FOR YEARS Robert Brustein has been a savage critic of my theatrical work; we have also been chronic competitors (as regular contributors on theatrical subjects to Harper's magazine; as heads of drama departments at Yale and Juilliard respectively; as founders and artistic directors of two youthful repertory companies and, finally -- as I have just learned from Brustein's book -- as rival candiates for a lucrative Volvo TV commercial which I eagerly accepted after he had high-mindedly turned it down).
I have allowed none of these circumstances to interfere with my enjoyment of Making Scenes, which I found a lively and engrossing, if monumentally egotistical and opinionated work -- obligatory reading for anyone concerned with recent developments in the American theatre. Like most valid writing about the stage (e.g. Harold Clurman's Fervent Years), it goes beyond anecdotes and reminiscences to give us a vivid, subjective insight inside the social conditions and historical mood of its time. For that reason the most dramatic and significant sections of Brustein's narrative are those which describe the "healthy-ferment" of his first two years of tenure at Yale. These were the peak years of university unrest, of national protest against the war in Vietnam, of the Black Panther trials in New Haven, and of students' demands for academic control and of students "doing their own thing."
In the "scenes" which he so vividly describes, Brustein's own role was variable but always energetic and contentious. He reports with satisfaction that he was accused, in rapid succession, of an "open, passive approach to dissent" and of "authoritarian, repressive behavior"; he tells us how he wavered between a spirited defense of academic discipline and the consistent promotion of social and artistic protest.
When Robert Brustein, after a brief career as actor and critic, received his surprising academic appointment as dean of Yale's School of Drama, which he himself had attended some years earlier as a disgruntled graduate, it was -- except for a conservative but estimable scenic department -- in a state of stagnation. Throughout his time in New Haven he tried to combine his functions as dean of the School of Drama with those of artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre which he founded and directed energetically and arbitrarily for more than a dozen years. For the school his avowed and somewhat vague objective was "the development of talent for the creation of dramatic art"; for the repertory, his dream was the creation and operation of the most adventurous art theatre in the United States.
The problem of meshing these two related but sometimes conflicting activities was never entirely solved. In the main, it was the school that suffered. In the field of playwriting, it employed the presence of a number of vital teachers and students by who substantial results were achieved. The actor-training program was less successful: of the many teachers of acting who came and went over the years and who included such well-known figures as Paul Mann, Stella Adler and Robert Lewis, not one was satisfactory or satisfied. By Brustein's own admission, it took about 10 years to achieve some sort of viable working relationship between the school and the repertory.
The truth is -- and this is made quite clear in Brustein's book -- that his libido was with the company. And though some of his students may have continued to complain about the cirriculum, they cannot have failed to derive very concrete professional benefits from their association with the repertory and from their contact with the unusual aggregation of writers, directors and actors whom Brustein attracted to his theatre. Among his directors were such men as Paul Sills, Andrzej Wadja, Arnold Weinstein, Larry Arrick, Andrei Serban, Andre Gregory, Jonathan Miller and Alvin Epstein, many of whom received their first American opportunities with the Yale Repertory. In his dealings with playwrights Brustein anticipated Joseph Papp and our more adventurous regional theatres in the encouragement of new writers and the performance of their works.
The results were mixed. Few of his productions were safe and some were reckless. But if there was one quality in which he was not deficient as artistic director it was courage. For his first year's program he presented his university audiences with Andre Gregory's production of Endgame, an aborted production of Jules Feiffer's Little Murders, Viet Rock by Megan Terry, Dynamite Tonite! (an "actors' opera" with words by Arnold Weinstein) and an elaborate and quite remarkable production of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound in a new version by Robert Lowell, directed by Jonathan Miller with sets by Michael Annals and a cast that included Kenneth Haigh and Irene Worth. At the beginning of the season, Brustein tells us that he sent a message to the cultural editor of The New York Times imploring him not to send a reviewer to Yale and "thereby honor our efforts to develop the craft of the theatre away from those conditions that have hitherto been impeding the development of that craft"! Tension between Brustein and his fellow critics continued unabated for the next 12 years, with Mr. B. usually on the offensive.
The final section of the book deals with Brustein's embittered relations with the new president of Yale and his remove from New Haven to Cambridge, Massachusetts. It will be interesting to see if, in this new milieu and in the calmer, duller atmosphere of the '80s, he can match the uneven but exhilarating accomplishment of his troubled years at Yale.