"The lady doth protest too much.” In a sonorous voice, Robert Brustein utters that oft-quoted line from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet to begin his Play Analysis class. In a small room, nine students, with a variety of Kindles, iPads, and well-worn paperbacks, take turns reading the classic play, then pause to discuss, often with great brio, the meaning of its passages and the motivations of its characters. When a male student drolly suggests, “Women do protest a lot sometimes,” the loudest “Wow!” comes from Brustein, sparking a jousting of ideas and opinions in the class—and no one seems to enjoy it more than the instructor himself, a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Suffolk.
Video: In a narration of scenes from Brustein's latest production, "The Last Will," he reflects on the power of poetry and Shakespeare.
For six decades, Brustein, founder of both the Yale Repertory Theatre and the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, has been a critic, actor, playwright, director, and teacher. He has likely read, heard, or spoken every line written by Shakespeare—as well as other major playwrights in the theatrical canon—hundreds of times. Yet, instead of presenting the text as a dry, dusty recitation, he imbues it with the wonderment and delight of a still-vital artist who has thrived in the theater, and relishes the fact that the theater thrives in him.
“I love this class,” says Brustein, 85, as his students amble from the second-floor room after the spirited 60-minute session is done. “I’ve always gotten ideas from young people. The excitement of being an artistic director was working with young actors who always refreshed the company and gave us new energy. The same thing is true of students.”
Joey Talluto ’13, a public relations and theater major, has been a fan of Shakespeare since he saw a production of Hamlet as a teen. He was “ecstatic” when he heard that Brustein, a recent recipient of the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama for his contributions to the American theater, would be teaching Play Analysis. “The class has been challenging and rewarding. We have been dissecting every word of Shakespeare, and the more the semester goes on, the more I realize [how much of a] genius the man was,” the 22-year-old from Saugus, Massachusetts, says. “Having Robert speak to us with enthusiasm and patience is even more compelling. He’s got great insight.”
What Brustein enjoys about teaching this kind of class, he says, “is the chance to really dig in. When you talk about [the play] and you get a sense of what they might understand and what they might not understand, it makes you rethink everything. It’s a wonderful opportunity for me.”
It has also been a great opportunity for Suffolk. Brustein has been a faculty member since 2006, and the University has co-produced his heralded trilogy about Shakespeare’s life and work. Several years ago, Suffolk theater students even got to participate in a reading from The English Channel, the first of its three plays.
“Everyone was mesmerized by the play, and also [by] Bob,” recalls Marilyn Plotkins, chair and director of Suffolk’s theater department. “We decided to produce that play, and it was inevitable that after we produced the first part of [the] trilogy, we would commit to all three.” The second installment, Mortal Terror, was presented in fall 2011, and the final play, aptly titled The Last Will, was scheduled for a February run at Modern Theatre at Suffolk University. For Brustein, who wrote the 2009 book The Tainted Muse: Prejudice and Presumption in Shakespeare’s Works and Times, ending the trilogy is bittersweet.
“I don’t want to leave Shakespeare; he’s been a wonderful companion for me,” Brustein says. “I thought I was haunted by Shakespeare. I used to go to sleep and dream about Shakespeare, and wake up with an idea as if I was channeling him. It was a weird experience, but a lovely experience.”
Brave and Unusual Choices
Shakespeare was part of Brustein’s life before he even realized it. Born and raised in Manhattan, Brustein saw the musical Swinging the Dream with his parents and older brother when he was 12. At the time, Brustein was a budding musician who played clarinet and tenor sax, and the show, which starred Louis Armstrong and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, was, he says, “[the] most vivid thing I saw in my childhood. This thing just sang to me.” What Brustein didn’t know was that the musical was based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He would later see the 1944 film Henry V, with Sir Laurence Olivier as the titular character. “That’s when it came absolutely alive for me,” says Brustein, who claims to have viewed the film 35 times when it was first released. “I know every note of William Walton’s music, I know every character in it, and the various actors who became my heroes. It was a dazzling experience for me, one of those epiphanies.”
