The First To Question

Remembering the ultimate theatre historian, Oscar Brockett, 1923-2010

The First To Question
Photo courtesy of Cynthia M. SoRelle

Measuring the impact that the late Oscar Brockett had upon the world is well nigh impossible, but consider this: His books History of the Theatre and The Essential Theatre have been standard texts in the study of the art form for some 40 and 35 years, respectively. Even calculating conservatively, that's at least a few hundred thousand students in the U.S. alone whose basic understanding of theatre has been shaped by this Austin scholar. Factor in the numerous translations of those books, and that number expands to include tens of thousands more across the globe. Bring in the nine other texts authored or co-authored by Brockett – including Making the Scene: A History of Stage Design and Technology in Europe and the United States, released this year by University of Texas Press – and it grows by tens of thousands yet again. And among those masses of students have been hundreds who studied with Brockett directly during his six decades as an educator and went on to become historians and teachers themselves; their work will extend his influence to students of theatre for generations to come.

The legacy of Brockett, who died Nov. 7, is monumental, but the man himself was not. He was a teacher who always had time for students, a lover of theatre who was never happier than when sitting in the audience, a compassionate, thoughtful friend who always relished a good chat. In honor of both the giant of theatre history and the man that his familiars called Brock or OGB, the Chronicle offers remembrances from a small fraction of Brockett's onetime students, colleagues, collaborators, and friends.

Michael Arthur

Artist; Ph.D., Theatre History and Criticism 1999, UT Department of Theatre & Dance

There is a time early in every friendship when life stories are told for the first time. Long friendships tend to be punctuated by retellings and slow revelations of who we really are.

I'm a second-generation Brockett student. My father studied under him at Indiana, and I spent eight years as Brockett's research assistant in the Nineties. He was the best teacher I ever had. I am grateful that he was also my friend.

It so happened that on a research trip for my doctoral degree, I ended up in London at the same time as Brockett, and we made plans to meet up. We had had dinner many times before – mostly when my father would come to visit in Austin and Brock would join us. I had never had a meal with him on my own, let alone spent time with him in another country.

Brock told me that he had never been to Greenwich and had always wanted to see the town that housed the prime meridian, so we made plans to meet at a boat on the Thames. It was on this trip that Brock first shared with me the story of his life from his childhood in Tennessee – he told me that he knew he didn't belong there almost from the first moment he could think – through his time in the South Pacific during World War II to his time in academia. It was a spellbinding story, a narrative he built upon, embellished, and illuminated over the years of our friendship.

When we arrived in Greenwich and walked up the hill, we found the historical site closed due to a bomb scare. There was no indication that the prime meridian would be open for business anytime soon, so we shrugged, sat in the grass on the hill, and continued talking into the afternoon.

I think this story resonates for me because here I was with this man who was my teacher and my father's teacher – who happened also to be a legendary historian – sitting outside the arbitrary start point of the international dateline, the place from which we measure our days, swapping stories about who we were.

I could unpack the implications of that scenario endlessly, how history is arbitrary and lives only in the stories we tell ourselves. How the stories we tell ourselves are always subject to and shaped by circumstance. How legends are just people.

But I cherish that day on the grassy hill outside the prime meridian because I was with a curious friend who inspired me, and that was the day he started to tell me about himself.

J. Richard Smith

Scene designer, B.F.A. 1990, M.F.A. 2005, UT Department of Theatre & Dance

As an undergraduate student in the Theatre & Dance Department during the late Eighties to early Nineties, I remember all too well Oscar Brockett in his office just off the main atrium area of the building. He would always have his door open unless in a conference with a student, and he always made a point to chat up students (both undergraduate and graduate) in the atrium and in the corridors of the building. He lived in an enigmatic world for us, a paragon of theatrical knowledge and wisdom – somewhat unreachable for us mere undergrads, for his was the realm of the graduate student and of even loftier learning. But as the years progressed and I graduated and crafted a small career for myself, first as a freelance designer and then as the co-founder and co-artistic director of Second Youth Theatre, that mythic cloud dissipated, and I realized he was just an average joe, a really funny man with an undying and unflinching passion for theatre. His book History of the Theatre became, for all intents and purposes, my Bible of learning.

When I decided to return to graduate school after a 12-plus-year gap of freelance work, he was still there, in the Winship Building, semiretired and now relegated to a tiny office in the warren of smaller rooms in the lower reaches of the building. It seemed an affront to me that he was now where he was, but he didn't mind. His genial nature persisted. His office was still crammed with volumes of ancient books. As someone who grew up with Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, in some ways, Brockett's was the way of the wizard: a wizard of theatrical craft and lore comprised of decades upon decades of learning and teaching and continued discoveries. He was a great man – powerful in his wisdom and proof positive that, for those of us in the field of theatre, we are part of something greater, a long lineage of shamans, bards, troubadours, jongleurs, acrobats, commedia performers, artists, craftsmen, innovators, visionaries, and, plain and simple, humans that share and celebrate and illuminate the human spirit and condition. His passion is my passion, and from his wisdom, I was given a seed from which will grow and, in its own turn, bear the fruit of knowledge to someone else, someone yearning to know more, and so on, and so on. Rest in peace.

