On and off the boards with Robert Brustein.
Feb 19, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 22 • By JOHN SIMON
Reading Robert Brustein's latest collection of theater reviews, I had two surprises. First, about how much we disagreed (seven or eight times out of ten), and second, about how little that prevented my reading enjoyment.
Brustein is not only one of our preeminent drama critics; he is also a playwright, director, and former actor. He has been a professor and head of theater departments at both Yale and Harvard. He is also a highly readable writer, both erudite and witty, and best of all, a good contextualizer, effectively discussing specifics against a broader background and foreground. My only quarrel is with his taste.
A very subjective thing, taste. The only indisputable judge--or critic--in the arts is time, but even it has its limitations. A text is there in print for time to endorse or reject, but a particular production--director, actors, designs--evaporates. Even pictures, still or moving, do not speak as loud as one's having been there; any more than a reproduction is the equal of standing before a great mural.
So I do not pretend to being more "right" than Brustein. Over the years, we have been friendly rivals and sort of friends, socializing on rare occasions and intermittently reviewing each other. Long ago, we were considered the young Turks of drama criticism and, without looking the least alike, were sometimes mistaken for each other by box office personnel.
Brustein always regarded me, ironically, as more of an academic, praising my longer essays in the Hudson Review and the like, but deploring my "selling out" to popular magazines such as New York. I, in reciprocal irony, viewed him more as an ex-thespian than as a scholar, finding his writing slightly marred by a somewhat cavalier disregard for the niceties of grammar, spelling, and getting names right. But these are venial sins in most eyes, his own no doubt included.
There remains the troubling matter of taste: No two responsible critics should have such widely diverging opinions on, say, whether Suzan-Lori Parks, Stephen Adly Guirgis, and Nilo Cruz are important playwrights, as Brustein maintains and I dispute. Similarly about plays and players. When doctors disagree, the demise or survival of their patient provides a reasonably prompt and trustworthy answer as to who was right. In the theater, for lasting value, there is no swift and reliable yardstick. Nevertheless, a critic must, like any professional, however deluded, trust his own judgment to be the correct one.
I shall, therefore, reluctantly have to assume that where Brustein's judgment deviates from mine, it is simply wrong. But bear in mind two important points. Brustein quotes approvingly Kenneth Tynan: "What counts is not [critics'] opinion, but the art with which it is expressed." Amen, I say. Again, in reviewing Terry Coleman's book about Laurence Olivier, Brustein declares, "The biographer is a little too eager to pounce pedantically on small factual errors in Olivier's infinitely more colorful accounts of himself." Now my problem as a critic is that I am a pedantic pouncer on small errors, but let that not deter anyone from savoring Brustein's infinitely more colorful accounts of things.
Yet who could cavil with the following bull's-eyes from Brustein's pen? Take: "Rather than acknowledge the fears and fevers of our time, not to mention the terror that now enshrouds our lives, the commercial stage has been conscientiously devoted to manufacturing escapism and obscurantism, through witless entertainments and irrelevant revivals." How not to enjoy remarks like "when Bush comes to shove, we want to bury our heads in warm sand"? And although it isn't dramatic criticism, we cannot but chuckle at "we finally have a president . . . who actually believes that the world was created in six days--possibly because he now has the means to end it in one."
Criticizing the National Actors Theatre production of Brecht's Arturo Ui, Brustein observes, "An all-star team is unlikely to defeat even a second division club that has been together long enough to learn each other's moves." And he aptly evokes Ui's (i.e., Hitler's) ascent to power: "Pacino slumps into [Old Dogsborough's, i.e., Hindenburg's] leather armchair that doubles as a throne like a disgruntled mutt on his master's furniture." But it bothers me that he refers to the Berliner Ensemble's great Ui, Ekkehard Schall, as Schaal.