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Robert Brustein, influential founder of American Repertory Theater, dies at 96

Mr. Brustein founded the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1966 and the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge about 14 years later.John Blanding/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Robert Brustein, a towering, provocative, and pioneering figure who expanded artistic boundaries by founding the Yale Repertory Theatre and the American Repertory Theater while shaping cultural debate as a drama critic, has died. His death Sunday in his Cambridge home was confirmed by his stepdaughter, Jeannie Stern. He was 96.

In a prepared statement, ART artistic director Diane Paulus said: “Bob’s impact on the American theater is immeasurable. As director, playwright, theater critic, artistic director, and founder of the American Repertory Theater, Bob galvanized groundbreaking theatrical creations and inspired artists from all over the world to do their best work.

“… Bob’s influence on me personally, and on countless other artists, is enormous and profound.”

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Very few have ranged as widely or as forcefully in the theater as did Mr. Brustein, who embraced multiple roles over seven active decades.

A forbiddingly erudite theorist who was also an in-the-arena practitioner, simultaneously a member of and a scourge to the theatrical establishment, Mr. Brustein had an uncompromising vision of what theater should be and no shortage of platforms from which to promote that vision. He used them all with gusto, making waves, careers, and more than a few enemies in the process.

“Everyone has at least one deadly sin,” he wrote in “Making Scenes,” his 1981 account of his tumultuous 13 years at Yale. “Mine is the deadliest — pride.”

Standing well over 6-feet tall, he was a magisterial presence, in person and in print. Mr. Brustein seldom met a consensus he didn’t want to smash. His combativeness was grounded in principle, however, and no history of the regional theater movement is complete without a chapter on him.

He emerged as a public force in the pages of The New Republic, where, in 1959, he became drama critic. It was a post he would occupy for decades, raining down scorn on Broadway every step of the way.

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But armchair commentary was not enough for Mr. Brustein: He wanted to create theater, too. So upon being named dean of the Yale School of Drama in 1966, Mr. Brustein persuaded the university’s then-president Kingman Brewster Jr. to allow him to start a professional theater linked to the drama school.

The Yale Repertory Theatre very quickly became known as a hotbed of new plays and cutting-edge productions. Its artistic director became known just as quickly as a polarizing figure and a magnet for controversy, which he seemed to relish.

“We had this idea of family, of working towards a communal life, of a communal purpose, of reaching it together, and sharing in its successes and failures,"’ Mr. Brustein said in a 2012 interview with the Globe. “No stars. No names above the titles. Just us. And it was an exhilarating time. And the same thing happened with the American Repertory Theater."

Central to Mr. Brustein’s work at both theaters was the establishment of a resident company of actors and other artists, an approach that influenced the burgeoning field of nonprofit regional theater.

Mr. Brustein was convinced that a repertory theater based at a university and built on collaborations between theater professionals and gifted students could provide vital training for the next generation of performers, directors, and designers.

He saw that kind of development as essential if nonprofit regional theater was to fulfill what he saw as its mission: to serve as an alternative to the commercial theater in an era when, as he put it, “Broadway had ceased to be a hospitable place for the serious American drama.”

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“Why wasn’t it possible,” he wrote in “Making Scenes," “for the university to provide not only a library for learning but a living library for art — offering not only the best that had been thought and written but the best that was being invented and created?"

That was what he sought to do at Yale Rep by staging inventive reinterpretations of the classics and introducing audiences to edgy works by the likes of David Mamet, Christopher Durang, and Sam Shepard. In 1974, a production of Aristophanes’s “The Frogs," adapted and directed by Burt Shevelove, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, was staged in a Yale swimming pool.

Mr. Brustein shifted his center of work to Cambridge after leaving Yale University.Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe



When new Yale president A. Bartlett Giamatti decided in 1978 not to renew Mr. Brustein’s contract, paving the way for his departure the next year, it made headlines. Mr. Brustein suffered a profound personal loss in 1979 when his wife, Norma, a respected stage actress and drama teacher, died at age 50 of a heart attack.

Heading north to Cambridge, Mr. Brustein founded the ART in 1980 at Harvard, where it made a big early splash with Alvin Epstein’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Mr. Brustein also sought to import the conservatory model from Yale by founding the Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard.

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Though he wore many hats during his long life — theater founder, director, actor, author, producer, drama critic, scholar, political blogger for the Huffington Post — Mr. Brustein’s earliest ambition was to be a playwright. He wrote or adapted numerous works, and after stepping down as ART artistic director in 2002, he plunged more fully into playwriting, and completed a trilogy about the life of his beloved Shakespeare. “I’ve never enjoyed anything so much as I have writing these plays,” he told the Globe.

