Robert Brustein discusses the fate of the theatre world
BROADCAST: Feb. 20, 1981 | DURATION: 00:40:31
Ten years ago, explained Robert Brustein, not for profit theatres were starting to pop up. Brustein was optimistic about these new theatres being available in communities as a way of offering culture. Theatres will not be funded though, because President Reagan cut federal funding to theatres in half. In addition, the National Endowment for the Arts was not growing fast enough to assist all theatres involved.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel Robert Brustein is one of the most perceptive observers of theater, I was about to say American theater, of theater round and about, but more than that, he's a participant as well as observer. He was the founder of the Yale -- the Dean of the Yale School of Drama, I should say, and some marvelous plays were first done there. He himself has directed, acted, as well as in recent years was TV critic, too, for "The London Observer", sitting in the chair once occupied by Kenneth Tynan. Thanks to the Harvard Club, the good offices of the Harvard Club, he's our guest today. Robert Brustein, so it'll be a freewheeling conversation. His thoughts about contemporary theater; here, there, as well as perhaps some promising signs or signs perhaps not as promising. So in a moment, thoughts -- oh, his lecture at -- when he was in town under the auspices of Harvard Club was "The Humanist" -- I think "The Humanist as an Artist".
Robert Brustein "Humanist and the Artist".
Studs Terkel "And the Artist", that's interesting. That would be a good catapult for us in a moment after this message. [pause in recording] So I'm thinking, Bob Brustein, Robert Brustein, the last time you were in Chicago was about eight, nine years ago, when you were talking about the state of theater, things were popping and there were some bleak aspects to it. In ten years or so, if I were to ask you a question, what development if any has there been that have distinguished now from then?
Robert Brustein Well, to talk institutionally for a minute, there's been a major development. The -- I guess when I last saw you eight or ten years ago, we were right on the peak of our expectations and happiness with what was then a burgeoning resident theater movement, a non-profit movement of theater in America that was relatively new on the scale that it was taking place. It was a decentralized movement because it was cropping up in cities outside of New York as well as in New York. And each of these theaters had the ambition to create, develop their own artists and develop their own artworks for the community in which they were functioning. And it was very refreshing at that time to see a group of people working in a theater who were not necessarily working for their own fame or their own advancement or their own profit, but rather for the, for the work itself.
Studs Terkel These were repertory theaters
Robert Brustein These were resident theaters. Some of them were repertory in the sense that they rotated their offerings, most of them had permanent companies in those days, and they were given a big boost by the private foundations, particularly the Ford Foundation, to a lesser extent the Rockefeller Foundation, and some benefactors, individuals
Studs Terkel These groups connected with universities?
Robert Brustein No, some of them were. I started one in New Haven called the Yale Repertory Theatre that was connected with the university in a sense, but it was a professional theater which used the students of the Yale Drama School as interns and sometimes featured people in design, acting, directing, any number of things, and they would go through the program and then graduate into the company as full professionals. We'd give them a ticket when they graduated.
Studs Terkel The repertory theaters you're talking about though were beginning to burgeon around the country. You mean like Bill Ball's ACT of San
Robert Brustein The ATC, the Guthrie, the Alley Theatre in Houston, Actors Theatre in Louisville, the Stratford Shakespeare Company in Stratford, the Long Wharf, the Theater Company of Boston, all over. Goodman Theatre here in Chicago, and also, interestingly enough around that time, the National Endowment for the Arts was beginning to come into its own and was increasing its allotment and commitment to the theater every year as well as the dance companies and music companies, symphony orchestras and what have you. That was then, and since then there's been a serious almost desperate falling off.
Robert Brustein Well, I think the why ultimately goes back to the economic problems of the country, that when the economy began to falter in the late -- well, the early '70s I guess, the mid-'70s inflation took over, and the first thing that happened was the private foundations which had been supporting these companies drew out, pulled out, and turned their attention to other concerns. Quite important concerns very frequently, but they virtually halved or more their involvement with the theater. The National Endowment for the Arts did not grow fast enough to make up for the withdrawal of the private foundations. It was growing, but not fast enough. And then at one point as we know, it became rather politicized, it began to give some of its grants on the basis of geography rather than on the basis of quality, so even the improvement each year in the annual appropriation was not enough to cover the inflationary spiral. And now we are of course faced with a situation where Governor Reagan and his new administration have decided
Studs Terkel That is President Reagan.
