vs. Yale Onstage
by Jack Kroll
Some day, the year 1980
may be as epochal in Ivy League annals as 1875. That was the
year of the first Harvard-Yale football
game, and this year marks the first time both these Helicons of
American culture are fielding teams, so to speak, in the
professional theater. The Yale Repertory Theatre is in its first
season under Lloyd Richards, its new artistic director
and new dean of the Yale School of Drama. Robert Brustein, who
ran the Yale Rep and Drama School for thirteen years,
has moved to Harvard, where he has established a new company,
the American Repertory Theatre. These
developments are themselves the stuff of drama.
During his New Haven
years, the brilliant, prickly, controversial Brustein jacked up
the already high standards of Yale's Drama School and
founded the Yale Repertory Theatre, one of the most challenging
regional theaters in the U.S. When Yale's new president,
A. Bartlett Giamatti, decided not to renew his contract,
Brustein departed, firing salvos of charges that Giamatti
planned to "de-professionalize" the school and
theater. But Yale's appointment of Richards, a distinguished all-round
theater man and a black to boot, was anything but the safe
academic choice that many people expected. Now both
Richards and Brustein have started their new operations with
power and brio.
Pussycat: It wasn't easy
for Brustein to sell Harvard president Derek Bok on the idea of
a full-blown professional theater in Cambridge. Harvard has been decidedly stuffy about theater for more than a
half century, ever since the legendary Prof. George
Pierce Baker, whose students ranged from Eugene O'Neill to
George Abbott, switched from Harvard to Yale. And there
were rumbles among faculty and undergraduates about Brustein,
whose detractors considered him an
"elitist" or, as The Boston Phoenix reported, "a
son of a bitch." But the Phoenix found Brustein to be
a pussycat and The Boston Globe thanked him for coming to town to provide the quality
theater that had been "mysteriously"
lacking in Boston.
Brustein is no piker: he dubbed his new
operation the American Repertory Theatre because it aims to put on
"universal works of art in a specifically American
style." And he has promised his new audience "a company
devoted to the past and the future -- to classical productions
in exciting new interpretations, and to the best work being
written by contemporary playwrights."
going-out-on-a-limb words, but so far the ART is making them
stand up. Wisely, the company began with Alvin Epstein's
staging of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, one
of the best of the 90-odd productions in the repertory developed at
Yale. This is a haunting, glittering, sexy and sagacious
"Dream," strengthened by Epstein's inspired use of Henry
Purcell's gorgeous 1692 music. Gorgeous is too dismal a word for
the Titania of Carmen de Lavallade, whose noble
sensuality and magnificence of movement make her a ravishing
incarnation of Shakespeare's poetry.
Mark Linn-Baker is
a dazzling Puck, a hissing, skittering, cackling young demon who
blends Pan and Buster Keaton. And there has to
be a new entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for most
comic business by the "mechanicals,"
led by the patiently flabbergasted Peter Quince of Jeremy Geidt.
Mark Leib's Terry by
Terry is ironically appropriate as the ART's first
contemporary play, since it's about the impossibility of creating
great new art. Leib is a real comer, a writer of slicing wit and
intellectual velocity. In the first of these connected
"Terry Won't Talk," Terry is a little boy who just
stops talking. The grownups in his world make fools of
themselves as they react to this shocking development -- his
mother, his father, his mother's lover, his teacher, his
principal. But Terry's silence has an immutable moral logic --
these overgrown creeps don't deserve to be talked to.
Hilarity: In the second
part, "Terry Rex," Terry is a playwright who's
suffering from another kind of silence -- he can't write because
everything worth writing has already been done. Leib does a
brilliant job in raising this potentially sophomoric theme to
genuine poignance and a machine-gun hilarity. This is a very
funny play about human agony and a real philosophical
crisis -- quite an achievement for a young playwright. The
crisis is the overwhelming self-consciousness that
has crippled contemporary man and turned him into a creature who
knows everything and creates nothing.
