Robert Brustein loves a good fight. His production of Samuel Beckett's Endgame so enraged the Irish Nobel laureate, he demanded it be shut down; Mr. Brustein refused, but allowed the playwright a program note informing audiences they should be disgusted.
Then there was the New York town hall run-in with African-American Pulitzer winner August Wilson, who called Mr. Brustein "a sniper, a naysayer and a cultural imperialist."
The New York Times critic Frank Rich wrote that he "rarely had ugly confrontations with anyone in the theatre . . . the few significant exceptions invariably involved Robert Brustein."
Playwright, director, producer, actor, author, scholar, company founder and critic, Mr. Brustein has tangled with a Who's Who of cultural giants. But he doesn't just like a fight about art. Consider the great ham hostilities of the Vineyard.
An avuncular Mr. Brustein, appearing nothing like the provocateur par excellence last week in Vineyard Haven's unassuming ArtCliff diner, recounted simpler scraps on the Island where he has been a fixture since 1962. Here he would have dinners and argue, he said, with his friends Lillian Hellman and William Styron.
"Bill is a great maker of ham," Mr. Brustein explained. "He couldn't fit this huge ham in his freezer so he put it in Lillian's refrigerator, and then she refused to let him have it back. She said it belonged to her. So they had this big fight and didn't speak for a few weeks." He laughed a sonorous and easy laugh. "These were very large-hearted people and they had big issues."
Mr. Brustein's own big issue with Ms. Hellman came when she demanded he shut down his "story theatre" production of Dashiell Hammett's Fly Paper, to which she had the rights. "I said, ‘I told you I was doing it in this new form,' and she said, ‘Don't tell me about form, I invented form!' So I said, ‘Well, Lillian, you don't have script approval of this evening.' And she says, ‘No one has ever told this to me in my life!' "
He laughed again, looking handsome and tender as the 79-year-old grandfather he is. "So she got very upset and we didn't speak for about an hour and a half."
Mr. Brustein is back at his beloved West Tisbury home, preparing not for a fight but for the premiere of his latest play, Spring Forward, Fall Back. It opens next week at the Vineyard Playhouse before the production moves to Theatre J in Washington, D.C. A delicately structured piece that slides across time and memory, the play tells the story of three generations of Jewish men separated by their taste in music. Their battles are personal, cultural, political and emblematic.
It takes place in the New York city building where Rachmaninov lived - the very one where Mr. Brustein spent his own childhood, occasionally encountering the great composer looking "like a prune in a fedora." The play features a young clarinettist and Artie Shaw fan who joins the Merchant Marine Academy in World War II - which describes exactly the young Bob Brustein.
Over waffles and maple syrup - he orders fruit on his wife's orders but leaves it mostly uneaten - Mr. Brustein recalled his younger self.
There he was, in a Jewish neighborhood ("I thought everybody was Jewish!"). The city, as he saw it, was underpopulated: "We just owned the place, the city was ours." He played hockey in the streets, breaking up the game only when somebody yelled "Car!" Other kids tagged rides on the streetcars wearing roller skates, but he was too scared. That was too much for the boy whose mother would not even let him near the outdoor hot dog vendors.
His silk-stocking school stopped educating boys after fourth grade. Then it was off to P.S. 166, a tough working-class scene: "The object was how to survive in that school without being beaten to a pulp."
Here, he was much aided by an Irish boy everyone called Fireman Danny McNulty. "Because he wanted to be a fireman when he grew up - and in fact he had grown up. He was 16," said Mr. Brustein. "He'd been left back so many times, I was 11 and he was 16 and we were in the same class. But he had a very good heart. He was in charge of the [street-crossing] and he had me as one of his lieutenants.
"He used to put his arm around me and say, ‘Nobody touches this Jew. This is my Jew.' " More laughter. "I would look up and say, ‘Yeah, Danny, I'm your Jew!' Ha! That's the way I survived."
