Peter Brook
Peter Brook; drawing by David Levine

With the support of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the British stage director Peter Brook has restored the Majestic Theater on Fulton Street in Brooklyn for two productions, the immense Indian epic The Mahabharata, which has completed its run, and now Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. The old theater has not been remade, only stripped bare: there is no stage, no backdrop or curtain or proscenium, only a large space bordered in the back by a brick wall and on each side by four doors that open onto empty small rooms whose walls are covered with crumbling plaster and irregularly painted, as are other parts of the theater, in vivid Pompeian blues and reds. The appearance of the Majestic has been modeled on that of the old unused theater the Bouffes du Nord, which Brook has used since 1974 to present experimental theatrical events in Paris. Brook believes that the spare and ruinous appearance of the theater is less likely to allow the audience to be distracted from the action of the play.

Brook is one of the most imaginative theater directors to have emerged since World War II. He began directing plays while a student at Oxford University in the 1940s, and for his early productions he edited the texts, selected the music, and designed the costumes and sets. In a long career he has displayed a gift for creating disturbing and exciting images and situations on the stage. In his recent collection of pieces and essays on the theater, The Shifting Point, he speaks of the importance of what he calls “the central picture” of a play, from which the meaning of the whole work can be derived. The three people locked forever in a hotel room in No Exit is an image of this kind, he says; so are Mother Courage drawing her cart, Beckett’s people sitting under a tree or living in dustbins or buried in sand. Brook is able to create such images himself. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the fairy world of Titania and Oberon is represented by acrobats on swings; the political and emotional meanings in the film of Lord of the Flies are revealed in close-ups of the pathetic fat boy Piggy. In his production of Genet’s The Screens a pair of colonists sit talking in front of a screen portraying a garden while a group of Arabs creeps up behind them and silently covers the screen with drawings of flames. Although this is called for by Genet’s text, the energy and rapidity with which Brook’s actors scribbled red and yellow chalk across the screen was exciting and distinctive.

Brook created his most celebrated images in his production of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade, which is set in a lunatic asylum whose mumbling, drooling, dirty inmates, including Sade, act out the main events of the French Revolution. Few who saw it could easily forget the upsetting sounds of balloons rubbed together and of scraped violin strings heard in the background throughout the play. Nor could they forget the distinctive facial expressions of Brook’s actors, or the way he had them stand and move as they told their story in dance, mime, and song while others among them sat masturbating and groaning and making speeches to the audience.

In his later work Brook has questioned the idea of theater itself. He thinks the theater need no longer provide us with spectacles and other forms of “entertainment.” It should instead become a kind of moral laboratory in which a “dynamic relationship” is established between the actors and the audience which results in freeing and expanding the “perception” of both. The theater, he writes, “must get away from creating another world…and must attempt to create a more intense perception at the heart of our own world.” To find a way of doing this has been the aim of many of the theatrical experiments he has undertaken in Paris and elsewhere. Few if any directors have explored so enthusiastically so many different theatrical traditions, not only well-known ones such as those of Brecht and Meyerhold, but also African and Asian and other non-Western ones. Like the French actor and writer Antonin Artaud, who also saw in the theater a form of redemption, he has come to believe that the theater should reject the traditional conventions of writing and staging plays—plot, “characterization,” exposition and development, suspense and timing and “pacing,” even a stage and décor and the primary emphasis upon words to convey character and ideas—that have been thought to be useful or necessary in creating natural situations on the stage.

In fact, Brook says, we do not need these devices to clarify or transmit the meaning of a character or a play any more than a modern painter needs perspective or other conventions of representational painting to “realistically” portray a face or a person. He believes that the actor must strenuously train himself through physical and spiritual exercises, and he has used in his workshops exercises of the kind created by the Polish director Grotowski—in which, for example, the actor forces himself to speak while executing a difficult physical movement like standing on his head, or tries to express a thought or feeling in an unusual way, by yelling, say, or whispering. He thinks the actor must also learn to be flexible and responsive in expressing emotion, and to question his motives for being an actor. And in another view suggestive of Artaud, he seems to want the theater to shock us into confronting our deepest “views” and conflicts and to clarify, and sometimes even subvert and exorcise, them through a kind of communal ritual in which what he calls the “fragmentation of the world” is overcome.


