Robert Brustein, Passionate Force in Nonprofit Theater, Dies at 96

Robert Brustein, an erudite and contentious advocate for profit-indifferent theater, in the service of which he wore many hats — critic, teacher, producer, director, playwright and even actor — died on Sunday at his home in Cambridge, Mass. He was 96.

His death was confirmed by his wife, Doreen Beinart.

Mr. Brustein was dean of the drama school at Yale and founded and ran the Yale Repertory Theater and the American Repertory Theater at Harvard, producing well over 100 plays and securing them in the regional theater firmament. He also taught at Yale as well as at Harvard.

A prolific writer with the zeal of an environmentalist and the moral certainty of a martyr, he reviewed stage productions for The New Republic for more than 50 years. In many books and in countless newspaper and magazine articles, he argued for brave theater, intellectual theater, nonpandering theater, and worried that the art form was being attenuated by the profit motive.

Mr. Brustein was a passionate defender of the resident, nonprofit theaters whose ranks expanded across the United States in the last decades of the 20th century, and as such he was perpetually concerned that they not be corrupted by commercial interests. The Broadway megahit “A Chorus Line,” in one instance — originally produced in 1975 by the Public Theater in New York — had made it clear that a hit show could funnel many years of economic fuel back to the source.

“The basic aim of the commercial theater is to make a profit,” he said in an interview with The New York Times in 1990. “The basic aim of noncommercial theater, in its ideal form, is to create the condition whereby works of art can be known. And I don’t think these are compatible aims.”

A public intellectual and supporter of the arts, Mr. Brustein delivered opinions that were often respectfully received but that just as often incited exasperation or outrage. Theater people, after all, are not especially fond of being called sellouts. When Frank Rich left his post as chief drama critic for The Times in 1994, his valedictory essay singled out Mr. Brustein:

“I rarely had ugly confrontations with anyone in the theater, and my mail from theater people, even at its angriest, was civilized,” Mr. Rich wrote. “In 13 years the few significant exceptions invariably involved Robert Brustein.”

A Clash With Beckett

As fervent a supporter as he was of great playwrights and playwriting, Mr. Brustein was unafraid, maybe even eager, to confront the biggest names. In 1984, Samuel Beckett threatened legal action to halt an American Repertory Theater production of his bleakly apocalyptic play “Endgame,” accusing the director of taking intolerable liberties with his stage directions: The set did not conform to his description, the production added music where none was called for, and he felt that the casting of Black actors in crucial roles added a racial element that he had not intended.

Mr. Brustein took the position that productions confined solely to the playwright’s vision violated the creative license of other artists and, more to the point, contributed to the theater’s growing stagnant or stale. Backing the director, JoAnne Akalaitis, and refusing to shut down the production, Mr. Brustein eventually reached a compromise with the playwright that allowed the show to go on.

Under the agreement, a statement by Beckett appeared in the playbill saying, in part: “My play requires an empty room and two small windows. The American Repertory Theater production which dismisses my directions is a complete parody of the play as conceived by me.” And though he never saw the production, he added that “anybody who cares for the work couldn’t fail to be disgusted by this.”

A rejoinder by Mr. Brustein was included as well: “To threaten any deviations from a purist rendering of this or any other play,” he wrote, “to insist on strict adherence to each parenthesis of the published text — not only robs collaborating artists of their interpretive freedom but threatens to turn the theater into a waxworks.”

Writing in The New Republic in 1990, Mr. Brustein, then at A.R.T., criticized the Yale Rep production of August Wilson’s drama “The Piano Lesson,” which had opened in 1987, traveled to nonprofit theaters around the country in a calculated pre-Broadway tour, during which changes were made, and opened on Broadway in 1990 shortly after winning a Pulitzer Prize.

