn-Baker asked if I knew the play that well, and I nodded; but Brustein waved his hand in my face and said, "Of course not; he was reading along!" "No, I wasn't;" I said to him. "I've played Gogo, and I have it memorized." Brustein turned to Linn-Baker and smirked. "He's lying," he said.

  3. More than two years since this commentary appeared, and it is still wonderful to read. He has a new play The Last Will which is getting a premiere at Suffolk University. In it Brustein imagines Shakespeare struggling to deal with his deteriorating mind as fact and fiction blur. He has published the script on his blog.

    I am debating whether to cover or review for my own blog. (

    Keep up the good fight!