Monday, September 19, 2011

Brustein's mortal error

Just a few months ago, Robert Brustein was busy insisting in a panel discussion on The Merchant of Venice that Shakespeare was not only anti-Semitic, but sexist and racist, too (don't worry, I tore apart his arguments handily enough, to applause from the audience).

So I was surprised to discover he'd written a play about the old villain (actually, an entire trilogy!), and that he was quoted in the pages of the Globe as "loving above all writers" the poet he considers a racist, sexist anti-Semite.

Hmmmm.  Well, I suppose consistency was never Brustein's strongest suit.  But consider this: another playwright whom Brustein has long disparaged is Tom Stoppard - who's hardly Shakespeare, granted, but whom many of us have enjoyed and applauded over the years.   (Brustein's case here was aesthetic, rather than political - he always found Stoppard superficial, even "cute.")

So imagine my even greater surprise when I discovered that Brustein's play about Shakespeare, Mortal Terror (now playing at Suffolk's Modern Theatre) was often a transparent imitation of Stoppard's screenplay for Hollywood's Shakespeare in Love.  This time the play in question is Macbeth rather than Romeo and Juliet, but the dramatic method is much the same - indeed, some scenes are such close echoes you're tempted to call them plagiarism.

So let's recap!

What we have in Mortal Terror, then, is a play written in tribute to a man whose politics Brustein has always despised, in the manner of a playwright he has always derided.

I'm not sure irony gets much sweeter than this.

Although as a theatrical experience, Mortal Terror is far more sour than sweet.  Brustein, of course, is no Shakespeare; but it turns out he's hardly Stoppard, either. (Dare I say it? He's far more superficial!) And so his play is a botch - but still, to be fair, it's not quite dreadful; every now and then some farcical fart-joke mechanics kick into gear (thanks to a ferocious comic performance from Jeremiah Kissel, who even when saddled with second-rate material basically won't take no for an answer), and the show delivers some honest - and intentional - guffaws.  (As I recall, the A.R.T.'s old default mode, when it wasn't conducting one of its surreal theatrical autopsies, was just this kind of crass but harshly funny schtick.)  At times Brustein even delivers a genuinely witty line or two (it helps when he drops Stoppard for Steve Martin, the other unacknowledged source hovering over this particular playwriting party).

But wait - did I say second-rate?  Make that third-rate; Mortal Terror is third-rate most of the time, because it's stuffed with constant (and awkward) historical exposition delivered in a bizarre style of pseudo-Jacobean oratory.  Plus many scenes ramble on well past their fresh date, the major sub-plot (about the Gunpowder Plot) is reduced to little more than a skit, and as a character, Brustein's Shakespeare doesn't exist.   The fart jokes may save Mortal Terror from being fourth-rate; but it's certainly third-rate.

But then what really are the expectations one can entertain for it?  It has the air of a prep school revue, or the kind of vanity production you'd expect at the Hasty Pudding Club, or in some academic's living room after drinks.  And no doubt in such a setting it might seem campily clever, with all its in-jokes about the theatre and rumors about James I and references to the dean's pet theory about what the Greco-Roman goddess Hecate is doing in the Scottish Macbeth (a mystery, surely).

Still, even as an academic sketch, Mortal Terror isn't quite up to snuff.  Brustein has to fudge the dates around the 1605 Gunpowder Plot to work in a second sub-plot (the brief imprisonment of Ben Jonson over Eastward Ho) - which would be okay if the playwright actually had any thematic parallels to draw between these events (which, strangely enough, he doesn't).  But even if we buy that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in 1605 (it's possible), Brustein also has him chatting during its composition about writing the romances (1607?) and then even retiring! (1610?  1611?)   Meanwhile Brustein hints that Thomas Middleton supplied some of Macbeth (a current vogue in some scholarly quarters), without really treating the larger consensus that the play was revised over time.

Which gets us to a central problem with the script, which is that Brustein simply doesn't engage with Macbeth itself.  It's fun, in a small way, I suppose, to tease out connections between James I's superstitious, misogynist belief in witches and the "weird sisters" of Macbeth.  But it doesn't have much to do with what makes Macbeth great (millions have thrilled to its power without ever knowing anything about James I).  The essential conceit of Shakespeare in Love was that Shakespeare's personal experience of love inspired the lyrical flights in Romeo and Juliet.  So what inspired the hallucinatory terrors and grim fatalism of Macbeth?  Brustein seems to have no clue (beyond "misogyny," I guess, which feels like a stretch), and without this thematic spine, Mortal Terror is just a series of scenes strung from one of his hobbyhorses to the next.