Robert Brustein President, I beg your pardon, I wish he was still governor but of some other state. But he -- President Reagan has decided to cut the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities in half. And so its pitifully small allotment is now being cut in half.
Studs Terkel Now for the obvious question. You worked for a time in England, you were the drama critic of "The Observer", you, I'm sure you visited the continent as well. In almost all European countries, west as well as east, and England, there are national theaters, they're subsidized by the government. You know, we always hear the question, "Oh, there has to be a terrible thing, because the heavy hand of political censorship will be there." And yet here are these theaters that are part of the society, aren't they?
Robert Brustein Exactly. And in fact there was never any censorship on either the theaters or the BBC, which was also government subsidized, primarily because there was probably an agency between the government and the various arts organizations that were getting the funds. Whereas here that that arts organization is itself always in danger of being politicized because it gets its appropriations
Studs Terkel Bob, I'd like to ask you a question. This is something been on my mind for a long time, I'm sure it's one you've been thinking of, why is it? We're the United States, a very powerful country, the very richest, of course, the new world, so it's no longer that new, but is it that theater was always in these old world countries, theater was part of that society and so it's subsidized, theater, the arts, subsidized by the state, or by the country, is that might have been considered when, since we started as a horny-handed kind of place, macho, tough place that it might be something frilly and sissified, and as a result of which -- this is a wild shot thought.
Robert Brustein Well, the odd thing is the United States has had a tradition of theater ever since it was the United States and long before. Touring companies were very popular in this country in the 19th century. They went right through the West and the Midwest frequently. What happened I think in this country is that theater suddenly became centralized in the city of New York. And all eyes turn to New York as the locus and the fount of theater. And if it didn't get its validation in New York, it wasn't any good. So it would start in New York and then go out to the hinterlands as they called it, or it would start in the hinterlands on its way to New York, but in either case it was facing New York, which was the big bonanza area of the country, and that was the marketplace, as it were. And as a result theater was thought of as essentially a profit-making enterprise, whereas in Europe, while it is also a profit-making enterprise, it has its strongest impulse is the nonprofit sector, and that's what we were trying to get going here, a parallel situation to the nonprofit sector of Europe. And we were on our way to doing it. But right now I think if I can talk apocalyptically for a moment, I have a feeling that the nonprofit sector is ultimately going to be extinguished as we know it. Ultimately, I mean very soon, and by that I am not just including theater. I'm talking about dance companies, I'm talking about public broadcasting, I'm talking about universities, that whole sector which functioned in parallel with the profit-making sector and which accounted in part for our pluralism and created some of the institutions that gave us hope, and which young people could commit themselves to or look towards with idealistic eyes. They're in the process of disintegrating or changing their nature to the point where they'll no longer be recognizable as nonprofit institutions.
Studs Terkel So it has to make the buck. So it has to be the commercial boffo play.
Robert Brustein That's right. The nonprofit theaters, for example, learned when the foundations pulled out and the endowment did not generate enough support that there were only a very few ways they could earn unearned income, that is to say the income that doesn't come into the box office. One of them was royalties of big hits like "Chorus Line" that they had sent to Broadway.
Studs Terkel You know, there's an exquisite irony here, isn't there? The fear, the stereotype talk, or the mindless talk, that (a), if there's a state subsidy the heavy hand of political censorship of states then, and here we have a great censor, the box office, don't we, the greatest of all.
Robert Brustein It
Studs Terkel The most rigid of all the censors.
Robert Brustein It's the biggest censor, and the irony is that the National Endow-- the heavy hand of government, it never laid its hand on any of us to a larger extent than 5 percent of our total budget. That's the most it's given to anybody. And if you, if you look at the actual figures of what the government, the National Endowment for the Arts has been contributing to the arts, it represents -- we worked this out on our calculator the other day, it represents three one hundredths of one percent of the national budget, which amounts to 70 cents per person per year that's contributed to the arts. This is now going to be reduced to 35 cents per person per year. And this, by the way, is enough money to run the Pentagon for 11 hours.
Studs Terkel Eleven hours. You know, I'm thinking wistfully, being of a certain age, I was a member of the WPA Writers Project. Of course, there was a Federal Theater Project, and I hear if ever there was a governmental projects, it's in theater, music, dance, painting, the arts, visual arts as well as literature. And it was a terribly exciting period.
