Learning from Robert Brustein

Jeremy Fassler
14 min readOct 31, 2023
Robert Brustein, photograph courtesy of Mark Alan Lovewell

From 2014 to 2016, I attended graduate school at Harvard University’s American Repertory Theatre, as a major in dramaturgy. During my time there, I took two classes with the theatre’s founder, Robert Brustein, who passed away last weekend at the age of 96. Brustein’s accomplishments inspired reverence: theatre critic for The New Republic, professor at several of the finest universities in the country, founder of both the Yale Repertory Theatre and the A.R.T. Yet despite all this, any time I stepped into the classroom with him I got nervous.

No, I was never intimidated by him. Rather, I had read his criticism of plays by women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ writers, and found them incorrect at best and offensive at worst, so I worried about the kinds of utterances that might spill out of him in the classroom. I took two classes with him — History of Criticism and History of Institutional Theater — and both times I gave him the benefit of the doubt, only to regret doing so almost immediately afterwards. On the very first day of History of Institutional Theatre, he said the following:

“When the model becomes about doing diverse theatre with African-Americans and Latinos and women, ultimately this becomes a democratic hodgepodge that adds up to nothing. Too many of you are brainwashed by diversity business. The artist does not conform to demands that you recognize this and represent this. It’s completely contrary to the whole tradition of art and always has been.”

My classmates and I were dumbstruck by these words. Although we engaged in some debate afterwards, we could not sway him. One day after class, one of us said “we’re taking a class with a living legend!” to which I replied, “yeah, the legend of White male privilege.”

Since my graduation, I’ve had the chance to reflect on moments like this as a part of a larger context, as American theater has only now begun to reckon with its complicity in White supremacy. If every institution is endowed with the broken parts of its creator, whether we want them to be or not, then Brustein’s A.R.T. and Yale Rep embodied both his love of theatre, and the prejudice by which he only allowed a certain kind of art to thrive within those walls — one which, for all its glory, could only reflect so much of the human experience.

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Jeremy Fassler

Correspondent, The Capitol Forum. Bylines: The New York Times, The Atlantic, Mother Jones, etc. Co-author of The Deadwood Bible with Matt Zoller Seitz.