Brush up your Shakespeare with Bob Brustein
There's a sense of all being right in Bob Brustein's world. Tan, fit, and smiling, he relaxes on the deck of the West Tisbury home he shares with his wife, Doreen Beinart, looks out at the distant tree-framed view of Woods Hole, and begins a conversation about Shakespeare.
"The Tainted Muse, Prejudice and Presumption in Shakespeare's Time," is the subject of his talk, Tuesday, August 18, at the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center. Shakespeare is also the subject his latest play "Mortal Terror," being read at the Monday Night Special at The Vineyard Playhouse.
With a vitae that includes playwright, producer, educator, author, founder of Yale Repertory and American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, theater critic for The New Republic, a Shakespearean
scholar and a member of the American Theatre Hall of Fame, he serves tidbits of information with the utter fluency of parlor talk. Fact, source, example convert to conversation as Mr. Brustein points out that Shakespeare based Shylock on Barabus in Marlowe's "Jew of Malta;" that his misogyny is evidenced in Hamlet's attack on Ophelia; and that he was even a misanthrope as revealed in Hotspur's scorn of a foppish lord in "King Henry IV, Part One." And somehow it all sounds provocative and engaging: Shakespeare married a women eight years his senior after impregnating her in a cornfield, fathered twins (one survived); and willed his wife his "second best bed."
On Monday, August 17, The Vineyard Playhouse will present a reading of his new play, "Mortal Terror," directed by Daniela Varon, the second of what will be a trilogy. (The first, performed at The Playhouse in 2007, is "The English Channel.") The play is set in 1605, the year of The Gun Powder Plot (a terrorist conspiracy to blow up the houses of Parliament). Monday's reading of "Mortal Terror" features a cast of eight (Mr. Brustein among them), and as in "The English Chanel," combines both Elizabethan and contemporary language.
In the play, King James commissions Shakespeare to write a play ("Macbeth") that justifies his right to the throne. "Shakespeare is extending power by following its dictates," Mr. Brustein says, explaining that it's reversal of the usual role of an artist of telling truth to power, i.e., holding a mirror up to society.
On Tuesday, August 18, at the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center, Mr. Brustein will speak on "Shakespeare's Racialism: "The Moor and the Jew," expounding on one of the themes of his latest book, "The Tainted Muse."
The book makes the assumption that Shakespeare shared, then went beyond, the prejudices of his age. "Throughout history, the Jews have been considered a separate otherness, and anything separate or Other has to be evil, and you blame all the troubles of the world on The Other," Mr. Brustein says, citing different Jewish humorists - the Marx Brothers, Mel Brooks, Sacha Baron Cohen.
"We're getting past that period of the program of persecution and exclusion that was typical of the world," he says. "You have to respect the prejudices of a previous age. Respect the fact that people have prejudices because you have them, prejudices of a different kind. Condemn the prejudices, but recognize that it is a historical thing. I just wanted to look at a variety of politically incorrect prejudices in Shakespeare through the eye of history."
The unassuming Mr. Brustein talks candidly about the discouragements of marketing his work, the difficulties in getting work produced, and the need to rebuild the National Endowment of the Arts - none of which depletes his enthusiasm. "I'm 82 years old. And I've never felt more productive, and I've never felt more in control of my language and ideas than I do now." u
Reading of "Mortal Terrors," Monday, Aug. 17, 7 pm Vineyard Playhouse. $25. 508-696-6300; vineyardplayhouse.org.
An Evening with Bob Brustein, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 7:30 pm at The Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center, Vineyard Haven. $10, adults; $5 students. 508-693-0745.
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