Cover image for The lively ART : a treasury of criticism, commentary, observation, and insight from twenty years of the American Repertory Theatre
The lively ART : a treasury of criticism, commentary, observation, and insight from twenty years of the American Repertory Theatre
Holmberg, Arthur.
Publication Information:
Chicago : Ivan R. Dee, 1999.
Physical Description:
xv, 320 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
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PN2297.A53 L58 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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The resident repertory company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, affiliated with Harvard and known as the American Repertory Theatre, has long been considered one of the country's most innovative cultural resources. The quality of its productions and the issues it has raised about the nature of the creative life have distinguished it among American theatre groups. Here is a treasury of criticism, reflection, observation, and insight from the ART's post-production symposia, and pre-show talks, illustrated with photographs and drawings from ART archives. The notable contributors include a great many brilliant poets, novelists, dramatists, critics, scholars, lawyers, theatre directors, designers, and clowns, many of the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners. Whether Susan Sontag reflects on Milan Kundera's Jacques and His Master, or Jonathan Miller on Sheridan's School for Scandal, or Jan Kott on Hamlet, or Carlos Fuentes on Calderon's Life is a Dream, or Derek Walcott on his musical Steel, or Harold Bloom on Ibsen's Hedda Gabbler, or Anatole Smeliansky on Bulgakov's Black Snow, the discourse is heightened and passionate. The book also includes revealing interviews with major theatrical figures--Dario Fo, Philip Glass, Robert Wilson, Andrei Serban, David Mamet, and many others--and lively articles from the ART's founding artistic director Robert Brustein, its managing director Robert J. Orchard, and a variety of literary directors and dramaturges. In all, The Lively A.R.T. is a bountiful theatre experience, better than two on the aisle.

Author Notes

Arthur Holmberg is the ART's literary director. He has also written The Theatre of Robert Wilson, acted as U.S. editor for The World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre, and published articles in the New York Times, the Washington Post, American Theatre, and other periodicals.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

This collection of short articles and interviews documenting 20 years of the American Repertory Theatre is a real mixed bag. Some pieces are thought-provoking, most notably those by Susan Sontag, Carlos Fuentes, and Larry Gelbart about ART productions they were associated with. Many more, however, are written in the empty, disposable style of industry magazines and subscriber newsletters. Even worse are the fawning, self-congratulatory interviews, many of them conducted by editor Holmberg and obviously intended to puff this or that production and to be reprinted in ART's subscriber newsletters. Still, there is enough gold among the pyrite to make the book worth a skim, if only for the flashes of brilliance in the pieces by ART artistic director and New Republic critic Robert Brustein, who also contributes a fascinating, exceptionally well-written introduction, recounting his theater's 20-year history and putting even the best pieces that follow to shame. --Jack Helbig

Publisher's Weekly Review

Admirers of the innovative, challenging American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.), which has made its home in Cambridge, Mass., under the aegis of Harvard University since 1979, will enjoy this selection of articles and interviews culled from A.R.T.'s programs and newsletters. More rigorous readers may find it a bit fluffy, despite contributions by such eminent artists and scholars as Andrei Serban, Peter Sellars, Susan Sontag, Harry Levin, Don DeLillo and Harold Bloom. The pieces were all originally published to promote specific productions, so it's hardly surprising to find interviews full of soft-ball questions like, "How do you feel about your return to the A.R.T.?" and "Is there anything else you'd like to say about The Old Neighborhood?" Most of the articles by academics are short rehashes of received wisdom on the subject at hand (Ibsen as the first great modern dramatist, for example), although Robert Scanlan's essay on Waiting for Godot eschews the usual gaze-into-the-void clich‚s and usefully reminds us of the play's roots in Beckett's experiences in the French Resistance. The introduction by artistic director Robert Brustein has his customary punchinessÄhe cheerfully admits the company lost half its subscribers after its second seasonÄand the final piece by managing director Rob Orchard makes a strong case for A.R.T.'s decision (unusual in America) to perform rotating repertory with a permanent company of actors. The book nicely documents the unique character of A.R.T.'s production history, its strong emphasis on avant-garde interpretations of the classics (from Shakespeare to relative obscurities like Gozzi's The King Stag) and its sideline in new plays by writers like David Mamet and Marsha Norman. But it still reads like program notes. 45 b&w photos. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Excerpt A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM Erotic Dreams by Arthur Holmberg Is sex an anti-social instinct? A Midsummer Night's Dream forces the question upon us. Like all good dreams, this play sticks its nose into the dark corners of the libido. What it finds there has varied wildly in different eras, different societies.     