Brook does not clearly explain what he means, and as The Shifting Point reminds us, his enthusiasm for the ideas of visionaries like Artaud is not always lucid or consistent. But part of what he seems to mean is that the “theater event”—the performance of a play, for example—can ideally create a momentary, miniature society composed of actors and audience, each influencing the other, in which both might become better able to expand and to use their spiritual and psychic energies to their benefit, especially in resolving conflicts in their lives. This mystical aim may owe something to the longstanding influence upon Brook not only of Eastern mysticism but especially of the work of the Russian/Armenian thinker Gurdjieff, who emphasized in his philosophy the discovery and development of the spiritual “possibilities” he insisted existed in each of us and whose autobiographical writing, Meetings with Remarkable Men, Brook made into a film some years ago.

Brook has not confined himself to experimental work in the theater. He has directed Chekhov before, and the present production of The Cherry Orchard is based in part on one he created in Paris a few years ago.

The Cherry Orchard concerns the return of a landowning family, consisting of Madame Ranevskaya, her brother Gaev, her daughter Anya and her governess Charlotta, from Europe to their family estate in Russia. There they find Lopakhin—the son and grandson of slaves on the estate and now a prosperous merchant—who informs them that the estate, including its cherry orchard, must be sold if their debts are to be paid off. Chekhov called the play a “comedy in four acts,” and there are a number of scenes in the play that are little more than farce; but no one has ever successfully been able to treat the play as comedy.

At the center of the play is the disintegration of one way of life and its replacement by another. The landowners of czarist Russia are dying off, together with their feudal manners, their dinner parties and country games and picnics. The rising merchant class is pushing them aside, and a new way of life made up of new aspirations, new values, new ethical standards is coming into being. Many values and things of beauty are being destroyed as it gradually replaces the old ways of thinking, but no one can arrest its progress. The idle, ineffective world of the charming Mme. Ranevskaya and Gaev, who are dedicated to refinement and pleasure and try to escape boredom and vulgarity in long afternoon conversations in shaded gardens, must wither away, and when it does it will be supplanted by an ethic of work and thrift and money-making. There is no way to evade the uncomfortable truth that the two ways of life cannot exist at the same time.

The new world belongs to Lopakhin, who buys the estate from Ranevskaya, and who already lives according to a new code of conduct. He must “work,” he says: “I can’t live without work—I don’t know what to do with my hands, they dangle as if they didn’t belong to me.” The old world is represented by Gaev and by Firs, the servant of his childhood, who regards the emancipation of the serfs as a “calamity.” Trofimov, who was the tutor of Ranevskaya’s son, and who has returned to the household after the boy drowned in an accident, is a kind of living illustration of the conflict between the two ways of life, for while, like Lopakhin, he speaks of the need for “work” and for a new pattern of life, he is in fact an “eternal student” and no less an idle talker than Gaev.

Ranevskaya is often portrayed as an alluring, slightly comical sensualist, fluttery and irresponsible, but while she is feckless and self-destructive, she is also the wisest of the characters—kind, honest, generous. She is capable of sympathy for a great range of human feeling and emotion, for she has experienced a great many emotions herself: she has lost a son and squandered her money on a drunken husband and later on a lover who cheated her. When a beggar asks her for money, Lopakhin, the descendant of slaves, pushes him away brutally, but she gives the peasant more than he has asked for. She knows that the speculations on mankind and nature of her brother and Trofimov will solve nothing. She ironically tells the prudish and doctrinaire Trofimov—who, like Turgenev’s Bazarov, loves humanity in the abstract but understands nothing of it in detail—that


you can see the truth, you can tell it from falsehood, but I seem to have lost my eyesight, I see nothing. You settle every great problem so boldly, but tell me, my dear boy, isn’t it because you’re young, because you don’t yet know what one of your problems means in terms of suffering? You look ahead fearlessly, but isn’t it because you don’t see and expect anything dreadful, because life is still hidden from your young eyes?

This, one feels, was Chekhov’s own point of view. He was accused of having no philosophy and of offering no universal “solutions” to the social, political, and other human problems of his time. But one suspects that he had no “philosophy of life” because he knew that none was adequate. We discover ourselves in situations, he seems to say, that are not of our own making, but are the products of social and historical forces that are never within our control. Individual effort can change things, but only unpredictably and sometimes at the cost of great human suffering.

Some people—Ranevskaya herself—suffer because of a lack of control over their own desires or pretensions; other people are unhappy because they cannot find a way of contributing to the society they belong to; or find that their energies are impeded or blocked by others or by the society they live in. Ranevskaya’s son has drowned. What for? she asks. There is no satisfactory answer, not even that of divine punishment for her wicked way of life. Russian life is changing before the eyes of Ranevskaya and Gaev, as is brought home to them by the auction of the orchard. Why is this happening? There is again no genuine answer to this question, just the acknowledgment of history in movement.

