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Running in Place

Review of:  Cultural Calisthenics: Writings on Race, Politics, and Theatre by Robert Brustein

By Daniel Mufson
Originally published in American Theatre, Sept. 1999, Vol. 16, Issue 7, p. 69.

Everyone, by now, has an opinion about Robert Brustein, and the odds are good that whatever the opinion may be, it has calcified over the years into automatic deference, knee-jerk contempt or chronic indifference. He has, after all, written for the New Republic for 40 years and influenced countless students during his tenures at Yale and Harvard. The starting point for all his writing–a combative advocacy for a theatre that engages and challenges its society without preaching to it–has remained fixed for the entirety of his career. Never one to shy away from controversy or a public fray, Brustein, like a lumbering battleship from World War II, has in recent years been venturing into the treacherous waters of multiculturalism and its effects on the arts. Cultural Calisthenics: Writings on Race, Politics, and Theatre is a compendium of his most recent forays, parries and counterattacks.

I began as a child admiring and even emulating Brustein, having subscribed to the New Republic since age 10 or 11. His prose is fluid, often witty and always passionate, sometimes exceedingly so. To a young reader, Brustein’s tone of certainty, matched with an air of forbearance and isolation in a degraded culture, makes a strong impression: a martyr for good theatre, St. Brustein, suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous plays but also taking arms against them in spite of almost certain defeat. An older reader may still appreciate those same qualities while recognizing the fallibility of his early exemplar.

Although he recently identified Eric Bentley as his own model, Brustein is really among the last of a generation of New York intellectuals whose senior members comprised Sidney Hook, Lionel Trilling (who taught Brustein at Columbia), Dwight Macdonald, David Riesman and Clement Greenberg, and whose junior members included Irving Howe and Alfred Kazin. These writers were important in expounding the notion that, as Trilling put it, “a primary function of art and thought is to liberate the individual from the tyranny of his culture in the environmental sense and to permit him to stand beyond it in an autonomy of perception and judgment.” With fewer and fewer people placing this wonderfully ambitious demand on the arts, Brustein’s Cultural Calisthenics deserves high regard for continuing that tradition. The final section of essays and book reviews is particularly worthwhile, with a lovely and loving obituary for Stella Adler.

Brustein shares with the New York intellectuals other traits that are more problematic. Describing these thinkers in his book Critical Crossings, historian Neil Jumonville observed, “Although they wanted a political cultural criticism, they opposed a political domination of literature and culture.” This paradox characterizes all of Brustein’s writings, from Theatre of Revolt to this most recent anthology. It’s ironic that a critic who has always emphasized how reform is not an appropriate endeavor for art began his career with a book whose organizing principle suggests that formal differences of Chekhov, Artaud, Ibsen, Beckett and Genet are superseded by a common tone of rebellion.

Brustein wants plays that mirror himself: confronting society, but idiosyncratically, without allegiance to a party line. This is a holdover from the New York intellectuals’ disillusionment with communism. In the absence of the bogeyman from the Cold War, any self-respecting, intellectual individualist has to identify a new source of totalitarian thought. Brustein has chosen multiculturalism and political correctness, warning, with all too common overstatement, that “the melting pot has turned into a seething cauldron.”

Multiculturalism and political correctness are odd bogeymen for Brustein, a quintessential paleoliberal who in Cultural Calisthenics is still calling for “a new Civilian Conservation Corps to turn gun-toting inner-city youth into skilled artisans” and a federal works project for artists. Brustein has long championed nontraditional casting; he’s praised artists from just about every group you could conceivably call “oppressed.” As an artistic director he’s supported theatre artists whose variety sometimes contradicted his articulated aesthetic; Karen Finley, not known for political subtlety, has performed repeatedly under the roof of his American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge.

