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.
But how neatly he cuts down The Invention of Love by "the intellectual skywriter" Tom Stoppard (his bête noire): "There is not enough plot here for twenty minutes of action, but there is enough erudition for a fortnight." How concise and telling is this about Peter Brook, who deliberately exchanges comfortable seating in his theaters for hard benches: "With no intermission, Brook still expects his audiences to suffer for his sins." Quite rightly Brustein castigates the overrated Simon Russell Beale's Hamlet, and even the supporting cast, "almost all of [whom] sounded like BBC announcers or gay Oxford dons, including the women." Much as he admires Tony Kushner (way too much, if you ask me), he perceives Homebody/Kabul as "large talents being dissipated in a work that never quite seems to know where it is going."
Brustein is good at balancing censure with praise. Thus about one of Edward Albee's execrable plays: "The Goat is far from a great play. But it is a play that sneaks up on you, shakes you by the shoulders, and demands your reluctant respect." Nicely put, though I'd rather be reached through mind and heart than shoulders. But no one could quarrel with the tribute to Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan in Private Lives: "A couple with the finesse of experienced dancers in a play that resembles a ballet even more than it does drama."
Yet when Brustein says of Caryl Churchill's Far Away that "like so many paranoid fantasies it is quickly becoming a deadly accurate description of modern life," I buy the paranoid fantasy and the deadly, but boggle at accurate description. Reviewing an actual fantasy, Nora Ephron's Imaginary Friends, about Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy, Brustein has a brilliant paragraph on the "middlebrow playwright" and "highbrow critic," showing why they couldn't be even imaginary friends. "In one thing, however," he concludes, "they were alike. Neither would have appreciated the reductive way their essentially divergent lives have been forced into a symbiosis on the commercial stage."
Brustein likes political theater, but not politics in criticism. He says, with only slight hyperbole, that the British actor Simon Russell Beale's American reputation was "wholly created by the New York Times's Ben Brantley. The British may have lost their Empire," but they still enjoy "the connivance of Yankee critics who have not yet thrown off the colonial yoke." Too bad that in the same review Brustein spells Alan Ayckbourn as "Ayckbourne."
Small matter. But what about proclaiming Stephen Adly Guirgis as having "the potential to become one of our most powerful writers for the stage"? This about Our Lady of 121st Street, which I described as so many crudely-tossed-together actor's exercises. Brustein goes for dramatic statements: Salome's dance of the seven veils in Wilde's play "may be the first striptease in recorded history." Then what about the descent of the Assyrian love goddess Ishtar into the Underworld to retrieve her lover? At each of seven gates she enticed the keeper by shedding one of her seven garments.
In the Actors Studio production of Salome, Brustein overpraises the Herod of Al Pacino, despite gross hamming and Bronx-accented speech including such mispronunciations as "mien" made disyllabic. He rightly singles out the Jokanaan of David Strathairn and the Herodias of Dianne Wiest, only to misspell them as "Straitharn" and "Weist." But he can do worse, as when he writes "Walter Bernstein's and Martin Ritt's The Front," which requires the possessive only after the latter.
How right he is, though, telling his "old friend" Jules Feiffer, apropos The Bad Friend, that "he needs to make his dialogue less quotable and his characters less defined by their politics . . . to capture the flowing, stammering, unpredictable quality of life." Yet in the same column he praises Derek McLane's "kaleidoscopic set" in kaleidoscopic spelling, which next shifts to "McClane." But I cannot strongly enough disagree with the appraisal of Nilo Cruz's Anna in the Tropics as "a truly sweet play," and the author as a "gifted playwright." This Pulitzer Prize-winner seems to me to have made it largely on our politically correct push for multiculturalism.
Languages are not Brustein's forte. His French offers "grande amour" and "tableaux vivant"; his German has "unserer" for "unser Shakespeare." Names are another problem: His colleague at the New Republic shuttles between Lee Siegel and Siegal. Yet how right to impugn practitioners of "Shakespeare Authorship Denial" as "people who ransack the arcane in order to avoid the obvious." But then, why be so forgiving of Britain's Jonathan Miller, whose direction has butchered countless operas, as "the smartest person I know . . . and so even his more harebrained ideas deserve to be respected"? Is Brustein another Yankee critic unable to throw off the colonial yoke?
By a similarly specious argument, Brustein, who was on the Pulitzer committee, justifies the prize to Suzan-Lori Parks for Topdog/Under dog, though he sees it as less than her finest. He must have a microscopic eye to be able to differentiate between Parks's pretentious but puny products.