Even for a play by Shakespeare, Midsummer has had an unusually checkered production history. Originally performed, in all probability, at a noble wedding, by the end of the seventeenth century the text had become a pretext for baroque stage machinery: amidst dragons and Chinese gardens, some incidental lines from Shakespeare. In the nineteenth century, Felix Mendelssohn's music took over, and the balletic tradition of romantic sylphs flitting about a wedding-cake stage persisted obstinately until just the other day.     Harley Granville-Barker dragged the play kicking and screaming into the twentieth century with his ormolu fairies, and Peter Brook's acrobatic circus production of 1970 delivered the coup de grâce to the tradition of moonlit arbors and grottoes. Now Alvin Epstein has left his mark on the play, changing the way the text looks, sounds, and feels. Epstein's production jolts us into new perceptions of Midsummer's complexity and beauty.     His production fuses, miraculously, the bright, shimmering surface of the play with its dark undertones, pushing textual ambiguities about the tortured nature of love to the point of undecidability. Can the sex and aggression the sweet young lovers stumble over in the woods be channeled into the holy sacrament of matrimony? Yes, maybe, this production says; but then again, maybe not. It is through his scenic daring that Epstein signals his agreement with Marjorie Garber, who argues in her critical study Dream in Shakespeare that the play finally gives primacy to "imagination over reason."     The fairies hold the keys to the kingdom of dreams, and Epstein has found an inspired way to actualize Titania and Oberon and their spritely retinues. What does a fairy look like? No one has ever photographed one, and Tinkerbell has joined the romantic sylphs in the trashcan of theatre history. Epstein eroticizes these airy nothings, giving them beautiful bodies of flesh and blood. This uninhibited celebration of the play's sensuality--and an attendant willingness to plumb its shadowy, menacing depths--carries us beyond Brook to a distinctively American vision of Shakespeare's fantasy.     Epstein's Midsummer , first mounted during Robert Brustein's tenure at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1975, was restaged at the American Repertory Theatre in 1980 as its first production in its new home in Cambridge. Rather than basking in the glow of a beneficent moon, Epstein's production inhabited the dark side of that satellite. Designer Tony Straiges's eerie, lunar landscape was dominated by a giant sculptural scoop, and subhuman fairies slithered to and fro across it like misbegotten reptiles, slimy, scaly, evil. In contrast to these lizards of night, creeping through the sewers of sex, Oberon and Titania were tall, chiseled creatures in fleshtone tights, glorifications of the body in motion. Sliding down the scoop, playing sexual tag, or blessing the mortal nuptials, they charged the stage with erotic energy. The beauty of their sexual love, expressed through movement, finally triumphed over the anger, jealousy, and aggression that had separated them.     "I wanted to create the impression of nudity," Epstein says of his visual concept, "because Oberon and Titania are forces of nature, and forces of nature don't wear clothes. I studied with Martha Graham, and for me the body in motion is one of the most powerful ways humans communicate. Dream is a physical play about physical realities. Any director who tackles it must find a way to physicalize the complicated poetry and emotions."     In his efforts to do that, Epstein turned to Henry Purcell's 1692 score for The Faerie Queene , interrupting Shakespeare's play with musical interludes. This postmodern layering was his way of questioning the play's meaning; harmony answered discord.     "You can't reduce this play to any one meaning," the director elaborates. "Love in the play unleashes destructive forces. On the other hand, the lovers yearn for harmony and order. Purcell's music counterpointed the cruelty of my production. The music is elegant, formal, controlled, while everything in the woods spins out of control. The music reminded the audience of the desire to regain harmony."     In this American Dream , the body in motion becomes a primary means of theatrical expression. Music and dance weave through the dramatic structure (in contrast to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century productions, in which music dominated the play). Epstein eroticizes the body and pushes his sexual explorations to the point of menace. He seizes upon the possibilities of the nocturnal world of spirits to explore Freudian depths and Jungian reflections, and he plays a dark reading of the play off against a bright one.     "There will always remain two interpretations of A Midsummer Night's Dream : the light and the somber," writes Shakespeare critic Jan Kott in The Bottom Translation . "And even as we choose the light one, let us not forget the dark one."     Epstein's production refuses to choose between the two. It dramatizes both possibilities, sounding ominous notes of carnality and mortality beneath the beauty and laughter. And, opening up the ambiguities of Shakespeare's text to the point of undecidability, it suggests that ambivalence might be the best response to love. The above piece was excerpted from a longer article Mr. Holmberg wrote for American Theatre (April 1989) in which he analyzed other major productions of the play: Mark Lamos's at the Hartford Stage (1988), A. J. Antoon's at the Public (1988), and Liviu Ciulei's at the Guthrie (1985). The A.R.T. production and Mr. Holmberg's notes on it and responses to it occurred several years before he had any professional connection to the theatre. THE INSPECTOR GENERAL A Note on the Translation of The Inspector General by Sam Guckenheimer and Peter Sellars Gogol provides a special problem for the translator, as his characters frequently speak ungrammatically, mispronounce words, choose the wrong words, or invent new ones, stumbling over themselves in desperate attempts to communicate. In this language, sound becomes highly important--the speeches are peppered with snores, buzzes, coughs, and sneezes, which merge into a more phonetic than denotative pattern.     