Robert Brustein Doesn’t Understand Consent: The Dangers of the White Male “Genius”

As a very young woman, I haunted thrift stores, which, in those days, were chock full of amazing finds. Thrift store book sections filled my library, and I would buy anything related to theatre and devour it to supplement the reading I was doing in my theatre classes. Eventually, a slow, sinking realization started creeping in at the edges as I read book after book by theatrical “geniuses,” all white men. I remember paging through Robert Brustein’s Theatre of Revolt thinking, He does not consider women people. 

Many woman in theatre will recognize this feeling. It’s the same feeling we get reading Jan Kott, Harold Bloom, and a host of other “geniuses.” These 20th century white male “geniuses” write about theatre as if women are invisible, decorative, or existing in service to men. They interpret female characters through the lens of white male dominance, and see female characters as essentially about the men in the play. Jan Kott, for example, writes that Desdemona must have “something of a slut about her” because so many men are attracted to her, a complete misreading of the text.  Bloom’s sexism, racism, and classism (“capital is necessary for the cultivation of aesthetic values”) are well documented; he believes that “isms” (examples he gives include feminism, African American studies, and “transgenderism”) are ruining literature. Brustein dismisses Nora in A Doll’s House in Theatre of Revolt because he believes her “conversion” from a “protected, almost infantile dependent” to an “articulate and determined spokesman for individual freedom” is unbelievable, missing entirely that the “infantile dependent” was a character Nora played for Torvald. He was unable to see past that character because he was as taken in by it as Torvald is. When she finally drops the act, both Torvald and Brustein are surprised and disbelieving. White male genius under white male supremacy is all too often hobbled by its inability to see past its privilege and understand that its reasoning is faulty.

Theatre education is still dominated by old white men of a single generation. Bloom is 87. Brustein is 90. Kott would be 103 if he were still alive. Grotowski would be 84. Brockett would be 94. Johnstone is 84. Brook is 92. I could go on and on. It’s not that old white men have nothing of value to contribute. These men have had valuable, positive impacts on our field. Yet we must also admit that several of these men have also, simultaneously, had problematic impacts on our field. Decades of theatre students have been taught dramatic theory and criticism that has been narrowed and hobbled by its belief in white male supremacy. We were taught theatre criticism that took it as read that theatre was by, for, and about white men, and that everything else required an adjective– “feminist theatre,” “Black theatre”– and was relegated to the margins, often literally, pushed to a sidebar in a book while the main body of the work got on examining “real theatre”– theatre by, for, and about white men. We were told to “look past” the sexism and racism, that it was just “the time,” as if the sexism and racism are croutons we can pick out of work that is otherwise genius, as if the sexism and racism don’t dramatically limit the scope and understanding of parts of the work.

We have formed the very basis of theatre criticism on white male supremacy, teaching decades of students that white male-centered criticism is the backbone of the field and that anything else is a specialization, an extra. We teach this to the students who grow up to run our industry, and then we wonder why they hire so few women and people of color to positions of power, then we wonder why granting orgs give most of their money to theatres headed by white men, then we wonder why major publications hire mostly white male theatre writers and editors, then we wonder why universities hire more men than women and more white people than people of color for tenure-track positions.

Then we wonder why Robert Brustein, one of the most powerful and influential members of our field, goes on Facebook and posts garbage like this:


We wonder why someone whom we consider a “genius” has so little understanding of the basics of consent. We wonder why someone whom we consider a “genius” has so little understanding or respect for women as people.

Every word he’s ever written was framed within the idea that white men were the pinnacle of creation, standing at the center of all narrative and all analysis. Do we really wonder, then, why he doesn’t understand the difference between sexual harassment and an extramarital affair? And do we really wonder why there are people in our industry actually defending this nonsense?

The statement itself is a mess. He begins by whining about the way evil women are ruining the legacies of the men who harassed and raped them, imagining that women are unfairly “proscribing the achievements” of these great men.

Then he brings up the witch hunts. This analogy, usually coming from men accused of sexual harassment (or about to be), has become the most tiresome cliché of the moment, deeply sexist and utterly inaccurate. Brustein, however, takes this misunderstanding even further. He begins with the fact that women burned at the stake for witchcraft were innocent victims, but then goes on to claim that, in the sexual assault allegations of today, “the witches are doing the hunting,” clearly stating that innocent men are being accused and destroyed, and that evil women are to blame.

I don’t believe he actually meant what he wrote when he wrote it initially. I’ve read Brustein, and I believe he lit upon what he thought was a clever turn of phrase and used it without thinking too deeply about what it might actually mean. When he was rightly called out for it, he deleted it. Ah, we all thought, he’s showing glimmers of understanding. Then he quickly added it back in.

The painful “witches” comment almost overshadows the faulty reasoning of the rest. He rails against imaginary people who are demanding we stop reading Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Plato. He rails against imaginary people who would raze the Presidential libraries of Clinton and Kennedy and replace them with placards stating, “These men had extramarital affairs.”

The fact that he cannot distinguish between sexual assault and consensual extramarital affairs is the heart of the post. It encapsulates Brustein and his sociohistorical context perfectly. Though he pays lip service to the need for sexual predators to be punished, he worries primarily about the experience of the man. Female consent is immaterial, as he hysterically imagines men ruined for consensual affairs as a logical outcome of exposing sexual predators. The distance between a consensual affair and a rape are not material to him, and in all cases, the legacy of the man is more important. Sexual predators “should be punished,” but “let’s not forget the difference between private behavior and public achievement.”

You cannot decouple “private behavior” from “public achievement” because both come from the same world view. Despite Brustein’s hysteria, no one is suggesting we destroy all existing work by men. We must, however, provide appropriate context for that work.

Brustein’s silly Facebook statement represents something much larger– a limited understanding of the world that informs a great deal of the critical writing of a number of white male “geniuses” of his generation. No one is suggesting we should stop teaching the critical writing of 20th century white men, but it needs to be decentered and contextualized. Teaching young men they are rightly centered in all narrative considerations has created a culture from which we are struggling to emerge.

White men in positions of power unconsciously apply different criteria to evaluating white men (and white male characters) than they do women and people of color. They promote young white men with little experience on their “promise” and reject women and people of color as “not ready.” They dismiss female characters as “unlikeable” and worry about whether characters of color are “ethnic enough.” Whenever I speak out about the overrepresentation of men in tenure-track positions, multiple men tell me that I’m wrong because they’ve “lost” positions to women, as if their anecdotal experience of the world is definitive despite the data. This reflects exactly what we teach when we teach critics like Brustein and Bloom without context– that the male experience of the world is the definitive experience of the world, that all narrative is understood by placing a man at the center and relating everything and everyone else back to him.

Worrying about preserving the legacy of abusive men is foolish. We already knew the work of these men is flawed by the same sexism that led them to choose sexual assault. We must stop pretending that this is “important,” “genius,” “canonical” thought and instead appropriately contextualize it within its time and place in conversation with the thought of women and people of color. I see the way this new generation of women and people of color in education are approaching the work, and I want to cry with relief. We need more, and more, and more. We must move women and people of color out of the sidebar and into the canon, and demolish the concept of the privileged white male “genius.”



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