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Mystic Scientist

Just how rigorous and precise Brook’s work can be was made clear in The Man Who, his stage version of Oliver Sacks’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. The Japanese actor Yoshi Oida had the role of a patient who has lost the ability to perceive the left side of his body. In one scene, his doctors ask him to look in a mirror while he shaves his entire face. While he does so, they record his actions on video. He shaves, of course, only the right side of his face, but believes that he has done it all. In order to convince him that his brain is damaged, the doctors ask him to look at what he has just done on the video monitor. Since the screen reverses the image, he can now discern the left side of his face and recognize the fact that it is still covered with shaving foam.

This is an extraordinarily complex piece of theater, in which the mirror, the video monitor, and the stage image present the audience at the same time with different ways of seeing. It is, at one level, a fiercely abstract artistic moment, a recondite contemplation of form, perception, and reality. In some sections of the avant-garde, the man’s plight would be a metaphor for the postmodern condition, an allegorical game whose point would be to show how a media image has somehow become more real and more accurate than what we see in the mirror.

In Brook’s production and in the performance of Yoshi Oida (whom Brook describes in Threads of Time as “an integral part of all our adventures”), however, this is not the point at all. The metaphor is certainly there, but only as a side effect of two more important things—the physical reality of the actor’s body and movements, and the emotional truth of a man making an immensely painful discovery about himself. In a recent book on acting, Oida gives an idea of the minute physical detail and the intensity of emotion that go into the making of such a scene in Brook’s theater:

I had to look at the video screen and then back at the mirror three times, in order to compare the two images of my face. Each repeated turn of the head had to develop the situation. The first time the man turned was when the doctor asked him to look at the video screen. So I simply swivelled my head. The second time, the man couldn’t comprehend what he had seen, so he had to verify the image on the screen. The third time was desperation. Three steps. In order to give the appropriate development, I changed the tempo each time I turned my head. It sounds mechanical, but each time I actually performed it, I found that I genuinely felt sadness. I don’t know why. I wasn’t looking for the emotion. But because of the tempo and the interior connection, I discovered I had tears running down my face.6

This description captures a great deal of what makes Peter Brook so important a director. The refusal of abstraction for its own sake. The sheer amount of concentration, effort, and accumulated technical mastery that goes into what is, after all, only a matter of seconds on the stage. The belief that emotion is not something that actors should try to create but something that arises from physical rigor and an absolute precision of movement. The integration of techniques learned from other traditions—in this case, the Japanese Noh style in which Oida had trained.

What Oida describes is, as he says, something that sounds, and is, mechanical. Its effect depends on the degree of control that the actor is able to exert over the most minute movements of his head. But it depends, too, on something that the actor cannot control—the ability of the audience to register these movements and to perceive first indifference, then incomprehension, then despair, in three similar turns of the head, differentiated only by the pace at which each gesture unfolds. What the audience sees depends on who the audience consists of, what it knows, what it has been taught to watch for. It is influenced by time and place, by education and experience, by everything that makes one culture different from another. And this can be immensely frustrating for an actor and a director.

It certainly was for Brook, whose writings in the 1960s make much of the ways in which an audience creates, changes, and sometimes sabotages the meaning of a piece of theater. In The Empty Space, for example, he described the international tour of his own RSC production of King Lear. In Eastern Europe, he writes, the play was superb, the quality of the audience’s concentration and silence making the acting clear and intense. In the United States, however, the same production was, according to Brook, rendered crude and coarse by the audience’s inattention. It is not surprising that a director with Brook’s passion and seriousness should want to find a way beyond the accidental and unpredictable element that each audience brings into the auditorium with it—should want, in effect, to make the audience as defined and controlled a part of the experience as the acting, the sets, and the costumes.

In essence, that is what Brook has sought to achieve in his International Center of Theater Research. He has tried to transcend the specifics of each culture and find the root of all cultures, to find a way of moving, speaking, and inhabiting a stage that touches the universal meanings that he takes to be available out there, beyond the here-and-now. In Threads of Time, he writes of freeing himself and his multinational group of actors “from the influence of the normally selective brain that had already divided us up into Europeans, Africans, Asians.” He has been searching for “the capacity to listen through the body to codes and impulses that are hidden all the time at the root of cultural forms.” Innovative and experimental as Brook’s theatrical methods may be, this is an old search. It is the mystical quest for the true Platonic forms that lie beyond the mere appearances of the visible world. It is the Romantic dream of passing beyond culture and into nature. And it raises two important questions. Is all of this possible? If so, is it desirable?