Already Mr. Brustein wanted to be a musician. He studied clarinet very seriously. Early on he evidenced his penchant for running things, too: he started a band, playing clarinet and tenor saxophone in a gang of 12 musicians. He still remembers the first dance gig they got - and it being cancelled. He was devastated. His father counselled him there would be another, but the boy did not believe it. Two days later, the father was proved right and the boys in the band had $50 to split among them.
"I learned from that never to despair, how to bounce back from disappointment," he said. The lesson seems to have stuck. This was day one of the two-week rehearsal period for Spring Forward, Fall Back, and a key actor had just dropped out. There was no certain replacement, but Mr. Brustein was unruffled.
Perhaps because he was here, a place he described in Peter Simon's 1990 book On The Vineyard 2 as "the one geographical constant in the hearts of a family that always valued emotional constancy - it is our root, our base, our home."
His first wife, Norma Cates, drew him to the Island. As a child, she had summered on the Camp Ground - until it was revealed her family was Jewish, and they were kicked out. "Well, it is called the Methodist Camp Ground!" he laughed. No hard feelings.
The couple found a ramshackle, early 19th-century A-frame. It cost, he volunteered, $18,500. "My wife [he married Doreen Beinart in 1996] continually berates me for not getting a more splendid place," he smiled. "I could have had a place for $21,000 in Chilmark, but it was too much, so we took this one . . . it needed a lot of work, but the grounds were so spectacular."
He still digs for what he calls illegal seafood. Clamming is something he loves more than doubles at Seven Gates. It is more sensuous, too, with the mud and the pinching and the insatiability of it all.
Putting down his fork, Mr. Brustein paused to consider the idea that the attraction of the Vineyard is that it is a small place full of big people.
"To tell you the truth, it's the big people that have changed the place. It used to be a place for writers and academics. They were all big people, but essentially all solitary people. Then Hollywood discovered it, and that changed the place - you began getting these McMansions."
He recalled when Michael Straight, former editor of The New Republic (where Mr. Brustein has been a passionate drama critic for decades), and his sister, the actress Beatrice Straight, bought property in Chilmark. "They paid $10,000 an acre for it, and I said, ‘There goes the Island.'" Wry laugh. "Now, of course, the acreage they bought would cost 10 million."
Mr. Brustein's only son spent his first summer here, his grandchild spent his first summer here, his first wife is buried here. He lives here a good five or six months a year.
Here, then, he will stage this very personal play. The character Old Richard says as the lights come up: "That skinny 18-year-old under the table is the young actor of my memories. Me."
Mr. Brustein's own father stopped him becoming an actor. His son works for MTV.
"Sons have to find their own way . . . have to supersede their fathers or at least go in a different direction from their fathers," Mr. Brustein said.
Old Richard has more on his mind, though: "Assimilation is just another form of exile," he says in Spring Forward, debating his son about intermarriage. "You can't shed your identity like an old skin."
Mr. Brustein will speak on Jewish Themes in American Drama on July 12, part of the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center scholar series.
Of Spring Forward, he said: "It is a play about the loss of Jewish identity, but I think [the play] affects people of any identity, who recognize both the advantages of losing your identity in America and also the great disadvantages.
"There was a generation that was able to maintain both. They were able to be Americans and black Americans, and Jewish Americans, and Irish - before the hyphenations. There was no hyphenation. People wanted to be Americans. And what, they spoke Yiddish at home and they spoke English in the street. And that seemed to be the healthiest.
"That was, to me, the melting pot - where they didn't actually melt. They melted in public and cohered in private. And you know, it was inevitable that this melting pot would do one of two things: either it would create incredible emphasis on identity and identity politics, which we've got now - either you're a woman or you're black or you're gay or Latino or Jewish, it's all part of the same thing," he said, continuing:
"At the same time, the reason for that identity politics is that the identity is disintegrating, and people want to hold onto it in some ways. It's being lost through intermarriage, through you know . . ." he drifted off. "People aren't interested in that sort of thing anymore. But something is being lost, I think.
"That's not just a Jewish play, I think, [or] just a male play. I think it says something to both genders and many ethnicities."
With that, the disarmingly charming provocateur offered to pick up the check, shrugged off the healthy fruit still languishing in the cup and set off for rehearsal.