April 28, 1980

   Harvard vs. Yale Onstage

Written 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."

Those are 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 one-acters, "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.  You 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.