Nevertheless, the playwright pretends to limn some sort of deeper, desolate meaning from this pseudo-Jacobean dramaturgical jumble (he even has Shakespeare quote the famously despairing Sonnet 66 at the climax!).  Brustein also confidently informs us (in the program) that he has "found a style that, while modern, could pass for Elizabethan."  Uh-huh - keep telling yourself that, Bob; I for one hope Shakespeare never sounded anything like this.

I must admit, however, that the sheer arrogance of this project has its own weirdly compelling subtexts.  First there's the strange fact that Brustein should so obviously be imitating a playwright he has long dismissed.  (He pulled the same trick with his earlier Nobody Dies on Friday, which in the name of O'Neill actually channeled Miller and Inge.)  What's all that about?  Does Brustein imagine he's pulling off some kind of meta-meta parody of these writers?  Or is he afflicted by a weird type of artistic and psychological blindness?  Methinks I better leave that discussion to the shrinks!

Meanwhile, in the political sphere, there's the fact that a vanity production of a play this bad only occurs because of some perceived power the dramatist in question still wields; so the existence of Mortal Terror is not so much an artistic statement as a kind of declaration from Brustein that yes, he is still very much on the scene, and yes, he still has friends.  So thank you, Comrade Brustein - message received and understood!  Indeed, seen this way, the incompetence of a vanity project only strengthens its underlying message  - so on its own terms, Mortal Terror is a kind of masterpiece.

Thus it's no surprise the Professor (he's now at Suffolk, although I thought he was still hanging around Harvard, too) has attracted a talented cast, all of whom manage quite well, considering their material (with the exception of Stafford Clark-Price, who's just a blank, rather than a sphinx, as Shakespeare).  Georgia Lyman has never looked lovelier (with her hair down, she's a ringer for Lauren Bacall), and Michael Hammond, Dafydd ap Rees, John Kuntz, and Christopher James Webb all get through everything they have to do, minute by minute (Kuntz even gets laughs as Guy Fawkes; they're cheap laughs, but they're laughs).  And the sumptuous costumes, by Rachel Padula Shufelt, are often gorgeous, while Jon Savage's set is effective in a sweetly naive, almost high-school kind of way.

But at the same time, the whole thing comes off as pathetic to those who couldn't care less about being in Brustein's good graces.  Because if you don't know who might cast whom, and who is writing a letter in support of whose tenure, or who could say a word to whom about funding whomever's project, then Mortal Terror just seems weirdly embarrassing (I winced more than once - and I hate the guy!).  In the end it's just one more piece of dramatic evidence that the curtain should have been rung down on Brustein's reign of error long ago.


  1. Having seen a staged reading of one Of Brustein's "Shakespeare" plays, I wonder, if like Annie Baker, he really isn't a television writer deep down inside.

  2. Ooo, Ian, that's a smear on Annie Baker! I've got some issues with her, as you know, but like Art I think she's a genuine playwright (just not a great one yet).

    Brustein, on the other hand, is NOT a playwright, and you're right that there's something deeply sitcommy about him. Whether that should be surprising is another question. I recall that when someone once asked William Gaddis if he read "difficult" authors like himself, such as, say, Thomas Pynchon or John Barth, he laughed and said "Are you KIDDING?"

  3. Fair enough, Baker is a better writer than Brustein.

    I just got the impression that while Annie Baker is a writer, the Shirley, Vermont plays are really more like a backdoor pilot for a television series about those interesting folk in the town of Shirley, Vermont.

    But even though it was a different play than the one you're reviewing, it had some of the same tics that you describe, like Anne Hathaway lecturing her husband on how the women of Stratford-upon-Avon in that era were generally not taught how to write, let alone sign their names (and yes, I'm paraphrasing actual dialogue.)

  4. I know what you mean about the "Green Acres" and "Petticoat Junction" aspect of Baker's plays. They're really corny in a way. Still, Brustein's in an entirely different (and far lower) league.

  5. Just btw, I've read that "The English Channel," which you referred to earlier, was actually nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Which gives you some idea of the power of Brustein's influence.