The early work of dramatic criticism that expanded Mr. Brustein’s reputation as a scholar and theorist was his groundbreaking “The Theatre of Revolt" (1964), and it often seemed he had taken that title as his operating principle. He might well have seen himself in the terms he used to describe Ibsen, Chekhov, and Strindberg: as “a militant of the ideal" for whom “the work of art itself becomes a subversive gesture."

When Mr. Brustein found a kindred spirit in that mission, he could be a fierce champion. He mentored countless actors, directors, playwrights, and designers early in their careers, including Meryl Streep, Tony Shalhoub, Cherry Jones, Gideon Lester, Christopher Walken, Henry Winkler, Linda Lavin, Albert Innaurato, Rocco Landesman, James Lapine, Santo Loquasto, Ken Howard, Karen MacDonald, Mark Linn-Baker, Steven Maler, and Jeff Zinn.

Actress Sigourney Weaver learned from Mr. Brustein while she was at Yale Drama School but also sometimes became frustrated with him, he acknowledged, because she was passed over for choice roles in favor of Streep, who was also a student at the drama school. “She was very angry with me,” Mr. Brustein said in a 2012 Globe interview, looking at photos from the Yale Rep days at his home outside Harvard Square. “But how could I not cast Meryl?”

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Among the many careers he helped advance, none was more shining than that of Meryl Streep's. BOHN, John GLOBE PHOTO/The Boston Globe

At Yale Rep and the ART, it was the playwright-as-provocateur and the director-as-auteur who excited Mr. Brustein’s imagination. So he threw out the welcome mat for such innovative theater artists as Andrei Serban, JoAnne Akalaitis, Robert Wilson, Julie Taymor, Richard Foreman, Lee Breuer, and Andrei Belgrader. Under Mr. Brustein, the ART presented works by playwrights who specialized in challenging subject matter, such as Mamet, Marsha Norman, and David Rabe.

Mr. Brustein’s brand of theater was not to everyone’s liking. In his first year in Cambridge, the ART subscription base swelled to 14,000. But by the start of his third season, fully half of those subscribers had disappeared. In his introduction to “The Lively ART,” published in 1999, Mr. Brustein observed that “our second season was perceived as a kind of avant-garde typhoon threatening to engulf the entire Boston area.”

But then he always preferred stormy weather. In 1984, Mr. Brustein refused to back down from a challenge by Samuel Beckett, even though he said at the time that he “reveres Beckett above all other living playwrights." Beckett fiercely objected to the ART’s Akalaitis-directed production of “Endgame," which disregarded his stage directions by setting the play in an abandoned subway station rather than an empty room. The playwright threatened legal action but ultimately settled for a biting program note in which he called the ART production “a complete parody of the play as conceived by me," adding: “Anybody who cares for the work couldn’t fail to be disgusted by this."

Mr. Brustein retorted with a program note of his own that read, in part: “Samuel Beckett’s plays are among the most powerful documents of the modern age – but except in published form they are not etched in stone. …" The production played to sold-out audiences.

Mr. Brustein could radiate considerable warmth one-on-one, and some of those who worked with him at the ART lit up at the mention of his name years after he had stepped down. In print and in public forums, though, he was an intensely polarizing figure, with an appetite for intellectual combat that seemed limitless.

In 1997, Mr. Brustein squared off against playwright August Wilson — who had called Mr. Brustein “a sniper, a naysayer, and a cultural imperialist”— at New York’s Town Hall for a debate on race and multiculturalism in the theater.

Wilson had called for the growth of specifically Black theater, saying that without that, Black playwrights and directors were taking part in “art that is conceived and designed to entertain white society.”

Mr. Brustein took issue with Wilson, asserting that the playwright was advocating a narrow conception of culture that amounted to “self-segregation.”

After battling each other in print for months, the two agreed to take part in a debate in New York, with Anna Deavere Smith as moderator, that attracted wide attention.

A New York Times headline once described Mr. Brustein as “The Harvard Godfather Who Lives to Provoke." It had been thus from an early age.

“I was rebellious as a child, but I didn’t know what I was rebelling against,” Mr. Brustein told the Globe. “I just felt I should be rebelling.”


The theater, for Mr. Brustein, should be a place of rebellion. CHIN, Barry GLOBE STAFF/The Boston Globe

He felt the theater should be rebelling, too, but it wasn’t mere contrarianism that animated him. Mr. Brustein functioned, in effect, as the loyal opposition.

