The titles of these books play upon the familiar idea that life is getting hard to distinguish from our ways of representing or reproducing it. Robert Brustein’s subject is theater and Michael J. Arlen’s is television, but both writers in effect ask how intellectual seriousness can find living space within a cultural medium that seems hostile or (worse) indifferent to its traditional premises.
As its punning title implies, with its play on a melodramatic relation to experience, Making Scenes is the story of Brustein’s stormy tenure as dean of the Yale School of Drama and director of the Yale Repertory Theatre from 1966 to 1979, a period which, for all its successes and satisfactions, he and others found painful. Some of the pain was history’s fault; those were hard years for universities, the arts, the nation. But as he not very contritely acknowledges, Brustein brought to history certain professional intentions and personal qualities that made things harder than they might have been if some gentler or more diplomatic soul had been running the show.
Certainly his idea of how a university should be involved in theater wasn’t calculated to win him many friends in New Haven. Hired by Kingman Brewster to revitalize the torpid Yale Drama School as best he could, he had no intention of serving the usual constituencies. Under-graduates were from the start offended by being denied any contact with what was, after all, a graduate program, and Brustein’s refusal to accommodate their interests irked many administrators and faculty members too. Nor were the Drama School’s own acting students delighted to find that they were for the most part excluded from performing with the pros of the Repertory Theatre, for Brustein the most important of the various theaters at the school. (Stella Adler, brought in to teach acting, in fact took the position that her students shouldn’t’ act at all, not even in student productions.) The school’s alumni were mostly dismayed by Brustein’s changes of professional emphasis, his insistence that he was not there to train teachers for college drama departments or performers and technicians for commercial theater, film, or TV. Nor, he reports himself saying, did he have any interest in entertaining the residents of New Haven, though he sounds a little bitter about the preference of many of the Yale faculty for the somewhat less austere Long Wharf Theatre.
What he did have in mind was a conservatory, on the model of Juilliard or the Old Vic School, to train actors and directors for professional “resident theaters” around the country. This admirable design is worth examining, since it brought him a good deal of grief before he was through at Yale.
Brustein, like other theater people, was attracted to the idea of professional resident theater on a national scale because it pointed to a way of escape from the unattractive alternatives that dominated live drama in America. On the one hand was an almost wholly commercial professional theater, doing trivial popular plays or tame classics, more or less competently, on Broadway, in road companies, or in summer stock; on the other was the hopeful amateurism of the stage-struck, in college or community playhouses. Resident theater on the European model promised a happy marriage of trained competence and artistic adventurousness of a sort that commercial theater couldn’t afford to propose even if it wanted to. More generally, it offered a way of imagining a serious dramatic culture which could oppose the slick mediocrity of American show business. As a conservatory, Yale would be a stronghold for the dramatic wing of the “adversary culture” which traditional intellectuality represented.
Brustein certainly had the intellectual’s distaste for popular culture. Early in his deanship, he admits, he diverted to other uses a grant for a TV scriptwriting program from ABC, because he “was uninterested in TV.” He struggled to keep New York reviewers at arm’s length, in part (he winningly allows) because he mistrusted his own taste for notoriety but more because he disliked having Yale productions written about as if they were in competition with Broadway. Although he seems glad that successful young actors were trained at Yale, Ken Howard, Talia Shire, Meryl Streep, and Henry Winkler among them, his rather reserved comments on their later careers in television and film suggest that he may feel at least mildly betrayed. That was not what he meant at all.
And of course the popular was for him more than just a professional menace during his early years at Yale. His style as the unacademic, ungenteel, New York-based literary intellectual, his commitment to advanced modes of theater, and his vocal opposition to the war in Vietnam made it at first easy for some in New Haven to think him a dangerous radical; but on his own territory he was anything but that. He believed that participatory democracy cannot well serve instruction in a difficult art and that a good conservatory must be an authoritarian place, where masters demonstrate and teach, and apprentices obey and learn. At the center of Making Scenes is Brustein’s account of how he resisted the efforts of many students (and faculty) to convert the Drama School, and Yale itself, into a functional expression of the “New Politics,” which for him meant something like his professional bête noire, Julian Beck’s Living Theatre. He has written before, in Revolution As Theatre (1971), of Yale’s May Day strike during the Black Panther trials in 1970, and the new account is more reflective and sober than that rather shrill book. He seems more willing to understand the views of his antagonists, a little readier to see that his own performances may have been more provocative than was necessary.
