Robert Brustein's theater reviews in the New Republic invigorated American criticism.
Like New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, Brustein wrote with idiosyncratic passion, commitment to artistic rigor and an openness to non-conventional performances.
Brustein, who founded influential repertory theaters at Yale and Harvard, died Sunday at age 96 at his home in Cambridge, Mass.
The dean of the Yale School of Drama from 1966-1979 and founder of Harvard's Institute for Advanced Theater Training, Brustein developed the careers of acclaimed actors and playwrights Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken, Cherry Jones, Sigourney Weaver, James Naughton, James Lapine, Tony Shalhoub, Linda Lavin, Adam Rapp, William Ivey Long, Steve Zahn, Wendy Wasserstein, David Mamet and Peter Sellars.
As the controversial dean of Yale's Drama School, he founded the Yale Repertory Theater, which drew attention for its experimental performances.
After years of criticism from detractors, Brustein left Yale when new President A. Bartlett Giamatti decided not to renew his contract.
Brustein found a home at Harvard as an English professor, founding the American Repertory Theater and the Institute for Advanced Theater Training, a two-year graduate program.
During his career, Brustein engaged in feuds with The New York Times' Frank Rich and other competing critics. He also battled major playwrights August Wilson and Samuel Beckett.
In 1984, Beckett threatened to sue to stop the American Repertory Theater's production of his "Endgame" because Brustein added a musical overture by Philip Glass and changed the setting specified in Beckett's stage notes. The main issue was Brustein's elimination of two windows from the set.
Beckett allowed the production to proceed, writing a condemnation of the production for the program.
Brustein and Wilson participated in a two-and-a-half hour debate in 1997 at New York City's Town Hall Theater over Wilson's call for an exclusively all-black theater. Brustein opposed Wilson's contention that only black actors could perform in his plays, and that women shouldn't play traditional male roles.
Another controversy rose when Brustein castigated regional theater companies for developing plays that later advanced to Broadway. Brustein believed that regional companies' main purpose was to give performances of theatrical merit, not serve as tryout venues for the New York stage.
His advocacy for regional theater led to a new vitality for local companies, which mounted more daring productions of plays and encouraged unknown playwrights.
Brustein also wrote the well-regarded plays "Nobody Dies on Friday," "The Face Lift," "Spring Forward, Spring Back" and the Shakespeare trilogy "The English Channel," "Mortal Terror" and "The Last Will."
With his combative spirit and original views, Brustein changed the course of American theater.