Our personal lives are no less mysterious. Trofimov could have become a doctor or teacher, but instead he does nothing and grows older and more neurotic. What is wrong with him? Ranevskaya’s adopted daughter, Varya, might have married the rich merchant Lopakhin, but they cannot seem to arrive at an understanding. Why? Even if all these people want to lead better lives, they do not know how to change their circumstances—the boy is gone, the marriage will not occur, the estate will be sold—and so they escape by talking and by embracing silly theories and rationalizations. Most human problems are not amenable to the kind of all-purpose solutions we look for, Chekhov suggests. We should recognize this and get on with our work as best we can instead of flooding the world with new “solutions” to them. Chekhov’s attitude toward these illusions is clear from the references to philosophers in the play, as when the landowner Pishchik tells us earnestly that a young man he met on the train told him that a great philosopher recommended “jumping off roofs.” “If a great many remedies are offered for some disease,” Gaev says, “it means that it is incurable.”

Peter Brook’s production of this inexhaustibly fascinating and ironical play is puzzling. He has created a splendid setting for the old estate in his ruin of a theater. An elegant decay is also skillfully suggested by his use of one or two screens and an old bookcase, as well as by the smart black and white lace and sequin dresses worn by his wife Natasha Parry as Ranevskaya. His scenic designer, Chloë Obolensky, has found enormous Oriental rugs that run up a good part of the length of the performing space, and Brook uses them wonderfully, in the second act rolling them up to suggest a fallen tree for the governess, Charlotta, to balance on. When they are rolled up again by stagehands just before the family is forced to leave the estate, one is made to feel something of their sorrow.

Brook uses very strong lighting, I imagine in order to underscore Chekhov’s words and make a scene or situation morally undisguised. And as in many of his other productions, Brook uses music with delicacy and charm; in the desperate and amusing third act, when the family holds a party even as the orchard is being sold, Brook separates the little Jewish band that the family has hired, as well as the dancers, from the audience. One only has occasional glimpses of the dancers, who sway and rotate around each other in the far distance, as a violinist plays a high, sentimental melody.

Brook has arranged his actors effectively, as when a frozen group, with Firs and Gaev standing back to back and Mme. Ranevskaya bending over a chair, listens in horror to Lopakhin’s account of how he has bought the orchard. But little physical movement takes place in the play—what movement there is occurs in the conversation and the inner lives of the characters, in the liquid transitions of emotion and understanding they experience. Brook skillfully supplies what he can, as when he has Charlotta, the governess, perform an elaborate trick with ribbons in the first act that is not called for in the play and in the second act makes the inept clerk Yepikhodov fire a gun.

The Brook production never comes together, largely because it is inexplicably cast. No one seems to belong with anyone else, and nearly everyone is wrong for their part, so that the delicate oppositions between the characters are not established, and the action and movement of the play are disturbed and at times completely arrested. Brian Dennehy, who plays Lopakhin, suffers from an excess of bluster: he booms out his part in a loud American accent, and uses abrupt, violent gestures that are so much at variance with those of the other actors that he seems at times to be on a different stage, or acting in a different medium, from them. One of his worst effects is to hold out his hands in supplication like a mother or a priest in an Italian film. No doubt some of this is deliberate, but even so, he so overplays the vulgarity of his character that it becomes much less challenging and sympathetic than it might be. Stephanie Roth, who plays Varya, is also irritatingly noisy and obtrusive. She has too much of the enthusiastic radiance—painful at times to see—of someone attending acting school to play her part properly; we see too much of the actress at work, and learn too little of the character, whose tragedy does not concern us at all as she portrays it. Rebecca Miller, as Anya, is lovely but does not really act at all.

The driven and confused character of Trofimov, who is at once ridiculous and eloquent, caught as he is between the sensibilities of the old and the new, is played in a hysterical way by Zeljko Ivanek, who yells out his marvelous speeches in a nasal, breaking voice, and at a speed and with an intensity that scarcely allow us to hear, let alone understand, them. Linda Hunt is an actress who manages to keep our eyes on her no matter what else is taking place on the stage, but here she is reduced to a frank divertissement as Charlotta; and even Firs is played by Roberts Blossom too much like an old pappy in a Western movie, trembling and hobbling around with rather too much show. All these actors work loudly and busily to promote their own parts. But they are insufficiently coordinated with one another in their actions and reactions. Indeed, they seem to be in a kind of competition with one another.