Brustein’s is an evidently combative temperament, but his career at Yale expresses more than a thorny personality. His wife once teasingly called him “the Great Right Father,” and his attitudes toward the theater and the world, and, even more, his habit of codifying those attitudes and then defending them fiercely against all comers, suggest a tendency to allow life to be dominated by theory, and a continual need to be right. At one characteristic moment, black students in the Drama School protested his plan to produce Sam Shepard’s Operation Sidewinder, which they considered, however unfairly, to be racist, and some of Brustein’s colleagues urged him to cancel the production.
When I tried to point out inconsistencies in their position, they told me that personal opinions were less important than placating the black students. Two older white radical students, with whom I had warm relations, also urged me to withdraw the play, in view of the fact that this was a time of crisis. “A lot of students feel blacks have been oppressed for two hundred years, and should be given what they ask for as a form of reparation. The play doesn’t matter. It’s more important to give the black students a sense of self.”
“Does that mean we should burn the books?” I asked them.
“No,” one answered. “Just put them on the shelf until a better time.”
However often one has heard such discussions, the situation in question often turns out to be more complex than its rhetoric allows. Brustein takes the part of liberal theorist, concerned with “positions” and “pointing out inconsistencies” and entirely ready, in a familiar device of argumentative overkill, to enlarge canceling a show into something approaching a Hitlerian literary conflagration. His “radical” opponents are given the part not of true radicals but of moralistic mush-heads, bursting with the cant of bourgeois guilt and positively eager to trim their principles to the fashion of the time. It would be hard to question the rightness of Brustein’s attitude—the “radical students” in fact don’t deny it—yet his insistence that it be established as “a position” diminishes its power, particularly since, caught in an irony whose depth he may not have fully sensed, he next tells us that the play was canceled after all, at the author’s request:
Under the terms of our contract with Shepard, we had a legal right to produce the play, even without his consent, but I wouldn’t do this…. One of the principles I was trying to defend was the artist’s freedom from external constraints. Staging Operation Sidewinder against the playwright’s wishes was just as much a violation of this principle as trying to suppress it. I realized that I was defeated—and on an issue of supreme importance to me. I had lost the fight for freedom of the stage at Yale.
The trouble with basing too much, too rigidly, on principles, obviously, is that good ones sometimes collide when they are put into practical motion. Brustein had indeed lost a fight, but one doubts that it was “freedom of the stage at Yale” that was at stake, since the Rep continued to function, without further reports of censorship, for another decade.
Brustein’s crustiness was based on a noble dream of a theater liberated from popular taste and commercial venality, free to discover and criticize the unexamined terms of the national life. If history was the immediate problem, it may not, however, have been the only thing that opposed his principles and theories. For him there was a necessary gap between stage and spectators, a barrier against any direct connection between what is represented in art and what is felt and done outside the theater. He believed, he says, in intellectual and artistic “revolt” but not in social and political “revolution,” since he always felt sure that “trying to change society was impossible without a change in the basic nature of humankind.” Hence, I suppose, the apparent paradox within his critical career. In The Third Theatre (1969) he could praise plays like Viet Rock, America Hurrah!, Dynamite Tonite, and Mac-Bird because they subverted prevailing theatrical formulas and methods, not because they pointed to possible new actions offstage. And when the university itself turned into a kind of revolutionary drama, he found himself vehemently opposed to much that happened, becoming, as Revolution As Theatre records, something like the town scold, unlikely to persuade no matter how sound his argument.
Making Scenes is, to be sure, more than the continuing saga of one man’s political and cultural intransigence. It gives a detailed record of a valuable and influential theatrical experiment, a moving account of personal affection and loss in the untimely death of his wife, and some fascinating glimpses of institutional politics, most notably in Brustein’s descriptions of his public dispute with President Giamatti upon his leaving Yale, over whether he was being fired or simply not reappointed. But at its center, and most interesting of all, is a portrait of an unaccommodated and embittered intellectual man, relentlessly hostile to the conceptions of the majority culture and yet deeply troubled when opposing conceptions, his own included, escape from the laboratory of art and theory to run free through the market-place.
