In the world of theater, Robert Brustein stood as a towering figure, advocating passionately for the cause of nonprofit theater. He was a multi-faceted individual who wore many hats, including critic, teacher, producer, director, playwright, and even actor. With a career spanning over 50 years, Brustein's contributions to the theater world are immeasurable. In this article, we delve into the life and legacy of this extraordinary man, whose impact on American theater remains profound.
Early Life and Education
Born on April 21, 1927, in Brooklyn, New York, Robert Sanford Brustein grew up in Manhattan, surrounded by a diverse array of artistic influences. He attended the High School of Music & Art, now known as the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. His early years were marked by encounters with remarkable personalities, including living in the same building as the renowned composer Sergei Rachmaninoff.
Brustein's academic journey took him to Amherst College, where he graduated with a degree in medieval history. After a brief hiatus in the merchant marine, he pursued further studies, earning a master's degree in dramatic literature from Columbia University. He then embarked on a Fulbright fellowship at the University of Nottingham in England, where he continued to hone his expertise in theater.
Teaching and Writing
During the 1950s and 1960s, Robert Brustein shared his passion for theater as an educator at institutions like Columbia, Vassar, and Cornell. It was during this time that he authored the influential book, "The Theatre of Revolt," a collection of essays that explored the works of Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Shaw, O'Neill, Brecht, Pirandello, and Genet. These writings positioned him as a discerning critic and scholar.
Yale School of Drama
In 1966, Robert Brustein was appointed as the dean of the Yale School of Drama. He was given the freedom to revitalize the school's approach to theater education. Under his leadership, the school not only emphasized the fundamentals of performance but also embraced the intellectual literature of the theater. Brustein's tenure saw the birth of the Yale Repertory Theater, a professional company dedicated to producing new, provocative plays and innovative interpretations of classics.
Numerous students who passed through Yale School of Drama during his time went on to become accomplished figures in the theater world, including the likes of Wendy Wasserstein, Meryl Streep, and Henry Winkler.
Harvard and the American Repertory Theater
In 1978, Robert Brustein was invited to bring his expertise to Harvard, where he became a professor of English and took on the roles of director of the university's Loeb Drama Center and artistic director of the company that later became known as the American Repertory Theater. His leadership at A.R.T. resulted in challenging productions and an invigorated theater scene in the Boston area.
A Controversial Advocate
Throughout his career, Brustein was a passionate advocate for nonprofit theaters, often challenging the commercial theater's profit-oriented goals. He firmly believed in the need for theater to be brave, intellectual, and non-pandering. This stance often led to clashes with prominent figures in the theater world, including a public feud with Samuel Beckett over a production of "Endgame."
Legacy and Critique of American Theater
As a public intellectual, Brustein continued to critique the state of American theater throughout his life. He lamented the growing emphasis on financial success over artistic integrity and quality, believing that the theater's values had become skewed. In his view, American theater had the potential to approach an ideal state, but it seemed to have lost its way.
Robert Brustein's contributions to American theater as a critic, educator, and advocate for nonprofit theater remain unparalleled. His legacy lives on through the countless artists he inspired and the enduring impact he had on the world of theater. While he may have ruffled some feathers along the way, there is no denying that his dedication to the art form was unwavering. The theater world, both nonprofit and commercial, is forever indebted to this remarkable figure.