Dear Robert Brustein,
Just two days ago, I didn’t even know who you were and now, since reading about you in the William Inge biography, written by Ralph Voss, A Life of William Inge, The Strains of Triumph, I have been scouring the internet, searching for all that I can glean about the man named Robert Brustein, the theatre critic, who some say instigated the beginning of the end of my favorite playwright’s entire career. (Boy, talk about a run on sentence.)
Now, I assume you remember the details, but I’ll refresh your memory. In 1958, you wrote an article for Harper’s about Inge titled The Men-Taming Women of William Inge. Within the article, you called Inge mediocre, a “dramatist of considerable limitations”, and also, a “fiddle with one string.” You took issue with Inge’s “dry, repetitive and monotonously folksy” dialogue. You painted a picture of a playwright who would not be valued in the scope of time.
According to the Voss biography and other sources as well, when the article appeared, William Inge was so upset that he called you on the phone to protest, weeping as he spoke to you.
Part of my exhaustive Google search over the last two days is an attempt to hear about the story from your point of view. In the book’s point of you, your article is labeled, the “beginning of the end” and the damage was so lasting that Inge was never able to recover from it. Don’t get me wrong, I know Inge battled deep depression throughout most of his 60, relatively short, years. I have read enough biographies to know that biographers tend to exaggerate the significance of certain life events and downplay the importance of others. Perhaps Voss exaggerated about the enduring effects of your article, which is exactly why I am writing this to you, I want your take.
I’ll tell you a bit about myself. I do not claim any sort of objectivity about Inge. I grew up in his hometown, Independence, Kansas. Like his Sonny in Dark at the Top of the Stairs, I was always passionately devoted to anything that was about Hollywood or celebrity. I loved my books, too, they were a window to the world out there, the world beyond Kansas.
Every Spring, as far back as I can remember, my town held a festival honoring not only William Inge, but also the art of playwriting. As junior high and high school students, we were bussed to the community college where lectures and performances awaited us. In my senior year of high school, I played Jelly Beamis in a Inge Festival production of A Loss of Roses. When I read your (relatively) youthful disdain for Inge in that 1958 article, I remembered a conversation I had at 17, with the director of our play. During rehearsals in the aptly named William Inge Theater, I said, “I kind of hate Inge. His plays are too depressing, why doesn’t he write happier endings?”
That was nearly 30 years ago. In that time, I went to Bible college in an attempt to not be gay, worked as a youth minister, moved to New York, came out of the closet, moved to Los Angeles, moved to San Francisco, then back to Los Angeles. I have worked in plays and television, in restaurants and law firms. I have been in love and out of it, had my heart broken significantly no less than 4 times. I don’t mean to ramble too much, but my point is that, at 17, I had no idea what the trajectory of my life was going to be and how my experiences would mold the way I absorb and respond to art, any art.
Two years ago, I was lucky enough to be on the fourth row of the Broadway revival of Picnic starring Ellen Burstyn, Maggie Grace and Reed Birney. As a Kansas boy, I was certainly proud to see my little town represented on that big 42nd street stage. I had been as proud when I’d watched the 1993 Scott Ellis production with Polly Holliday, Kyle Chandler, and Ashley Judd. But this 2013 production, really burrowed into me. I’ve always loved Rosemary and Howard. I guess you may not appreciate that iconic scene, her on her knees begging him to marry her, but it gets me every time. I’ve been the beggar on his knees and I’ve been the guy who wanted to get on his knees, to beg, but was so afraid of the consequences that he didn’t take the chance. I wept at the end of the play, it was the first Inge that my partner, then of two years, had ever experienced. We are in our forties, met in our early forties. When I was in my thirties, I never did not feel like a Rosemary Sidney, a spinster school teacher. I guess, what I’m trying to say is, if I can find love after 40, maybe there is hope that Rosemary and Howard can have a happy life. Maybe there is even hope for Madge and Hal. To me,
Inge’s work says there is always hope, even when it’s only a sliver of it. But let me stress, that’s my take. And my point of view is no doubt molded by my life experiences.
As I said, I have been on a mission to learn about you, Robert Brustein. You have accomplished much in your 87 years and that you continue to write and create is inspiring. You have been a director, playwright, professor, Huffington Post columnist, husband, father, critic. In a 2012 interview, when asked by the writer, why you aren’t resting on your laurels, you confided that you felt like you didn’t have any laurels, that you hadn’t “gotten there” yet.
Well, I want you to know that you have gotten there. You have survived and thrived and, as much as this little odyssey of mine began with disdain, it’s concluded with a true respect and admiration. That there is someone else who felt he never achieved laurels or “got there” is I’m sure not lost on you. And I must say, I wish Inge had had a bit more of you in him, that drive to keep going. I’ve read his later years pieces and without fail, there is always something in it, maybe it’s just a line or two, that moves me with its truth or perception. He wrote until the end of his life, I just wish the end had not come so soon.
So, here is the question, I don’t know how this might even find you, so, I doubt that you will be able to answer it, but do you regret any part of that infamous 1958 article? If you could go back, what would you change, what would you keep? Also, do you still feel the disdain for Inge’s writing that you felt in 1958? In the 56 years since, you have seen your own plays produced, endured the victories and challenges within, do you still see Inge the same way?
Last night, I was on Instagram, checking for hashtags. That there are only 200 pictures of #williaminge disappointed me. Maybe you have a point, maybe his enduring effects were not what the 1950s indicated they were going to be. It occurred to me that I should search for #robertbrustein, too. There were three pictures. One was a picture of a woman’s lips with a quote credited to you, another appeared to be some scaffolding and the writing was in Asian symbols, except for #robertbrustein. But the third picture was the best, my favorite. You are flocked by young college students, all clearly proud to be taking a picture with a living legend. And in the center, you stand, smiling, the elder statesman, not quite resting on his laurels, but enjoying the moment anyway. Once the critic, now the teacher. Sliver of hope.