“I don’t really think that studying literature, or art or the humanities serves any practical purpose whatsoever,” said Enoch Brater, University English and Theatre professor and Kenneth T. Rowe Collegiate Professor of Dramatic Literature. “What it does do is open your mind in a way that will stay with you for the rest of your life.”
There are many different ways to define art — music, drama, literature, painting, sculpture, dance … the list is conceivably endless. However, few people have had a career as prolific as Brater, who has made an art form out of art appreciation itself. As a renowned scholar of playwrights Samuel Beckett and Arthur Miller, he has spent the past 37 years explaining the unique artistry of Beckett, Miller and the eponymous Shakespeare to University students and academia at large. He has also had seven books published about these playwrights, as well as countless essays and chapters printed in other anthologies.
“Drama is a collaborative art. Writing as a collaborator, as a director, as an actor, as a scene designer, you become part of a group when you write a play,” he explained. “I find that dynamic very alive, very human, very open, with lots and lots of potential.”
Brater majored in English at New York University and eventually moved on to Harvard University. There, he was a jack of all trades, earning a Ph.D in English and also participating in the Harvard Dramatic Club, directing and acting with famed performers, including John Lithgow and Tommy Lee Jones. He also found time to learn French, Italian and Spanish, though he said this almost as an afterthought to his other accomplishments.
“I did lots of acting and directing, but I was always surrounded by a group of people who were much more talented then I was,” Brater admitted with a laugh. “Of course, they went on to have huge careers in the theater and film, and I became a professor of drama.”
Though he has had the opportunity to teach at both Harvard and University of Pennsylvania, his enthusiasm for Michigan is refreshing.
“Michigan is great. I cannot imagine having a career for so long at another university. Michigan has a lot of self-confidence about itself,” he said. “There is no pretension here that you still have in the Ivy League. And that can get in the way of learning.”
Brater continued that he appreciates how his profound love of learning (as a self-professed, life-long nerd) is reflected with such enthusiasm and engagement in University students.
“One of the things that I learned when I first came to Michigan that impressed me about Michigan students is that if they don’t know something, they will raise their hand and ask you.”
His extended dedication to the University has also afforded him many enviable opportunities, in particular the chance to foster a personal relationship with Arthur Miller, celebrated playwright and alum.
“Arthur Miller was an extremely unpretentious person,” Brater said. “He would talk to the President or the street cleaner in the same way. And I admire that lack of pretension, I think it’s a remarkable thing.”
Brater illustrates an incredible part of attending the University. As students from very diverse backgrounds and academic cultures, we have the valuable opportunity of learning from professors who have personal relationships with the very subjects they are teaching about. Brater believes this opportunity goes both ways.
“The idea of sharing one’s interest and enthusiasm with very bright and enthusiastic young students is terrific. There is nothing like it.”