Arts Remembrance: Robert Brustein — A View from the Seats

By Steve Elman

The late Robert Brustein’s shadow is long. But his legacy is problematic.

The evil that men do lives after them; / The good is oft interred with their bones. – Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

Mark Antony was wrong. It’s usually the other way around.

The late Robert Brustein. Photo: Boston University

I am no theater critic, but I love great acting, eloquent stage language, and masterful directorial visions that transport me into a new way of seeing. Robert Brustein, who passed away on October 29 at the age of 96, founded the American Repertory Theater,  and arguably changed the complexion of theater in our area forever. He provided me with all those experiences on more than a few occasions, and for those I will honor him.

But I have to share my frustration and impatience with his vision for theater as an auteur experience, a vision that seemed to grow more and more idiosyncratic over the years and eventually led me and my wife to abandon our A.R.T. subscriptions. Brustein’s shadow is long, but for us, his legacy is problematic.

Brustein had a gift for choosing actors. He introduced us to Jeremy Geidt, Alvin Epstein, Cherry Jones, Tom Derrah, Candy Buckley, Remo Airaldi, and many others whose performances are burned into our memories.

He respected the traditions of world theater. He put Shakespeare and Harold Pinter on stage repeatedly, and both playwrights represent important mountains that any theater company worth its salt must climb.

He also encouraged major artists creating new work, although I regret to say that only the 1999 A.R.T. production of Martin McDonough’s The Cripple of Inishmaan left us with strong positive impressions. In fact, The Huntington Theatre Company completely stole Brustein’s thunder by staging all of August Wilson’s plays and premiering many of them.

The good at the A.R.T. was very good indeed.

I vividly remember the stunning 1984 production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame with Ben Halley Jr. and John Bottoms, set on what might have been the platform of an abandoned subway after a postwar apocalypse (a setting that Beckett himself repudiated, so much so that he would not allow his name to be associated with the production).

I was dazzled by the staging and effects created for the 1985 production of excerpts from the Robert Wilson–Philip Glass opera the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down; some of those images will always remain with me, although the meaning of the work will always remain a mystery.

1991 was especially rewarding for us, with F. Murray Abraham in King Lear and Mark Rylance in Hamlet. You could quibble with the staging, but not with the choice of actors.

1994’s production of Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw was a tour de force for Derrah, Epstein, and Benjamin Evett.

1995 gave Geidt and Epstein richly deserved opportunities to deliver pinnacles of their stage work in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

We were less and less impressed with the A.R.T. in subsequent years, but 2013’s production of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, with Zachary Quinto and Cherry Jones, stands out.

For every one of these triumphs, there were disasters on stage, some of which sent us fleeing for the exits: a navel-gazing travesty of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author (1984), which, despite brilliant stage effects, insisted on inserting a Cantabrigian reference to nearly every scene, as if Pirandello’s words were somehow not contemporary enough for the Loeb Drama Center’s audience; Ronald Ribman’s insufferably dull Sweet Table at the Richelieu (1987); the flashy but incomprehensible adaptation of Don DeLillo’s The Day Room (1987); the ponderous, pretentious nonsense of Arthur Yorinks and Philip Glass’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1988); and Larry Gelbart’s ridiculous and puerile Mastergate (1989).

It’s not that Brustein directed all of the works above — he was directly responsible only for CIVIL warS and Six Characters. But he set the tone for the company and was responsible for the general direction of the A.R.T. for most of its existence. For better or worse, he brought the idea that a director was also an auteur to eastern Massachusetts, and his influence changed how we see what is on stage today.

In one sense our major theater companies need to learn from his example and emulate him: he chose proven works from the past and near-past that need to be seen by area audiences. Who will stage 20th-century Irish masterpieces like Tom Murphy’s Famine or The Gigli Concert? Who will revive Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica, now as important as it was when written, considering the new autocracy in China? Who will bring the vision of Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell to Boston with an all-Black cast performing Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman? And who will recognize Edward Albee as he deserves to be recognized before his centenary in 2028?

We have looked in vain for something substantive in the descriptions of productions at the A.R.T. over the past five years and not one of the works performed has tempted us to return to the Loeb.

We are Huntington subscribers, and much that they have done in recent years encourages us about seasons to come, but much has been disappointing. They have produced excellent recent works by David Lindsay-Abaire (Good People, 2011), Lydia Diamond (Smart People, 2014), and Suzan-Lori Parks (Topdog / Underdog, 2017), which represent the kind of talent that needs to be encouraged, rather than thin and oh-so-trendy material like James Ijames’s Fat Ham (2023). They began a cycle of Stephen Sondheim musicals with great productions of A Little Night Music (2015), Sunday in the Park with George (2016), and Merrily We Roll Along (2017), but the cycle has stopped in in its tracks. They have done some of Christopher Durang’s plays, but not enough. In 2022, they revived August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, showing how much substance there is yet to be discovered as actors and directors come to know Wilson’s work more deeply; the Huntington already owns the Wilson franchise in Boston, and they ought to have the courage to embrace him as Black America’s Shakespeare.

