Theatre's Great Historian The Essential Oscar

by Suzanne Hassler

Austin theatre has many heroes who are diligent and accomplished but seldom seen by the audience. One is a man who has influenced thousands of theatre artists worldwide, whose work sits on your shelf (right next to the Bible), but whom you have never met -- and might not recognize if you did.

He is Director of the Center for Dramatic and Performance Studies at University of Texas at Austin and author of what is possibly the most comprehensive history of theatre ever written -- which is to say, if you stack his work next to Aristotle's, it'll hang.

In addition to The History of the Theatre, he is also author of 10 other books, including The Essential Theatre, which in its various mutations is now in its 10th edition, making it a more frequently requested title than such cultural icons as The Essential Elvis and The Essential Calvin & Hobbes... combined.

He has never taken a curtain call and yet he's received two lifetime achievement awards in theatre, one from the Association for Theatre in Higher Education and the more recent one last month for services to the profession from the American Society for Theatre Research. He is the Oscar G. Brockett. Although you may never have seen him, he is often at a theatre near you.

Austin Chronicle: Your books are read and used all over the world. What's it like having people whom you've never met react to your work?

Oscar Brockett: I don't get many direct responses. When I travel, every once in a while someone will say something to me. I went to a conference in China and was asked to preside over the first session. This was an O'Neill conference, and I don't particularly consider myself an O'Neill person. I finally asked somebody, "Why is this?" They said, "All the Chinese know your book, but they don't who all these other people are." I didn't even know the mainland Chinese had translated my book. Then they gave me a copy. I only know it's my book because somewhere it has my name in Western characters.

AC: It's unusual for a history book to receive such wide, international acceptance. Why do you think yours has?

OB: Well, I think my books must be considered safe. I'm only deducing it because of the fact that the book has been translated into Chinese by the Communists, into Persian under the Ayatollah Khomeini. It's been translated into Hebrew. The Arabs have asked to translate it. Korea, which is not precisely an open society, has a translation. I think it's written in a relatively neutral tone.

AC: Many history books are so heavily opinionated that you can't deduce what actually happened. You're not given enough information or it's hard to discern.

OB: Some books are written from such a specific point of view that you can't use them as a textbook unless you agree with that point of view. Otherwise you spend all your time refuting it or arguing with it. I think the secret of my books is that they provide you with information but allow you to interpret it. So, if you want to put a spin on it, you can. You're not forbidden to do so.

AC: With so many things you could have chosen for your life's work, why did you devote it to compiling a history of world theatre?

OB: I would say, frankly, because somebody asked me to do it. I had written an Introduction to Theatre book which was very successful, and another publishing company decided it needed a history of the theatre. They asked about doing it, and I hesitated.

AC: Because it was such a large project?

OB: Uh huh... but graduate students were complaining about how the things they were being taught in theatre history were primarily play reading courses. They didn't think they were finding out very much about the theatre. So, they asked me about teaching courses based in theatre practice. In the process, students had lots of class reports, information accumulated, and I became aware that there were lots of contradictions between one book and another on the same subject. Lots of folklore that was being passed on as fact.

AC: Did you have any sense when you began this work that it would turn out this way?

OB: No. I think obviously one hopes that something will be accepted. I find it easier to write, have it published, and remain at a distance from it than to present things to people face to face. You don't know how people will respond, but you know you won't be there when they do.

AC: "Post-modernism" has increased our awareness of other cultures by mixing them stylistically. It's fascinating to find symbols in stories from different cultures are often similar. What is the relationship of history to mythology, which is another way of telling the story of human experience?

OB: Mythology tries to find stories to capture the essence of certain types of behavioral patterns, whereas I think history is an attempt to talk about things that actually have been. It seems to me -- and some people would be very upset to hear me say this -- it's much the same thing as the difference between history and fiction.

AC: Fiction being....

OB: I mean, do you think we're really supposed to believe in the Medusa, or that Atlas held the world on his shoulders, or Heracles went down into the underworld?

AC: In a literal sense, no. But as a symbol for a pattern of behavior that teaches or helps people remember the story....

