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Man of Letters

Charles Wright offers an appraisal of Robert Brustein's Letters to a Young Actor: A Universal Guide to Performance. logo
At age 78, Robert Brustein is a long-run champ of American drama. After stints as a jobbing actor, theater critic, and literature professor, he logged 12 years (beginning in 1966) as dean of the Yale Drama School and artistic director, as well as founder, of Yale Repertory Theatre. Moving to Harvard in 1980, Brustein established and led the American Repertory Theatre and the Institute for Advanced Theatre Training, and spent more than two decades at the helm of the Loeb Drama Center. He has written 12 books of criticism, as well as some plays, and has adapted texts of Chekhov, Ibsen, Pirandello, and Strindberg for the contemporary stage. Most impressive of all in terms of longevity is his tenure -- almost a half century -- as drama critic at The New Republic. Now retired from Harvard and bedecked with laurels from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Theatre Hall of Fame, Brustein has just published a slender volume called Letters to a Young Actor (Basic Books, 234 pages; $22.50) and is turning up in places like The Public Theater and on National Public Radio to promote it.

The title that Brustein has chosen for the book is a self-conscious reference to Rainer Maria Rilke's exquisite Letters to a Young Poet. Rilke's letters, composed over five years, are gentle, perspicacious responses -- never intended for publication -- to a fledgling who has asked for advice and encouragement. "A work of art is good if it has sprung from necessity," Rilke advises his epistolary interlocutor. "Therefore, my dear sir, I know no advice for you save this: to go into yourself and test the deeps in which your life takes rise; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create."

Rilke's 10 letters ought to be ideal as the template for a new vade mecum for young artists; but Brustein, who employs the subtitle A Universal Guide to Performance, hasn't really followed Rilke's lead. He opens his Letters with a flourish of apostrophe reminiscent of Leonid Andreyevich Gayev's address to his bookcase in The Cherry Orchard. Brustein's salutation, "Dear young...," turns out to be a false start that he interrupts with a query: "But what shall I call you? If we are going to spend time together as writer and reader, you must have a name. Are you male or female, gay or straight? What generic title can appropriately identify the variety of genders and types you represent?"

In Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke responds self-effacingly to a handful of poems from a flesh-and-blood writer. Brustein, on the other hand, addresses an imaginary "young actor" who must serve as a symbol for the entire current generation of theatrical aspirants. Rilke's little book primarily concerns what it means to be an artist. In it, the older poet warns the novice against the influence of critics, whom he considers useless if not disruptive to artistic development. The Brustein of Letters to a Young Actor is every inch the critic, and his one-size-fits-all advice lacks the focus and the degree of empathy that make Rilke's letters touching, compelling, and emotionally rich.

Letters to a Young Actor can be summed up as a lightning-paced tour around the American entertainment industry, with special attention to the stage. But just as Brustein's "young actor" is a symbol rather than a human being, this apparent guidebook is ultimately a polemic. In swift, colorful strokes, Brustein charts the universe of theater (at least his tendentious view of it) and the various stages of an actor's career. He discusses the roles played by directors, producers, designers, and critics; he contrasts the worlds of theater and film, Broadway and Off-Broadway, ensemble performance, and star-driven entertainment. He tenders words to the wise with illustrations from his own experience and the "exemplary careers" of his distinguished students. He quotes masters such as Gielgud and Olivier, and cites examples of Yale grads -- Meryl Streep, Mark Linn-Baker, and Sigourney Weaver, for instance -- and veterans of Harvard's ART, including Cherry Jones and Tony Shalhoub.

As Brustein's text rolls along, it turns out that Letters to a Young Actor is, in large measure, about what it means to be Robert Brustein. It's an apologia for the author's own career and his notion of how the American theater ought to operate. "At the ART," Brustein remarks, "...we were generally identified both by critics and the public as a director's theatre, largely because of the number of American and European auteurs that came to work with us there. The description was not entirely accurate, because one of the reasons we invited these directors was to expose our actors to advanced techniques that would inform and enlarge their skills as individuals and as a group. For the purpose of staging new plays and the more realistic modern classics, we had resident directors on board, such as David Wheeler and Scott Zigler, who were much less radical in their theatre techniques and much more playwright- and actor-friendly. Our goal was to be an actors' theatre, a directors' theatre, and a playwrights' theatre, all at the same time." And, in case we haven't noticed how things have gone since his retirement, Brustein comments: "It is true that Robert Woodruff, my successor at the American Repertory Theatre, has modified this approach and now keeps only four or five members of the original company on seasonal contract; the visiting directors choose the rest."

