90 Is the New 65: Robert Brustein Isn’t Slowing Down


But he is annoyed that Donald Trump has taken over his creative life.

With a long and illustrious career in theater and writing under his belt, Robert Brustein might be expected to take it easy now that he’s turned 90. Nothing doing. At a recent party on Martha’s Vineyard, partygoers watched Brustein and his wife of 21 years, Doreen Beinart, cutting a rug on the dance floor to the music of Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish. And as for the possibility of retirement from work, Brustein states definitively, “I don’t believe in it.”

Brustein, who has been a seasonal resident of the Island since 1963, has been involved in theater and drama since the mid-1940s, when he attended the High School of Music & Art in New York City. He is best known for his work at Yale, where he was dean of the Yale School of Drama from 1966 to 1979, and where he founded the Yale Repertory Theatre, and for his subsequent work at Harvard, where, during a tenure spanning more than 20 years, he founded and led the American Repertory Theatre (ART) and the Institute for Advanced Theater Training.

While Brustein left his position as artistic director of ART in 2002, he continues to teach classes at Harvard (and elsewhere), and he still meets weekly in a teaching/mentoring capacity with the dramaturgs at the institute. He also continues to write nearly daily. Even before he became dean at the drama school at Yale, Brustein was a writer. He wrote poetry in his early 20s, gave it up for some 60 years, and began writing poems again five years ago. His first book, The Theatre of Revolt: An Approach to Modern Drama, which the New York Times called a “standard critical text on modern drama,” was published in 1964. He penned innumerable theater reviews and essays, many of which have been collected into more than a dozen books published throughout his career. A Shakespeare scholar, he published The Tainted Muse: Prejudices and Preconceptions in Shakespeare’s Works and Times in 2009, examining bigotry in Shakespeare’s oeuvre – “not,” he says, “to criticize it, but rather to note that other ages are different from ours, and that we must not judge other people by contemporary standards, because in 50 years, we’ll be judged in the same way.” He has written some two dozen original plays and adaptations of classic plays, and for the past few years, he has been blogging for the Huffington Post — mainly political satire. (Over the years, he has also acted in, and/or directed, a number of productions.)

It’s exhausting just to think about so much productivity, but Brustein keeps on going. In January, Word Plays (a collection of articles, satirical skits, eulogies, and testimonials) will hit the shelves, and he’s looking for a publisher for another book he’s finished, but is still tweaking: No Sex for Seniors and Other Marital Maladies, a fictional series of dialogues between a long-married couple. “Through the regime of investigating every part of an aging man’s anatomy,” explains Brustein, “from his ingrown toenails to his balding head, there develops a discussion of why he wants ‘it’ and she doesn’t.” He’s also looking for new venues in which to produce his most recent play, Exposed, which had a reading at the Vineyard Playhouse and one performance in Boston last year. Based on Molière’s Tartuffe, the play features a televangelist who is running for office, backed by a character who seeks to buy elections for personal financial gain.

Exposed was inspired by contemporary politics, a subject which preoccupies Brustein, especially since the advent of Donald Trump. “Trump has taken over my creative life,” he says. “No other individual has affected me in this way. In the past, I saw problems with individual candidates, or with particular agendas, but I never feared for the country. Now I am really worried.” Brustein’s Huffington Post satirical pieces on Trump have been collected into a book, but he thinks it won’t be published because “it’s too topical.”

“There are things happening in America that rather appall me at the moment,” he continues, “the things that led to Trump’s election. I call it ‘rage and rapacity’: greed, and anger — against minorities, immigrants, women — all embodied in Trump. I won’t have to live through its consequences, but my grandchildren will.”

Never one to put his head in the sand when faced with circumstances that trouble him, Brustein penned a series of essays in the late 1990s and early 2000s about political correctness and its negative effects on art and arts funding. “Art should be dedicated to telling the truth,” he states. “It should be judged by its quality, and not by its capacity to satisfy social interests. Those concerns can be addressed in other ways, like voting.” These days, he continues to speak out, mostly in his blog, but also in Facebook posts and email blasts to his friends.

Brustein still gets up and writes most mornings, and often in the afternoons as well. If an idea hits him, he wants to be at his desk and ready for it. “Along with my marriage,” he says, “writing is what gives me the most fun in my life, and I don’t think my age is affecting that.” He admits to being a more regular napper than he was when he was younger, but he hastens to add that he works even when napping: “I often dream a poem. I keep an iPad by my bed so I can write it down.” Like many people, even those far younger than he, he not infrequently has trouble remembering a name or a fact, but it doesn’t concern him. “I have a computer,” he says. “I can look it up.”

Asked what he’d like to be remembered for 50 years from now, Brustein replies that it would be for his work at Yale and Harvard — not just as an institution builder and founder of two repertory companies that offered an alternative to commercial theater, but as a person who helped other professionals in the world of drama to achieve their potential. “I get incredible satisfaction from their successes,” he says, “and from the fact that I played some part in that.”

Perhaps this is what keeps him so busy, even into his tenth decade: his strong sense of connection to other people, and engagement in the world in which we live. Referring to the contemporary American political environment, he says, “so long as I survive, I will keep writing about these things.”

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