Theatre in Wales

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When the Critic Becomes Historian

Theatre History

Robert Brustein “Seasons of Discontent” , Jonathan Cape , April 5, 2009
Theatre History by Robert Brustein “Seasons of Discontent” The reading of “Millennial Stages” (December 2008) acted as a prompt to go further back into the previous writings of Robert Brustein. “Seasons of Discontent” is subtitled “Dramatic Opinions 1959-1965”. The 74 pieces were written in the main for the New Republic with an occasional article for the New York Times, New York Book Review and Theatre Arts.

The bulk of immediate responses to performance and events in theatre in the USA and Britain ages rapidly. In the case of Brustein the writing is so good and the confidence of the author so great that it is a vivid picture of an era. The week on week dabs of his authorial brush assume the form in toto of a completed canvas. His book is the critic as a proto-historian.

The verbal brio is set in the foreword. His country when he started in 1959 “was preparing to waken from that long drugged sleep called the Eisenhower era; in a few months, it would begin to rub away the accumulated rheum of those eight dismal years. The end of our national lethargy was signalled, in most cultural areas, by a rush of radical dissent and artistic ferment; but the theatre, traditionally retrograde, continued to doze in the centre of blandness and mediocrity, impervious to experiment, immune to achievement, hostile to thought.” This is just the foreword. Timidity is not going to be a strong-point with Brustein.

The vividness of these reports from history has several roots. Firstly there is the sighting of familiar names in unfamiliar settings. Emlyn Williams is the Pope in Hochhuth's “the Deputy” The actor is “suitably frozen and fastidious” says Brustein approvingly in a play “which can be classified neither as good history nor as good literature.”

For a generation brought up on yodelling romance in the Tyrol Christopher Plummer was an actor who played Lear. Arthur Penn broke out across the world in 1967 with “Bonnie and Clyde.” Here he is directing Sophie Treadwell's “Machinal”. “He is able to evoke true, unified and meticulously detailed performances without signalling his presence at every turn.” Warren Beatty himself is on stage in a William Inge play “A Loss of Roses”. “Comes through with still another imitation of James Dean” says the critic.

“Seasons of Discontent” contains critical response to work that has entered theatre's mainstream. The difference is that Brustein is seeing it without any pre-apprehension or prepared response. It is being unveiled in a condition that is entirely new. He is there to see the first productions of Max Frisch, and “the Caretaker”. He thinks little of the last, it being too abstract to his taste. “Could be just as effectively performed in Finno-Ugaric” he says.

Even Richard Burton's return to “Hamlet” irks him. “He is all colour, like an Action painting...he sniffs, brays barks too much; and he is more dour and surly than truly melancholy.” Hume Cronyn as Polonius is better- “a cranky, rheumatic, avuncular but forthcoming and sagacious counsellor.”

Brustein likes “Zoo Story” very much, almost more than any other play he covers. Of “Roots” Brustein observes “Arnold Wesker would seem to be another dramatist who has been praised too quickly; compared with Albee, in fact, he looks like a theatrical primitive. For while “the American Dream” is a high-fidelity playback of the latest avant-garde tunes, “Roots” plays as if the author had just stumbled on John Galsworthy.” “Theatrical primitive” is not the nicest of epithets. But then Brustein is a rare critic in deploying scythe as well as scalpel.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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