Swans Commentary » swans.com July 2, 2012  



The Boy Wonder Peter Brook Is 87


by Peter Byrne





(Swans - July 2, 2012)   Peter Brook, born in 1925, has been throwing out the bathwater since the early 1960s. But the baby we see in the film his son Simon made of him in 2001 is a laughing senex, shrunken and lined, but in no danger of going down the drain. He has not disappeared a decade later, but neither has he stopped shedding his skin and moving on. In January 2011 he left Les Bouffes du Nord, the Parisian theatre that (after stripping it to its 1876 walls) he ran for thirty-six years. He then followed his production of The Magic Flute, (also cut back to its structural skeleton) out into the larger world. Simon Brook's Brook By Brook has been appropriately put on the same DVD as The Tragedy of Hamlet, the film of Brook's pared-down and reshuffled 2001 production of the play of plays. (The 203-minute DVD was published by Quantum Leap in 2002 and by Arte France Development in 2004.)

In the documentary film, Brook confides in Simon who, struck dumb by the thought that the great man is also his father, stands in for the rest of us. Brook merrily sets about eliminating his outer layers just as he did for Hamlet. He was never a collector, he tells us, collecting being all about the past. He has scant time for what's already happened because he's so busy with what's happening next. We don't have to take his word for that since Simon's camera shows us Brook at work with actors. Nothing is more of the moment than an actor acting. The most telling image of the film is director Brook's inescapable eye fixed on one of his performers.

Brook keeps quiet while the actor works out his own solution because such, he tells us, is his way in directing. The actor must be allowed to reach the end of the path that he's chosen for himself. Talk comes afterward. One can't help feeling, however, that the riveted gaze, more intense than any words, has got into the actor's head. Afterward, also, comes much discussion, some provocation, and constant participation on the director's part. Brook, no athlete and a self-confessed cowardly swimmer, nevertheless has always taken part in all of his troupe's many, often physically-taxing exercises.

As Brook reveals to son Simon what he feels mattered in his life, we realize that Michael Kustow's 2005 Peter Brook: A Biography isn't his bedside reading. (2005, Bloomsbury, ISBN 0 7475 7913 X, 334 pages.) Indispensable as that rich study may be for theatre lovers, Brook himself suggests to Simon a leaner (more cut) version of his life with fewer (the knife again) but more momentous high points.

He doesn't dawdle over his boy-wonder period that began in 1943 when he was 18 and directed Doctor Faustus. His manic thrust would continue for two decades in London, New York, and Paris, as he shuttled between the merely glamorous and the great plays of the repertory. He would direct some of the world's best actors, many of them his father's or even his grandfather's age: John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness, Orson Welles, and the Lunts. At 25 he was director of productions at the Covent Garden Opera. Starting so young, he had been able to hobnob with historical figures like Gordon Craig, George Bernard Shaw, Barry Jackson, Aleister Crowley, Salvador Dalí, and George Balanchine. He even got in a few words with young Fidel Castro in 1953.

Brook's eyes light up when he mentions Peter Hall's inviting him in 1961 to work with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He only accepted because of the proviso that he would have complete independence in running an experimental unit. This resulted in the 1964 Theatre of Cruelty Season that he directed with Charles Marowitz. It was new beginning. There would be another he fondly remembered in 1970 when with Micheline Rozan he founded the International Centre for Theatre Research. Multinational but based in Paris, the group traveled in 1971-73 in the Middle East, Africa, and the USA. At Persepolis they entertained the Shah of Persia's wife. In California they fraternized with El Teatro Campesino.

We are startled by Brook's remarking to Simon that he was more of a traveler than a man of the theatre. Before we get our breath back he has upped the ante and announced with a contented smile that he didn't need the theatre at all and could happily lead a life far from it. He doesn't say how such a life would be passed. His reflection, however, perfectly suits the guru status he has acquired. The teaching of Georgi Ivanovitch Gurdjieff that captivated Brook had it that there were many persons within us and we ought to let them all romp free. This was license for re-launches without end. Brook affections Sufi ways and no Sufi master would shut himself up in a single art or in anything less vast than all of life and the whole globe. No surprise that Simon shows his father sniffing flowers out in "la grande nature." However, most of Peter Brook's life has been spent under theatre roofs and, in the main, his travels have consisted of hurrying from one stage to the next. In our personal slide show we will continue to see him in his theatre hat imparting know-how to respectful actors by means of his unique stare.

Another event Brook doesn't wish to forget is his installation in 1974 of the International Centre in a dilapidated music hall in a rundown part of Paris. Simon's camera does full justice to the venerable Bouffes du Nord. Brook tells us how every scar on its nineteenth century walls has contributed to each of his productions there. We think of what he said in younger days, before he grew wary of the sententious: "Tradition itself, in times of dogmatism and dogmatic revolution, is a revolutionary force which must be safeguarded."

