Spotlight on Faculty: Don Rubin

January 15, 2014

Spotlight on Faculty: Don Rubin

By Yvonne Maendel
Don RubinDon Rubin

Don Rubin is a professor, critic, Canadian theatre historian, and editor. Born in Brooklyn, New York, Rubin began his artistic journey at the famous High School of Performing Arts  (the inspiration for the film and TV series, Fame.) He began working as a theatre critic at the age of 16 for Show Business Newspaper and later Backstage Magazine in New York City. After university and graduate work, he became a journalist and arts critic with the New Haven (Connecticut) Register. He came to Canada in 1968 to become a theatre critic for the Toronto Star and CBC radio . That same year, he started teaching at York and helped write the initial curriculum for the about to be born Department of Theatre.

A Chair of the Department for three years (the first faculty member to complete a full term in that office), he later co-founded York’s MA and PhD programs in Theatre Studies. Along the way he helped create the York Theatre Journal, which later became the quarterly Canadian Theatre Review, edited an international theatre encyclopedia and put together a standard text in the field called Canadian Theatre History: Selected Readings (used in York’s THEA 3200 course).

Outside of York, Rubin is the President of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association  and a member of the executive Board of the Unesco-affiliated International Association of Theatre Critics. He is an active member of the Editorial Board of a new webjournal, Critical Stagesand has lectured in more than two dozen countries in Asia, Africa and Europe.  In the following interview Rubin discusses his recent work, including issues such as the changing nature of theatre criticism, his recent controversial conference on the Shakespeare Authorship Question, and reveals some of his personal heroes in the areas of playwriting and theatre criticism. The interview was done in November 2013.

What is a typical year for you? Teaching. Travelling? Writing?

There is no typical year. They are all so different. But with that said, 2013 I guess is typical in many ways.  The core is here at York, teaching courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Usually it’s two courses on Canadian theatre history – my central area of research. Then it’s a choice between courses on criticism or African Drama or on Shakespeare: The Authorship Question, a more recent research interest.  This year I taught the Shakespeare course as part of my loading.

I also wrote a lot last winter.  I have been taking the winter term off to write, something I am continuing to do. In May, my wife (York poet, theatre critic and Creative Writing Prof. Patricia Keeney) and I were invited to teach at Ain Shams University in Cairo, one of Egypt’s oldest and largest universities. York has had an exchange program with Ain Shams for several years and one or two of their grad students have come here annually and studied in Theatre or English. We’d been invited to go to Ain Shams several times and it just worked out for May. I taught Contemporary Canadian Theatre and Criticism, and my wife gave poetry readings in Cairo and several lectures on teaching creative writing (not done in Egypt) and women in literature.

How did you find Egypt politically at that time?

We found the country in a tremendously polarized state—about a third of the people hated the government, about a third of the people loved the government and the other third were waiting to see how things would turn out, ready to move with the tide. So wherever you went, whoever you spoke to, the conversation was about the government. It was clear something was going to blow up, and about two weeks after we came home, boom, it blew up. We were not surprised but we were disappointed at the timing. We were in the process of proposing a university-wide student and faculty exchange with Ain Shams, but with another revolution going on – and it’s still going on — that had to be postponed.  We’re hoping though that an opportunity will present itself in the not-too-distant future to reopen it all.

Do you still work as a critic?

In a general sense, yes. I do a lot of freelance writing and I also serve as the President of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association, a national association that deals with issues relating to criticism. The reality of being a critic has changed a lot.  When I began, there were hundreds of people in the English-speaking world able to make livings as critics.  But no more. In Canada, there are only about six or eight people who make their livings today as full-time critics. Many teach to survive or do freelance work. Then there are the dozens and dozens who just put out their opinions in the blogosphere. Some have credentials but many don’t. Are they all critics? The CTCA has been monitoring this issue through public and private debates. It’s certainly not just a Canadian issue. The International Association of Theatre Critics, a Unesco-related agency, has also been involved in these changes and other professional issues. As the Canadian President I am a member of the IATC’s Executive and represent Canada at the international meetings. This year I have been to IATC meetings in Romania and Sweden. IATC also publishes a free webjournal (well worth looking at online)  called Critical Stages. I’m on the Editorial Board for that as well. So the CTCA and the IATC keep me fairly busy and travelling a lot.

Can you speak a bit about your Shakespeare Conference? It was controversial.

