Saturday, June 15

Robert Brustein, Passionate Force in Nonprofit Theater, Dies at 96

“The basic aim of the commercial theater is to make a profit,” he said in an interview with The New York Times in 1990. “The basic aim of noncommercial theater, in its ideal form, is to create the condition whereby works of art can be known. And I don’t think these are compatible aims.”

A public intellectual and supporter of the arts, Mr. Brustein delivered opinions that were often respectfully received but that just as often incited exasperation or outrage. Theater people, after all, are not especially fond of being called sellouts. When Frank Rich left his post as chief drama critic for The Times in 1994, his valedictory essay singled out Mr. Brustein:

“I rarely had ugly confrontations with anyone in the theater, and my mail from theater people, even at its angriest, was civilized,” Mr. Rich wrote. “In 13 years the few significant exceptions invariably involved Robert Brustein.”

As fervent a supporter as he was of great playwrights and playwriting, Mr. Brustein was unafraid, maybe even eager, to confront the biggest names. In 1984, Samuel Beckett threatened legal action to halt an American Repertory Theater production of his bleakly apocalyptic play “Endgame,” accusing the director of taking intolerable liberties with his stage directions: The set did not conform to his description, the production added music where none was called for, and he felt that the casting of Black actors in crucial roles added a racial element that he had not intended.

Mr. Brustein took the position that productions confined solely to the playwright’s vision violated the creative license of other artists and, more to the point, contributed to the theater’s growing stagnant or stale. Backing the director, JoAnne Akalaitis, and refusing to shut down the production, Mr. Brustein eventually reached a compromise with the playwright that allowed the show to go on.

Under the agreement, a statement by Beckett appeared in the playbill saying, in part: “My play requires an empty room and two small windows. The American Repertory Theater production which dismisses my directions is a complete parody of the play as conceived by me.” And though he never saw the production, he added that “anybody who cares for the work couldn’t fail to be disgusted by this.”