Charlotte Canning

Head of the Performance as Public Practice program, UT Department of Theatre & Dance

When I arrived at UT in 1993 as a novice professor, I could not have wished for a better mentor than Oscar Brockett. While the rest of the world meant a book when they said they'd check Brockett, I meant the man in the office downstairs. I pestered him with questions, all of which he answered with calm equanimity. He modeled everything an academic should be. Students came first for him. He never canceled class. He always made time to listen. His standards were high, he enforced them rigorously, and he didn't accept excuses. But he never lacked compassion. I have patterned my teaching after his, and rarely a day goes by that I don't consider something he taught me either directly or through one of his many funny anecdotes. My relationship with him is one I will always treasure as a great gift.

I can't help but feel a bit rueful about what I have written here and elsewhere about him. One of his many lovely traits was a kind of cranky humility. Being honored made him uncomfortable. He and I flew together to St. Louis when the American Society for Theatre Research honored him with its distinguished scholar award in 1995. During the plane ride, he grizzled to me about this and about the fact that he had to make an acceptance speech. He assured me he had nothing to say and that the whole thing was an embarrassment. I tried to commiserate. At the ceremony, he gave an eloquent speech urging the profession to embrace new ideas, reminding them that history (about which he knew a lot) would pass them by if they clung to that which was outworn. The standing ovation he received was not enough to mark how much his words meant to us.

Cynthia M. SoRelle

Board chair, Literary Managers & Dramaturgs of the Americas

In 2005, when I learned that LMDA would be meeting in Austin, I told Brock that this was the first time that the organization would be coming to the Southwest for the annual conference and invited him to join me in hosting an opening party for the board and invited guests. Then I cheekily let him know that it should be at his condo in the Nokonah. After being assured that he didn't have to handle any food preparation, he readily said we could "do that." And we did, and we all had a grand time, I think. And the several students that we invited to help were thrilled just to be in his presence. Everyone, in fact, was thrilled to be in his presence. At the LMDA conference closing banquet, graduate students who never had the joy of studying with him surrounded him, had their pictures taken, and made him feel as special as he was – and always will be. Brock supported so many professional theatre organizations – always paid his membership dues – and could be both humble and proud. In 2000, I nominated him for the Texas Educational Theatre Association's Founder's Award for "outstanding contributions to theatre in Texas." When I told him, he responded that he had always been a member but wasn't sure that he had done enough for the organization. "You must be kidding," I replied. As his nominator, I got to make his speech of introduction at that year's TETA banquet. I repeated that small bit of our conversation and went on to ask the gathered assembly how many of them had learned much of what they know about theatre from his texts. You can guess the response: everyone. I then commented that each of us dated our generation by the History of the Theatre book cover (edition) that we owned. Are you the red generation, the brown, the yellow, the green ... The Lion King? From that time on, I still have people tell me, "I'm the ____ generation."

And I'm proud to say that I have every one, and I still and always will use that book for my theatre history classes. Brock was the ultimate historian: never satisfied that what we actually know is in any way definitive, always the first to question how authoritative his own work was. Little irritated him more than neglect of social, cultural, philosophical, political context in the study of art. I'm sure that I'm not the only Brockett student who learned more about philosophy in his classes than in any philosophy class I had at any level.

Margaret Mitchell

Professor of Theatre, University of the Incarnate Word; co-author of Making the Scene: A History of Stage Design and Technology

Eleven years ago, a manila envelope came in the mail. It was OGB's first draft of his section of the first chapter of what would become Making the Scene. The draft had a note attached that read: "Please correct and send back. OGB." I thought, "How in the world can I 'correct' Oscar Brockett?!" But this is how it began with us. We divided up the work. We cross-edited, e-mailed, talked on the phone, and met in person every few months. Linda Hardberger wrote the boxes at the ends of the chapters, and she also read the drafts and offered many suggestions. OGB never told me what to think. He never told me how to write. He was always concerned with knowable truths, and he constantly dismissed supposition or bias. He frowned on dense academic syntax and championed clarity. He asked the big questions. He didn't get distracted. Throughout the latter years of working on our book, his health declined. He got better. He got worse. He got better again. It didn't matter how bad he felt, he was still engaged in the work. He would call and say: "I am going into the hospital tomorrow. I might not survive it. Make sure you fix the problem on page 317, and I think we need more explanation in the second paragraph of chapter nine." These kinds of phone calls would send me into a panic. What else was there to do but get to work? He taught me how to write a book. But more than that, he possessed a love of learning that never ceased, even with age, wisdom, and expertise. We have always been friends. He has been one of the greatest gifts of my life.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Oscar Brockett, History of the Theatre, The Essential Theatre, Michael Arthur, Charlotte Canning, J. Richard Smith, Literary Managers & Dramaturgs of the Americas

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