Though he acknowledged (and regretted, he said) that A.R.T. had fostered plays that evolved into Broadway productions, including “Grown Ups” by Jules Feiffer and “’Night, Mother” by Marsha Norman, Mr. Brustein objected to what he called “the use of sequential nonprofit institutions as launching pads and tryout franchises for the development of Broadway products and the enrichment of artistic personnel.”

Mr. Brustein during a rehearsal at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., in 1996.Credit…Barry Chin/The Boston Globe, via Getty Images

The production history of “The Piano Lesson,” he wrote, was indicative of “a serious deterioration in the integrity and nature of the resident theater movement.”

He in turn was denounced for what many thought was an old-fashioned puritanism and what many also thought was jealousy — the production was directed by his successor at Yale, Lloyd Richards.

Mr. Brustein’s review, in which he wrote that “Wilson has thus far limited himself to narrow aspects of the Black experience in a relatively literalistic style,” also fomented a lingering dispute with the playwright about Black theater.

Their feud, played out in the pages of The New Republic and American Theater magazine, reached a climax in 1997 with an extraordinary public debate in front of a sold-out house at Town Hall in Midtown Manhattan. In it, Mr. Wilson argued for a robust Black theater movement involving Black playwrights writing on Black themes, and Black artists directing and performing the work. Mr. Brustein declared the idea separatist and narrow.

“Never is it suggested that playwrights like David Mamet or Terrence McNally are limiting themselves to whiteness,” Mr. Wilson argued. “The idea that we are trying to escape from the ghetto of Black culture is insulting.”

Mr. Brustein, who invoked the Aristotelian ideal of drama as revelatory of “the workings of the human soul, which has no color,” reached the conclusion — as did many in attendance — that nothing was decided.

“I come away confirmed in my conviction that drama is the opposition of two ideas,” he said. “So I think we have provided drama, if not enlightenment.”

Child of New York

Robert Sanford Brustein was born in Brooklyn on April 21, 1927, to a businessman, Max Brustein, and the former Blanche Haft. He grew up in Manhattan and lived as a child in the same Upper West Side building as the composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, whom Mr. Brustein once described as looking like “a prune in a fedora.” Decades later Mr. Brustein used the building as a setting for his autobiographical play, “Spring Forward, Fall Back.”

He attended the High School of Music & Art (now Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts) and then Amherst College, graduating with a degree in medieval history after a hiatus serving in the merchant marine.

Mr. Brustein spent an unhappy year as a graduate student at the Yale School of Drama, where, he later observed, “everything about the play was discussed except its meaning.” He eventually earned an M.A. in dramatic literature from Columbia, spent two years on a Fulbright fellowship at the University of Nottingham in England and returned to Columbia for a Ph.D.

In the 1950s and ’60s, he taught at Columbia, Vassar and Cornell. He also wrote an influential book, “The Theatre of Revolt,” a collection of essays on the work of Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Shaw, O’Neill, Brecht, Pirandello and Genet, whom he called “the finest, most enduring writers in the field.”

Mr. Brustein delivering a lecture on modern drama in 1967. He taught at both Yale and Harvard.Credit…Sam Falk/The New York Times

Mr. Brustein was named dean of the Yale School of Drama in 1966. Given a free hand by the university’s president, Kingman Brewster Jr., to revitalize it, Mr. Brustein brought in new teachers, opened the school to undergraduates and revised the curriculum to emphasize not only fundamentals of performance but also the intellectual literature of the theater.

Within weeks, to affirm the idea that the theater is responsive to the contemporary world, he brought in the Open Theater’s production of “Viet Rock,” an antiwar play by Megan Terry with music.

He soon founded the Yale Repertory Theater, a professional company in residence with an emphasis on new, provocative plays — works by John Guare, Sam Shepard, David Mamet, Terrence McNally, Arthur Kopit and Christopher Durang were all produced during Mr. Brustein’s tenure — and creative interpretations of classics.

