The Theater of Peter Brook

By Geoffrey Heptonstall, March 31, 2016

A scene from Peter Brook's Mahabharata

A scene from Peter Brook’s Mahabharata

Geoffrey Heptonstall on the unique talent and genius of theater director Peter Brook, from his early ground-breaking productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream and Conference of the Birds up to the uncluttered simplicity of his latest work.

One day in his Moscow hotel Peter Brook received a slightly alarming telephone call. A Russian speaking English questioned him about his family. His parents, were they not emigrés after the Revolution? Brook nervously confirmed this, immediately adding that he was a British citizen, London born. The voice on the telephone began to laugh. ‘It’s OK,’ he said, ‘I’m not KGB. I’m your cousin. And I also am a theater director.’ Valentin Pluchek, who had worked with Meyerhold, was for many years director of the Moscow Satire Theater. As the name suggests, it was a theatre that took risks in a society suspicious even at the best of times of all those who took risks. The cousins had much in common.

Born in London of Latvian Jewish parents, Peter Brook presents himself as at once so quintessentially English while being deeply cosmopolitan. A formidable interpreter of Shakespeare, Brook has never been content simply to present even a suggestion of pageantry. A major achievement was his Midsummer Night’s Dream [Royal Shakespeare Company 1970]. In Brook’s theater there has been no pastoral idyll of Merrie England, but, rather, an exploration of the violent, the erotic, and the strange contained within an imagination fired by an extraordinarily rich vocabulary.

There is nothing decorous or grand in the theater of Peter Brook. He has spoken of the theater as an empty space. That space he can occupy with performance. Brook’s Dream plays inside a white box. Neutrality is the mode. The cast wear white. There is nothing traditional. There are no lodestones of the familiar Shakespearian mode of enacting the words. They are floating in space, the actors and the words. Perhaps the action is within the director’s mind.

The Shakespearian imagination for Brook is a cabinet with infinite recesses  To speak, as we may do, of ‘Brook’s Dream’ is to speak of Shakespeare cleansed of all that has gone before in centuries of tradition. The text of an unknown play lands on the director’s desk. There is no precedent for how it might be presented. The way is open to consider the script as the key to what is not written but secreted behind the words themselves. It is a play where the magical shadows the mundane. It is a play of romantic dalliance and absurd transformations. And in both there is the hint of a dangerous edge.

Peter Brook

Peter Brook

Dreams are images that do not make rational sense. There is, as Brook has said ‘a play behind the play.’ It must not be taken at face value. The fairies are not fey creatures of child-like whimsy. They are powerful presences whose interventions in human affairs are life-changing. It follows from this that there is danger within the charms. The tricks Puck plays have their sinister side. A malevolence lurks within his seemingly innocent playfulness.

That, we may speculate, is a possible description of what happens in theatre. To make illusions is to deceive. Is deception ever an entirely innocent act? Can any human drama be concerned with innocence when drama is the enactment of conflict? A theatre is for Brook an empty space. It is not entirely sacred nor necessarily profane. It is void of all experience. In that sense there is an innocence in the unpeopled, unfurnished space of a stage. But this void is somewhere where anything is possible. That includes the bad as well as the good.

Theater often works by exploring the ambivalence in human affairs. Distinguishing the good from the bad is what a play may do, but only when all subtleties and ambiguities are explored. Giving a lecture, Brook once had the unexpected luck to find a member of the audience with no knowledge of King Lear. He asked her to read aloud one of Lear’s daughter’s speeches of insincere flattery. Not knowing its context, she read the speech straight. Her reading sounded utterly sincere. This unaffected sincerity made the words the more chilling for those aware of the hypocrisy of the speech’s actual meaning within the play.

What the audience member achieved naturally the actor playing Lear’s daughter must seek to portray by the deliberate artifice of acting. It is a common experience of actors to find the first reading of a script is spontaneously effective. That effect is then lost and must be rediscovered in the painstaking rehearsal process. The empty space is an opportunity and a challenge.

Unchallenging theater – the deadly theater Brook calls it – is the more deadly for being a comfortable space where continuity and reassurance are guaranteed. An audience may have certain expectations of theater. They may expect to be amused by the kind of wit that flatters an audience by the shared references which induce a sense of cultural superiority. For Brook this is a betrayal of the capacity of theater to astonish. Boulevard theater with star names sustains complacency when the task of art is to penetrate the surface and see what may be found in the deeps of human emotion.

For Brook there lurks far below primeval forces that might surface at any time. We fool ourselves if we do not see that civilization is a very thin crust. The primitive and the savage reside in us undeniably. His interest lies very much in ritual. Theater began in the rites of ancient mysteries. The enacted myths of antiquity are the foundations of theater. It is a secular art that is never far from the sacred [or the sacrilegious].

