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Art as a Weapon
My father was a mass of contradictions. He was perhaps the only Jewish person I ever knew who'd lived through the Great Depression and never harbored a single left-wing sentiment. He was a Jewish conservative before anyone knew such an animal existed -- and a staunch anti-Communist in an age when Jewish radicalism had a romantic aura to it. Because of these beliefs and the fact that he was also an inveterate reader, you might imagine he kept track of whatever right-leaning publications were around at the time. But it wasn't so. Rather, our house was filled with the best of the left-wing political press, which he read with avidity -- and not just to find out what the "enemy" had to say. My favorite among these magazines was The New Republic, which I began perusing with a passion at about the age of 12 or so. The habit continues to this day.
Several of the people who have written regularly for the magazine over the years quickly became heroes of mine, especially during my protracted liberal phase, and they still command my attention these days, even though my political viewpoint has strayed considerably. At the top of the list would have to be Robert Brustein, whose writings taught me a great deal about the history of the theater, especially during my discovery of the form during my teenage years. I still own copies of all his books and insist on reading each new one as it appears, though again, the transformation in my politics often makes this one-time hero all too human.
Such was the case with Millennial Stages, which recently appeared from Yale University Press. I looked forward to it with anticipation -- and wound up gnashing my teeth over a good bit of it.
'Character of the Messenger'
The book is subtitled Essays and Reviews, 2001-2005, and is divided into three parts: Positions and Polemics; Plays and Productions; and People and Places. The first part, which runs for nearly 50 pages, gave me the most difficulty and very nearly got me to stop reading completely.
If you check the dates that this collection encompasses, you realize pretty quickly that the Sept. 11 attacks and the war in Iraq will be central events in these various pieces, culled from a number of different sources, in addition to The New Republic. Millennial Stages begins with a fairly reverential piece, titled "No Time for Comedy," that tells of how Brustein was set to write a late summer survey of the London theater season when Sept. 11 upstaged his plans. The piece ends with a call for Americans to look to the arts to assuage whatever sense of revenge they might wish to dole out in the wake of the terrorist attacks.
But as I slowly made my way through these pieces, the vitriol directed at the Bush administration became so incessant and shrill that it sometimes undermined any sense of balanced critical judgment. Art, as Brustein's anger blossomed, was not meant to do any assuaging, but rather was to be used as a weapon to skewer politicians. In "Maiming the Messenger," for example, Brustein recalled the "famous moment" in the second act of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra when the messenger arrives, delivers his message, and is dragged off-stage to be dismembered. This scene was then parsed to search for any insights it might shed on our current malaise.
"A number of Messengers, who have recently been bringing bad news to the White House, are in the process of being smeared with the same kind of tarbrush. First Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV is rewarded for his testimony that there was no yellow cake in Niger and no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq by having his wife, Valerie Plame, outed as a covert CIA agent. Next Richard Clarke, having revealed that there was no link between September 11 and Saddam Hussein, and having asserted that Bush dropped the ball after 9/11, is accused of revenging himself on the administration because he hadn't been promoted, and of mangling the facts in order to sell copies of his book. Then, Senator John Kerry, having dared to question the official justification for the quagmire in Iraq, is accused of lying about his service in Vietnam, when he is not being denounced for 'flipflopping' or sitting on the far left (liberal) side of the Senate. In debate, Kerry says that the war against terror should have been conducted in Afghanistan, not in Iraq; Bush replies that he is unfit to be commander in chief. If you can't dispute the message, stain the character of the messenger."
Brustein drew more comparisons between Shakespearean scenes, and what was going on when Kerry and Bush were running for the presidency. Then the critic wrapped it all up by saying: "Joseph Goebbels, who invented the art of propaganda, knew that if you repeated a lie often enough it was established as a fact. An earlier student of Iago, he has given the Bush administration a highly workable model for its policy."
No matter what you think of President Bush or where you stand on the war in Iraq, it's just too easy -- and too bizarre -- to liken the current inhabitants of the White House to Nazis. This is rhetorical overkill, akin to high-minded name-calling.
Brustein's invective grew as this portion of Millennial Stages progressed, and those of us who had always turned to him for artistic illumination can only be embarrassed by the excesses of his prose and his points.
And this seemed especially true to me when he can so clearly pen a beautiful piece of analysis (with just the right dash of nostalgia thrown in as leavening) like "When Dramaturgs Ruled the Earth," which comes just about smack in the middle of this first section.
'A Popular Practice'
"Once upon a time in America," the author began, "theatre criticism was a popular and universal practice. Every newspaper and mass magazine had regular drama critics, and most little magazines and scholarly journals devoted significant space to what was happening in New York."
Brustein was talking about that same period -- the late 1950s and '60s -- when I first got acquainted with his column and began my forays into New York to see whatever major play was running at the time.
He described it all beautifully, analyzing its effects and how the loss of this Broadway art form (the serious play) -- as well as the loss of critical response to it -- has ravaged our cultural life.
Brustein had been under the assumption -- as had many other theater professionals -- that the resident theater movement throughout the United States might offer an antidote to the commercial hit-flop syndrome that took hold completely on Broadway in the late 1970s or so.
He had also hoped that better critical writing might arise in response to this new brand of theater that began cropping up in towns and cities far outside the maddening confines of Manhattan.
But he had to admit that he was wrong -- and far too naive. Resident theaters began being reviewed by local media outlets using "the same standards to Brecht and Beckett as to the commercial fare being shuttled to and from a greatly weakened Broadway."
Brustein ended this wonderful piece by saying that he's not foolish enough to "ring death knells" for American theater, or for the criticism that continues, in a modest way, to greet it.
He noted that many talented people are writing about plays and players throughout the country, and especially on the Web, and he wished them well. This essay was without question Brustein at his best.
And Millennial Stages did perk up in the next two sections. It's never wise to argue with a critic about his opinions as stated in old reviews. I differ these days with lots of Brustein's takes on certain plays, but there are wonderful pieces in part two -- like his review of Tony Kushner's Caroline, or Change -- that seem not only prescient but instructive, no matter what I feel about the source material that gave rise to them. There were moments when Brustein let his politics overwhelm his critical sense, but they were far fewer in number in this middle portion of the book.
Whatever interested readers wind up doing, they shouldn't miss part three, which is chock-full of great items: an analysis of Marlon Brando's acting style; a review of biographies of Lawrence Olivier and Elia Kazan; an introduction to a book on Hallie Flanagan, the director of the Federal Theatre Project; and a discussion of Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, to mention a few.
All of these again prove that when Brustein sticks to the analysis of art, very few people are in his league.