Absolutely.  In October, I chaired an international conference supported by York and the University of Guelph on what is called the Shakespeare Authorship Question. Who really wrote the plays? Could the name Shakespeare have been a pseudonym? We thought we were just doing an academic conference and no one would pay attention. But the Globe and Mail said that we as academics had no right to ask such questions and attacked the conference and everyone connected with it.  My co-key organizer at Guelph was Sky Gilbert, the man who started Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. He too was attacked in these articles. We had over a hundred scholars in from all over the world to give papers on the subject and to participate in the discussions. Most were sophisticated people making sophisticated scholarly enquiries. Many of them were quite shocked by the Globe’s attacks. One of the attacks even began on the paper’s front page. That was unfortunate in one way but such publicity was far from bad for an academic conference. Most such events are totally ignored.  The tone of the attacks though was unfortunate.  It suggested that the academy should not deal with such a question. I guess no one told me that certain issues were officially off-limits to scholars. There seems to be real terror for many people in this one. What if it turns out that the man from Stratford was not the real author? I find it odd that so many people in English departments just want to put their heads in the ground on the subject, make believe the questions don’t exist or attack those asking the questions instead of entering into real debate. Even some of our so-called Shakespeare experts from York’s own English Department attacked us. But I was very proud of the fact that both the Theatre Department and York’s English Department actually made financial contributions to the conference. And it was a success in the end despite the rants in the Globe.

Why are you not supposed to speak about it?

It’s like discussing religion for some people.  You’re not supposed to question someone’s faith.  But in the academic world you can question facts and that’s the area that is being examined. For example, is there a paper trail showing that the man from Stratford was a writer? And the more you dig, the more you realize that there is no such trail. Apparently he never wrote a letter or even owned a book. That’s odd. The fact is that the man from Stratford was essentially a businessman, a producer in today’s sense. He was probably the front man for whoever did write the plays and he obviously made a lot of money on fronting for those plays. In fact, he never claimed to have written them nor did any of his descendants. I’ve done a course at York twice now on this subject.  I present evidence and let the students make up their own minds. This year, 90 per cent of the class chose someone else as the author.

Is there significant evidence of non-authorship?

A huge amount. I can’t speak about much of it here but let me tell you that York just purchased a film, done for PBS by two filmmakers in the States called, Last Will and Testament. It’s an absolutely brilliant film on this question. We premiered it at the conference. If you see this film, at the very least, at the end of it, you will say, “I have doubt.”  It’s available to view through York’s Sound and Moving Image library.

How did you go from wanting to be an actor to being an academic?

That’s always baffled me too. I started my life wanting to go into the theatre but I found ultimately that I enjoyed writing about the theatre more than I enjoyed actually performing. I got into criticism for a New York trade publication when I was 16, and I’ve been writing professionally about the theatre ever since.  That’s over 50 years. I started as a professional critic in New Haven, where a lot of new plays tried out before going on to Broadway. I enjoyed daily criticism.

How did you wind up in Canada?

As a grad student, my interest was in the new regional theatre system that was evolving across North America. On a number of occasions at conferences on this subject, I met a strange but wonderful man who was also interested in the same idea. His name was Nathan Cohen and he was the theatre critic for the Toronto Star. On a couple of occasions after a meeting he said to me, “There is a lot of theatre activity in Toronto these days, why don’t you come to Toronto and be my back up”? And at one point I finally said “Okay”.  At the same time York was just setting up its Theatre Department. The first person hired was Joe Green, and Joe was looking for people to teach certain courses the following year. In this case, Joe wanted the best theatre critic in the country – so he went to Nathan Cohen. Cohen told him, though, “I am not a teacher, I’m not a professor, I’m not a scholar, but I have this young guy named Rubin, whose done graduate work and some teaching. If you hire him I’ll come in and do some guest lectures”  So Joe hired me, and Nathan came in and did a number of lectures. He was a fascinating but really idiosyncratic speaker.  He’d often end his lectures with something totally outrageous.  Then lots of hands would go up, and he would say, “well I can’t stay around so Don will answer your questions.” A real learning experience for me as a teacher. I learned how to dance really quickly.

Who are your favourite playwrights?

The great modernists  — Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov. I love the very early plays of Ibsen and the very late plays of Ibsen. He was experimenting with form then. He was writing dreams, feelings, ideas. He wrote a ten-act play at one point called Emperor and Galilean.  He knew it would be totally impossible to put on. Peer Gynt and Brand are also huge that way. They are sister plays. Why did he write such long plays. Well he believed they would never be staged, so he just wrote and wrote and it didn’t matter how crazy they got. I love those plays as I love his very late plays like Hedda Gabler and When We Dead Awaken. Recently I saw a production in Europe of Hedda Gabler with five actresses playing Hedda simultaneously. Each Hedda had yards of hair trailing across the stage, tangling, twisting, moving. It was quite brilliant.

I also love a lot of the writing of Strindberg, plays like The Stronger and Miss Julie. I find his work fascinating.  His late work went totally away from Naturalism into a kind of Expressionism. My ultimate favourite play, however, is Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, a play usually butchered in production. I am not sure why but people seem to think that doing a Chekhov play or even seeing a Chekhov has to be like doing penance for a sin. “I  have to suffer and I am going to be in pain.” That’s not Chekhov. He created a whole new form of theatre—tragi-comedy. And the tragedy only works when you are laughing just as the comedy only works when you are crying.  It’s a doubleness and very hard to achieve in production. If people start out by saying, “This is a tragedy”, as Stanislavski himself did, the comedy won’t ever come through and there is a huge amount of it in Chekhov, especially in Cherry Orchard. If the production only exists on one level. It’s difficult to sit through. Chekhov was basically a very optimistic man, and he actually made a lot of money early in his life sending jokes into the Russian equivalent of Playboy magazine. I love The Cherry Orchard but, as I’ve suggested, it’s a play I usually dread seeing because that balance between comedy and tragedy is rarely there. I’ve seen some great productions of it, but I have seen many more terrible productions of it.