Robert Brustein It was the beginning actually of the federal extension to the arts. It was a very promising period. It created extraordinary work in the theater, Mercury Theatre, Orson Welles' group.
Studs Terkel Now that you mention Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre, now we come to another aspect. It was also a great deal of experimentation and new forms came into being, something called the Living Newspaper, which would be the equivalent to what today? Multi, multi
Robert Brustein Multimedia.
Studs Terkel Multimedia.
Robert Brustein Right. Hallie Flanagan Davis was a great innovator in that period.
Studs Terkel So, theater as you see it now. I mean, we now perhaps even more specifically your own experiences and involvements. You now.
Robert Brustein Well, my own personal involvement, I put my chips on the university. I thought that if there was one place that would extend an umbrella to the arts and culture, it would be the university, because it already had a tradition of not supporting the arts but at teaching the arts, and it had an audience that was presumably hungry for the arts in one form or another, and most of them sat in cities that extended into communities that could be developed, audiences could be developed in that area. So I, thought if the university could be prevailed upon to partially subsidize a theater like my own, that that would be the answer. And unfortunately the university soon became as indigent as the theater, and was not in the position actually to extend this kind of support except in a very small way in terms of facilities perhaps.
Studs Terkel But while you were there as the Dean of the Yale School of Drama and instituting the University Theater, you were doing plays before they were done commercially, some of them, and there were new playwrights, weren't there?
Robert Brustein Yes, indeed. In fact, our theater was oriented towards the new playwright and the new play, and we also did classics, innovative approaches to the classics, because we always felt that the new play taught us how to do the classic. Not to do it in the very conventional orthodox way the way it's always been done, but the new playwright like Beckett for example, or David Mamet, or your own David Mamet or Sam Shepard could, these people could tell us how to do the classics, they would give us new insights into the classics and vice versa. The classics could in their way influence these playwrights.
Studs Terkel What is happening now to University Theater? Aside from Yale?
Robert Brustein Well, we've moved our enterprise from Yale. After I got fired by the present president, to Harvard, where it is at least for the moment thriving, it's got a very large subscription list of 14,000 and we're in the Loeb Theater there and we're doing a repertory of six or seven plays a year in rotating repertory with a permanent company. But Harvard is not in the position to provide anything more than the facility and the energy and maintenance which is considerable, but nevertheless not as much as we need.
Studs Terkel Well, one of the obvious questions I suppose, I [don't it's obvious?] and now one of the questions is, how does it affect the playwright? There always is a dearth of playwrights, the need for -- we like -- oh, I know, before I ask that, one thing this country does have is a lot of good actors, don't they?
Robert Brustein Yes. Yes, we do have a lot of good actors, and there are a lot of good actors in these various decentralized theaters in the country. The trouble is as I was saying, that the permanent company per se, the group of actors that stayed together as a cohesive group and evolved together, that idea broke up. It was too expensive for this country. There are only about three or four permanent companies of any consequence left in the country.
Studs Terkel Really?
Robert Brustein We have one. The Guthrie is another. The American Conservatory Theater is another. The Louisville company, Actors Company in Louisville, and aside from that it's very hard to pick out
Studs Terkel Seattle, is there a Seattle
Robert Brustein John Hirsch, yeah, there are a number
Studs Terkel They're doing a reading next week of "American Dreams: Lost and Found", that's why I'm aware of
Robert Brustein It's a good group.
Studs Terkel But that's about it. Now when you, I when I last saw you, when last we met, they say in soap operas, when I last saw about eight years ago, there were quite a few.
Robert Brustein Oh, there were 50, 55. There were still 55 in one form or another, but I wouldn't call them genuine resident nonprofit theaters anymore. Most of them are way stations for shows on the way to
Studs Terkel But certain, 55 to about a half a dozen, so they're the actors, the great many who were selling shoes or whatever they're doing, no gone and try their luck in commercial theater. Plus the fact that a community is deprived of something that is, could be fairly rich in their lives. We're talking about the losses, aren't we?
