13 tempestuous years as dean of Yale Drama School; Making Scenes: A Personal History of the Turbulent Years at Yale 1966-1979, by Robert Brustein. New York: Random House. $15.
When in 1966 Kingman Brewster, then president of Yale University, offered Robert Brustein -- then and now one of the small band of serious American critics of theater and drama -- the deanship of the School of Drama and Brustein , after some backing and filling, put aside his misgivings and accepted, they could not have known that they and the university stood directly astride the fault line of a historic earthquake whose early tremors were already audible.
The new dean had something less turbulent in mind -- to act as the catalytic agent in resurrecting from its moribund state the Yale School of Drama and establishing in its place a vital training conservatorym directed by theater professionals for aspiring professionals and a resident repertory theater that would be a living rebuke to the commercial theater by devoting itself entirely to imaginative productions of classical and modern drama, a position with which he was long associated as critic.
But as the wordplay in the title suggests, Brustein is gifted with a talent for "making scenes," a necessary one if the high task he had set himself was to be achieved. Wherever he stood, lightning struck; whatever needed to be done to defend the nurture his vision, he did, however copious the consequent bloodletting. Given such a temperament in support of such an uncompromising vision, there was bound to be trouble: If character is fate, his end at Yale was in his beginning.
At the eye of the 13-year-long hurricane lay the classic, everlasting, perhaps irreconcilable conflict swirling around art, between its holy acolytes and its sworn (or, more insidiously, covert) enemies. During the early years of the Yale Repertory Theater --responding intensification of the antiwar movement at home -- crises abounded with such rapidity and force that serenity would have seemed unnatural. No season seemed complete without conflagration -- celebrated causes that seem in retrospect mere child's play.
The "flag case," in which the national flag was used as a blanket, an act inevitably seen by New Haven's superpatriots and other guardians of public morals as a desecration . . . the incendiary call to armed insurrection in the boulevards issued from the stage by the visiting San Francisco Mine Troupe, to Brustein's horror and sorrow . . . the absurd farce surrounding the unspeakable word in the title of a Jacobean tragedy, John Ford's "'Tis Pity She's Whore," a play made immortal if not by its inherent quality then by the New Haven Register's sanitization of the offending word to "Bad" . . . the draft-refusal movement and a resultant episode of pandemonium in the theater . . . Cambodia . . . Kent State . . . above all, the trial of Bobby Seale and other Black Panthers on a murder charge, and the divisive passions aroused by that climactic event, a time when the firebrands threatened to bring down the great globe itself and Yale along with it -- the adolescent tigers of wrath free at last from the constraints of home and out on a tremendous tear. Those "days of wrath" were made all the more unforgettable by that slippery chameleon Jerry Rubin, now a Wall Street "imperialist," exhorting the masses of liberal arts majors, when next they went home for the weekend, to murder not one but both their parents. Brustein himself escaped with some routine anonymous phone calls threatening his life.
Through it all, Brustein never lost sight of his governing principles or betrayed his personal honor, remaining constant to his fixed star and consuming ambition: to build a first-rate theatrical conservatory and create a major repertory theater out of the ashes of the ancient regime. In this lofty enterprise of making art where none had been he succeeded brilliantly. Brick by brick, season by season, through setback and failure, he prevailed.
And then the triumph turned to dust and ashes. Brewster, his principal supporter, left Yale and was succeeded by the far less sympathetic A. Bartlett Giamati. The conflict between the two men, and their opposed perspectives on what a university theater should be, reenacted the cultural war in another form and led to a fated defeat of art at the hands of power, and brustein's departure from Yale. It was a melancholy time made unbearable by the sudden death of his beloved wife, herself a resplendently accomplished actress and his closest collaborator.
This is a rich personal and professional saga, made all the more vivid by Brustein's strong sense of narrative and drama (and melodrama). Although he is the hero of his own tale, he is also disarmingly forthright about his manifest flaws. He is sometimes virtuous to a fault, rigidly so, and knows it: dogmatically certain at times of having an exclusive hold on truth, beauty, goodness, and knows it; overgenerous in his praise of friends and allies and favorable reviewers, sometimes ridiculously so, and does not appear to know it -- a very human failing, that. He can be remorselessly principled, implacably high-minded as well as highhanded; mercilessly virtuous; but he is also, and this is what counts, unremittingly interesting.
The rest is history. Brustein transported staff and vision northward and now presides over the American Repertory Theater and Loeb Drama Center of Harvard. For Harvard-Cambridge a famous victory in this ancient rivalry, and for Yale-New Haven a withering defeat.