In another review, the very un-Byronic Bryony Lavery becomes "Byrony" Lavery, and Wilde's Algernon Moncrieff turns into "Montcrieff." These, surely, are misprints; but shouldn't an author proofread as well? Instead, Brustein thanks his Yale University Press copy editor, the very person who has done him dirt. And what about, in a review of the revival of the musical The Frogs, Nathan Lane's "love affair with the folks out front (and they [sic] with him)"--couldn't someone have caught that? I am worried, too, when Brustein attributes the poor reception of this adaptation of Aristophanes he himself had originally commissioned to "my humor-impaired brethren."
Still, how on the mark Brustein is when, reviewing Arthur Miller's self-serving After the Fall, he writes, "Beware the man who discovers the moral satisfactions of personal guilt. He will never give you another quiet moment."
Brustein is always generous to what he perceives as daring, politically relevant, innovative, modern--or postmodern, as in the Dutch director Ivo van Hove's abysmal production of Hedda Gabler. He excuses "some loss in thematic clarity" as "a chance to see Ibsen alive and kicking on the stage." More likely being kicked black and blue. Or do you condone a Hedda who goes around in "a scanty pink shift" and won't even "put on a pair of panties," but "has no hesitation [in] spitefully stapling numerous bouquets to the drywalls of the "unfinished dump" she lives in?
In the musical Spamalot, Tim Curry is "one of the few cast members who doesn't [sic] double as other cast members." But I double up at Brustein's singing the praises of the unspeakably vulgar and inept Sara Ramirez. And can "something transpire between" two characters (in Doubt, which he undervalues)?
Conversely, I applaud his pronouncing King Lear "possibly the greatest play ever written." But should he, listing its greatest interpreters, omit John Gielgud but include F. Murray Abraham? Should he translate the Latin accommodo as an infinitive rather than first person singular?
Then again, I have nothing but admiration for several pieces about theater in Australia and South Africa. Such expensive trips were surely subsidized by those countries, yet Brustein is not afraid to criticize some of the shows severely. Still, I wouldn't call someone "a Kidman-type actress," which may be as patronizing to the performer as offensive to good English. And even in South Africa spellings like "delapidated" and "braggadoccio" would be rightly resented.
I can, however, sympathize with salaam aleikum turned into the Yiddish-sounding "salaam aleckheim." One salutes any rapprochement between Arabs and Jews, although Brustein's yiddish is faulty too when ferbissene become "fabissene."
But how will Egyptians (and others) feel about Nefertiti morphed into "Nefertete"?
What I deplore more is Brustein's admiration for two such, to me, manifest phonies as Robert Wilson and Lee Breuer. Just from Brustein's detailed descriptions of their works, a serious person should recognize furibund folly. I am no stickler for realism in the theater, but flights of fancy are one thing; flying characters, for no conceivable reason, are another. And what about "a vertical screen, on which is [sic] projected supertitles"?
Promptly, however, Brustein redeems himself with a fine, detailed appreciation of Hallie Flanagan Davis, whose Federal Theater was, while not allowed to last by an unsympathetic government, a noble experiment. Less commendable is a tribute to Suzan-Lori Parks, bracketed there with Gertrude Stein and, more absurdly, James Joyce. And, incidentally, in Arthur Kopit's play title (and play), Dad is Hung, not Put, in the Closet.
Incomprehensible to me is Brustein's grudging assessment of Jack O'Brien's production of Henry IV at New York's Lincoln Center, the best Shakespeare I have ever seen in America, and not so shabby by any standard. And then to top this with special praise for its most dubious element, "Ethan Hawke's punk rocker Hotspur." But then, the radical critic goes for taking chances, however extreme.
At this point, I must give up further pouncing on Brustein's "small errors," but cannot forgo adducing "a character whom [sic] Bloom believes most fully represents" something or other. I appreciate the rhyme, but where is the reason in that accusative? There may be something unintentionally whimsical in spelling a co-respondent in a divorce case as "correspondent."
But I admire Brustein's judicious evaluation of George S. Kaufman in his review of the Library of America edition of his principal works. How perceptive is this:
Similarly illuminating is an essay on Shakespeare's creative use, or misuse, of geography, as Brustein visits Mediterranean locales from the plays. No less fine is the tribute to Primo Levi apropos Anthony Sher's splendid monodrama, Primo, culled from Levi's writings. A judicious essay about the late Richard Gilman contains this valuable point: "What distinguishes a critic from an opinionator is the capacity to describe what one sees, and possibly suggest a better alternative." The concluding piece, using biographies of Laurence Olivier and Elia Kazan as a springboard for some shrewd assessments of their differences and similarities, I find extremely valuable.
In it, Brustein properly faults Richard Schickel for calling The Changeling (which Kazan poorly directed) "minor and hard to stage." Brustein labels this "mildly philistine," and continues, "The Changeling is a masterpiece, a psychological study of love between two monsters as subtle as any in the language, and difficult to produce only if you've never before directed a classical play. . . . It is not necessary to establish your modernist credentials by obliterating the past."
John Simon writes about theater for Bloomberg News.