Brook, floating before Simon's camera, recalls his Midsummer Night's Dream, when the characters directing the drama swung about with grace high above the earthy action below. He could be taken for a Buddha who has kept his weight down. Good humor never leaves his face. No complications ever twist and turn in what he tells us. He has reduced the world and its creatures to a sunny simplicity. No wonder some of his international public see him as a magus, a shaman of the footlights. "Special one" status came to Brook early. When he brought his King Lear to New York in 1964, his collaborator Charles Marowitz wrote: "I couldn't disguise a sense of disgust over what had become not only 'a hit' and a succès d'estime but a historical event in English theatre... The show had become not an imaginative, brilliantly executed, somewhat flawed and erratic Shakespearian production but a 'milestone'."

By 2012 the applause for Brook has grown so loud that we are tempted for the sake of balance or from simple bloodymindedness to play devil's advocate and quote a naysayer. In 2002, prominent playwright David Hare delivered a lecture on John Osborne, extolling that writer's tenacity in thanklessly attacking a hostile British cultural establishment. "He did not," said Hare, "like Peter Brook, go into exile, and set about draining plays of any specific meaning or context to a point where each became the same play -- a universal hippy babbling which represents fright of commitment."

Hare began his career in 1970 at 23 with the Royal Court Theater where the playwrights of the English Stage Company, including John Osborne, were closing the gap between theatre and life. Brook showed little interest in these writers and when he did direct one of their plays, the radical John Arden's, it was in French and tipped away from politics.

Brook had never gone along with "The Theatre of Fact" trend although he had promoted Rolf Hochhuth's very "committed" plays and Peter Weiss's The Investigation, which accused Pius XII of Nazi sympathies. "You can never get to the facts," said Brook, "I'd rather call it the theatre of myth." The "limits of political theatre" came home to him in 1965 when he directed the anti-Vietnam War play US. The left criticized him for going beyond protest, refusing to take up a clear position. Critic Kenneth Tynan called the production vague and general, not precise and specific. Thenceforth Brook's watchword became a line from Coriolanus, "There is a world elsewhere." For him that world was spiritual. In 1968 he was rehearsing his troupe in Paris and saw the student revolt as a tiresome interruption of his theatrical research.

One of the reasons Brook left Britain was because of its supposedly "common sense" approach and readiness to dismiss what it didn't comprehend as "airy mysticism." In a reply to Hare he quite rightly denied that he was always presenting the same play. He went on to say that he no longer believed in "debates, pamphlets, statements and pseudo-Brechtian speeches." He only believed in action that could be immediately effective such as combating racism by not casting only white actors. He thought that both the "mythic" and the "everyday" perspectives could contribute to the only thing the theatre could do: "increase for a moment the quality of our awareness." This was clearly not ambitious enough for Hare who, moreover, like many theatre people in Britain, had never forgiven Brook, the most brilliant director of his generation, for moving abroad.

Brook has been on a very personal search that he never saw as self-centered. "Our point of departure was necessarily ourselves. But to avoid going round in dangerously narcissistic circles, it is vital that we rest on something bigger and stronger coming from outside." However, it's hard to see how his pursuit of individual purity -- a kind of spiritual perfection -- could avoid a preoccupation with himself. Brook thought it could be avoided by extending his search to other cultures and leaping over racial divides. His project became a seeking of the common features that even the most diverse cultures shared: "The pre-expressive substrata that underlie cultural stereotypes and imitations." Most cultural theorists considered this idea of universality naive and groundless.

On a practical level it's questionable whether "universalism" even worked within the walls of the Bouffes du Nord. Though the theatre invited the whole world in and maintained a lively curiosity for places beyond England and France, it inevitably operated within a framework of Parisian thinking. The troupe consisted over time of actors from the seven continents. However, they usually performed in French or English, their native languages rarely figuring in finished work. When in The Tragedy of Hamlet the Player King recites the Hecuba speech in the original Greek we are edified but not informed.

Peter Brook may have had Russian-Jewish parents, but he all the same was a Londoner who moved 212 miles to live in Paris. Spurred by his lifelong interest in Gurdjieff he was attracted by non-European cultures, and particularly by their esoteric side. But it's hard to see his interest in Persia, Africa, or India as anything but what Edward Said called Orientalism. Adopting elements of foreign acting traditions was not new for Western directors. It was not even new when Meyerhold and Brecht did it. They merged their borrowings into a style. But simplifying and cutting to the core has become Brook's style. In the end, watching his theatre we don't feel the richness of world theatre; we feel one man's idea of aesthetic perfection.

Maybe that is all that any director, even the best, can ever give us. Indeed, such was the reply Brook fell back on when his The Mahabharata was judged by Indians to have missed all of the mighty epic's dimensions save its narrative drive. That was more than enough, he replied, the theatre's only job was to produce an experience of the highest quality for its public.

On the Brook case it's dangerous to play the devil's advocate. The reckless nitpicker risks being crushed by the weight of Brook's accomplishments. Nonetheless, British theatre would be impoverished without the strong current represented by David Hare and his kind. Some must leave and some must stay at home. Some struggle with the morning news while others float off toward eternity. Despite the apparent Brook-Hare polarization a cross fertilization has never stopped. It ought to continue.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published July 2, 2012