Under John Madden's
hair-trigger direction, the stage bristles with the ART's
terrific young actors -- like Elizabeth Norment, John Bottoms,
Richard Grusin, Kenneth Ryan, Marianne Owen, Lisa Sloan. Robertson Dean plays Terry Rex
with great virtuosity,
making him both appalling and appealing. Dean does something
fiendishly difficult: he makes you feel the extraordinary
intelligence of Terry and the great pain caused by that
intelligence -- all the while making you laugh like hell.
While Brustein's ART has
made a fine start at Harvard, Richards at the Yale Rep has piled
up the most impressive roster of plays of any
U.S. theater this season. He began by doing John Guare's mad and
moving comedy "Bosoms and Neglect," which was
bludgeoned from Broadway last season by the critics. This was
succeeded by "They Are Dying Out," a scathing,
surrealist comedy by the Austrian writer Peter Handke. It is
about the self- destructive deviousness of a decadent capitalism and
is directed like an intellectual circus by Carl Weber. Then came
Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure," "Curse
of the Starving Class" by last year's Pulitzer Prize winner
Sam Shepard, and Andrei Belgrader's production of "Ubu
Rex," Alfred Jarry's 1896 play which Yeats prophesied would
unleash the "savage god" of a new art.
But the climax of this
challenging first season of plays at Yale is the new work by the
noted South African playwright Athol Fugard, A
Lesson From Aloes. No more powerful and meaningful event has
taken place in any American theater this season. In it, Fugard examines with relentless truth the human
devastation wrought in a country forced to create a ferocious artifice of social and psychological repression.
can practically smell the scorched souls of his three characters:
Piet Bezuidenhout, an Afrikaner, his English-South African wife
Gladys and their friend Steve Daniels, a Colored
(meaning a man of mixed racial blood).
These three have all been
caught up in the attempt to change the country's racial system.
It is 1963, and Piet has started collecting and
studying aloes, the tough cactuslike plants that symbolize
survival in the spiritual wasteland of South Africa. Gladys, who
has undergone electric shock for a breakdown, is terrified by
the implications of the aloe: "God has not planted
me in a jam tin," she cries. "I want to live my life,
not survive." Steve, released from prison, is about to emigrate to
England. Their meeting is a tense and tragic revelation of
suspicion and desolation.
Broken Brotherhood: Fugard
has directed the play himself, creating an almost awesome
perfection of emotional tone and rhythm. His three
actors are absorbed into this rhythm and become not actors
playing parts but elements in a vision of the world. The
oppression in South Africa is not our world and yet it is: we
recognize the broken brotherhood Fugard's characters share.
This vision challenges our moral inertia; it insists that we
change or else suffer the same breaking of our moral
strength. James Earl Jones, as Steve Daniels, makes us feel the
pain of a leader who no longer can lead. Maria Tucci
(Gladys) expresses the terrible tension of a shattered creature
who wills the pieces to stay in place. Harris Yulin (Bezuidenhout)
creates himself anew as an actor in his portrayal of a decent
man whose decency has been condemned to
bloom in a desert.
Richards feels this
production is "what I'm all about." He wanted to
direct "Aloes" himself but gladly stepped aside for
Fugard. (Richards is
directing James Earl Jones in the season's final play,
Shakespeare's "Timon of Athens.") Ever since he directed "A
Raisin in the Sun" by a then unknown young playwright,
Lorraine Hansberry, this has been Richard's kind of theater,
a theater connected with life. For fourteen years, he has run
the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene
O'Neill Memorial Theater Center in Waterford, Conn., where he
has developed many of the plays and playwrights that
have reached American stages around the country.
Richards at Yale is even
more on the spot than Brustein at Harvard. Brustein no longer
has a school to worry about (although he's putting
together a program of undergraduate theater courses and still
dreams of a graduate conservatory at Harvard). But Richards
has to run one of the country's best drama schools, keep up the
standards of the Yale Rep, develop a first-rate
acting company, and also do his work at the O'Neill center.
"I've got more balls in the air," he says, "more people looking
over my shoulder, more people who I'm going to displease. But
that's all right. The real theater is a series of interlocking
commitments." Richards of Yale and Brustein of Harvard
promise a friendly and fruitful rivalry that could strengthen the
entire American theater.