Swans Commentary » swans.com January 28, 2008  



Robert Brustein's Millennial Stages


by Charles Marowitz


Book Review



Brustein, Robert; Millennial Stages: Essays & Reviews 2001-2005, Yale University Press, ISBN-13; 978-0-300-11577-2


(Swans - January 28, 2008)   Theatre criticism has never been an outstanding branch of American letters. The British could boast William Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt, William Archer, George Bernard Shaw, Max Beerbohm, James Agate, Eric Bentley, Kenneth Tynan, (the last two occasionally spilling over onto Broadway) whereas America could counter only with zealous but lusterless scribes such as William Winter, Stark Young, Robert Benchley, Brooks Atkinson, Walter Kerr, Richard Watts Jr., et al.

Towards the end of the last century, the caliber improved somewhat with Mary McCarthy, Stanley Taubman, Richard Gilman, John Simon, and Frank Rich (although many would attach serious caveats in regard to the last two mentioned). Today, the Olympian position at The New York Times is filled by Ben Brantley who is a staunch, theatrical aficionado, a critic who writes better than he thinks, rather easily pleased, painfully judicious in all his evaluations, praising the praiseworthy, admonishing the meretricious and so determined to strike a balance between the two that one feels he writes with a slide rule, a tape measure, and an analog computer by his side.

On the whole, if finite comparisons were to be made, the Brits would seem to come out on top. Speaking hazardously in the most general terms, the English critics have more style, greater depth, and more colorful literary personalities. Being regularly exposed to European theater, their frame of reference is wider and coming often from Oxbridge, their education more comprehensive. Even when one strongly disagrees with their opinions, one has to admit they employ a sharper terminology, possess a stronger grasp of both modern and ancient history, and their writing is spiced with sprightlier similes and metaphors. It also helps the general level of literacy to be exposed to a theatrical scene that regularly sprouts works by playwrights such as Harold Pinter, Michael Frayn, Tom Stoppard, Patrick Marber, and the late Sarah Kane.

Eric Bentley, born in Lancashire but leavened in America, hit a high-water mark at The New Republic but lasted only four years. His mainstream rivals produced hastily-assembled, often uncorroborated, opinions absorbed in the hit-and-miss philosophy that for many years has dominated Broadway and consequently, were reduced to dopesters by the crassness of their environment.

Having downgraded our own aisle-sitters, one has to point out that there is almost always an exception that grossly subverts the rule, and this is where Robert Brustein comes in. From the very beginning and up to the present, Brustein has occupied a niche of his own. Compared to his journalistic colleagues, he seemed to be inhaling an oxygen found only in the higher stratospheres -- by which I don't mean to suggest that he wasn't easily understood but only that his personal esthetic seemed to come from another place.

When we apply the citation "good critic" on someone, we usually mean a critic with whom we tend to agree. What makes him "good" is that he reinforces our enthusiasms and prejudices. But what a good critic ought to be is one that stimulates and enlightens us whether we agree with him or not. It is the "presence of mind" that should be the criterion rather than the alacrity with which a reviewer hands down judgments. Michel Foucault, describing his ideal kind of criticism, wrote: "...it would light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea foam in its breeze and scatter it. It would multiply not judgments but signs of existence; it would summon them, drag them from their sleep. Perhaps it would invent them sometimes -- all the better." When you think about it, most critics "hand down judgments" preceded by verbal illustrations as to why they have come to the conclusions they have. Frequently, theatre criticism reads like scorecards that the critic has neglected to tally up on the bottom line, allowing the reader to tote things up for him or herself, providing a few telltale adjectival assists at the tail end of each notice.

Brustein, amongst his contemporaries, comes closest to "lighting fires," "catching the sea foam in its breeze," and scattering it. He is as judgmental as anyone writing for a daily newspaper but, unlike many of his confreres, provides more persuasive evidence for his verdicts.

In his introduction to Millennial Stages, a collection of his pieces, Brustein writes:

"The disconnect between stage and audience may help to explain why public interest in the stage is dwindling. At the same time that Broadway, when not recycling popular movies in musical form (The Lion King, The Producers, Monty Python's Spamalot) is busy pondering the tribulations of gay baseball players and teenage spelling bee nerds, the rest of the country is worrying about the environment, global warning, nuclear proliferation, poverty, the mismanagement of the economy, homeland security, the futility of the Iraq war, and all the other pressing issues neglected by Bush."

He seems to imply that a theatre that directly "takes on" these issues is superior to the "mere entertainments" that ignore them, and it is here I part company with him.

The old saw about there being nothing "mere" about "entertainment" is one that I find very persuasive. To produce a rip-roaring comedy that unbends the stiffness that tautens the anal muscles of most uptight theatergoers is a "consummation devoutly to be wished," whereas a frontal assault on the burning issues of the day in which earnest dramatists display their social or political convictions is, more often than not, a crashing bore. (See the recent works of David Hare.) As Tom Stoppard once confessed to me in an interview published in The New York Times:

I believe in art being good art or bad art, not relevant art or irrelevant art. The truth is that if you are angered or disgusted by a particular injustice or immortality and you want to do something about it -- now -- at once, then you can hardly do worse than write a play about it. That's what art is bad at.

