THIS BOOK of critical moments is the fifth gathering of short pieces (Culture Watch, five years ago, was the last) by our most distinguished proponent of alternative theatre -- the alternative, that is, to smasheroo-floperoo Big Apple commercialism. Founder of the Yale Repertory Theatre and for 13 years dean of the Yale Drama School, Robert Brustein has been motivated by a determination "to provide," as he put it in an earlier work, "the idea of an experimental art theatre with an institutional foundation -- part training conservatory, where young people could pursue theatrical skills and ideals, and part professional laboratory, where these skills and ideals could be put to a practical test."
Elsewhere he has described how the then president of Yale, Kingman Brewster, came to hire him, and how, when he arrived on the scene, he found a stultified operation which had to be either regenerated or shut down altogether -- a faculty that "looked like Mount Rushmore trying to crack a smile," New Haven audiences "dominated by Helen Hokinson ladies who taste plays in the same spirit they nibble mints after dinner." Brustein with his gifted associates made of the Rep and the School the preeminent alternative theatrical enterprise in the country. The achievement is worth savoring here because Critical Moments marks Brustein's farewell to Yale, and includes his last graduation speech, in which he properly celebrates the achievement of an approach to theatre that may be identified as the Yale style.
The volume brings together a grab bag of previously printed items. The only unity claimed, apart from the fact that all were written between 1973 and 1979, is the "sense of crisis" Brustein was trying to grasp and articulate. Well, the crisis is certainly there, but some of the pieces don't have very much to do with it. There is a pleasant reminiscence of summers in Martha's Vineyard spent digging clams for Lillian Hellman's recipe for spaghetti pesto (I wish he had given the recipe; I always thought pesto was a pounded basil and garlic sauce, with olive oil and cheese, not clams), another piece on Brustein's Vineyard neighbor William Styron being torn to pieces by the ordeal of completing Sophie's Choice. There are reviews of Pauline Kael and John Simon and Tennessee Williams, but the one I like best is of Carl Bode's fine edition of the letters of that "lousy prophet and . . . part-time bigot," H.L. Mencken. "I shall make dandelion wine if I can find a dandelion," he quotes Mencken on home brewing. "But down here they are not to be trusted. Dogs always piss on them. And now and then a policeman." Brustein perceptively detects the voice of "the W. C. Fields of journalism." A man who writes like Mencken can't be all bad.
In his introduction Brustein tries to sort out some of the characterizing features of the decade. He sees the period as "an epoch of fits and starts, of sudden spasms, of high expectations fizzling out to a chorus of raspberries." Everywhere, in the academy and the performing arts and other spheres, he sees uncertainty and distrust. Leadership constantly changes; everywhere there are resignations, dismissals and withdrawals. He goes through the changes at the top at the foundations, the endowments, and the major cultural institutions. Subsidies wither. The government agencies concerned with the arts become increasingly politicized as the great debate -- which Brustein perceives as phony -- goes on between elitism and populism. The arts institutions find themselves forced to go through the debilitating charade of demonstrating their social utility in a democratic society in order to qualify for an increasingly meager slice of the patronage pie. Yet Brustein doesn't despair; the political pendulum, he feels, is bound to swing again.
There is surely much to what he says.Brustein mentions the cultural explosion which led in the '60s to the funding of so many arts enterprises. Right now we seem to be in the midst of an ignorance explosion. Witness the recent sorry spectacle of the D.C. Board of Education rejecting, as elitist, a proposed academic high school -- as though high schools were not by definition academic. Brustein reminds us that the currently abused "word elite was once a term not of abuse but rather of commendation; it simply meant leadership."
There is a long and informative section on discussions with foundation administrators, the president of the Business Committee for the Arts and assorted government representatives. Mainly the patrons want more things like Upstairs, Downstairs or The Adams Chronicles: noncontroversial, high-minded in a middle-brow sort of way, and capable of being disseminated to themillions on the box. Along the way there are some nice vignettes of government figures interviewed by Brustein, among them Livingston Biddle, Joseph Duffey, Claiborne Pell, and Joan Mondale.
Other items include satirical playlets about Nixon and Watergate, a short story about a house demoniacally possessed by a television set and a splendid essay on Ibsen. Brustein sees Ibsen as the victim of post-Ibsenism; the enemy of the conventional has himself been identified with convention. Brustein brilliantly summarizes the common perception of Ibsen's characters: "A menagerie of domestic animals, desperately trying to get some edge on their teeth, some point on their claws, some sheen to their fur, but ultimately too tame to do more than evacuate their energy in ong expository barks and growls." He then goes on to point out the superficiality and falseness of such a perception and to remind us --as we need reminding -- of the hidden poetry behind Ibsen's prose.
There are occasional evidences of carelessness or inattention. Thus, in the Ibsen essay, "the most perfect conspiracy of approval" which T. S. Eliot found relegating Ben Jonson to the status of unread classic is misquoted as a "most personal conspiracy," which isn't exactly (as a Frenchman practicing his English said) the same meme. "t. S. Eliot's Lady," we are told, "measured out her life in coffee spoons." That was no lady, Professor Brustein, that was J. Alfred Prufrock. A proofreading lapse produces Marlo Brando. The first essay, on the current deplorable state of theatre criticism, mentions a FACT conference. What, I sheepishly wondered is FACT? From a piece later on I learned that FACT means First Annual Conference on Theatre. These things should of course be explained the first time they are mentioned -- something a little editing would have accomplished. Still, i'm glad to have the opportunity to put in a plug here for an outfit I am starting up, called SASA, or the Society for Abolishing Superfluous Acronyms.
Last year Brustein folded his tent at Yale. The final piece in the book is on his wife Norma. At the Rep last season she played her favorite part in her favorite play, Arkadina in The Sea Gull. She finished the run, and then died. Her husband's tribute is wrenching -- his sense of loss must be immeasurable -- yet it is also uplifting because of our sense of the radiance, so movingly conveyed, of the beautiful lady of his mind and heart.
Brustein has now moved on to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and become artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre and director of the Loeb Drama Center, as well as professor of English at Harvard. We wish him Godspeed in his new setting. Meanwhile, Critical Moments may be recommended as the lastest statement of our most articulate theatre activist. Brustein does much to keep alive the dignity of being serious -- not merely solemn or self-regarding -- about the performing arts. He genuinely wants (in Matthew Arnold's terms) to preserve the best in art and thought, and make it prevail.