To focus some thoughts on current trends in American theatrical style—as distinct from play writing—it may help to use a telescoping lens to zero in on a classic play, not itself American. The play I have in mind is one that was recently produced not in the bazaars of New York but in one of our more influential “regional” companies, the entire production directed and designed by established hands at drumbeating for the New. When I learned that Robert Brustein was opening a run at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge of Middleton and Rowley’s 1622 tragedy The Changeling, directed by himself and designed by Michael Yeargan, and that (Amtrak volente) I would be able to get to it, I made plans. After all, I know the play well: I directed it in 1973 and published a long piece of scholarly criticism on it two years later. What is more, my attraction to mounting the play in the first place was in part stimulated by the wretchedness of Elia Kazan’s stab at it in 1964, at the then-nascent Lincoln Center Rep, and thus by my overall concurrence with Brustein’s ruthless review in The New Republic. So The Changeling is an old friend.

I have never met Brustein, but I have loosely followed (and sometimes cheered on) his self-advertised career ever since I joined in the student agitation that ended up bringing him as dean to the Yale School of Drama in 1966, the year I took my degree and left. In none of my subsequent visits to his theaters at Yale or Harvard, however, have I managed to see a production directed by him. The recent production of The Changeling gave me a chance to view his efforts through a telescopic lens.

The first thing A.R.T.’s Changeling did was to fog it over with plain mediocrity. The acting (except for competent performances in a couple of secondary roles) did not even merit that most tepid of put-downs, “adequate.” And the inadequacy was manifestly not the whole—or even chief—fault of the earnest, hardworking actors. Rather, it seeped outward from a wetly limp handling by Brustein himself of character development, language, and blocking. I knew something was wrong at the very first group-entrance, when I heard the unmistakable guffaws and hoots of Michael Benthall’s “whooping gentlemen” of the 1950’s-style Old Vic: that noisy, vacuous jollity by which ill-defined characters are got on and off stage by directors at a loss to suggest why they are coming and going. Something was awry indeed.

For in the script we have a remarkable play in which “change”—moral, psychological, and tonal—is a key motif Brustein himself makes much of this in his program note. At the play’s center is a sort of spoiled ingenue, Beatrice Joanna, in whose mouth butter would keep as unctuously icy as her self-centered concern for her own “honor,” and as hard as the insults she pipes at her father’s ugly sycophant, De Flores. Dismissing the man betrothed to her because she has fallen in love with a handsome newcomer, Beatrice elevates her romantic whim to an imperative. She cajoles the convenient De Flores (when she at last stops abusing him for his unpleasant looks) into murdering the inconvenient fiancé. De Flores, writhing in lust and resentment, does so. He then demands her maidenhead as payment. Horrified, the Beauty gives in to the Beast’s blackmail, so as to preserve her worshiped reputation as well as her new betrothal.

Middleton’s brilliant twist is to have Beatrice grow really to love De Flores: After the two have contrived to hoodwink the virginity-obsessed new husband and murder an untrustworthy lady-in-waiting, Beatrice tells De Flores, “I’m forced to love thee now, ‘Cause thou provid’st so carefully for my honor.” Tainted love does not redeem the Beast but depraves the flawed Beauty. Once discovered, the pair die in a messy murder-suicide that merely disgusts Beatrice’s honor-bound father and her betrayed husband.

But in the A.R.T. production we have a Beatrice whose downward trajectory is nearly all a matter of “emblematic” costume changes (white, to white-with-a-red-panel-between-the-legs, to black and decollete). From her first entrance she is informal, brassy, at times even vulgar, played by a young actress who—with sufficient improvement in stage skill—could develop the style of Ann Bancroft. Brustein apparently did nothing to help her communicate the wellborn, pampered, proper, and irresponsibly willful Beatrice that the play demands at its outset. Far worse is the A.R.T. treatment of De Flores, by an accomplished farce-actor. He reveals no “character” at all—no humiliation under Beatrice’s contempt, no self-loathing to wrestie with his vindictive lustfulness, nothing but a suite of Minsky one-liners (read as if by a David Burns trying to play Jim in TaXi) and sleek, Nosferatu-like posturings. (The Nosferatu image must have been recognized in rehearsal. At one point, Beatrice tries to ward him off with the cross hung round her neck. He tears it from her and stamps on it. But in the next scene, she has it back on, undamaged, so what is the point?)

In my program I jotted a note to the effect that Brustein seems to have blocked the play solely to get a halfdozen good still photographs for lobby display. Then I walked out to the lobby during intermission to find that the tableau that had prompted my note was in fact the poster photo. There were a good half-dozen striking tableaux in the show, as well as some classy entrances by De Flores. In between them, desultory wandering and gestural cliche. There was no more sense of the meaningful choreography often implicit in Middleton and Rowley’s scene construction than of the meanings often conveyed by the dialogue’s metrical rhythms. Brustein’s long-held conviction that American actors need an “American” style with English classical drama evidently extends to distrusting the English dramatists to know how iambic verse can delimit, and hence direct, the actor’s palette of possible emphases.