Gogol's intention is facilitated by the qualities of his native tongue. Russian, at the time of his writing, was less than a hundred years old as a standardized literary language, with six cases, no articles, a flexible yet innately convoluted word order, continuous juxtaposition of consonants, and unlearnable stress. The author's use of linguistic peculiarity we have tried to render in the closest possible English equivalent, without conversion of Gogol's rough idiom into a glib adaptation. Russian expressions have been imported wholesale, such as "both have fallen finger-first in heaven" (translated elsewhere with "you're both talking through your hat," and "you're way off, both of you") or "it turns on its moustache" (previously rendered as "they are noting it"). Our approach has been a stubborn literalism with a dash of imagination.     Certain connections defeated us, when English couldn't approach the density of Russian. For example, Khlestakov calls Osip a "crude animal." In doing so, he uses a word whose first two syllables mean stomach, and thereby he unwittingly reminds himself in mid-insult of his gnawing hunger. Hunger as Khlestakov's dominant urge recurs in his ecstatic cry "Labardan!" To him, this fish embodies ecstasy, hardly conveyed by the English, "Salt cod!"     The Russian director Meyerhold compared Gogol's language with that of Mayakovsky: "Certain passages produce a remarkable impression when you read them--it isn't prose, it isn't verse, but some new linguistic formulations This new linguistic formulation is what we have tried to capture. Gogol knows our problem: With a profound knowledge of the heart and a wise grasp of life will the word of the Briton echo, like an airy dandy will the impermanent word of the Frenchman flash and then burst into smithereens; finickily, intricately will the German contrive his intellectually gaunt word, which is not within the easy reach of everybody. But there is never a word which can be so sweeping, so boisterous, which would burst out so, from out the very heart, which would seethe so and quiver and flutter so much like a living thing, as an aptly uttered Russian word! [ Dead Souls , Chapter 5] THE INSPECTOR GENERAL A Note on Names in Revizor by Donald Fanger Gogol's genius in naming characters is on a par with that of Dickens. Like his English contemporary, he exploited the radical associations of his language with perfect tact and lively suggestiveness; in Revizor (The Inspector General) he gives us the Russian counterparts, linguistically speaking, of Twist, Gamp, Chuzzlewit, Dedlock, Veneering, Cratchit, Micawber. The names of Gogol's personages, in other words, establish a certain comic level of response (as does the mechanical doubling we find in the hyphenations of Skvoznik-Dmukhanovsky and Lyapkin-Tyapkin, the generational repetitions in Anton Antonovich and Luka Lukich, the near identity of the two Peter Ivanoviches or Dobchinsky and Bobchinsky). They do not characterize, hence they do not invite simple translation. A Russian, recognizing in Zemlyanika the ordinary word for wild strawberries may well try to repress the recognition; certainly he will seek plain meaning in it at his own peril. With this much by way of warning, some of the etymological presences latent in Gogol's cast of characters may be indicated.     Skvoznik suggests an inveterate rogue--also, incongruously, a draft; Dmukhanovsky, a vaguer matter, may suggest self-importance and is indisputably, demeaningly comic when pronounced. Khlopov comes from the onomatopoetic word for bang, slap, clap, or clatter. Lyapkin-Tyapkin inverts tyap-lyap (slipshod or slapdash), with further overtones of spanking and stupid speech before the hyphen and taking or stealing after it. Whipping and swilling lurk in Khlestakov--a name that, Nabokov assures us, "conveys to the Russian reader an effect of lightness and rashness, a prattling tongue, the swish of a slim walking cane, the slapping sound of playing cards, the braggadocio of a nincompoop and the dashing ways of a lady-killer (minus the capacity for completing this or any other action)." When the German doctor's surname, Huebner, emerges in Russian transliteration as Gibner, it does so bearing suggestions of death and destruction. There is lullaby in Lyulyukov; Rastakovsky is Mr. Such; Korobkin takes his name from korobka (box) and is not far from korobit (to jar or grate on); there is a twisted ear in Ukhovertov, a whistler in Svistunov, a button in Pugovitsyn (alongside a shadow of intimidation), and Poshlyopkina might be Englished as Spancks. As for Derzhimorda the policeman, his name is an ominous injunction involving the way your mug or kisser should be held.     These are (to cite Nabokov again) "nightmare names," nicknames in fact "which we surprise in the very act of turning into family names." Such metamorphoses are part of the central action in Gogol's writing. His hero is language. GROWNUPS Feiffer on Grownups by David Edelstein Jules Feiffer sees his impulse to write plays as an extension of the one that made him a cartoonist--to create scenes. One of his scripts, Hold Me! , contains actual translations of cartoons to the stage, and two of his plays-- God Bless and White House Murder Case --are, according to Feiffer, enlarged political cartoons. Grownups is a departure--a painful, though still comic, treatment of domesticity, a disturbing look at three generations of a family whose members pull each other apart.     "In Grownups I have tried to write about the minutiae of life," he says, "the day-to-day pettiness that drives people up the wall--the material that is almost never treated except in situation comedies. We are trained by sit-coms to laugh at stuff that in fact drives us crazy; we're educated by television and before that by radio to swallow the things that are really serious in life, that really frustrate us, that really drive us wild, the situations to which we overrespond because the incidents are rarely as strong as the emotions they pull out of us. These emotions are so strong that we don't know how to deal with them, so we mock them in our entertainment."     In Grownups , a decision to allow a little girl to stay up and watch Charlie's Angels becomes a political struggle between father and mother; a visit from meddling parents, a painful test of endurance; and a character's inability to finish an anecdote without being interrupted, the sad reflection of a life without recognition. "It's not a play about good guys and bad guys," Feiffer stresses. "The characters are creatures of frustration. They are holding onto their lives and by saving themselves, destroying all those around them."     Feiffer wrote the first draft of Grownups in 1973 but was not willing to have it produced then. "Robert Brustein disagreed from the beginning and wanted to do it back then--he was very enthusiastic. But I just put it away and forgot about it. When I looked at it again, I decided he was right."     Although Grownups is personal, Feiffer stresses that all his plays are. He cites as an example Knock Knock , which opened on Broadway in 1976. "It was generally reviewed as a far-out farce and escapist entertainment, but I consider it a serious play and very personal.... I don't write autobiography, though," he says. "I've never known how to do that, because whenever I start to write anything that really happened to me, I lose control of it. I have to invent situations and then characters to go forth and enact an emotional truth."     Feiffer will stay with the company in Cambridge for the duration of the rehearsal period. He believes it is his responsibility to assist the cast and director. "When things are going well you feel kind of dopey being around ... but there is always a crisis." Feiffer has found himself becoming less and less possessive of his plays the longer he works in the theatre. He is able to put more trust in the instincts of the director and cast than he did with his first play, Little Murders . In his notes to the published version of that play, Feiffer writes, "the author, while always correct in his intentions, is sometimes mistaken about the means to fulfill them."     Next he plans to write a political play. "I feel it's time, "he says, "but I still don't know what it will be about. I've always been interested in this fragmented land of ours. I wrote about that in Little Murders , but it's become even more splintered since then, and I'd like to be more specific about it." SGANARELLE Seeking the Source of Farce by Andrei Serban Like the colleagues of my generation, I looked at Artaud as a prophet. He inspired in me the magic of a theatre that goes beyond the rational and the psychological. Later, assisting Peter Brook, I witnessed in practice that the essence of theatre is not in narrative nor in literal language.     My own experience in Greek tragedy convinced me that the theatre event should not illustrate the text but that performance must be a creative art in itself, as Grotowoski suggested. It should be true for farce as well as tragedy, since they are closely connected. For instance, in my production Fragments of a Trilogy , I used the incantation of Greek and Latin sounds to stimulate the imagination of the actor to transmit to the audience a primitive human reaction. The same reaction was sought in the Molière farces. It is known that in the commedia dell'arte the performers did not rely on words. A group of actors with a scenario prepared by themselves, freely improvising lines, movement, and sound in shifting tempos, were reaching at the root of our art. In the same way, we found in Molière's early farces the best material for our purpose. If Greek tragedy used the archaic elements of sacred origin, in comedy we illuminate the opposite: the parody of the sacred in the cosmic force of farce.     "The Flying Doctor," "Sganarelle," "The Forced Marriage"--one-act sketches of a young Molière, who like the young Mozart was creating from instinct canvases of pure transcendence--became in our hands a collage for the actors to improvise upon and to reinvent the commedia but with respect for tradition. This was physical theatre, wild and explosive, a challenge to taboos, a violation of the accepted stereotypes of the classical style. For example, in "The Doctor in Spite of Himself," we used an invented language (replacing the translation of the text in good Artaudian fashion), but this chaotic pattern of sounds did not correspond precisely to the detailed situations in the play. Rather, it brought to light the subconscious energy hidden in the comedy. The attempt was to search for a made-up, ersatz theatrical language that asked: What is human, immediately recognizable? In farce, ever since Roman comedy, there has been a recognition of our ancestral foolery, perpetuated through to our days.     We were experimenting with a new vocabulary, imagining a situation similar to the young Molière, learning the discipline of the old craft while inventing spontaneously this new theatre. Copyright © 1999 American Repertory Theatre. All rights reserved.