Brook, who began directing in his teens, has retained over many decades the reputation of an enfant terrible. Significantly, his best known work to a general audience is his film of Lord of the Flies [1963]. From there it was an obvious step to the play and film of the Marat/Sade [1966/67], a bizarre, true tale of the Marquis de Sade’s staging in an asylum his re-enactment of the murder of Jean-Paul Marat, the French revolutionary leader. An obvious choice? Only for one not content with realist conventions. To many this bizarre choice of play offered too many challenges to accepted notions of taste and decorum in the theatre and in wider society. This tale of violence and madness had an air of conscious perversity, a defiance of what makes for a serious reputation. Was this what the Royal Shakespeare Company was founded for?

The answer has to be yes or you will read no further. The answer is yes because the rational, civilized world that needs its poetry also needs its acceptance of the primeval swamp not far below the city streets. On a midsummer night you may wander into an enchanted forest. There you may see the distorted mirror of truth. Marat/Sade is a reflection of theater, a reflection distorted by the intense magnification that expels reason in favour of extreme emotions, forbidden and unacceptable emotions.

It is no surprise to find that Brook was falling under the spell of Antonin Artaud whose Theater of Cruelty was such a controversial influence on theater after the Twentieth Century totalities of dictatorship and war. Artaud called for ‘a communion between actor and audience… to form a language, superior to words, which can be used to undermine thought and logic thus to to shock the spectator into seeing the lowly nature of his world.’ Such a form of theater will not flatter its audience. It will not lightly entertain. There will be no laughter of reassurance. We are required to look into the distorting mirror to see the distortion is closer to reality than we had supposed. And, yes, that is cruel.

We may question its necessity and its truth. For Brook it is true, but not the whole truth. It is, however, a necessary means of reaching out to the truth. And what is that? For Brook it was to be found, if it could be found, in a universal language of theater. If such a language existed it would be common to all cultures, to all experiences. Preconceptions based on our cultural conditioning would have to be purged from the consciousness of anyone seeking to discover the basic human communication of theater.

Brook’s Dream in the white box presented both a departure and a ne plus ultra. The ties with Stratford were loosening as Brook journeyed with a scratch company into tribal Africa searching for the undiscovered and perhaps perpetually elusive essence of theater. Brook came out with an awareness that the words and gestures of theater reach deeply into the human psyche. All theater is a dream. A dream is a chaotic affair, a jumble of unconnected images with often impenetrable meanings or with no meaning at all. It is the task of the dramatic creator/interpreter to discover the order beyond the chaos, the play behind the play.

Discovering this requires something more than a theory of what theater is. Brook has observed: ‘When the theory is put into words the door is opened to confusion.’ Yet the opening of doors is what has to be done. Making sense of confusion is a matter of practicalities, of experiment in the living world of theater. The theory – that is, the purpose – remains in the background. What matters is what works on stage, what fills the empty space.

England was too cluttered a space with too many associations and memories. Brook’s wanderings eventually led to Paris, a city where he had first worked years before. It seemed natural that Paris was to become his permanent home and the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord the resident space of Peter Brook. ‘Flayed raw by time, weather and human destruction’ was Brook’s description of the old playhouse in an unfashionable quarter. He did nothing to restore it, preferring by conscious choice the rough and ready state of a place where imagination could transform decay into art. There with his ensemble of international players began the serious task of making real the possibilities of a theater without the bounds of tradition and order.

One January in the late Seventies Jean-Claude Carrière received a request from Peter Brook. Could he write something? Of course. For the Avignon Festival that summer? It would have to be something exceptional, something startling. Expectations of a major Peter Brook production were always high. The director himself demanded the best of others as he did of himself. What was required was something masterly to be delivered in a matter of weeks. Could it be done? Of course.

Carrière, a long term collaborator with Brook, had worked with the surrealist master Bunuel and the Chaplinesque mime artist Pierre Etaix. One can rely on Carrière to write something unusual and interesting, and to produce it quickly. His astonishingly prolific output of plays and film scripts indicate a mind that can adapt itself quickly, and a pen that can write as fast as the mind can think. None the less, he found the commission a formidable request. He produced on time exactly what Brook wished for. Of course.

The Conference of the Birds is a classic of Sufic literature, an allegory by the medieval Persian Farīd al-DīnʿAṭṭār. Brook’s interest in the fabulous and other-worldly developed by way of explorations into the work of the Russian mystic Gurdjieff. Beyond the rational and the material, beyond the obvious realities lay other possibilities and imagined worlds containing their alternative but undeniable truths. Brook was opening the door secreted in the wall that everyone passes every day without looking.

One secret chamber opens to another. The process is limited only by the capacity of a human mind to imagine. The birds seek a mysterious god. When they find him at last what they see is a mirror. At the end of the search it is the self that we see. Far from being an exercise in self-love, it is an exercise in self-discovery, a stripping bare of vanity and illusion.