Robert Brustein Yes, the great losses. The trouble is we didn't have the time to educate the community about the importance of these institutions. The community -- and I'm speaking generally, of course, not true of all the community. But I would say the large part of the community was itself more attracted to the play on the way to Broadway. They felt somehow honored that they were going to see a play before it got to Broadway or after it'd been to Broadway, and they didn't recognize that they had a, they had a stake in their cultural institutions to support them even though they might not have liked this season or next season or this play or that play, that there was a continuing thing here like the church, if you like, or like the symphony orchestra, that deserves support.
Studs Terkel In the meantime the taste is developing of an audience.
Robert Brustein Exactly. The taste changes every time the audience is
Studs Terkel We're skirting the issue. The fact as you're saying it that political climate has a great deal to do, does it not, with the nature of the arts in the country?
Robert Brustein There is no question about it, and it is nowhere better proven than let's say the history of the last 15 years. When you look at the political climate, say in the '60s, the mid-'60s during the Vietnam War when people were so aroused over Johnson's handling of that war, the theater had sometimes it would [hold?] two documentaries, sometimes it was too radical, it was full of innovation, full of life, and audiences were willing and happy to go to share their anxieties and pains over the current social situation in the theater with actors and playwrights. Today I think there has been a profound conservative backlash which is represented of course in the recent election, but it will also be clearly represented in the theater. I think it's going to affect the whole impulse towards innovation. People will draw back from doing new plays or new operas or new musical works. The new itself will be threatening to people and they'll want to stay with
Studs Terkel The new is threatening to people, or the different is threatening to people.
Robert Brustein Always.
Studs Terkel The alien threatens, so here it is. So you see this now happening? Do you see this? Yes,
Robert Brustein Yes, I do. I see it happening in Boston.
Studs Terkel What's a way out -- let's talk, let's take a slight pau-- way out, and then perhaps ask you about reflections on the talk you gave here recently at the Harvard Club. I like the word "artist and a humanist and the art" not humanist as it," that might be interesting. But let's take a pause then we'll return with Robert Brustein my guest, who is a multidimensional threat in theater. He's been director of theater, teacher of drama, critic for "The London Observer" as well as American journals, as well as -- you directed, too, didn't you? And you also acted, too!
Robert Brustein I also worked, yes.
Robert Brustein And I write criticism for "The New Republic".
Studs Terkel For "New Republic" now. So we're resume in a moment after this message. [pause in recording] Resuming with Robert Brustein, what's a way out? This is the obvious question. Is there a way out?
Robert Brustein Well the -- the way out you mean, is there a way for these organizations to preserve their integrity as it were, without -- I think there may be. It may be too far off in the future to get to us before poverty gets to us or extinction gets to us, and that's cable TV. It strikes me that with the introduction of cable TV and all those channels that have to be filled, there's going to be an enormous hunger as it were for even for cultural materials, and these theaters and these orchestras and these quartets and these dance companies will have quality material, then it's not the kind of material that billions of people are going to be interested in, but there'll be sufficient numbers I think to interest some cable companies. And if there could be a quid pro quo with a cable company that they would help support the theater, the dance company, the symphony in return for a first option say on their materials, then that we might begin to find another source of funding to take up the slack where the private foundations and the government have fallen off. Another area is the American corporation. The corporations have been increasing their contributions to the arts, in some cities they've been very progressive and very helpful. We've actually ourselves just received a very substantial grant from the American Express Foundation to go abroad with two productions in repertory and visit European cities in the summer of 1982. The American Repertory Theater will be going
Studs Terkel -- What productions are they?
Robert Brustein We're bringing "Sganarelle", which is a group of Moliere one-act plays directed by Andrei Serban, the celebrated and innovative Romanian director, and we're bringing an American play which we haven't really focused in on. We know it has to be an American play. It might very well be the new Jules Feiffer play we're doing in the spring called "Grownups".
Studs Terkel A new Feiffer play called the what?
Robert Brustein "Grownups".
Studs Terkel That's -- now here's the point you were making earlier about new playwrights and Feiffer of course we know as the great cartoonist, caricaturist, as well as playwright, "Little Murders", and a very funny book called "Tantrum" and everything, but now so you have a new American playwright plus a fresh approach to the classics.
Robert Brustein Yes.
Studs Terkel As Serban doing Moliere.
Robert Brustein That represents two major impulses.
Studs Terkel So that's what we're talking about, aren't we, that the freshness of a classic done.
