Robert Brustein

Robert Brustein

A weeklong electronic journal.
March 12 1997 3:30 AM

Robert Brustein

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       Today I teach my course in Postmodern Drama to Harvard undergraduates. They listen intently to remarks about Eugene O'Neill and dutifully write them down in their notebooks, preparing for the midterm. When I read to them Lee Simonson's take on how the tongue-tied O'Neill might have written Hamlet's "To Be or Not to Be" speech ("I'm afraid! Afraid of death! Spooks!"), this usually dependable parody doesn't even get a titter. Their pens just scratch away at their notebooks.
       I've been noticing lately that almost all of my surefire jokes are falling flat. Is it me? Am I in my dotage? Or have the students changed? God knows, they're a conscientious bunch of sobersides who (with a few lively exceptions) seem to get passionate only about their grades. I feel for them. Time was when the university was a place you could both indulge your interest in learning and your love of fun. Now it's just job preparation. So how can Harvard continue to scorn vocational training? And why is everybody so busy studying themselves (Latino Studies, Black Studies, Women's Studies, etc.)? The real joy of scholarship is discovering what you don't already know.
       In my course on the Repertory Ideal at the A.R.T. Institute for Advanced Theatre Training, I've been trying to instill aspiring actors, directors, and dramaturges with a sense of what the theater can be at its best--a community of gifted, trained professionals collaborating towards a common artistic goal. Last Friday, the experimental theater director Richard Schechner came to talk to us about his current New York production of Three Sisters. The students gathered around at the end of the hour not to pump him about his experience but rather to ask him for his business card. To young actors about to be thrown into the job market, Schechner represented not so much a man of the theater as an employment opportunity. My heart aches for them, as it does for the undergraduates. How long has the university been so coextensive--in process, function, values, and aspirations--with the practical working world?

Robert Brustein is artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass.; professor of English at Harvard; and theater critic for the New Republic.