By that point, Brustein had also developed a love for acting. When he was five, his parents had sent him to elocution school to correct a speech impediment, and Brustein had to learn poems and act them out. Soon, he was hooked. Still, his father, who worked as a wool wholesaler before buying his own mill, believed his son’s artistic pursuits should be consigned to hobbies.
“‘Don’t do it as a profession, do it for fun, or you’ll be poor.’ That was the basis of the conflict we had all through my teens,” Brustein recalls of his conversations with his father. “I was a rebel, and I thought art was more important than money; of course, it was easy for me to think so, since I was being supported.”
At Amherst College, Brustein enrolled as a history major but continued to act. An agent saw one of his performances and offered to sign him, but Brustein’s father would not allow his son to sign. After graduating from Amherst, Brustein went to Brown University, but soon transferred to the Yale School of Drama to study acting. With all the acting slots filled, Brustein turned to directing, but the drama school wasn’t to his liking. “It was very musty. They were doing Restoration plays—that was acting,” he says. In response, he and fellow students started an acting group called the Odets School, named for playwright Clifford Odets, who introduced the Stanislavsky school of Method acting— think Marlon Brando—to American theater.
After a year at Yale, Brustein transferred to Columbia University just as the Korean War began. Fearful of being drafted, he received a series of deferments by staying in school. Along the way, he got a doctorate, then a Fulbright scholarship that landed him at England’s University of Nottingham, where he directed plays. Back in New York, he began writing criticism, garnering the attention of famed critic Lionel Trilling, who helped Brustein land a gig at Commentary, then a liberal magazine. Yet Brustein never abandoned notions of working in the theater, though he was hired as the New Republic’s drama critic in 1959, a position he held for 47 years. Then, in 1966, he was asked to become the dean of Yale School of Drama. He wanted nothing to do with it.
“I thought, ‘I can’t do anything with that school,’ but they said, ‘Do what you want with it,’” Brustein says. He assembled an all-star faculty, including legendary acting teacher Stella Adler and critic and playwright Stanley Kauffmann. His first wife, Norma Brustein, who died in 1979, was an assistant professor of acting at the drama school, and performed with the Yale Repertory Theatre, which Brustein founded.
“He was at Yale at a critical time,” Plotkins says. “That’s why he was invited—they understood that the drama department was dead, and they brought him in because they believed he could shake it up, which he did. He really changed the course of that institution, which was not an easy thing to do.”
In 1971, Christopher Durang, who would later win acclaim with plays such as Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You and Beyond Therapy, first met Brustein as a Yale School of Drama graduate student working on an MFA in playwriting.
“I knew he was considered an admired theater critic, but Bob was unusual in that he was running an actual theater, the Yale Repertory Theatre. And he was running a school. So he was not just writing on theater, he was also making theater, which he continued to do when he later started the American Repertory Theater at Harvard.”
Durang’s first play at Yale was a one-act musical, Better Dead Than Sorry, in which he also appeared with Sigourney Weaver, then an acting student. Brustein was in the audience, which surprised the fledgling playwright. “He came backstage afterwards and congratulated all. He made it clear he loved it,” Durang says. “From that time on, he seemed always partial to my playwriting sensibility. Also I was impressed that the dean of the school came to a first-year event in the Yale Cabaret. I know many schools where the people in charge did not do that.” Brustein would go on to produce several of Durang’s plays.
With political turmoil roiling the nation, these were tumultuous times on and off Yale’s campus. Brustein’s viewpoints, whether he was presenting controversial plays or protesting the war in Vietnam, often put him at loggerheads with university officials. Still, with Brustein at the helm, the drama school and Yale Rep prospered, nurturing such talents as Durang, Weaver, Meryl Streep, and Christopher Walken. As artistic director at Yale Rep, “Bob chose challenging work,” Durang says. “His audiences sometimes found his choices hard. I thought they were brave and unusual choices.”
A Name That Everybody Knows
Everything changed for Brustein when A. Bartlett Giamatti (perhaps best known in his later capacity as the Major League Baseball commissioner who slapped Pete Rose with a lifetime ban for gambling) became Yale’s new president. With Giamatti advocating a return to the drama school’s “musty” past, Brustein knew his days in New Haven were numbered—but he was already looking to a future in Cambridge. When Giamatti fired him, Brustein was invited to Harvard, and though the university wasn’t interested in a drama school, Brustein founded the Harvard-affiliated American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.).
