Thursday, May 14, 2009

In Remembrance: Brooks McNamara

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All those popular entertainments that we associate with physical comedy — circus, pantomime, street performance, to name just a few — have always been the poor cousins of the so-called legitimate theatre. A few centuries back, when ruling royalty wanted to clamp down on public expression, they only granted theatrical licenses to a couple of theatres, relegating everything else to the streets and the fairground.

Conventional theatre history is often just the narrative of what was approved for performance at respectable houses such as Drury Lane and the Comédie Française, everything else a mere footnote. Great dramatic literature was indeed showcased at these theatres, but on the other side of the proverbial tracks an alternative tradition flourished, given the name commercial theatre, popular theatre, or even people’s theatre... all depending on who was doing the giving.

When I was at NYU, I was lucky enough to study with Brooks Mc Namara, a young professor who thought this alternative performance tradition worthy of consideration alongside the greats of drama and the trendy experiments of the post-modernists. His efforts were occasionally derided by colleagues who thought such pursuits trivial, but pursue Brooks did, teaching what I'm pretty damn sure was the first graduate-level course in Popular Entertainment and, over the course of several decades, inspiring countless students to take the field seriously.

Through his teaching, mentoring, scholarship, stewardship of the Schubert Archives, and a dozen or so excellent books, Brooks was the prime mover in bringing popular performance traditions into the mainstream of theatre scholarship. Readers of this blog would probably find a lot to like in his books, especially Step Right Up! An Illustrated History of the American Medicine Show and American Popular Entertainments: Jokes, Monologues, Bits, and Sketches.

We lost Brooks McNamara earlier this month after a long illness. He was my mentor at NYU, the man who turned me on to all kinds of possibilities, the man who taught me more about writing than anyone else. He was my editor for Clowns and I had looked forward to sharing this blog with him; in fact, this blog's banner is made from a vintage circus poster Brooks gave me as a wedding present. I know he would have been excited by the blog, but sometimes fate's timing is downright rotten.

One more word about Brooks, which has nothing to do with physical comedy and everything to do with basic human decency. During my years as a graduate student at NYU, I paid off my tuition by working as an assistant editor on TDR (The Drama Review), an NYU publication where Brooks was an associate editor. It was the early 70s, and everything was political. Vietnam and Watergate dominated the news, but power issues permeated grad school programs and theatre magazines as well. Disputes were common and I was involved in more than my fair share of them (okay, maybe I was a bit of a hothead back then). Brooks usually ended up as the arbitrator, and unfailingly he did what was right while at the same time showing political smarts well beyond my youthful abilities. In other words, when push came to shove, a good man. He will be missed.

Update: My friend Arnie Aronson has written a very nice tribute to Brooks, with more biographical information, which you can find here.

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