OB: Well, that's what I'd call fiction, a type of fiction.

AC: But it's not implied that we're supposed to believe that it really happened.

OB: If you're talking about history, you are supposed to believe that it really happened.

AC: In studying cross-cultural myths, we find many stories are the same. Why do you think this is?

OB: What many people do is look for similarities. But they never talk about the differences. The differences may be more important than the similarities. That is a charge that is often brought against Joseph Campbell: He ignores many of the differences to concentrate on the similarities, and so he obliterates the things that have to do with specific cultures in order to arrive at what he wants to think of as universal.

AC: Hmmm... aesthetic busing.

OB: I think people often have something in mind they're looking for and consequently they find what they're looking for. You tend to see what you are conditioned to see.

AC: The things people hold as important, as symbols of beauty, excellence, worth, often become crystallized in their art. In looking at different cultures....

OB: You can find these things if you're looking for them. In the process, you tend to ignore lots of other things. People studying Greek drama say The Orestia is a drama about the evolution of the concept of justice. What they ignore are the parts of the play that say that men are better than women, that the father is more the parent of the child than the mother, that the mother is no more than a field in which a seed is planted. People aggrandize this Greek point of view, this great humanistic point of view, but in doing so they ignore many things the Greeks did and said that were not humanistic. Now, since the Greeks have always been held up to us as the founders of humanistic thought, we tend to look for these broad humanistic lessons and ignore their dependence on slavery and their attitude that everybody else was inferior to them.

AC: Sort of like winning the Nobel Prize and beating your wife at the same time.

OB: I don't think the Greeks weren't great, but if you're going to really try to be honest about them, you don't have to choose one view of their culture over the other. You can look at both. But I don't think that's generally what's happened. Facts are inert. It's the interpretations that are dynamic. You can give probably 40-50 different interpretations of the same set of facts. We find and concentrate on the facts that are important to us. What we're looking for are things that reaffirm what we need to reaffirm. The Romans had much more interesting theatre than the Greeks did, but we're always putting down the Romans.

AC: Why is that?

OB: Because they were interested in variety theatre. The Greeks were interested in drama.

AC: The literature as opposed to spectacle?

OB: Plays more than performance. The history of theatre has generally been written around drama, not around performance. Performance has always been considered secondary. If you look at which periods have been most emphasized, they are the periods in which people think there are great plays, but those are not necessarily the periods in which the theatre was liveliest. So, the question is, What are you looking for? There is this notion that if you don't have great drama, your theatre is worthless.

AC: There is still a tendency toward this point of view. If you read contemporary theatre reviews, relatively little discussion is given to elements of the production other than the story or written text.

OB: It is a pervasive point of view, passed down and certainly encouraged by universities.

AC: We think of ourselves as being modern -- even post-modern -- and yet, isn't it amazing that this idea of the written text being the most important element of the production, an idea that is over 2,500 years old, is still basically what's most venerated?

OB: I think the concern is usually for what's being said and what lessons are being taught. That is what people tend to concentrate on.

AC: As opposed to the way they're being taught.

OB: It suggests that if you're not saying something really important, performance is worthless. Maybe it's just as important that people enjoy the performance or that performance be valued as much as text is.

AC: Do you think that's changing? Are we any better on that score than the Greeks?

OB: Well, it's changed somewhat. There's much more interest now in popular culture than there used to be. Throughout much of history, critics and historians adopted an elitist stance: "What the common people like is unimportant. Unless popular opinion is substantiated by critics, who know what is really important, it should be given no weight." I'm not saying that one view is right and the other wrong, I'm saying that these are the unstated oppositions that underlie most historical accounts and most critical accounts. John Cage says, "Once you have a value judgment, that's all you have." It has no particular standing. It shows somebody's prejudices... I shouldn't be letting you record these things.

AC: This is just where it starts to get interesting.

OB: What I'm really saying more than anything else is that in history, you have a certain amount of evidence. What you do with that evidence depends upon how you approach it, what you're looking for, what you tend to think is important. You can use the same piece of evidence to reach quite different conclusions.

AC: Tell me something about your history.