At the same time, the drama school became a professional training ground, nurturing the aspirations of students like Mr. Durang, Wendy Wasserstein, Meryl Streep, Chris Noth, Sigourney Weaver and Henry Winkler.

In 1978, A. Bartlett Giamatti, who had recently become the president of Yale and was known to favor a greater focus on undergraduate education in the drama program and a lesser one on professional training, declined to renew Mr. Brustein’s contract. Shortly after, Mr. Brustein was invited to bring his expertise — and his theater — to Harvard, a bold effort by the university to bolster what had been an undistinguished program in drama.

There, he became a professor of English, the director of the university’s Loeb Drama Center and artistic director of the company that became the American Repertory Theater. Its first production, in the spring of 1980, was “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” directed by Alvin Epstein, with Mr. Brustein himself in the role of Theseus. (He had tried his hand at acting in New York in the 1950s and occasionally at Yale.)

The second season featured a production of “Lulu,” the sex- and violence-laden play by the 19th-century German playwright Frank Wedekind, which was directed by Lee Breuer of the experimental troupe Mabou Mines. It drew wildly disparate reviews and outrage from subscribers, who deserted the theater in droves — though many subsequently returned.

Not long after the fracas over “Endgame,” Mr. Brustein presented Robert Wilson’s “Civil Wars,” the first part of an incomplete 12-hour mixed-media piece. Half the audience left during a preview performance, prompting Mr. Brustein to say in an interview, “At least they didn’t throw their programs at the ushers, the way the audiences did at ‘Lulu’ a couple of years ago.”

Lifting a Theater Scene

Controversies notwithstanding, Mr. Brustein’s tenure at the American Repertory Theater, which lasted until he stepped down in 2002, was successful, not only in bringing challenging productions to academic-minded Cambridge, but also in galvanizing a theater scene throughout the Boston area.

Mr. Brustein adapted a number of classic plays at A.R.T., including works by Ibsen, Chekhov and Pirandello. His final production was a bawdy adaptation of the Aristophanes antiwar comedy “Lysistrata.”

His own works for the stage include “Nobody Dies on Friday,” a drama that presents the acting guru Lee Strasberg as a cruel narcissist; “The English Channel,” a wry comedy about young Shakespeare and his rival, Christopher Marlowe; and “Shlemiel the First,” a klezmer musical (with a score by Hankus Netsky and Zalmen Mlotek) adapted from stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Mr. Brustein in his home in Cambridge, Mass., in 2012.Credit…Wendy Maeda/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

He was also the author of several books, mostly collections of reviews and essays on the theater and culture, including “The Third Theatre” (1969); “Reimagining American Theatre” (1991); “Letters to a Young Actor: A Universal Guide to Performance” (2005); and “The Tainted Muse: Prejudices and Preconceptions in Shakespeare’s Work and Times” (2009).

Mr. Brustein’s first marriage, to Norma Ofstrock, an actress who taught at Yale’s drama school, ended with her death in 1979. In 1996, he married Doreen Beinart, a human-rights activist and documentary film professor from South Africa. She survives him, as do his son, Daniel Brustein; a stepson, Peter Beinart, the journalist and commentator; a stepdaughter, Jean Stern; two grandsons; and five step-grandchildren.

Contentious as ever, Mr. Brustein continued to bemoan the state of theater in his later years. “I think the American theater reflects America now, as everything that happens is beginning to reflect America — one-percent America,” he told The Boston Globe in 2012.

“The fact is that our values have somehow gotten very skewed, and we’ve gone back — if we ever left it — to the notion that success is the highest value in this country. Not integrity, not quality, not intelligence, not spirit, not soul. Success, financial success.

“And this is a heartbreaker,” he added, “because this country was unlike any country, with the possible exception of ancient Greece; it had the chance to approach an ideal state, and it’s gone. We’ve lost it. Success seems to be the one criterion of achievement.”

Robert Berkvist, a former New York Times arts editor who died in 2023, and Jack Kadden contributed reporting.

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