The theater as we know it was born 2500 years ago with Aeschylus. And reborn 97 years ago, with Peter Brook.
Peter Brook was a dazzling interpreter of human complexity on stage
Whether you realize it or not, if you are a lover of what comes to vibrant life in empty space, your experience has been nurtured by Brook. “Empty Space”, in fact, is the title of his famous book, the thin volume that has trained generations of directors, actors, designers and viewers in the endless and adventurous possibilities of coming together in one room to the enrichment of the soul.
“A man walks through that empty space while someone else watches, and that’s all it takes for a theater act to be engaged,” Brook wrote. This phrase is etched in figurative marble on the walls of every rehearsal room, theater school classroom, conventional auditorium, or repurposed warehouse in which theater takes place. The statement was a permanent feature of his own artistry, which took him on a sort of reverse journey, from some of the greatest halls of his profession to far more humble halls.
“He declares that theater is the art form of human beings,” Gregory Mosher, the Tony-winning director and friend of 50 years, said Sunday of Brook’s philosophy. “We talk about the complexity of being alive. This is theatre, and this mystery – because people are a mystery – was a lifelong pursuit for him.
Brook was not content with theories. He set the example. In 1970, he revolutionized the view of Shakespeare by staging “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in a white box (designed by Sally Jacobs) with actors on trapezes. (Among them Ben Kingsley, Frances de la Tour and, a year later, Patrick Stewart.) The Royal Shakespeare Company production removed the “boundaries” from the vocabulary of classical stage direction, a controversial service he rendered stunningly again a decade later for opera, with a compressed and restructured version of Bizet’s “The Tragedy of Carmen” on carpet and sand.
He surpassed Brecht-ed Brecht with Peter Weiss’ “Marat/Sade” for the RSC in the 1960s, a smash hit with Glenda Jackson as an asylum inmate and Patrick Magee as the Marquis de Sade. He boldly ventured further for textual inspiration, with a nine-hour production of the Sanskrit epic “The Mahabharata”. At the height of his powers in the 1970s, he moved to Paris at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, a place that would be his creative engine for much of his constantly changing career.
“He had worked with the greatest actors in the English language and walked away from them,” observed Mosher, now a professor and head of the theater department at Hunter College in Manhattan. “He sat in an old burned-out theater in the north of Paris and, with this group, tried to understand what theater was – at a time when he was the most important director in the English language.”
Brook coined the cautionary phrase “death theatre”, which exists as a challenge for every director and actor. Brook was both an inveterate showman — he owned Tonys for both “Marat/Sade” and “Midsummer” — and an advocate for those who came after him, urging that they not be held back by custom. “We are talking about the cinema that kills the theater”, he writes in “Empty Space” in 1968, “and in this sentence we refer to the theater as it was when the cinema was born, a box office theater, foyer, folding seats, ramps, scene changes, intervals, music, as if the theater was by definition these and a little more.
His work with the text was second to none; his 1962 RSC production of “King Lear”, for example, starring the incomparable Paul Scofield (and later made into a film) presented a tragedy of stark, forbidding coldness. This inclination for the authenticity of the language did not necessarily lead to greatness: his stripped-down version of “The Cherry Orchard” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1988, performed in a most stripped-down environment, on Persian carpets, foreshadowed other minimalist revivals of Chekhov. . But it turned out to be a tediously long session, weighed down perhaps by a disappointing translation.
It was, however, an indicator of Brook’s trajectory as a theater artist, as he intensified his search in his later years for what is essentially human in empty space. In 2005 Mosher, then at Barnard College, brought Brook’s “Tierno Bokar”, a fable about a Muslim ascetic, set in a West African village in a converted college gymnasium. What I remember most is his stillness and my unsuccessful efforts to adjust my overactive metabolism to his gentle rhythms. Reflecting on Brook’s visionary prescriptions, I wonder if, in these turbulent times, I would be better able to appreciate the outstretched hand of another culture.
Again, in what would prove to be a twilight display of Brook’s grandeur, one could feel the fullness of this incomparable director’s journey. “The Suit”, presented at the Kennedy Center in 2014, a South African story by Can Themba (with direction and music by Brook, Marie-Hélène Estienne and Franck Krawczyk), seemed to fit in with the long-standing reflections of Brook on the unlimited potential of theatre. . The story tells of the revenge that a cuckolded husband wields on his wife, in the form of a suit that her lover left behind. This prompted me to write: “The costume, leaning on a chair at the table, arms hanging freely, looks like a corpse. And when we look at it, what we see is a kind of death – the mortal remains of a troubled union.
This mystery of human complexity is what animated Brook. The lyrical power of this evening reminds me of the words with which he ends “The Empty Space”:
“In the theater, ‘if’ is the truth,” he wrote. “When one is persuaded to believe in this truth, then theater and life become one. It’s a lofty goal. It looks like hard work. Acting takes a lot of work. But when we experience work as play, then it is no longer work. A game is a game.
No one has played with more joy and freedom than Peter Brook.