Robert Brustein
Photo by CK Wolfson

Robert Brustein: Best of all worlds

By CK Wolfson - September 20, 2007

Robert Brustein has been an actor, playwright, educator, and for almost 50 years, theater critic for the New Republic. A husband and family man, he has been widowed, and for the past 11 years, happily remarried; hired and fired; labeled a "cultural imperialist" by playwright August Wilson; awarded medals and awards and been inducted into the Theatrical Hall of Fame (2002). He founded both the Yale Repertory Theatre, and the American Repertory Theatre (ART) in Cambridge. But you wouldn't know any of this to meet him. Despite a distinguished and rather imposing figure, he is too comfortable and unaffected to signal his credentials with a look or tone.

He relaxes against the soft cushioned living room couch and responding to prompting, describes how simply it all began. "As a five-year old child I had a problem pronouncing L's. Lollipop came out wrowripop, and my parents sent me to elocution school - which in those days was actually drama school, but they didn't call themselves drama schools because parents would never send their children to it. So they put me in plays, and I got up there and recited. Oh wow. Very powerful."

Author of 14 books, six original plays and 15 adaptations, Mr. Brustein admits he grew up with dreams of becoming the next Artie Shaw. "I played clarinet and tenor sax and I went to the High School of Music and Art and I was really planning to be a serious musician."

In a clear deep voice, he describes his father, a New York businessman who owned a mill in Rhode Island that made wool for sweaters. Not pleased about his son's interest in theater, his father steered him toward academia, and talked to him about creating a "vertical combination."

Mr. Brustein smiles, and says, "He always wanted to be able to take the wool off the sheep's back and bring it to the point where he would sell it as sweaters in the stores - to have all the functions. And I inherited that idea. I wanted to have a vertical combination too, where you would take a young actor, director, playwright, technician or designer and you would train them for three years in a situation in close conjunction with a professional theater. Then they would graduate into the theater and become members of a resident professional company."

After noting that Yale's former president Kingman Brewster was a seasonal resident whose Vineyard Haven home was later purchased by Mike Wallace, Mr. Brustein recounts being hired by Yale to change the direction of the drama program by creating a professional theater. The emphasis, he explains, was not on a degree, it was on professional training. After 13 years as dean of Yale Drama School and having founded Yale Repertory Theatre, Mr. Brustein was fired by the incoming president, Bart Giamatti.

"Someone once said, 'Beware of the ivy. It has the capacity to crumble stone.'" Mr. Brustein says without shifting tone or delivery. "I had been looking for a way to get out of the job. It was beginning to run me down. Academia is dangerous to professional theater. And the great thing about Kingman Brewster is that he recognized it." Referring to his dismissal as "a very good thing," Mr. Brustein says, "I just picked up about 45 people from Yale's 1969 graduating class, some theater professionals, administrators and we moved north to Cambridge, where with their help I founded The American Repertory Theater (ART).

"If I didn't have the requisite academic degrees, a Ph.D., a full professorship at Columbia, and then at Yale, and then at Harvard, and what have you, I would never have been able to do what I did in the university environment," Mr. Brustein says.

An elegant Doreen Beinart (former director of the Harvard's Human Rights film series at the Kennedy School), wafts through the room (she designed the remodeling of their spacious West Tisbury home), and when she declines her husband's invitation to join him, he replies, "But you're my muse." He goes on to explain that she was a board member of the American Repertory Theatre, "and the first time I saw her I fell in love with her. 'Whoever loved that loved not at first site,' as Christopher Marlowe said. It turned out to be mutual."

If not for the cluster of grandchildren's toys, the dozen or so shoes and boots lined up on an old pew by the front door, and the well-used look to the cream-colored seating in the living room, the large scale house might appear showplace perfect, rather than appearing as it does, welcoming and comfortable.

And Mr. Brustein, whose stories and recollections flow forth easily, begins reflecting on the theater in general: "No one can promise the future of the theater. The theater always seems to be dying, although I think it just continues to do things that nothing else can do. It's not just the liveness of it, it's the fact that it collects people together into a community in a way that TV doesn't, movies don't. You know when you're watching theater anything can happen. The sky can fall."

Robert Brustein's latest play, "The English Channel," which made its debut at Suffolk University's C. Walsh Theatre earlier this month, opened yesterday at the Vineyard Playhouse. It is set in 1593, during a plague in the London that restricts Shakespeare to the Mermaid Tavern where he writes his sonnets. "This play is the story of the sonnets," Mr. Brustein explains. "It's about relationships, and about stealing. It's all about the way playwrights and poets create their work."

He continues: "I think the most controversial thing about the play is my view of Shakespeare as a man who really lacks a personality of his own. I think he imagined so many characters that he had no character of his own. He led his dream life. The characters came through in his dreams, and begged him for life, and pleaded for him to enlarge their parts, and to fix their meter, as if they were fellow actors on the stage."

He describes his own writing process: "I hear Shakespeare's voice. I continually make changes. This play didn't take very long to write, but took a long time to revise. It's written in iambic pentameter. There's no thou's or thee's - I don't use archaic language, but you had to find the precise word that would not only be correct for the line, but would fit the rhythm."

But theater does not occupy all his thoughts. "And I think of theater when I'm teaching it and when I'm rehearsing it. I mean, when I kayak I'm not thinking of theater. I'm thinking of nature. I'm thinking about a blue heron and how close I can get before it flies away." He flashes a smile. "I do have a very happy life."

"The English Channel," by Robert Brustein, at Vineyard Playhouse, 24 Church St., Vineyard Haven. Thursday, Sept. 20, Saturday, Sept. 22, and Wednesday, Sept. 26 through Saturday, Sept. 29. Curtain times: Wednesday and Thursday, 7 pm and Friday and Saturday, 8 pm. Tickets: $30 or $25 for seniors, students, or rush. For more information, call 508-696-6300 or visit