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Theatre Journal 52.2 (2000) 304-305
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Writings on Race, Politics, and Theatre
Cultural Calisthenics: Writings on Race, Politics, and Theatre. By Robert Brustein. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, Publisher, 1998; pp. 291. $26.00 cloth.
Robert Brustein is the Cassandra of American theatre critics. For forty-five years, he has been warning theatre artists of the danger of putting art at the service of politics, and for forty-five years he has been largely ignored and abused. Because of his warnings, which are based on aesthetic and not political principles (he often is in agreement with the politics of those with whom he disagrees aesthetically), he has been unfairly labeled sexist, racist, homophobic, elitist (a label he willingly accepts), neoconservative, and just plain wrong. Like George Bernard Shaw before him, Brustein is an opinionated critic who can be very wrong at times, but like Shaw his opinions are eloquently and passionately written and are based on a consistent philosophy. His latest book, Cultural Calisthenics: Writings on Race, Politics, and Theatre, is perhaps his most powerful attempt to persuade his readers of the wisdom of his belief in the separation of art and politics.
The first section is devoted to essays that directly address those who would replace aesthetic criteria such as "quality, excellence, imagination, and inspiration" (42) with political considerations, such as political correctness on the left, moral correctness on the right, or populism in the middle. While Brustein acknowledges that "plays must be engaged with the social and political issues of the time" (4), he nevertheless feels it is the artist's ability to "appreciate the ambiguities and complexities, the surprises and contingencies of everyday life" (5) that makes his or her vision rich. The artist must resist the great tendency of political commitment to simplify reality and "sacrifice individual truth for the collective good" (33). It is a simple message, one with its roots in Aristotle and its branches intertwined with those of other twentieth century critics, such as his mentor Lionel Trilling, and artists such as Milan Kundera who said that the "primary artistic function [is] to speak truth to power" (32). And truth, according to Brustein, is far more complex and ambiguous than any political cause can permit.
The two longest essays in the first section of this new book concern August Wilson: "Subsidized Separatism," which is Brustein's response to Wilson's keynote address at the Theatre Communications Group Conference in late June of 1996; and his opening remarks at the ensuing debate between the two men, entitled "On Cultural Power," that grew out of the controversy. While the first essay casts more heat than light, it powerfully counters what Brustein called Wilson's "rambling jeremiad" (19) with its own rhetorical thunder. The latter essay, obviously written in a more contemplative mood, is an effective, if necessarily condensed, explication of Brustein's basic beliefs. Many of the other essays in the opening section address issues of arts funding, from conservative attacks on NEA funding to the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Foundation's initiative for developing culturally diverse audiences, the misguidedness of which was one of the few things that Brustein and Wilson agreed upon at the debate.
Yet such essays comprise only a quarter of the book, and while they may be its heart, its soul can be found in the final section, entitled "People of the Theatre." These essays simply glow, showing Brustein in a much gentler light. His tribute to Stella Adler, a good friend who taught at the Yale Drama School during Brustein's tenure as Dean, is touching and deeply felt, as is his essay on Christopher Durang, a former student for whom Brustein obviously feels a fatherly sense of pride and affection. His discussion of Joseph Papp, a man whom he greatly admired as a principled and visionary producer but whose qualities as a man Brustein seems to have found disturbing, reveals Brustein's fairness as well as his ability to hold conflicting emotions about something without seeking to simplify the ambiguity.
Sandwiched between these sections...