For me, Brustein’s distinctions between what is serious and what is popular are too rigid, just as his approach to theatrical production, as he describes it, sounds too clerkly, as in his deciding that The Wild Duck has photography as its “central metaphor” and his staging of the play “as if it were a gigantic black-and-white photograph,” with a huge lens replacing the curtain, flashes going off and characters freezing in stills. But there’s also something rather splendid about Brustein’s single-minded devotion to his understanding of seriousness; if his kind of intellectuality seems doomed to lose many of its battles against the realities that now confront it, in Making Scenes he loses surprisingly gracefully, with touches of ruefulness and self-mockery that seem, in such a personality, particularly attractive.
Michael J. Arlen’s television criticism in The New Yorker also represents a literate and serious mind responding to a culture that often disappoints even its most modest hopes. Unlike most TV reviewers, Arlen keeps his distance both from the networks and the pretensions of much public television; but he differs from Brustein in not having divided up culture into wholly distinct provinces before cultural events take place, and in not being so sure that anything popular must be somehow unworthy.
The Camera Age begins, in fact, with a cautious plea for a medium that highminded people frequently condemn as being dangerous to our social, cultural, and personal health. This “huge, shared, strangely experienceless experience” is, he argues, not simply a hypnotic, manipulative, misleading influence on the lives of all who participate in it. When we consider not ideal possibilities but the actual ones, television appears, for example, to be beneficial for lonely people, especially old ones, compensating them for a loss of human contact which TV after all hasn’t caused. And though it exposes children to vulgarity and hard-sell hype, it also gives them “choice as well as freedom of access, and also provides them—within the glowing, flickering perimeter of the TV set—something that throughout history the young have badly needed: a place of their own to exist in, temporarily untalked to, undefined, unimproved.” Not all questions are answered by such a remark—how will they exist in there? What habits of thought and language will they absorb there? When they’re old enough not to need it, will they be able to get out? But this is an appealingly thoughtful and unexcited kind of voice, more intent on human cases than on scoring theoretical points.
Arlen does propose a small-scale theory about how we live with television. It is, he plausibly suggests, a “porous” or “permeable” medium, quite unlike print, visual art, or performed music or drama or even film. It does not demand our full attention but affably allows us to chat with the family, wash the dishes, talk on the phone, read, or do homework while remaining in some kind of touch with what’s on the tube. He doesn’t say so, but I presume that this porosity owes something to TV’s being free, or for cable users at least much cheaper than a show or concert, continuous (if you miss part of one program, another will soon follow), duo-sensory (you can watch without listening, or vice versa), and so easy to get to, and leave. The set appears here as a kind of close relative you don’t have to be too polite to, Big Brother stripped of his charismatic authority, as it were. The relationship will improve, Arlen hopes, as we continue to learn ways of “talking back” to television, not only through phone-in talk shows but through new technologies like satellite transmission for public broadcasting and pay-cable networks, which should greatly enlarge our cultural choices, and literal talk-back devices like the Qube system, with its array of “response signal” buttons to push. But even now, while the flow remains essentially one-directional, he sees TV as something less than inherently menacing.
Porous or not, however, television does convey something, and when considering particular programs or genres, Arlen’s good cheer often subsides. The range of The Camera Age is not wide: of the twenty-five pieces to which I’m able (sometimes rather arbitrarily) to assign a main subject, thirteen deal with news or other “fact” broadcasting, including one “docu-drama,” and eight with dramatic series or films, from “Charlie’s Angels” and “Baretta” to PBS versions of literary classics. This leaves a scant one article each for sports, showbiz (the Oscar awards), game shows, and talk shows, and except for passing remarks, nothing at all on a huge if mostly uninspiring portion of what most people, including New Yorker readers, watch—“day-time drama,” comedy-variety shows, cartoons and other children’s programs, situation comedies, westerns, religious programs, old movies, pop music and dance for the teen crowd, “ethnic” programming. It’s understandable that a serious critic should give most of his attention to the “higher” ranges of TV, where it ought to be doing good things for us, but the evident fact that it mostly is not doing much good in those ranges gives Arlen ample opportunity to chide and deplore, as he seldom does with the humbler stuff.
