An ambitious, impressive, but somewhat ungainly attempt to study three major figures of the French avant-garde stage--Dullin, Copeau, Barrault--through an interlaced threadwork of socio-political history, psycho-biography, and esthetics. For all three pioneers, ""theater was a realm inherently at odds with the bourgeois world""; and Brown begins with a closeup of the very bourgeois theater of 19th-century Paris, then moves back to the 1690s to see how ""drama became a representation of Order,"" how official ""high"" culture became insulated from ""low"" (commedia del' arte)--though underground art would continue to pop up via fairs, music-hall, or an anti-capitalist hit like 1834's Robert Macaire. Then Brown introduces Charles Dullin (1885-1949), an ex-seminarian and unlikely actor for whom ritual theater was ""the praxis of a religious enterprise he had undertaken in order to recover and consecrate a childhood whose very landmarks had been stolen from him."" And Dullin would soon join the even more spiritual Jacques Copeau (1878-1959), who ""sought to create an impersonal womb"" in his stripped-down ThÃ‰Ã¢tre du Vieux-Colombier, to ""free mankind from a perceptual straitjacket"" by smashing stage conventions. But while Copeau's vision (influenced by Gordon Craig and eurhythmics) became too abstract for most, Dullin's ""idea of theatre as pure spectacle"" triumphed--at his Atelier theater/school, where young Jean-Louis Barrault grew from mime to actor-king to. . . a reluctant Establishment figure. (In the 1968 general strike, the mob would reject his claim to being a revolutionary.) Intriguing material, heroically researched. Unfortunately, however, Brown's odd organization creates real problems of focus--as do the tortuous shiftings between psychology (often strained) and social history, between minute specifics and portentous abstractions. And Brown's dense, richly tooled prose frequently lapses into forced analogies, archness, or academic jargon. Some fine scholarship, then, but it doesn't really put across the grand synthesis that it strives for so intently.