In 1980, following a much-publicized dustup between Yale Repertory Theatre artistic director Robert Brustein and Yale University president A. Bartlett Giamatti, the company of 70 actors, directors, designers, administrators and technicians of the 13-year-old Yale Rep decamped to Cambridge, Mass., and opened American Repertory Theatre at Harvard University’s Loeb Drama Center. “We had accomplished what before had seemed unlikely if not impossible,” writes Brustein, “the establishment of a not-for-profit resident theatre with a permanent company of actors in an area traditionally disinclined to support subsidized theatre. Over the years, many ambitious and even distinguished companies with historic names like Theatre on the Green (Group 20), the Massachusetts Repertory Company, the Cambridge Theatre Company, the Brattle Theatre Company and David Wheeler’s Boston Theatre Company, among others, had come and gone in the Boston area, leading Boston Phoenix critic Carolyn Clay to quip, ‘Boston is to first-rate regional repertory what the Bermuda Triangle is to small craft.’ Still, here we were, the only large professional theatre in town, in the process of launching a rather sizable boat into the Bermuda Triangle–not only a season of classical and new plays, but the first credit courses in drama in Harvard history.”
The move was enthusiastically anticipated by the press and endorsed by a tradition-bound Harvard academic community. But by the end of the first season, Brustein and company were ruffling feathers—in regards to everything from academic curriculum to the advertising banners affixed to the Loeb Drama Center. The final show of the first season, The Inspector General, directed by 21-year-old wunderkind Peter Sellars, provoked walkouts, and a summer production of As You Like It led to a full-fledged debate on the nature of “academic theatre” with Harvard faculty.
Brustein recounts the theatre’s second season in Cambridge here. His full chronicle of American Repertory Theatre’s first three tumultuous seasons can be found online at www.tcg.org/americantheatre.
Our second season—the season of 1980-81—proved to be our Armageddon. We had refreshed the company with the next class of Yale Drama School graduates—among them Tony Shalhoub, Tommy Derrah and Harry Murphy—who would make stalwart and distinguished contributions for years to come. But not only was the honeymoon over, a lot of people were talking about divorce. After the shock of As You Like It, we fell on our collective faces with another Brecht/Weill revival—Alvin Epstein’s production of The Seven Deadly Sins (half-sung, half-choreographed, a favorite of George Balanchine) on a double bill with the rarely performed oratorio The Berlin Requiem. Some reviewers found it too short, others too shallow. What had been a triumph in New Haven was dismissed as a frippery in Cambridge. “I foresee troubles with all the projects coming up,” I wrote in my diary, “and the community is beginning to turn against us.” So were the reviewers. ART was not only receiving sour notices but, unlike the previous year, when we dominated the arts section, the Globe no longer seemed interested in publishing feature stories about our upcoming productions.
We should have known that the Boston area, being so much farther from New York than New Haven, would be less responsive to our particular species of theatrical experimentation. But nothing could have prepared us for the fury unleashed by Lee Breuer’s production of another German play, Frank Wedekind’s Lulu. Breuer, one of the founding members of New York City’s Mabou Mines and a leading avant-garde director, had already done an interesting Lulu workshop with students in our last year at Yale. The concept he now proposed for Wedekind’s double drama [comprised of Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box] about an amoral temptress who drives men to suicide fascinated me, but was also a potential minefield. One institutional roadblock was that not only did he want an African-American Lulu, he also wanted a totally black cast. The problem was that we only had two African Americans in our 10-person company at that time, notably Carmen de Lavallade and Ben Halley. Breuer’s solution, which I vetoed with a grim smile, was to ask Meryl Streep to play the title part in blackface.
Finally, we managed to cast Kathy Slade, an excellent black actress, as Lulu, and found an engaging young man, Courtney B. Vance, at that time a Boston University student, to play the student who gets kicked out of school.
The next hurdle that faced us was time. The translator, Michael Feingold, had managed to finish the first play, Earth Spirit, on time, but because Breuer had moved up his production date, the sequel, Pandora’s Box, would not arrive until well after the beginning of Lulu rehearsals. It was therefore necessary to go into previews with only one part of the two-part adaptation completed. Since Earth Spirit was by far the better known and more frequently produced play of the two (Alban Berg’s opera Lulu is based on it), I thought the best course was to forget about Pandora’s Box and only offer the material we were currently previewing.
Breuer was willing to open with Earth Spirit but wanted to reserve decision regarding Pandora’s Box. Still, even without the more difficult second part, the early response was troubling. We had more than our usual number of walkouts, and one irate spectator threw his program at an usher as he left. Opening night was greeted with a few bravos and even more angry departures. Things were shaping up for another commotion despite surprisingly good reviews from the major reviewers, who applauded both the production and our courage in staging it. (Kevin Kelly of the Globe, noting that Lulu was likely to be the “whipping girl of the season,” added “even so, I don’t think you’ll be able to forget her.”) On the negative side, the positive critical reception encouraged Breuer to rehearse the second part while the first was still in performance.
