Essays, reviews, and occasional miscellaneous pieces by a central player in American theatre.
New Republic theatre critic and American Repertory Theatre founder Brustein (Dumbocracy in America, 1994, etc.) has distinguished himself as a perspicacious veteran of the culture wars. As in earlier collections, this one begins politically, brings on the reviews, and follows up with vignettes of people and places. Each part has a different pitch, but together they chronicle Brustein’s worldly devotion to the playhouse. The opening essays lead the charge against The Three Horsemen of the Anti-Culture: political, moral, and middlebrow aesthetic correctness. These, allied with corporate capitalism and a rigid multiculturalism, stand accused of laying into serious culture and threatening to make government and foundation sponsorship defunct. Nonetheless, neither a Cassandra nor a preacher, Brustein issues elucidating indictments topped with acerbic epigrams. And aside from trying to lift the “siege of the arts,” Brustein appreciates the complexity of the issues, tracing them to Puritan forebears and prejudicial powers, and acknowledging how the vast entertainment industry imbues as well as corrupts the theatre. However, he wisely calls these essays polemics, their short topical form not allowing the express statements a fuller exposition. If they amount to a convincing case, the reviews are where he finds his muse. A consummate devotee of letters, trained in the classics, having attended countless shows over several decades, he brings a sparkling intelligence to assessing what’s currently out there. Theatrical quality passes Brustein’s basic test if, more than embodying ideas and issues, realizing tragic or comic potential, and uniting production values, it mines emotional depth. Among contemporary shows, Tom Stoppard’s intellectual playgrounds disappoint, while Susan Sontag’s Alice in Bed and Margaret Edson’s Wit dig deep. The book concludes with an irreverent playlet about the final moments of an all-round favorite, aptly titled Chekhov on Ice.
An encore performance.