Brustein, a vestige of those heady days when The New Republic had a liberal perspective, is the very model of the northeastern liberal of the mid-20th century. (The recent death of Susan Sontag is a reminder of the irreplaceable nature of that breed.) Letters to a Young Actor, like Brustein himself, is filled with erudition -- filled, at times, to the point of distraction. The passage that follows his salutation is illustrative. As quoted above, Brustein expresses concern about the appropriate way to address his reader. "Faced with a similar dilemma," he muses, "Shakespeare made Rosalind take the name of Zeus's cup bearer, Ganymede, after she had put on tights and traveled to the Forest of Arden in As You Like It. And Viola, in Shakespeare's other major pants role, decided to call herself Caesario after a similar metamorphosis from feminine to masculine in Twelfth Night. Shakespeare's plays are full of sexual ambiguity (so is his poetry -- in the Sonnets, he calls his patron the 'master-mistress of my passion'). Perhaps it will be simplest just to call you by the name Chekhov used in his letters to Olga Knipper, the woman who later became his wife: 'Dear Actor.' " Throughout Letters to a Young Actor, Brustein follows a similarly circuitous route, brandishing allusions that are charming but tangential. The somber earnestness of his tone is reminiscent of Rilke warning his correspondent in Letters to a Young Poet to steer clear of irony and to "search" instead "into the depths of things" where "irony never descends."

Robert Brustein
Letters to a Young Actor reflects a sacerdotal attitude toward art and, especially, performance. Again and again, Brustein alludes to the character of Nina in The Seagull, who is willing to do anything necessary to pursue her vocation and who finds her craft sufficient comfort for any hardships. "In our kind of work...the important thing is...learning how to endure," remarks Chekhov's ingenue in a passage that Brustein quotes. "If I have faith, it doesn't hurt so much, and when I think of my calling, I'm no longer afraid of life."

Brustein tells his reader: "I am...impractical enough to believe that what attracted you to acting in the first place was a desire to play the great roles in company with like-minded people and, whether consciously or not, that you want to continue your artistic development throughout your life." With this high-minded though sanguine perspective, Brustein is as much evangelist as educator. He preaches that, "if actors have done their jobs properly, performances can follow you home and invade your dreams. At its best," he continues, "the theatre is not just an amiable pastime, designed for escape from one's everyday existence, but something that can leave an indelible mark on your conscious and unconscious life. Achieving that kind of impact should be your highest goal as an actor. Once you succeed, you will learn there are few more satisfying experiences."

Brustein's writing is marked by the same patrician elegance as his speech, his dress, and his public persona. His paragraphs are so smoothly phrased, so verbally suave that the reader could easily be seduced to accept them at face value, overlooking the subtext wherein the author's agenda lurks. While Letters to a Young Actors is a valentine to the acting profession, Brustein can't avoid acknowledging that, for most newcomers, a performing career is a vale of tears. He tips his hand as to the true point of his book when he addresses the degraded standards of American theater and film and the limited opportunities likely to await his "young actor" after drama school. What he imagines as a salve for the hardships of the actor's life is the quixotic notion that "the problems afflicting American theatre at the moment are not permanent, that the time will come again when our culture will be in a position to help you flower as an artist."

Taken as a whole, Brustein's book is a defense of the national network of resident theaters that emerged throughout the 1960s and 1970s, supporting permanent companies of actors and technicians, producing a combination of new and classical works. That, according to Brustein, is where the aspiring actor will find his or her most authentic existence. The flaw in this theory is that said network was mortally wounded when funding, both governmental and private, dried up during the culture wars of the 1980s and '90s. In the past three decades, the country's cultural climate has dipped well below the temperature at which nonprofit theaters can survive while producing consistently courageous, intellectually challenging work. Without a re-emergence of effective political liberalism and significant fiscal support from institutions such as the Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, there's no warming trend in sight.

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