I do not mean to quibble. I do mean to try to beat my way through the fog of the production’s ineptitude to clarify what I think is behind its offhand amateurishness. For, even having multiplied instances great and small of Brustein’s indifference to communicating character, nuance of meaning, and moral “change,” we must ask what did command his interest? I think the answer is locatable in the set, in one of the pantomimic sequences, and in the presence onstage of a pair of young female supernumeraries. The former was a fine job of work, up to a point; the latter two revealed a derangement indicative of everything that critics seem to mean by “postmodern.”

Yeargan’s set was inspired by an M.C. Escher engraving: a shadow box of elusive geometry and inverted staircases, serving the play’s motif of smooth yet nightmarish “concealment.” But Yeargan translated his theme into stainless steel and backlighted glass, in the same chic blend of art deco, japonaiserie, and storewindow display that has marked his work for a decade. Upstage center loomed a large, blood-red moon that waxed and waned through the course of the play. A decorative nightscape of stars and a whirling-mirror effect for two ghostly appearances each contributed its due pizazz. In sum, the play’s Spanish castle was a chill hybrid of the technicolor “novel” scenes inset in Paul Schrader’s Mishima film and a space station belonging to Darth Vader.

On set, the characters (leather-clad, reptilian) seemed as decorative and impermeable as its stainless steel posts and beams. They were neither “Spanish” nor “Jacobean,” of course. When Brustein tackled the pantomime wedding of Beatrice and her new husband, we were treated to some slow-motion diablerie: a roomful of ghostwalkers, hands upturned like rabbinical King Tuts, underwent an inexplicable rite conducted by a black-hooded penitente. My point is not merely the rite’s strangeness. In “inventing” a creepy marriage ceremony out of a jumble of unrelated iconic gestures, the director utterly quashed the true irony of the scene: the familiar, festive, seemingly optimistic wedding of a girl already poisoned by murder and betrayal. If there is no recognizable sacrament, there can be no blasphemy. But Brustein has had a soft spot for counterfeit “black Masses” ever since his 1975 Don Juan.

This Changeling is not located in a recognizable European culture at all, not even in a rigid, patriarchal, vindictive one. It is a collage of free-floating “ideas” about Male Dominance; ideas, moreover, held by artists who seem not even to be in genuine sympathy with the woman in the case. Yet it is not intellectually coherent enough to be allegory, and neither impassioned nor “political” enough to aim at the mark set by nightmare-fancying German Expressionists. It is a storewindow display, for a boutique of cultural alienations.

Vermandero, the castle’s lord and Beatrice’s father, goes everywhere accompanied by two young ladies dressed in white. Since we learn early in the play that Beatrice is his only daughter, these two ubiquitous teenagers remain a source of mystery: Who on earth are they? Then, late in the play during a predawn fire alarm, we learn: they are Vermandero’s bed companions, both of them. Beatrice’s father, the iron-willed overseer of his daughter’s reputation, comes equipped, publicly, with a brace of Lolitas. Never mind plausibility in even the most corrupt of Mediterranean Christian cultures: Male Authority Figures Are Slavers of Women—and, ipso facto, lecherous old crocks into the bargain.

And so the weirdly scholarly and naive Alsemero, Beatrice’s straitlaced husband, turns into a vulgar wifebeater as soon as he learns of her derelichon. He mops the floor up with her, in a Punch-and-Judy show that serves to deflect totally the horrific, unhinging shock he has undergone.

Tomaso, the vengeful brother of the murdered fiancé, adds to the scripted horrors of the final murder-suicide an unscripted burst of violence: he castrates the dead De Flores. (Why? De Flores only killed his brother; he did not rape him.) Actually, Tomaso saws off De Flores’s stuffed codpiece, a turn of Grand Guignol that would be silly if it were not repellent, or repellent if it were not silly.

And so Brustein, who has lucidly written of The Changeling‘s “profound psychology,” eschews both psychology and profundity in a production that is strikingly decorative, occasionally startling, opaquely superficial, and deathly cold. Brustein also has written of the play’s “cloudy ethical construct.” Had he really entered into its moral world (approve of that world or no), he would have found nothing cloudy but his own “postmodern” reflexes. It is not the clumsy acting that finally puts one off; nor is it even the production’s sleekness. It is the radical alienation of the company from Middleton’s ethical milieu—which is to say, the milieu (for all the extreme and unbalanced elements that Middleton chose to examine) of historic civilization, including its presumptive values of marital chastity, honesty, and parental authority.

Twenty-one years ago in a Partisan Review article, Leslie Fiedler pinned the label “the new mutants” on a coming generation whose deracination seemed to him to be total. The mutants are now holding the theatrical mirror up to our society of yuppies, sado-feminists, and “respectable” cokesnorters, and the images they reveal, even in productions of classics, combine into a theater of what critic Elinor Fuchs has celebrated as “postness.” “We are post-industrial,” she crooned in an article of a couple of years ago, “post-capitalist, post-humanist, postapocalyptic, even post-cognitive.”

We might prefer the old changelings, who were merely madmen.