OB: Some of the things I think you "ought" to be interested in are that I grew up on a farm -- I did not grow up anywhere that had anything to do with the theatre. I grew up in a town that is in the smallest county in the state of Tennessee. It was very WASP society, with very little interest in knowing about the arts... that I was aware of.

AC: What led you out of that environment into one that was more diverse?

OB: I did have a teacher in high school that was interested in such things, but I went to a college that didn't have a drama department. They taught two or three courses in theatre, which I took.

AC: So you came into the theatre as an adult not having any experience in it?

OB: Yes. I think the only theatre I ever saw as a child was when the high school did a play... very bad productions. I didn't major in theatre as an undergraduate. I was admitted to graduate school as a history major. The only people I knew at Stanford, where I did my graduate work, were people in the drama department that I'd met before I went there. They suggested I come and take some courses there during the summer, which I did. They seemed to like my work and encouraged me to continue, which I did.

AC: What kind of work were you doing?

OB: Well, my master's degree is in design.

AC: Set design?

OB: Set design, costume design, lighting design. It wasn't quite so specialized in those days. The separation of lighting and scenic design is a product primarily of the 1950s. After I got my master's degree, I went to teach at the University of Kentucky for one year, then I went back to Stanford to get my Ph.D. I taught in Florida for four years and I never did design after that, ever.

AC: You made a decision not to pursue that further?

OB: Well, I was never deeply committed to design. I went to the University of Iowa and taught playwriting. I wrote the Introduction to Theatre book while I was at Iowa. I was there for seven years. I went to England for a year on a Fulbright. Then I went to Indiana and was there for 15 years. Then I came here.

AC: When you first came here....

OB: I came as Dean of the College of Fine Arts. When I was first here, my office was in Battle Hall.

AC: And the Performing Arts Center hadn't been invented yet?

OB: It was in the process of being built and was completed while I was Dean.

AC: After which you retired as Dean?

OB: Wore me out. I never got to do anything particularly academic as Dean. I was always involved in problems about building. The day I became Dean I was called by the President and told the director of the Art Museum had resigned and there was nobody in charge of the museum. So, some of the first things I had to do were find out about museums, try to reorganize the museum, and hire a museum director. Then there were problems about what kind of organ we were going to build, and I found out that there are as many different notions about what an organ ought to be, as there are people who play organs. It involves huge sums of money. It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing. We had all kinds of consultants in, so I learned a lot, very quickly.

AC: Being the head of a theatre history program considered the best in the country, you tend to be seen as an idealistic, pie-in-the-sky academic, but in fact, you're really very much a hands-on practitioner, having worked many years as a designer, technical director, and, as Dean, overseeing the building of the PAC. What sorts of things are you working on now?

OB: Committees. Well, I'm supposed to be working on African theatre. There's someone who wants me to write a book with him on African theatre. Last year, I went to a Pan-African historical theatre festival in Ghana.

AC: Every summer, you travel extensively. Where have you been recently?

OB: One summer I went to China for a month. I've been to Czechoslovakia a couple of times, and I've been to Russia. I go to London fairly often. For two summers, I went to places in Greece and Turkey, Sicily and Italy, where the focus was visiting ruins of Greek and Roman theatre. But don't ask me how many I've seen.

AC: What in your travels stands out as memorable?

OB: One of my favorite places is Bali. They have very little art that is not a part of their daily life. They think everything has a spirit in it, so they are always performing rituals. The rituals are their primary art. They live their daily lives, which may include rice farming and carving, but there are certain times of the year or phases of the moon when there are festivals and they participate. Except for what they do for tourists, there is little separate theatre. Not many people would say, "I am an actor." They would say, "I am a person who is a part of this village and among the things I do is perform."


Thinking later about my conversation with Oscar Brockett brought back memories of oral exams for my thesis. I remembered a moment that gray day when I hesitated a little too long when asked to describe the neo-Marxist literary critique of post-modernism, and in that long moment, Dr. Brockett described pretty much the whole of what theatre is, was, and may yet become. And as I sat, silently watching his lips move, I remember wishing I had a tape recorder and thinking, "I am a benchwarmer in the ball park this guy's playing in."

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