I objected to this for a number of reasons, among them the fact that the company had to get on with its next project. I was also anxious about adding a whole new play to what the public perceived to be a finished production. Breuer insisted on taking a vote of the actors, who unanimously supported his position. Torn between the possibility of offending the public or inhibiting a director and disappointing the company, I chose the former, remembering a remark of Stella Adler to the effect that “We’re here to serve art, not have art serve us.” Pandora’s Box was added to the evening less than a week later.
Pandora’s Box proved even more provocative than Earth Spirit. The first part had been significantly updated, with Lulu, a model turned torch singer, performing to the accompaniment of a raucous rock band (not our audience’s favorite form of entertainment) that rose out of the orchestra pit in a cloud of smoke. But the second part turned out to be even more experimental. Breuer changed the location to Rio, with Lulu hanging around a plastic blue pool in sunglasses. Then, taking artistic advantage of his reduced rehearsal time, he staged the entire last scene with the cast sitting with their backs to the audience, reading their parts from music stands into hand-held mikes. The device gave the ending of Lulu the feel of a radio play, the visual aspect being provided by slide projections of vacant highways, all-night restaurants and gas stations, the kind of motel culture Nabokov evoked in Lolita. At the end of the show, Jack the Ripper, having stabbed Lulu and her lesbian lover, the Countess Geschwitz, washed the blood off his hands in a toilet bowl, and walked through the audience muttering, “I’m so lucky, I’m so lucky.”
Kevin Kelly re-reviewed the entire production a week later and after repeating his praise (“ART has cut a famous, if creaking, play into the shape of a contemporary classic”) went on to question our professionalism. Although we were offering early audiences the opportunity to return for the whole show, Kelly believed that to drop part two without warning them in advance was “unconscionable, unfair, beyond apology.” He was also angry because we told subscribers of our plans to introduce Pandora’s Box before we had told the press. Kelly was right, of course, but the audiences weren’t feeling cheated by Lulu so much as insulted by it. People didn’t throw their programs at me, but I was being urged at cocktail parties and funding events to “do something more traditional,” to “entertain” as well as “educate.” Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Henry Rosovsky stopped me in Harvard Yard to reflect about how even the Boston Symphony Orchestra usually mixed its Stravinsky with a little Tchaikovsky. Managing director Rob Orchard was whispering in my ear that if we were going to survive, we had better think about change.
This was painful. I had always conceived of ART as a seminal theatre, dedicated to the explorations of artists rather than fulfilling the entertainment needs of audiences. I tried to argue through analogies that serious art is not determined by majorities—did Picasso have to cater to middlebrow taste?—only to be reminded that Picasso was not obliged to sell tickets. In my heart of hearts I was beginning to have serious doubts about our purpose, which were not relieved in January when the next production of the season, Charles Wood’s Has “Washington” Legs?, received perhaps the most blistering reviews in our history. The play was a farce about an autocratic, crazed American film director making a Revolutionary War movie in England in order to save money. It also happened to feature a long and (to me) hilarious speech by an irate focus-puller that used language apparently never before heard on a Cambridge stage. The ART community proved to be about the only ones to find this obscenity funny. In fact, company actor Jeremy Geidt and I told each other the production was a winner. Obviously, our crystal balls were clouded. We soon received a deluge of angry mail that occupied a lot of man hours in response every day for three months. (“No bad letters today,” I note with relief in a mid-February diary entry.)
Four shows in a row that offended the audiences, the critics, or both. Quite a record. The general depression was only temporarily relieved by Jack Kroll’s Newsweek review calling Lulu “the most inventive and exciting production I’ve seen this year.” To be sure, Lulu was much admired by avant-garde cognoscenti, but these did not include many of our subscribers. Most of them were furious and not reluctant to let us know it. “What makes you think you are right and the whole world wrong?” asked one woman in a typical letter of the time, while others accused me of trying to make people feel stupid.
In a radio interview, I made the ghastly mistake of saying that I had apparently underestimated the theatrical sophistication of tradition-bound Boston. Although I believed this to be true, it was not something one admitted publicly unless in a state of delirium. Another round of furious letters. The press had concluded that I was a man unable to take criticism, though perfectly able to dish it out. Tom Winship, editor of the Globe, advised I was “going too fast for this town.” Smelling the possibility of a resignation, Kevin Kelly called to ask if I was “disenchanted” with Boston.
The associate dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, who had eased our passage to Harvard, told me we were in “big trouble” in the community. The chairman of the committee on dramatics warned that ART was on trial, and the judges were the reviewers and the faculty. Henry Rosovsky made the not unsympathetic observation that I was a green fish in a gold fish bowl, though he added that he would never have invited us if he knew it was going to be “costly” or if we were going to “tamper with the classics.” A corporation executive to whom we had applied for money exhorted me, “We’re the king and you’re the jester. Shape up!”