He’s easy on “Dallas,” for example, describing it as an interesting reflection of the formlessness of contemporary manners. Unlike most soap operas, it gives the audience no sense of what rules pertain, so that characters are seen not so much as misbehaving as changing their social identities at will, as if there were no significant conventional resistances to impulse or desire. This is, I suppose, a subtle way of saying that “Dallas” is morally repellent, but Arlen’s inclination, or tactic, is to save such straight, square talk for more pretentious occasions, like the public television adaptation of The Scarlet Letter, which rouses the print-culture moralist in him to outrage:
…one has the impression that the mass media, which are largely visual, are in the process of trying to perpetuate [in a calmer mood, would he have written “perpetrate”?] an illusion: the illusion being that culture is somehow neutral as to form and can therefore best be communicated and recommunicated by means of the most popular forms of the day. Thus, some of the great literary spirits of our civilization have been made unwitting participants in a curious sort of visual vs. literary Capture the Flag contest, in which the visual team lately appears to have the upper hand, drawing bigger crowds and winning fatter purses. Will the visual team continue to forge ahead, chewing up Homer and Dante and the Oxford English Dictionary and spitting them out in ten-part installments, each verified for historical accuracy by a battery of academics and scripted so as to be easily comprehensible to a ninthgrade audience? One will have to wait for the twenty-first century to find out.
These weighty fulminations transform a fair point, that this particular adaptation was both inept in itself and a warning about how not to make TV out of novels, into one that I think Arlen himself would at another time agree is stuffy and false, that good literature is too sacred for visual art to meddle with at all.
On the whole I’m glad that he saves most of his big guns for nominally serious television that goes wrong. As a fairly passive fan of “60 Minutes,” for example, I am properly corrected when Arlen (who also likes it, but more skeptically) takes the trouble to look into a story which seemed to reveal grave moral and political corruption in Wyoming and finds shocking manipulation of fact and rhetorical distortion. His warnings about confusing “investigative reporting” with the prosecutorial power, which the founding fathers wisely did not confer upon reporters, are strongly argued, and it’s good to know that someone is trying to watch the newsmen so carefully. We can, after all, deal with “Dallas” by ourselves.
Arlen’s successes are impressive for their simplicity, meaning that they seem to remind us of something we think we knew before we read him but probably didn’t. He observes that the Reagan-Carter debate was both disappointing and strangely affecting because for once we got to see both men without the benefit of the technology that had enclosed and dehumanized them in campaign spots and news clips. Without montage, voice-over, or music, they seemed sad, lonely, anxious, like students taking their SATs.
When he wonders why talk shows have “hosts,” perfunctorily going through the rituals that appease our fear of strangers, vaguely apprehended presences come into focus—Merv Griffin is revealed, for example, as “the doctor or lawyer who has been more or less trapped into giving a party but is still trying to have a good time,” and Dinah Shore as “the wife, or widow, of some grander, absent chairman of the board.” And Arlen, who is enviably perceptive about the young, goes on to remark that their formless way of entertaining—the fluid guest list, the vagueness about when and even where, the uncertainty about who’s in fact giving the party—may indicate a positive effect of television, which demystifies strangers and makes ritualized sociability unnecessary in the brave new world it has educated.
For the sake of such fine things one can easily forgive Arlen his occasional lapses—his way of reaching for the fancy analogy or the broad satiric tone, or offering a far-fetched explanation when a simple one is close at hand. The wild approval he heard in a movie theater when Peter Finch put down news broadcasting in Network must surely have had less to do with the audience’s subliminal awareness that watching TV is masturbatory, as he thinks, than with their feeling, in 1976, that they were fed up with fifteen years of hearing bad news. Despite such moments, which of course fail not from obtuseness but from an excess of wit. Arlen’s writing encourages the hope that the criticism of popular culture is fit work for strong minds, and that it can be conducted without too much worry about what’s supposed to be serious and what isn’t.
July 16, 1981