I repeat: I am no theater critic, and I know that many will disagree with what I have to say here. My wife and I are simply passionate lovers of great theater, particularly great drama. We hope that the 2023-24 seasons of our local theater companies give us more to look forward to.

Steve Elman’s more than four decades in New England public radio have included 10 years as a jazz host in the 1970s, five years as a classical host on WBUR in the 1980s, a short stint as senior producer of an arts magazine, 13 years as assistant general manager of WBUR, and fill-in classical host on 99.5 WCRB.


  1. Mark Favermann on October 31, 2023 at 6:59 pm

    Steve, I feel that you were rather harsh in your “remembrance”. of Robert Brustein. First and foremost, he was a true cultural pioneer and institution builder, a talented critic and a director. He reestablished the Yale Rep and created Harvard’s American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.). These two things alone would be a major theatrical legacy.. He also fostered many now prominent actors , directors and playwrights. One can easily disagree with his various aesthetic choices, but not the fact that he made choices in an ocean of regional theatrical mediocrity. He was a paragon of non-commercial theatre, a voice for artistic creativity. It was true that as my friend and colleague Charles Giuliano often said about ART’s Brustein-led later productions of their five seasonal presentations: “one or two were sensational, one or two so so, and one positively dreadful.” However, it was very rare to have one sensational show to come from any other of our regional theatre at all. RIP Robert–you added greatly to our theatrical heritage and cultural conversation.

  2. Jon Garelick on November 1, 2023 at 11:41 am

    I still remember that first production, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” downtown as I recall. And I bought standing room for a wonderful “Waiting for Godot” with Mark Linn Baker and John Bottoms…. But the theater director as auteur has infected everything, including opera, often for ill. When reviving a classic, it seems that what the playwright actually wrote isn’t good enough. Hence that Pirandello Steve complains about.

  3. Amy Merrill on November 1, 2023 at 4:37 pm

    Yes, while admiring Robert Brustein’s commitment to Becket, Brecht and Pirandello, I am reflecting on his omission of works written by women. Anything else besides ‘Night Mother? I am pretty sure that I picketed ART about that. Later, we were informed that because ART was a private institution, it could make any artistic decisions it wanted.

  4. Gerald Peary on November 1, 2023 at 5:30 pm

    Maybe the ART under Brustein was runaway auteurism for theater directors, but the Huntington is mostly the opposite: well-mounted, slightly dull productions with little sense of a directorial vision. And when in Boston will we ever again see a play by Ibsen, Pirandello, Brecht, Strindberg, or any white male modernist playwright? Those days, what was normal fare with Brustein in charge has disappeared completely with the advent, at the ART and everywhere, of required multiculturalism for practically every production. Of course, we need multicultural plays with multicultural casts, but plays by white male dramatists shouldn’t be canceled completely in Boston.

  5. Robert Israel on November 2, 2023 at 9:56 am

    In my conversations with Brustein over the years, I found him to be engaging and to possess a wry sense of humor (he liked to poke fun at the fact that my name is identical to the California-based designer he hired to work on “Schlemiel the First” at A.R.T. in 1994 —

    He should be mentioned — and lauded — for his book, The Theater of Revolt ( His insights are valid today, and his contributions to theater are praiseworthy.

  6. Charles Giuliano on November 3, 2023 at 5:46 pm

    Peary notes with regret that white, male modernism has become marginalized in contemporary arts. This reversal is viewed as a correction. The edge has become center but the audience remains the same. Standing ovations are the norm often more inspired by liberal guilt than outstanding merit. A wider correction and level playing field will evolve. The arts will be better and stronger for it. When that happens is anyone’s guess. Until then we must attend and observe with open hearts and minds. I like to think that while straight, white and old I have had a life in the arts with something left to say. There needs to be a mix of experience and emerging diversity. Where are the editors and mentors for a new generation? That’s needed now more than ever. Criticism should respond to and shape the work. Part of that is absorbing and responding to unfamiliar but vital narratives. The challenge is to evaluate the work presented to us. We owe that to the audience. Now, as always, the play’s the thing,

  7. Gerald Peary on November 4, 2023 at 12:30 pm

    Let me be clearer: I regret that white male modernists who have important things to say- — Pirandello, Ibsen, Strindberg, Brecht, etc.– are no longer seen on the Boston stage. I hope the pendulum swings back so we have all at once multiculturalism, women playwrights, LGTBQ playwrights, AND white male playwrights.

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