Alvin Epstein said that it had been exactly the same at the Guthrie before he was fired as artistic director. That was little consolation. My life had taken a considerable turn for the worse. Perhaps I had invested too much in the success of ART, but I didn’t have a whole lot else to engage my energies. After my wife Norma’s death, two months before leaving New Haven, I was left alone in a big house with a teenage son trying to assuage his sense of abandonment and loneliness by running after the Grateful Dead. My social life was entirely consumed by fundraising events and powwows with potential donors. My very personal book about the Yale years, Making Scenes, an account that culminated in the death of my wife, had received a mixed response, including a Sunday Times review that said another production of The Seagull was not worth dying for, and an especially cutting sidebar from Mel Gussow that, among my other derelictions, rebuked me for disagreeing with critics. People were also chiding me for being aloof and arrogant, and, even worse, indifferent to the available women in town (I had just been voted the fifth most eligible bachelor in Boston). “Don’t worry, Dad,” my son advised me, “things will get worse.” He was right as usual.
They did. In fact, even nature seemed hostile that year. On Martha’s Vineyard, where we spent our summers, many of the trees were barren, having been defoliated by cankerworms. I was plunging into uncertainty and self-doubt. Milan Kundera speaks of a condition he calls “litost,” meaning rage over a self-perception of inadequacy or unpleasantness. That seemed a good way to describe how I, and no doubt most of the company, were feeling at the time. Robert Kiley, the expert on mass transportation who became the first chairman of our new board of advisors, urged me to “stick to my religion.” But I was beginning to seriously question the correctness of our cause and the quality of my character, doubts which I didn’t always successfully hide from my friends and colleagues.
As it happened, our next two shows were much closer in style to the community’s taste. Epstein’s production of Beaumarchais’s 18th-century comedy The Marriage of Figaro (with Tony Shalhoub in the title role) was hailed as “theatre as it should be,” and John Madden’s beautiful staging of Jules Feiffer’s comedy about marital discord, Grownups, drew a rave (and a personal thank-you note) from Frank Rich of the Times. For once, the ringing of the phone brought positive news. Grownups was the first of our Cambridge works to go on to Broadway. But the Cambridge audience had simply stopped coming. The house reports were gloomy, many subscribers were no-shows, and those who arrived were inclined to be hostile. After two weeks of mailings, we had managed to attract only a thousand subscription renewals. One of the local actresses who had recently joined our company (Karen MacDonald) told me that the Boston area had always been thus—initial love followed by anger and withdrawal. Boston was like a Doberman Pinscher that licked your hand, then went for your throat.
“My spirits began to rise the moment I realized that I had been looking in the wrong direction. I was mourning the 7,000 people who left us when I should have been celebrating the 7,000 who remained.”
But it was too easy to put the blame on the environment. My own decisions were obviously to blame as well. And although I was beginning to lose faith in myself and my leadership, we were not the only theatre in difficulty in the year of 1980. BAM’s attempt to start a repertory company had foundered. Denver Center Theatre Company was in trouble. San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater was not allowed to open its season until it raised an additional $400,000. New York’s Direct Theatre and the IRT had gone out of business. All of this, no doubt, was related to the massive cuts in funding at the National Endowment for the Arts under the Reagan administration, a crisis that would reach its climax after the Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano scandals. Rereading The Fervent Years, Harold Clurman’s inspiring account of the short but brilliant life of the Group Theatre, I was a little consoled to learn that it had always been thus in America—that perhaps we were a country in which serious theatre was “against nature.”
ART managed to attract only 7,000 subscribers for its third season. Half our audiences had defected in anger and disappointment. Boston Magazine, which does annual best and worst awards, called us “the worst rep theatre in town” (actually, we were the only “rep theatre” in town), “a debacle,” while the Globe noted that, “after all the ballyhoo” (much of it from that newspaper) “the season was uneven, to put it charitably.” Cherry Jones made me feel a lot better by saying we were the best theatre in the country and offering to come back for another season.
My spirits began to rise the moment I realized that I had been looking in the wrong direction. I was mourning the 7,000 people who left us when I should have been celebrating the 7,000 who remained. Those loyalists would be the future core group on which we would build our support base, the ones who would always remain the most engaged with our work. True, they would never prove to be a weak collection of rubber stamps. These audiences were, in fact, an extremely feisty, argumentative, intelligent group of people. But in the future they would be more likely to criticize us for failing our principles than for sticking to them.
Having reached this understanding, I began to grow a bit less defensive, which meant I could turn my attention not so much to the failings of Boston as to my own mistakes and miscalculations. There was no question that ART had developed a haughty image, and, insofar as an institution reflects its leader, that this was my fault. Rob Orchard said that in the future we would have to launch the equivalent of a political campaign with me as the candidate—which meant shaking a lot more hands, becoming a lot less aloof.
After enjoying the packed houses and cheering crowds at the last performances of Figaro and Grownups, I met with Rob in the summer and told him I foresaw three possible scenarios: 1) We could compromise our programming and survive, 2) We could compromise our programming and go down anyway, or 3) We could stick to our principles and almost assuredly go down. Since the second scenario seemed the most likely, I proposed we follow the third. To my surprise, Rob agreed, though he still thought that even if I couldn’t change the nature of the repertory, I could change my public image.
Robert Brustein is the founding artistic director of American Repertory Theatre, now in its 28th season. His book Shakespeare’s Prejudices is forthcoming from Yale University Press, and his play The English Channel will be produced in New York City in October.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!