“People forget that before Bob came to Cambridge, there was no repertory theater in Boston,” says Plotkins, author of the 2005 book The American Repertory Theatre Reference Book: The Brustein Years. “If he had just come to Boston and established the A.R.T., that alone could be his legacy because it was such a big deal. You would [have] to have lived here 10 years before Bob came to appreciate how much the Boston community yearned for a repertory theater.”
For decades, Boston-area theater companies, including the Wellesley-based Theatre on the Green co-founded by Brustein in the 1950s, had trouble finding lasting success. Before accepting Harvard’s offer, Brustein was warned that Boston was a provincial outpost hostile to risky art. “The Puritans found music sacred, but theater was profane. So it was my objective to make theater sacred, or at least profane enough to become sacred,” said Brustein, who remained the A.R.T.’s artistic director for 22 years. In its first year, the A.R.T. got 14,000 subscribers. “This place was parched,” he says. “We never had more than 6,000 in New Haven.” By the third year, however, subscriptions had dropped to 7,000. Brustein blames the decline on the fact that “I got a little presumptuous and thought they were ready for anything, and I realized they weren’t. But this was a good thing, and I decided that instead of looking back at the people we lost, I should be looking at the people we kept because that was the core audience.”
That audience was treated to a feast of great American theater, including Big River, a Tony Award–winning musical based on Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the Pulitzer Prize–winning drama ’night, Mother, starring Kathy Bates, just two of the A.R.T. productions that made it to Broadway. And, of course, there were productions of Shakespeare’s greatest works. That’s why Leslie Steeves ’13 jumped at the chance to take Brustein’s Play Analysis class. “If you’re in theater, you have to know the icons and the classics, and [Brustein] is an expert,” says Steeves, a theater major from Medford, Massachusetts. “But the other piece of it is the absolute surprise that even with him having years and years of experience with this same material—he’s an expert, he’s written about it—every once in a while, one of the students will say something, and he’ll actually say, ‘Well, you know, that’s a really good point.’ He’s still open to new interpretations,” she says. “That’s what’s so wonderful: it’s always fresh, it’s never something stale. He still comes to class excited, and that’s really great for students to see. He has such a sharp mind and he’s willing to share that and his energy with us. I feel so lucky to be in this class.”
After Plotkins completed research for her A.R.T. book, she conducted a series of interviews with Brustein, whom she eventually invited to Suffolk as a guest lecturer. His appearances were so well-received, CAS Dean Kenneth Greenberg encouraged Plotkins to offer Brustein a position at the University as a distinguished visiting scholar.
“Suffolk is not a designer-label school—but we have Robert Brustein,” Plotkins says. “We have a name that everybody knows... They can be at the table [with Brustein], and know their opinions are valued. When he comes to see them in a play—and he’s seen some of the best theater in the world—when he says this is marvelous, it means something. It makes [students] feel braver and more confident in the world by virtue of being in his class.”
Brustein is equally enamored of Suffolk’s theater students. “They’re so open to learning,” he says. “Their ears and eyes are so open, and I watch them change. You can see them being educated, and that is a wonderful sight.”
Brustein lives in Cambridge with his wife, Doreen Beinhart. He has a son, Daniel, from his first marriage, and two stepchildren, Jean Beinhart Stern and Peter Beinhart, a noted author. In order to focus on the premiere of The Last Will, as well as other productions, Brustein will not teach at Suffolk this semester, but that doesn’t mean the play is the only thing on his agenda this year. At an age when some may spend more time recalling the past, Brustein is still bristling with ideas for essays and plays to write and classes to teach, including another class at the University in the fall. Asked why he doesn’t choose to rest on his laurels, Brustein quips, “What laurels?”
“I’m turning 86 soon [in April]. What does the age mean to me? It means I’m getting old,” he says. “But I’ve got nine productions this year, and I’ve got five essays about to come out. I still feel like there’s so much I want to do.”
Originally appeared in Winter 2013 issue of Suffolk Alumni Magazine.