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Theatre Critic Book

Robert Brustein "Millennial Stages" , Yale University Press , December-07-08
Theatre Critic Book by Robert Brustein Half of “Millennial Stages” is spent outside the theatre auditorium. The sections are titled “Positions and Polemics” and “People and Places.” The settings change but the spirit of character persists. He sails on a cruise ship through the Dardanelles sponsored by Harvard and recalls that twenty-one of Shakespeare's plays have a Mediterranean location. Since the playwright had no knowledge of the area “this made the geographical aspect of my lectures a bit of a stretch.”

Brustein delivers a keynote address in Australia on the future of art in a democratic society. He describes an era of “greying audiences, defecting actors, declining taste, second-rate theatre criticism, impoverished school arts programmes, inadequate philanthropic support, moral and political correctness- yes, and the cringing assumption that anything arriving from London bears a superior cultural imprint.”

There are valuable journeys to parts of theatre's history. “Hallie Flanagan Davis and the Federal Theatre” is a ten-page summary essay of the one-off Works Progress Administration of the 1930s. It runs into another era. “You are quoting from this Marlowe” says House Representative Joseph Starnes. The Marlowe in question is Christopher of Deptford. “Is he a Communist?” asks the politician-inquisitor.

Brustein visits and applauds the work of American dramatists. “My life is not about race. It's about life” says Suzan-Lori Parks on a public platform. “Why does everyone think white artists make art and black artists make statements? Why doesn't anyone ever ask me about form?” He wades into the unclarity as to authorial right or not to a subject. William Styron is exposed to public abuse for “Confessions of Nat Turner.” The book, records Brustein, is dropped from college reading lists while the essay collection that attacks it is often required reading.

He writes acutely about Primo Levi. In “When Dramaturgs ruled the Earth” he roves over the critical field. Stark Young, Harold Clurman, Mary McCarthy, Eric Bentley, Walter Kerr and Jack Kroll are all included. On Tynan he distinguishes the mastery in one form from the lack of gift for another. As literary manager “almost all of the plays he championed now seem rather shopworn and dog-eared.” He writes a tribute to Richard Gilman. “Writers would arrive at Yale as conventional realists, reliving their family conflicts in imitation of Miller, Williams, and Inge, and leave as fabulists, absurdists, and surrealists.”

In the introduction he declares theatre “a barometer of how people behave and feel at any given moment in history.” In a public address at Columbia University called “Does theatre matter?” he speaks for theatre. He loves movies but knows the difference. “What these competing forms can't provide very often is (1) a sense of community and (2) a penetrating spiritual experience...in short, while movie-going is a solitary activity, theatre-going is a communal one.”

Wide-ranging, acerbic, finely poised prose; who could ask for anything more?

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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