Speaking at a theater conference in Boston in 2012, he suggested that the regional theater movement had lost its way in its eagerness to create Broadway-bound shows, observing that regional theater’s “overriding purpose was not to be a farm team for the major leagues on a quest after enhancement money, but to develop new techniques, new plays, new approaches to the classics in order to advance the art of the theater.”

He saw no reason why theater shouldn’t be held to exacting standards, nor why it shouldn’t challenge audiences. It bothered Mr. Brustein that television, with such shows as “Breaking Bad" and “The Wire," seemed more willing to push the envelope than theater. “Playing to the lowest common denominator disturbs me more than anything," he told the Globe. “You have an obligation to try to raise taste, improve taste."

He used his megaphone as the drama critic for The New Republic to relentlessly pummel Broadway for its intellectual laziness, blockbuster mentality, and preference for what he called “trite and banal” work over new plays by emerging dramatists. The bigger they were, the harder Mr. Brustein tried to make them fall.

In his review of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera,” Mr. Brustein described the show as “a gluey mass of kitsch” and “the theatrical equivalent of a corporate merger,” likening Lloyd Webber’s music to “a Puccini score clotted with damp Parmesan cheese.”

To Mr. Brustein, the real action could usually be found in the regional theaters.

He was adamant that these theaters should not serve as a pipeline for the commercial theater, although detractors were quick to point to shows such as the ART’s production of “Big River,” which transferred to Broadway. Mr. Brustein’s dual roles as drama critic for an influential magazine and as artistic director of a leading regional theater — reviewing plays and producing them at the same time — were condemned by some as a major conflict of interest.

There was evidence in Mr. Brustein’s later years that he had mellowed somewhat. His 2011 collection of criticism was titled “Rants and Raves,” and he admitted that he was more inclined to rave than rant by that point.

Indeed, he said, he was actively looking for work he could support — and he didn’t have to look far, because each day’s mail seemed to bring a manuscript from a young writer seeking his input.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever get past being a controversialist," he told the Globe in 2011. “But I don’t get satisfaction out of attacking things, and I guess I used to."

The honors piled up as he grew older. He was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 2002, and in 2010, Mr. Brustein was awarded a National Medal of Arts by President Obama. In recent years, he served as a senior research fellow at Harvard University and a distinguished scholar in residence at Suffolk University.

Robert Sanford Brustein was born in New York City on April 21, 1927. As a boy of 10, he played clarinet and tenor saxophone in a band that performed at weddings. A precocious youth, he was admitted to Amherst College at age 16. When he turned 18, he enlisted in the Merchant Marines. World War II ended before Mr. Brustein could see any action, but he saw a lot of the world: Naples, Casablanca, the Nile.

By the time he returned to Amherst, Mr. Brustein was ready to buckle down and get serious about his studies. After graduating in 1948, he briefly studied medieval history at Brown University before quitting to enroll at Yale, as a student of directing and acting. It was not a happy experience. Mr. Brustein switched to Columbia University, where he eventually earned a master’s degree and a doctorate while studying under Lionel Trilling and Eric Bentley.

In 1962, Mr. Brustein married Norma Ofstrock. They had a son, Daniel. After his wife’s death in 1979, he married Doreen Beinart in 1996. A writer and editor, she also has directed the film series at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

After completing his graduate studies, Mr. Brustein went on to teach at Cornell and then at Vassar.

From Vassar, Mr. Brustein returned to Columbia, this time as a professor of dramatic literature. But his career was about to take a significant turn. His writing for other magazines caught the attention of the editors of The New Republic, and in 1959 he was offered the position of drama critic.

From that point on, his voice was seldom stilled. In Boston in 2012, at age 85, he spoke up to chastise participants in a theater conference, saying there were “certain ideals that were constructed for the nonprofit theater, which I have not heard a word about in the last two days."

“What I’m not hearing is the fact that there was a time when we were different theaters, we did different things," Mr. Brustein said. “We didn’t join together to do the same things to please the largest number, to bring in the greatest amount of money, and the greatest [number of] subscribers. . . . Most of us did these things because nobody else would do them!"

In addition to his wife, son and stepdaughter, Mr. Brustein leaves a stepson, Peter Beinart; and seven grandchildren. A private funeral will be held on Martha’s Vineyard.



Don Aucoin can be reached at donald.aucoin@globe.com. Follow him @GlobeAucoin.