Robert Brustein Exactly. A classic has to be done with fresh
Studs Terkel He did Chekhov a lot, didn't he? Serban.
Robert Brustein Serban did a lot of Chekhov, yes, he's done "Cherry Orchard" and "Seagull" at least. But he has done a lot of Greek plays, too and he brought totally fresh eyes to those plays.
Studs Terkel That's interesting, there's another, there are some good young new American directors, but a number of European young European directors are coming, Serban for one, there was the Romanian guy, what's his name?
Robert Brustein Well, Serban is Romanian, there's also Liv Ciulei who is taking over at the Guthrie, he's also Romanian. There's a director named Andrei Belgrader who's also Romanian, there are three Romanian
Studs Terkel Why the Romanians, I wonder?
Robert Brustein Well, I think -- I can't account for them, but they certainly are turning up some interesting directorial talents.
Studs Terkel But as there are good many good actors, that we know, we always were told for a long time that we can't compare to British actors, and some made a comment that the top British actors may be the best, but in the middle group, the Americans are far superior. That was a comment made some years ago, I don't know if it's so or not.
Robert Brustein I've always felt that Americans are clearly not as technically accomplished as English, their English counterparts. And they don't speak as well and they don't move as well. But it is that very incapacity perhaps, to get it out, to speak it easily, to speak it smoothly that sometimes accounts for a much more deep performance. I'm always reminded of Billy Budd, who you may remember that book of Herman Melville, where Billy Budd was a stammerer, and when he was accused unjustly by an evil person on board his ship, he had no recourse except to burst into an emotional, he burst into an enormous emotional confrontation with Claggart, right, then struck him down dead on the deck of
Robert Brustein That's the American act, that's Eugene O'Neill, isn't it? As he says, "I'm a stammerer, I have no native eloquence, therefore" -- well, therefore, therefore he has much more power as a playwright than any British playwright has ever had.
Studs Terkel That's good, I'm glad you said that, because I've always all my life ever since a kid been a sucker for O'Neill, and see if it, this makes any sense. I like O'Neill, this may seem goofy, for the same reason I like Thomas Wolfe as a writer, now both overwrite. Both over-write, and sometimes the prose is [purple?] [weight?], but when they hit, Bang! It's like a heavyweight fighter roundhouse swing, but the punch is like no punch a deft boxer can ever deliver.
Robert Brustein Isn't that true of American art in general, that it's erratic, it's spasmodic, it's not consistently good, but when it hits, when it really gets there, it's extraordinary. When that novelist writes that marvelous book, when the "Catch-22" comes along, or "Book of Daniel" or one of those, it really knocks you for
Studs Terkel I'm glad you said "Book of Daniel", it's interesting. It's one of Doctorow's less-known books, it's very beautiful
Studs Terkel Really? You feel that.
Studs Terkel Let's go back. Now, the artist -- the artist, the humanist and the artist.
Robert Brustein Yes.
Robert Brustein Well, it's a tricky title, actually. It would be more accurately called "The Humanist Versus the Artist". And it's tragic even to say that at this point because both the humanist and the artist are getting their throats cut by these, these cuts in the National Endowment for the Arts and the Humanities. But what I tried to say in that talk was that there is for some reason the fundamental opposition between the humanist insofar by which I mean the university professor particularly of literature, and the functioning working artist, and that you would think they would be allies and friends, but somehow they don't get along. They're worried about each other, anxious about each other, and it goes back to my notion of the artist in the university. The artist is not welcome in the university, as welcome as I thought he would be or she would be. He's edgy, spiky, sometimes irritating presence, like a hair in the throat of the university, and quite often universities wants to spit it out. Clear its throat.
Studs Terkel You speak autobiographically.
Robert Brustein Yeah. In my case it was true, but it's -- there are other examples.
Studs Terkel So let's stick with that for a minute. The -- not just your story, the idea. University there's a tenured -- it's assumed these are tenured, perhaps not -- is that they have a sort of a life that's fairly well-settled and safe. Now I'm thinking out loud, maybe I'm unfair. Where along comes the artist who is always the irritant and the gadfly and the questioner and the very presence itself.
