Stage Fret

Making Scenes: A Personal History of the Turbulent Years at Yale, 1966-1979

by Robert Brustein
Random House, 352 pp., $15.00

The Camera Age: Essays on Television

by Michael J. Arlen
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 337 pp., $13.95

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,…

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