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.
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.