It is surprising that Brook, who has worked so hard to promote the virtues of the workshop and intense collaboration between actors, has allowed this strange situation to arise. Everyone seems to be acting in a different style or manner: one actor uses the excessive gestures of a character on a television soap opera, another the mannerisms of an Old Vic player; yet another shouts out his role in an intense, keyed-up style that reminds one of the exercises at Lee Strasberg’s Actor’s Studio. I thought at first that Brook may have deliberately made Dennehy into an American boor in order to set Lopakhin in clear contrast to Natasha Parry, who plays Ranevskaya with a British accent—in order to compare the relation between master and serf with that between colonial subjects and their rulers. But then I was surprised to find that even brother and sister—Ranevskaya and the Gaev of Erland Josephson—speak in radically different accents.

The impressive performance by Josephson, the great Swedish actor who has worked so often with Bergman, is in itself a good reason for seeing the production. Josephson is able to convey with his gentle voice and teary eyes and through small details—for example, his constantly fumbling with fruit pastilles—a complicated and subtle combination of melancholy, childish impracticality, and intellectual curiosity. The play works best when he is on stage and in his scenes with Natasha Parry, who works hard, if not always successfully, to bring across Ranevskaya’s humanity as well as her glamour, but both seem detached from the rest of the company, and the fine emotions they are trying to evoke cannot be sustained in the circuslike atmosphere created by the other actors.

Chekhov was not a sentimentalist but a clinician, an atheist doctor who admired culture, political freedom, truth, scientific method, personal integrity, and whose life of sickness and labor was constantly redeemed by a sense of irony and humor. These qualities prevented him from uncritically admiring either the peasantry or the intelligentsia, and from taking too seriously large political movements like that of the Slavophils or grand systems of sociology like Marxism. One feels that he must have liked people as he encountered them in daily life; he was fascinated by their efforts to adjust to their situations, even if he also found many such efforts comical. He saw clearly and did not attempt to soften in his writing the cruel conflicts that exist in our lives.

A virtue of Brook’s direction is that he does not allow us to forget this. But he goes too far, so that some of the characters become over-simple and unnecessarily cruel. He strips the character of Lopakhin, for example, of whatever sympathy he might otherwise have. As Brian Dennehy plays him, he is too loutish and brutal; in this portrayal we lose something important about him. It is he, after all, who sees what he is—he says he is “the same kind of blockhead and idiot” as his father. He is devoted in a childish and moving way to Ranevskaya, although in this production his devotion seems almost lascivious. From the outset of the play he tries to help her by inventing a scheme to divide her estate into plots to be leased for summer cottages. When she asks for it, he lends her money—without, one imagines, much expectation of having it paid back.

That he cannot arrive at a marriage proposal to Varya suggests a psychological complexity in him that must be part of any portrayal of him. In Brook’s production, when he gets on his knees and slowly says to Varya, “get thee to a nunnery,” he seems sadistic, as he does when he drags out their final scene together in the last act, when her last chance for marriage to him arises. When he tells the family he has bought the orchard, he staggers about in an excessively gloating, drunken, and frightening way, knocking down a screen and tumbling onto the floor, whereas in the play he is supposed to be “embarrassed” as well as elated and is instructed to say his lines “ironically” and only to trip over a small table. When we hear Trofimov say that he has “a fine, delicate soul,” we are bewildered.

Still, Brook is right to stress the inescapable cruelty and harshness of the conflicts in the play that are often overlooked in conventional productions. He does not set up a big laugh when Charlotta hums a lullaby to a pillow and then throws it down violently and asks for a new job; as he directs it, her contempt for her situation as governess becomes callous and grotesque, and the tiny actress Linda Hunt takes on the character of an evil puppeteer.

We are also reminded that there are lapses even in the kindness and thoughtfulness of Ranevskaya, as when she forgets Firs (who is left alone at the end of the play, locked in the house) or indulges in irresponsible laughter when she gives too much money to the beggar. Brook also brings into a sharper light other collisions of feeling and emotion in the play, such as the callousness, in the name of “honesty,” of Trofimov, who stands stock still and refuses Ranevskaya pity when she begs him for it, and the pretentious meanness of the footman, Yasha, who tells Firs that “it’s time you croaked” and cruelly rejects the stupid peasant girl Dunyasha, who is infatuated with him. Even if one cannot overlook the obvious flaws of casting and acting in this curious production, one recalls the way Brook has directed these and other scenes long after one has left the theater. They remind us, however faintly, that Brook is still able to go some considerable way toward fulfilling his moral aspiration for the theater to disturb us into experiencing an intensified perception of everyday life.

This Issue

March 3, 1988