In other words, the paradox of theatre is that by pretence we perceive reality. This may make no sense, yet it makes perfect sense. The hyper-rationality of the material world surrenders to the intuitions of the mind at large in the universe. It was Shakespeare’s perception that language is metaphor, that we understand one thing in terms of another. It is Brook’s perception that we understand through a language that is beyond words. He is by no means the first to perceive this, but his singular contribution is to articulate the vision in our time and our situation. His theater is universal. His theater is present here and now.

Brook has noted how a production can remain in the repertoire about five years. After that the expressions and gestures and the general look and feel of the piece begin to take on a dated, faded appearance. Style and manner changes subtly so that social life takes on a different character. We only think there is continuity when the truth is that change is perpetual.

Tellingly, however, Brook chose to call his autobiography The Threads of Time. Through the labyrinth of change may be found those threads that guide us. Life is not chaos. There are meanings and purposes to be found in the tensions, disorder and violence. Reflecting on Brook, Sartre wrote of ‘the crisis of the imagination in the theater’ Sartre’s concern was that the theater cannot change the course of events in the political world. But, he seems to imply, it can change the consciousness of individuals not only as individuals but as active participants in society.

That, surely, has been Brook’s hope. Respecting the intelligence of his audience always has been a primary concern. Art is no place for the social and/or moral evangelist whose objective is to achieve assent to a point of view. A theatrical production offers a point of view that may hone its audience members’ own perceptions in a variety of ways. There is no single correct response just as there is no single correct interpretation.

On the other hand, there has to be a point of view. Brook has written: ‘For a point of view to have any useful purpose, you have to be completely committed to it and defend it to the death. And this even when a little voice is murmuring inside you at the same time “hold on tightly, let go lightly”.’ Behind a successful Peter Brook production lies the unseen but authoritative hand of a director with both an artistic vision and a considered sense of purpose. The signature is unmistakably personal. The problem Brook faces is that his vision of performance is that of the creative auteur. The script is by another hand, but the expression is primarily Peter Brook’s. What we see is seen through his eyes.

But even if our perception blends with his own we are not required to give uncritical assent. He throws down a challenge. I have seen Brook deeply contemptuous of an interviewer who was, he said, making the questions too easy. Performance is a two-way process. We are invited to consider what is happening on stage. We are expected to participate. We are meant to feel and to think. We must rise not in the spirit of adulation but of challenge. Passively accept him and he walk away disappointed.

Brook does not seem to have replied specifically to Sartre’s comment on the ‘crisis of imagination’, but generally the challenge offered by Sartre is one that Brook took up very early in his career. Brook was one of the first to stage Sartre’s dramatic works in English translation. Something he clearly admired in Sartre was the stress laid on the authenticity of one’s beliefs and actions. This is distinct as a moral precept from sincerity, for we can be sincere but mistaken. To be authentic is to be conscious of the possibilities presented by moral choice. The existentialist paradox is that we have no choice but to choose freely.

If this philosophy is redolent of its time [the atmosphere of liberation after the defeat of the Third Reich], it reflects also Brook’s sense of intense commitment to his métier, and also to the liberating quality evoked by an appreciative audience’s response. The intellectual dynamic of Brook’s commitment to theatre is derived from a range of philosophic influences. He disclaims adherence to any specific faith system. The range of his interests is wide. He shares the political experiences of his generation, but has shown himself open to more contemplative, more esoteric approaches. Ritual interests Brook, as in Lord of the Flies, a work that has connected him with a wider public. Familiarity with the narrative does not diminish the impact of the unsupervised children’s descent into savagery, a process Brook seriously believes credible.

‘Seeing the lowly nature of the world’ is not to see the whole of the world. In The Mahabharata [Avignon 1985] two families fight for domination, against the advice of the god Krishna who urges them to live in harmony. Such an epic quarrel threatens the order of the universe. Thirty years later in Battlefield [London 2016] Brook returned to the theme, extracting episodes from the original nine-hour cycle. The quest for peace and the necessity of human co-operation has become Brook’s valediction in the fractious and tormented Twenty First Century.

Brook, however, is unable to offer any resolution. His critics have detected an air of resignation, a passivity, even a pessimism which seems contrary to the energy with which this Methuselah of  world theater pursues his course. To have a mature memory of Brook’s entire career it is necessary to be older than Brook himself [who was professionally directing at seventeen years of age]. Almost nobody alive has this memory. The early years are a part of history, a matter of record to which future generations will refer when seeking to define their own intentions. This process has begun.

Brook prefers that things be simple. One can imagine his mind as one of uncluttered spaces. In speaking he rubs his hands together as if wiping away what is false or unnecessary. The truth is distilled by the unfettered and unhurried contemplation of what is both possible, desirable and appropriate to the act of theater.


Geoffrey Heptonstall writes regularly for The London Magazine mainly on poetry and Open Democracy primarily on social questions. He is a playwright, poet and essayist.

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