Any favourite Canadian playwrights?

I think one of the most under recognized playwrights in this country is Michael Cook. He’s a Newfoundland writer of extraordinary grace and power. He’s written in a variety of styles from one-person plays to sweeping epics that only the Stratford Festival could do. I believe that his work will be found again and that it will be produced widely. I also think a lot of George Ryga’s work. He wrote more than a dozen plays. Many have been almost totally ignored. They need to be rediscovered. In more contemporary terms, I like a lot of the work that Judith Thompson has done, particularly her early work. Some of Morris Panych’s work is quite brilliant as is a lot of Daniel Macivor’s work. In Quebec I find the work of Wajdi Mouwad really powerful.

Who were your models as a critic?

There are two—Eric Bentley and Robert Brustein. Both spent most of their careers moving between the academic world and professional criticism. Bentley taught at Columbia mostly; Brustein at Yale and Harvard. Bentley’s writing helped define modern drama. He was the one who first anthologized so much of what we think of today as the modern canon—Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Pirandello, Brecht.  He was also the person who first translated Brecht into English, who promoted Brecht in the English-speaking world. He was also a working critic early on. His writings on the nature of criticism really inspired me. He’s in his 90s now and he is still fighting.

Robert Brustein was a more direct inspiration for me. When I was a theatre critic in New Haven, Brustein was Dean of the Yale Drama School. I got to know him fairly well and he got to know my writing and he commented positively on it. That really helped me grow as a critic. I also watched him turn a rather moribund theatre department at Yale back into a world level theatre school. Under Brustein, it became a professional conservatory inside a university. They did some amazing work. He kept the same model when he moved to Harvard. The conservatory there is connected to Brustein’s company, the American Repertory Theatre (ART).  He was also critic for The New Republic magazine  in the States, and through his critical writing he helped redefine the American theatre and set an extraordinarily high standard for theatre criticism. He is also one of the great stylists as a critic and one of the great theatre thinkers, especially in the realms of modern theatre, and the relationship between theatre and society.

When you began your career here at York in the late ‘60s, did you ever envisage being here for five decades?

Not at all. I envisaged being in academe more like five years. When I started here in 1968, I was young and brash, determined to change the world. I really thought I would be here for a few years and then head back to the profession as a writer and critic.  But what York wanted back then was people who were actually working in the profession as their core faculty in each area. It was a very accommodating place and I was very excited by what I saw in those first years. Early on, the department encouraged several of us to start our own outlet for theatre criticism so that kept me around. We called it the York Theatre Journal  and it continued for about 15 years. The Scott Library has the whole run.  It contains some amazing stuff including interviews with people who were around here as visitors—Richard Schechner, Jan Kott,  Martin Esslin, Jerzy Grotowski, Arnold Wesker, George Ryga, Michael Cook. YTJ was the basis for the quarterly journal, Canadian Theatre Review, which was started in 1974 by myself and Ross Stuart. The opportunity to publish a journal for the profession kept me around even longer. And suddenly I sort of evolved into an academic. No one was more surprised than me about that. No one is more surprised than I am that I wound up being here as long as I have. I tell people who ask that I have been here since the beginning of time. But I have always loved the interaction with the students and the opportunities that the department gave me to write, to edit, to speak about the theatre in this country and around the world. It has been a wonderful and satisfying career for me. But York is changing and the department is changing and I know that it is time for me to move on to other things

Like what?

I do a lot of guest lectures at other universities.  I enjoy that.  The day that Fall classes end, for example, I am getting on a plane and going to Prague to lecture at Charles University  for two weeks. I am teaching in a graduate course they are doing there on Canadian theatre history. I am also supposed to lecture for the Czech association of theatre critics on the changing nature of theatre criticism as we move into the blogosphere and give another lecture for the Czech theatre research society on the World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre, a six volume series I did for Unesco here at York between 1985 and 2000. I will be discussing changes in research methodologies and the like. My wife will  also be giving some readings for their English Department.

Any new writing projects?

A few. I am putting together a volume of my collected essays on the Canadian theatre. I’ve been asked to do a memoir of my life in world theatre. I have a book of essays that I want to put together on Canadian playwrights like George Ryga, Michael Cook and Beverley Simons.  I am also working on a history of theatre criticism. I probably have more projects than years left to complete them, but I am going to give it a shot. I retire in two years. I’ll have even more time then.  At the moment, with all the teaching, my years are fairly crowded and a bit too busy sometimes.

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