Theatre in Wales

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Evocation of an Era

Theatre History Book

Robert Brustein “Seasons of Discontent” , Jonathan Cape , April 6, 2009
Theatre History Book by Robert Brustein “Seasons of Discontent” The reason for the vividness of ““Seasons of Discontent” is its evocation of the theatre that was utterly of its age. The nineteen-sixties are now variously a time for myth on one hand and damnation on the other. Here they are happening as they unrolled.

Tyrone Guthrie sets up in Minneapolis- “a cultural seed planted by an English gardener in a the rich, untilled soil of the Midwest.” Brustein applauds the quality of the speaking and the design quality of Tanya Moiseiwitsch. Minnesota is superior, he says, to the Old Vic. The Living Theatre does “the Brig” and “the Connection.” The first reaction to Jack Gelber's play is that it employs “the familiar, generally gratuitous techniques of experimental theatre.” But he changes his mind.

“It takes about ten minutes to realise that you are witnessing an extraordinary performance in which everything, including your initial response, has been planned with absolute precision. The acting and direction are so true that it would be some kind of violation to single out individuals for praise.”

It is not so when he comes to that most urbane man of letters of the 60s. Brustein sees Gore Vidal's “the Best Man”. “It is as if the author were sitting cachinnating at his own conceits” he writes “and zealously cheering his own achievement when the curtain fell.” He even terms Vidal's authorship “nominal” ascribing the play's content to “an Audience Survey Tabulator and a frighteningly efficient Univac machine.”

The USA's most treasured authors are up for a critical duffing-up. “The Night of the Iguana” has good things to it. But Tennessee Williams “has explored this territory too many times before.-the play seems tired, unadventurous and self-derivative.” Arthur Miller fares worse. “”After the Fall” is “three and one-half-hour breach of taste, a confessional autobiography of embarrassing explicitness.” In “Incident in Vichy” “Mr Miller has given us not so much a play as another solemn on Human Responsibility. The trouble with Mr Miller's sermons, apart from the fact that they are tedious, glum and badly written, is that they are so uncomplicated.”

Even at the Actors Studio Brustein's sees little beyond decline. The relentless assault does admittedly begin to wear the reader down by the last third of the book's 312 pages. But the good outweighs the savage. Brustein has incisive words about liberalism and satire. “Much of our legitimate culture is manipulated and supported by just such progressive, well-meaning and soupy-headed citizens and this may explain why the stage still shuns satire years after McCarthy descended to his reward.”

Art is diminished in the presence of a generosity and breadth of empathy. “Ever since Plato, it has been obvious that if your major concern is with the community...you will not feel very sympathetic to genuine art unless it supports your social convictions- which art, being highly individualistic, very rarely does.”

The result is “the growing emphasis on community welfare in America has managed to destroy our farce comedy.” Paradox, yes, But then the human world is riddled with contradictions. Art is its attempt at their unravelling and Brustein is its bracing, unsettling anatomist.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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