Robert Brustein I think that's true. I think also the humanist is a custodian of the past. He protects the given, the orthodox, and the notion that art is in some sort of process that it's continuing, that it's going forward in the future, because the artist concerned with the future and with the present. The humanist is concerned with protecting and sanctifying the past. So there is a fundamental disagreement there I think. For example, if the artist reaches over as some very innovative and exciting directors do to Shakespeare, and do "Midsummer Night's Dream" as say Peter Brook did it on circus trapezes, that can upset the English professor who, many of whom believe that Shakespeare should be done precisely the way he was done in his own time. The problem is no one knows how he was done in his own time. The few things we do know suggest that if he were ever done that way, he would shock the pants off everybody, because for example Cleopatra in "Antony and Cleopatra", which as you know is played by a boy, played that part in a hoop skirt, not in Egyptian clothes but in a hoop skirt. So the point is we don't know how Shakespeare was done, and what we have to do is look at him with our own eyes.
Studs Terkel You know, a funny story about that. You know, John Neville the British actor had a company, and he took the company to Nigeria. This is, this conversation I'm recounting took place some years ago. He went to Nigeria. I saw him before he went and after he came back, that's right. And he says, "Incredible experience, they had never seen Shakespeare." They did it, but the audience cheered and booed and took part. They participated as though it were a sports event. And this may have been the case at the Globe Theatre, too, possibly, I don't know.
Robert Brustein That's exactly the way it should be treated. I mean, Shakespeare scorned the groundlings, who disrupted his performance, but the fact is those performances were continually being cheered and booed and oranges were being sold during the performance. There was a wonderful sports event feeling to it, it's that very feeling by the way that Bertolt Brecht tried to bring back into the modern theater. He wanted you to be able to smoke and put your feet up and relax at the theater.
Studs Terkel Was that Brecht's idea?
Robert Brustein That was Brecht's idea, yes. Instead of sitting there piously and sanctimoniously at a cultural event and be uplifted, that's the real enemy of art is the notion that it has to be uplifting and cultural and somehow you go away more important and, than you were before you were there. It's got to be relaxed, the artistic event. If it isn't, it's
Studs Terkel Joan Littlewood had that idea, too. I'm referring to Joan Littlewood. She loved the idea of the theater as a spectacle when they take part and she tried this all the time. In the Brendan Behan plays and "Oh, What
Robert Brustein Yeah, "Oh, What a Lovely War", yeah, she was splendid
Studs Terkel This is what you -- now, who, who, now who are some of the playwrights, I mean, whom, who attract you very much today?
Robert Brustein American playwrights?
Studs Terkel Let's say American playwrights.
Robert Brustein I'm particularly attracted to the works of Sam Shepard, I think he's probably our most imaginative and visionary playwright. I think he's on to something. What he's trying to do is find that myth or metaphor of American life which will as it were bring us all together, will immediately identify it. He's looking everywhere, he's looking to the West, he's looking to movies, he's looking at his own life, but the search is very important. And he has produced a number of really first-rate plays that give me continuing hope for his future, assuming he doesn't get swallowed up by the movies. He's now
Studs Terkel Now he's a movie actor. Here not too long ago a company did "Buried Child". Again a very provocative for of, irritating, provocative
Robert Brustein "Buried Child" I think is one of his very best plays. I think he's, he's found a an image of our, of our country as it were, even of our history in that that is so powerful that I could almost not bear the ending, because it really spoke about the broken promises of this country in a way that no other art form could have done as powerfully as he did.
Studs Terkel As you know, the very image, "Buried Child", yeah.
Robert Brustein The notion was that we had an innocent expectation of the future. Anything could have happened here, we had a true virgin land, and his image for what happened is a child that was buried and is decomposing. And but is pulled -- but nevertheless keeps rising through the earth and was brought into the, brought into our presence at the very
Studs Terkel This is funny; as you speak of the play in that vein, I didn't quite see that much in it, but I'm -- you told me that. But at the same time I was impressed by it, but as you mention that that's what it's all about. There is a buried tradition. Now and then we find this, if I could be political for a moment, in neighborhood groups and communities that protest an expressway or a high-rise or a nuclear plant. And they're expressing this this town meeting idea in a decentralized way, but in a way this is what Shepard is also saying, that it was a vocal country, there was something, an excitement as against what seems to be a shroud right now.
Robert Brustein His plays are full of nostalgia for some mythical past, for the true West. His new play is called "True West".
Robert Brustein When the West was something other than freeways and supermarkets.