Brustein’s problems with multiculturalism stem not from its ideas per se but from the stridency of some of its advocates and from the notion that certain institutional policies (at least a few of which he probably would espouse of his own volition) have been increasingly forced upon him, formerly by the NEA and increasingly by foundations that attach sociopolitical criteria to the awarding of so-called arts funding. As if obeying some cultural version of Newton’s third law of motion, Brustein often sounds as militant, even hysterical, as those he would condemn: “I fear for my theatre. I fear for the whole resident theatre movement. I fear for the nation.”

Throughout Brustein’s debate with August Wilson on race in American theatre, I found Wilson’s arguments patently hypocritical and specious, but Brustein’s weren’t so tight, either. In a particularly desultory essay, Brustein paints himself as a latter-day Aristotle while seeming to lump Wilson in with Plato, the Nazis, Soviet Communists, followers of the Ayatollah, and contemporary advocates of political correctness. Why? All of them started out trying “to regulate or improve human nature” and “ended by suppressing free artistic expression.” Not only is this an argument by association, it’s a patently silly one.

More important, Brustein bases his association with Aristotle–which he’s been making for at least 15 years now–on a number of ideas that are, at best, dubious: that the Poetics is a “repudiation of Plato’s political view of art,” that Aristotle believed tragedy was “essentially cathartic rather than activist in nature,” that Aristotle’s ideas about catharsis include the notion that theatre should be, as Brustein wrote in 1984, “complete and self-contained, designed to spend and discharge the passions of the audience.” But Aristotle’s Poetics contains only one vague reference to catharsis, never clarified; it was first in the 20th century that critics assigned an importance and meaning to catharsis based more on Freud than Aristotle. The Poetics is overwhelmingly concerned with form and never directly addresses the issue of didacticism or politics in drama at all. Contemporary debates over didactic–not to mention multiculturalist-theatre simply have no bearing on Attic tragedy, or vice versa. All of this is separate from the question of whether the didacticism and aesthetic value of a play are inversely or directly related, or if they’re even related at all. I see no connection, but if Brustein wants to insist on one, he should do so based on his own thoughts and feelings and stop dragging poor Aristotle into the melee.

I also fail to understand why Brustein continues to get upset when middlebrow institutions exhibit middle-brow behavior. Back in Seasons of Discontent, his first collection of criticism from 1959 to 1965, Brustein was complaining of the “tripe and treacle” on Broadway, declaring that he was “convinced that the commercial system would never encourage real dramatic adventure.” So why, in the 1990s, is Brustein still going to see the Hal Prince production of Show Boat? Of course it “still carries the same cargo of treacle and molasses.” Vacuous theatre (unless you’re going to become an Anthony Lane or John Simon, dedicated mainly to exploring the limits of excoriating wit) degrades and drains a critic’s writing. A reviewer disappointed by a night on Broadway sounds to my ears like a food critic who dines at Planet Hollywood and then complains of standard fare. And if the critic isn’t disappointed, as when Brustein flatteringly mentions the “literary quality” of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, that’s when a reader might really start to fear for the theatre and the nation.

Commercial theatre is commercial; suburban theatre, suburban. Much of Brustein’s bile comes from his peculiarly persistent hope that commercial and suburban theatres will somehow make esoterica exoteric. He provides a far greater service when he seeks out theatre unfamiliar to most of the New Republic’s readership and demonstrates to them that theatre isn’t always the backwater of the arts. His thoughtful reviews of productions of Roberto Zucco at Cucaracha, the Wooster Group, Suzan-Lori Parks and the Ridge Theater enliven the discourse about neglected but valuable culture. It would seem to me a worthy, albeit difficult, project to hunt even more fervently for interesting alternative theatre and to write about it in a way that exposes what makes it unusual and provocative, rather than to continue a futile effort to make populist cultural institutions reject the populism that they naturally perceive as essential to selling large numbers of ludicrously expensive tickets. The result would be good for Brustein’s writing, good for the artists and good for the ever-dwindling discourse on theatre.

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