I vociferously concur with that viewpoint, although judging by some of his more recent plays, Stoppard no longer does. The clarion call for spot-on and "relevant" works of art has produced some of the dreariest plays in recent years -- whereas, classics by ancient writers such as Aeschylus and Sophocles, Corneille and Racine, Shakespeare and Marlowe, using sly parallels and telling metaphors, have cast more light on contemporary issues than any of those revamped "living newspapers" churned out by zealots. (See Ethan McSweeney's The Persians recently produced by the Shakespeare Theatre Company in D.C. or throw your minds back to Orson Welles's anti-fascist Julius Caesar or Tyrone Guthrie's Troilus and Cressida.)

Even with frippery, Brustein manages to open the flap of a casement window and let in an illuminating beam of light. "If one can ignore the really sunning scope of its superficiality," he writes, "even Private Lives takes on a certain historical dimension. It is the culmination of a whole genre of love comedy, beginning with Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing continuing through Congreve's The Way of the World and climaxing with Wilde's The Importance of being Earnest. In all those plays, the objective of the central characters is to find some way to express their romantic feelings without losing their reputation as wits." A nimble pirouette through three centuries of dramatic writing that lands the critic square in the saddle of Noel Coward's cloaking comedy.

But sometimes, being drawn to post-modernist, avant garde theatre, Brustein is taken in by productions that merely wear the right pins. Dutch director Ivon Hove's trashy, mono-celled version of Hedda Gabler at The New York Theater Workshop that willfully but pointlessly deconstructed Ibsen's play, was a crude exercise in intellectual vacancy; the kind of reductionism one associates with African headshrinkers. But for Brustein this director's work is "never less than engrossing" even though he admits that "more than a few of his interpolations are clumsy or perverse." However despite cavils, the critic is ultimately won over asking plaintively: "How many times a year do we get a chance to see Ibsen alive and kicking on the stage?" The salient fact here being that, when a play is mindlessly savaged by a pseudo-experimental hack, a situation is created whereby the playwright, "alive" to the distortions inflicted on his masterwork, must be bent on "kicking" the fathead director who perpetrated such atrocities. Sometimes one feels that Brustein's allegiance to artists such as Robert Wilson, Anne Bogart, and Andre Serban predispose him towards "cutting edge" theatre "on principle" -- even when the work itself grates on all our teeth -- even, if truth be told, on Brustein's choppers as well.

The fact is one enjoys Brustein because one finds oneself disputing both his views and conclusions. However, there are many more instances where one reads him tingling in agreement. It is refreshing, for instance, to find him, despite the loud hosannas of his peers, singularly unimpressed with much of Stoppard; citing that playwright's erudition as a weakness rather than a strength and staring down, po-facedly, the kudos of smitten, intellectually-inferior critics.

What has helped Brustein stay sharp and pithy for so long has been his association with the Yale Repertory Theatre and the American Repertory Theatre, tempering and sometimes reversing his views as a result of constantly testing them in practical theatrical circumstances. As any repertory actor will tell you, if you really want to get to the heart of a contemporary play or classic, the best way to achieve this is a long stint in repertory, bedding down on a daily basis with the diverse works of heavyweight authors. D. H. Lawrence once famously complained that most people have "sex in the head." The fact is most drama critics suffer from "art in the head." But a man responsible for mounting one play after another, scrutinizing texts, consistently gauging the efficacy of scenes, character consistency and climactic moments (or the lack thereof) is regularly exercising his critical faculties and dealing practically -- not theoretically -- with the living matter of theatre. In this, Brustein resembles Harold Clurman (who, by many who knew him, was often considered a better critic than he ever was a director) for he, too, was constantly steeped in the minutiae of his profession -- his "nature subdued/To what it works in, like the dyer's hand."

Millennial Stages is haunted by the events of 9/11. Its articles, reviews, and concerns seem to issue from the cathartic events that took place in America between 2001 and 2005 and thus provides a panoramic view of the theatre's response during the first half-decade of the new century. As indicated, Brustein inclines toward the more progressive, the more avant-garde playwrights and productions, which is a corrective stance when compared to most journalistic reviewers who tend to cream themselves when presented with conventional commodities. Many of these collected pieces first appeared in The New Republic, which, being a relatively small circulation journal, need not (and does not) concern itself with mainstream trends and the sudden hot flushes of the mass media. Everything Brustein touches, whether it's a review of an over-effusive book about Marlon Brando or a Shakespearean revival, calls forth a clear, analytical insight into its subject. Although immersed in academia, it has not drained or diminished him the way it has so many writers who, vampirized by scholarship, purvey a diction that seems to be extra-planetary. Because he is so knowledgeable, his frame of reference is wide and the examples, drawn sometimes from obscure sources, emerge relevant to the issues under discussion. It is something of a miracle to have been lodged for many years in both Yale and Harvard and still emerge sounding like a "mesnch" -- i.e., pertinent and accessible.

In l965, Robert Brustein was approached by The New York Times to become its lead drama critic. "Flattered, as I was by the proposal," writes Brustein, "daily reviewing was clearly not in my future. In those days, theatre notices had to be completed between the falling of the curtain and the rising of the sun, and I was technically unable to write a review in two hours." Stanley Kaufman was given the job and Brustein went off to greener fields. I often conjecture what kind of American theatre we might have had if, in those palmy days of the swinging 1960s, Brustein had become the omnipotent Times theatre critic. What glories were trampled, innovations squelched, opportunities squandered because he took a pass.


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Published January 28, 2008