Sometimes, the rapture that results from Brook’s experiments suggests that the answer to both questions might be “yes.” When the immediate excitement dies away, however, the doubts return. This happened even with Brook’s masterpiece, his extraordinary nine-hour version of the ancient Sanskrit epic The Mahabharata, first staged at the Avignon Festival in 1985, and then transferred to Paris, Glasgow, and New York. From the longest single poem in world literature, written in India sometime between 200 BC and 200 AD, Brook and his collaborator, Jean-Claude Carrière, mined the central narrative of dynastic struggle and civil war. To tell what was still a formidably complex story, Brook used a wonderfully expressive but startlingly economical series of images in which actions and objects were evoked by small signs and simple gestures.

A fabulous court was conjured up by a carpet, a few cushions, and some candles. Plain sticks were transformed into beds, forests, and fabulous war machines. A wheel stood for a row of chariots. The firing of thousands of arrows was signaled purely by the way the actors moved their bodies and held a stick in their hands. The fury and dust of battle was summoned up by a handful of powder tossed in the air. A piece of scarlet cloth dipped in a river suggested a drowning man. The death of one of the principal heroes was marked by having an actor carry an arrow across the stage in solemn slow motion. The spectacle thus created was a remarkable testament to the integrity of Brook’s quest. At their most potent, these images, relying on gestures and movements rather than on words, really did seem to be a new kind of language with its own grammar and syntax.

What, though, was it saying? The discipline of the staging and the performances was not matched by any very coherent sense of what it was that the audience was meant to feel and think. Clearly, a secularized audience in Paris or Glasgow or New York in the 1980s could not be expected to find in The Mahabharata the same religious meaning that the tale has for Hindus. Brook tried to create a connection with contemporary concerns by drawing parallels between the ferocious destruction in these ancient battles and the threat of nuclear war, then very much on the minds of most educated Westerners. In the story as it actually unfolds, though, the metaphor becomes rather grotesquely twisted. At the climax, the central figure, Arjuna, decides to interpose himself between the rival armies, to either stop the last great battle or die in the effort to do so. Krishna, however, approaches Arjuna and murmurs in his ear. Whatever he says, whatever secret mystical knowledge he imparts, Arjuna changes his mind and understands that the battle must go ahead. In the context, the implication is that mankind must be destroyed in order to be saved. This, apparently, is the mystical alternative to the fallen secular world of the late twentieth century.

The success of individual productions, moreover, does not answer some important questions about Brook’s broader quest. Can theater, which always happens for a particular audience at a particular time and within a particular culture, be truly international? How can an art so fundamentally dependent on the existence of agreed conventions be, as Brook wants his work to be, “outside contexts”?7 Even if it can be, should it be? On whose terms does the meeting of modern and traditional cultures take place? Should artists be resisting, rather than furthering, the process of global homogenization that is implicit in the search for the universal root of all cultural forms? And can a polyglot company, some of whose members will inevitably have trouble with the verbal complexities of a rich, dense text in a foreign language, fully engage with, for example, a Shakespeare play?

Threads of Time contains no extensive or systematic treatment of these questions. It is striking, indeed, that Brook writes almost nothing in the book about a particular project of his International Center of Theater Research—his early 1970s version of Colin Turnbull’s anthropological study The Mountain People, which he adapted as The Ik. This production, and some of what Brook has said about it elsewhere, raises questions about the larger, more politically fraught, issues of power and representation that arise from his quest. The Ik was improvised, using Turnbull’s book, by Brook and his actors. It dealt with a real, famine-stricken tribe whose society, rituals, and communal life began to disintegrate under the pressure of hunger.