Studs Terkel What, now, Shepard then is one of the American playwrights.
Robert Brustein Yes.
Studs Terkel You said I suppose some English playwrights, too.
Robert Brustein Well, there's one English playwright that particularly interests me, although he doesn't seem to impress very many people. He's not very popular, and that's Edward Bond.
Robert Brustein Whose,
Studs Terkel Is it because his plays are outrageous, is that
Robert Brustein His plays are very strong. He's -- he is or was a pacifist and as a result was virtually obsessed with violence in daily life. In war as well as in the streets, and his plays are very violent as a result. Most people can't take violence on the stage. One play of his, for example, called "Lear" which was a spin-off of "King Lear", the brilliant and fascinating play, but it had a scene in it that was so incredibly graphic in its bloodiness that when we did it, three-quarters of the audience would get up and walk out.
Studs Terkel Oh,
Robert Brustein Yes, we did most of his plays, as a matter of fact. We did "Saved", we did the American premiere of "Saved", we did "Bingo", the American premiere of "Bingo", which is a marvelous play about Shakespeare in his last years. We did the American premiere of "Lear", and also of "The Bundle".
Studs Terkel But the violence, it was not gratuitous violence, it's the violence that is very specifically offered for very definite.
Robert Brustein No, it's not gratuitous violence. If it were gratuitous violence we wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole, but it's always for a purpose. But the purpose is not as manifest as the act itself sometimes. And modern audiences are squeamish.
Studs Terkel Now we come to the question of audiences, don't we? Now since you've mentioned, you don't mind, this is a -- as you can -- the audience can gather, a free-wheeling conversation without any particular theme to begin with, but the theme is the audience. We're talking about audience now. Has there been, in your own experience from your own experience, observation, a development of a serious theatre audience in the country, or is it just a back and forth proposition?
Robert Brustein I can only speak from my own experience. In New Haven we developed a small but serious audience. When I first got there in 1966, the University Theatre,, which is where we were doing our productions at that time, we had a professional company in something called the University Theatre, and people had been going to that theater to see student production for some years and they were generally blue-haired ladies or faculty people, and we alienated them with our first productions which were "Viet Rock", "Dynamite Tonight", there were antiwar plays, they were experimental, sometimes avant-garde. We did an experimental "Volpone" that Clifford Williams directed, which updated it to a kind of Fellini-esque Venice. We did Robert Lowell's "Prometheus Bound", which was directed by Jonathan Miller and was a kind of hidden commentary on the Vietnam War. It alienated a lot of people. But over the years, I was there for 13 years, and over the years after about five or six years we began to develop a passionate and devoted audience, 60 percent of them students, by the way, which was very heartening. Sixty percent of our audience were young people. And by the time I left I really felt we had absolutely devoted followers.
Studs Terkel You see, you're hitting something here. By the way, I'm glad you -- Jonathan Miller worked with you as a director, I'm glad to hear that. He's so imaginative in so many ways. But coming back to the theater being young audience, 60 percent, something happened. You saw it happen yourself from your experience there. It's true it's a, it's a college town, university town, but this could happen -- you're saying if people, young people are exposed to something often that's good, it's possible that good may knock the bad out of commission, a reversal of Gresham's law, that is good may -- if they're given equal chance, if they saw the good or heard the good of music say as often as the bad, there would be a growth in that audience's taste.
Robert Brustein I don't think there's any question of that. Certainly in a college town. See, the odd thing about America is we don't, we don't get culture on the corner the way they do in England. I mean, in England there's a resident theater on the corner, there's a symphony orchestra on the corner, there's the BBC One and Two on the corner as it were. Here, what do we get? We get Mork and Mindy on television; public broadcasting you'll forgive me for saying is not really that much better than commercial broadcasting.
Robert Brustein Except for the importations, which are not linked with our particular experience. So what happens is when a young person goes to the University of Chicago or Northwestern, Yale, Harvard, Beloit, you know, wherever, the university takes the place of the culture on the corner as it were. It gives him or her the first taste the student has of literature, of the arts. And as a result I thought the university should take on that responsibility to provide that artistic and cultural experience and develop the student if necessarily later than he or she would be developed in Europe, but nevertheless there is an opportunity.
