Tuesday, February 9, 2010
A BLAST FROM THE PAST
Last night, Nancy and I went to a play reading at the Player's Club (founded by Edwin Booth in the late 19th century, and looks every day of it). The play was called "Mortal Terror," and its subject was the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, when a malcontent named Guy Fawkes tried unsuccessfully to blow up Parliament and everyone in it, including King James and the rest of the Royal Family.
I went partly because I knew that Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights Ben Jonson and John Marston were characters in it -- though they had no connection with the Plot, they figure prominently in the plot, Shakespeare to the point of having a clandestine affair with Queen Anne. But primarily I was there to renew my acquaintance with the playwright, Robert Brustein, who had been my advisor at Columbia during my first year of grad school and for whom I had written a thesis on the Modern French Theater. The proseminar on drama that he taught changed my life; it was my first experience with the academic side of theater, and it both scared me a little and thrilled me. If I'd never met Bob, I doubt I'd have finished graduate school and become a professor.
This was in the 60s. Bob, though he's now in his 80's, is still straight-backed, with all his hair and a brain in perfect working order. He's actually as handsome now (see picture) as he was then. Having not seen him for decades, I was sure he wouldn't have any idea who I was, but he remembered me -- the name and the thesis were familiar to him, though we haven't seen each other once during all those intervening years, which he spent at Yale Drama School and then at Harvard, running the American Repertory Theater, which he founded.
We don't often get a chance to make connections over that span of time. It telescoped virtually my whole adult life to a vanishing point; suddenly I was 22 again, and he the Young Turk of the Columbia English department. Before Columbia, he had taught at Vassar, and his charisma was such (I have this on good authority) that Jane Fonda, then an undergrad, got up an hour early to apply makeup before showing up in Bob's class. He was a little intimidating in those days, but now we met almost as equals, and he couldn't have been warmer; he seemed to be getting as much of a kick out of our reunion as I was. So here's to you and your new play, Bob -- may we all age as gracefully as you have.