The motive was clearly the brave and humane one of exploring the fragility of human values, but the use of such a disaster to create a work of art always poses moral risks. And, at the time the production was touring in the developed world, Brook made some outrageous assertions about it. In an interview with John Lahr in 1975, he acknowledged that starvation was “a physical condition none of us has ever experienced and therefore cannot reach by imagination or memory.”8 But he claimed that it was possible to recreate the reality of the Ik by doing improvisations based on photographs of its members. He claimed, furthermore, that the dramatic characters created in this way actually were the Ik. “These improvisations were not in any way theatrical, they were fragments of Ik life, like shots from a documentary film…. Our actors had come to be the Ik and thus to love the Ik.” This kind of self-delusion is no less dangerous for being motivated by compassion or implemented by theatrical genius. The belief that some incantatory process of transference can transform well-fed, privileged actors from Europe, America, and Japan into starving African tribesmen is the dark side of Brook’s mysticism. To forget the vast difference between playing theatrical games with photographs in a rehearsal room and being a member of a dying, degraded tribe is to lose the sense of proportion that is no less important to great theater than a necessary sense of social mission.

Brook, moreover, is too sensitive and intelligent not to be aware of the difficulties and ironies that attend the presentation of a story about a starving African tribe as an aesthetic experience for a wealthy Western audience. In a later essay on his experiences of presenting The Ik for audiences in Australia, he remarked of a member of one such audience that “for him, it is easier to be deeply moved by the Ik, starving in the no-man’s-land of a theatre performance, than by the plight of the over-fed Aborigine just out of sight.”9 But nowhere in his writings does he go on to explore what this might mean for the wider project of cross-cultural communication in which he is involved. Nowhere does he deal with a central and inescapable aspect of the relationship between a Western artist like himself and the traditional cultures of the poor of India, Africa, or Asia—that it is, in power, resources, and artistic freedom, an unequal relationship. That inequality does not make Brook’s project invalid, but it needs to be kept in view as a challenge to the notions of universality and natural communication that seem to occlude it. Too often, in Threads of Time and his other writing it tends to slip out of sight.

One of Brook’s more paradoxical strengths, though, is his ability not to apply his own abstract ideas too consistently to his work. There are, indeed, two Peter Brooks, representing two contradictory streams of the avant-garde and they are often at odds with each other. One is a scientist like his parents, superbly attuned to the physical reality of the theater, and sharply aware of the flux and contingency that are at its heart. The other is a mystic, searching for some deeper permanence that he imagines beyond reality itself. The mystic says in The Shifting Point that “the reason we started the Center was to start working outside contexts.” The scientist writes in Threads of Time that one of his first major discoveries as a director was that “nothing in the theater has any meaning out of its context in performance.” The mystic Brook insists in Threads of Time, as mystics must, that “nothing changes.” But in an interview published in the program for his recent production of Don Giovanni at Aix-en-Provence, the scientific Brook remarks that “all great works are things in movement…. As a result of the fluctuating conditions of our lives, new readings come to the surface, other readings disappear.”10 He says, too, that what is needed for the opera’s title role is “an actor with the ability to change, one who can live the character of Don Giovanni moment by moment.” One Brook is impatient with the fragmentary nature of human cultures, and wants to find some essence of Man. The other is smart enough to value actors for what they learn from their own particular cultures, praising, for instance, performers he saw in Belgrade for their “fine acting skills still linked to deep ethnic roots.”

One Brook imagines that theater can happen “without the help and hindrance of shared cultural signs and tokens” and that these conventions can be replaced with something beyond the flux of contingent social meanings. The other knows that this can never be so and that, as he wrote in The Empty Space, theater will “wilt” if it forgets that “all the different elements of staging—the shorthands of behaviour that stand for certain emotions; gestures, gesticulations and tones of voice—are all fluctuating on an invisible stock exchange all the time,” or that “in the theatre, every form, once born is mortal.” Most of the time, in practice, the scientific Brook, alert to the immediacy and instability of the art form he has graced for fifty years, has won out over the mystic seeker. The contradictions persist in Threads of Time, but anyone who cares about theater will be glad of the continuing struggle to resolve them that pushes Brook back again and again to the great testing ground he has made of the stage.

  1. 6

    Yoshi Oida and Lorna Marshall, The Invisible Actor (Routledge, 1998), pp. 62-63.

  2. 7

    The Shifting Point, p. 124.

  3. 8

    The interview is republished in The Shifting Point, pp. 135-137.

  4. 9

    The Shifting Point, p. 142.

  5. 10

    The interview is republished in Grand Street 66 (Fall 1998).

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