Studs Terkel Where does this leave us now? That's the question. Where does this leave us now? That's the
Robert Brustein It leaves us, it leaves us as we're always left here. I see this country always going through pendulum swings. I don't think it's possible to believe in progress anymore. What there is is a step forward, a step back. Two steps forward, three steps back. Four steps forward, one step back. That's our history. And just when we think we've made our advances, someone comes along and pushes us back again. And it's discouraging, but on the other hand if you're patient enough, you'll wait for the next step forward. And I think in a few years, maybe four years, we'll be able to take that step forward again.
Studs Terkel 'Cause we're getting older each time, but they're more mellow all the time, too.
Robert Brustein That that's the one area of progress you can believe in. The young people continue to come along.
Studs Terkel We caught Robert Brustein at a certain time fortunately, passing through town, Chicago without his -- having lectured under the auspices of the Harvard Club on theater, and you're now at Harvard, and this is by way of wishing you the best luck, but any, any further thoughts, any reflection. Anything you want to offer that we haven't touched.
Robert Brustein Well, can I mention my book?
Studs Terkel Oh, I didn't know about your
Studs Terkel See, I wish -- has it come out yet?
Robert Brustein It's coming out in April. April 9th.
Robert Brustein It's about what we've been talking about, really. It's about the 13 years I spent at Yale. It's called "Making Scenes".
Studs Terkel "Making Scenes". Oh, I know what I want to ask you, we still got time. When your book comes out, I hope that you come through again so we can discuss the book, but "Making Scenes" -- the effect of theater on our lives and our vocabulary." This is a good way to end it. Let's take off on this for a minute.
Robert Brustein Good.
Studs Terkel How important theater is in our vocabulary -- "I don't want to make a scene," says "I don't want that woman in the house, she makes a scene." How even our daily lives, you know? Almost everything. Curtain, "that's curtains for the guy."
Robert Brustein That's, all the imagery is from the theater, you're
Studs Terkel The theatrical image, we even use the phrase "theaters of war," don't we?
Robert Brustein Absolutely.
Studs Terkel So theater and life, it's almost hard to separate the two, isn't it?
Robert Brustein Well, this is a subject that bugged a lot of very exciting playwrights, particularly Pirandello, the identification of life in theater. It's fascinating that you can't keep them apart.
Studs Terkel And where does, I suppose illusion and reality, since you mentioned Pirandello and theater and life, illusion, where does one end and the other begin?
Robert Brustein Well, when we think we know, then we're in trouble.
Studs Terkel By just a moment ago before we went on, I was telling you my experience as a soap opera actor, where does reality end -- where does illusion and reality begin? And so I was in a soap opera, you don't mind if I tell, I was in a soap opera, "Betty and Bob", I was a gangster and I was always threatening Betty's mother, played by an actress named Edie Davis, and years pass, some 40 years pass and it's election night 1979, November 4th, election night, 1980, 1980 election night, and Ronald Reagan is a new president, he's just was voted in, and at the celebration, it was there or another time is his wife Nancy Davis Reagan, and his mother-in-law, and I recognized her, and it's Edie Davis, the mother of Betty, of "Betty and Bob", and so I come to the conclusion that it's hard to tell where a soap opera leaves off and life begins. And that's what -- that's theater of a lower level perhaps, but there's what we're talking about, aren't
Robert Brustein We had a very similar experience when we were doing a play called "Are You Now Or Have you Ever Been", which -- a play that Eric Bentley had [collated?] from the House Un-American Activity Committee hearings on the entertainment industry in the early '50s, and it was made up of testimony by people like Zero Mostel, and Larry Parks and Sterling Hayden about whether or not they had been communists. And the interesting thing was sitting in the audience on the opening night were many of the people who were represented in the play. Zero Mostel was there, Lillian Hellman was there for example, and there was a disruption in the lobby as a result, you know. Zero particularly was very upset, he said this is not the way it happened, you used only part of my testimony, he doesn't look like me, various things like that, a wonderful thing when you're brought onstage in your own person and you're sitting there looking at yourself. Where does reality begin, where does illusion end up?
Studs Terkel Pirandello had something. I should say, has something.
Studs Terkel In any event, Robert Brustein my guest and a delightful one, too, and I hope next time round "Making Scenes" will be the subject of our discussion.
Robert Brustein Oh, thank you very much, Studs, it's been a pleasure talking to you as always,