Twentieth-century theater has often been at its most innovative when it has been least modern, most contemporary when it has dreamed of connecting to some ancient or timeless truth. Poetry, fiction, music, dance, and the visual arts have all gone through phases of being attracted to the outlandish and the primitive. But in the theater, the urge to escape urban industrial life has been felt almost continuously throughout the century. Its avant-garde has often been in deliberate retreat, moving backward in time, searching for older, more apparently authentic forms. In John Millington Synge’s and Federico Garcia Lorca’s explorations of the west of Ireland and of Granada, it sought inspiration on the underdeveloped fringes of Europe.
But more typically, it has tried to connect with the still more exotic East. In Ireland, William Butler Yeats wrote plays modeled on the Japanese Noh style. In France, the actor and writer Antonin Artaud was deeply influenced by Balinese dance. Even in Germany, Bertolt Brecht, in some respects the most self-consciously modern and urban of great twentieth-century playwrights, pointed to the Peking Opera, and the performances of its star Mei Lanfang, as a touchstone for the development of contemporary drama. Peter Brook, arguably the most distinguished and influential director in today’s theater, has taken these impulses still further.
There is nothing mysterious about Western theater’s persistent desire to be in touch with exotic traditions. Cinema, and later television, took away much of the ground that theater used to occupy. One of the basic jobs that theater used to do, the creation of an illusion of everyday reality, can be done more powerfully, more immediately, and more persuasively on the screen. A play can present convincing characters in apparently authentic rooms, but if it moves onto the streets or into the landscape, it cannot match the cinema’s lifelike illusions. After you’ve watched the battle scenes in Saving Private Ryan, no stage production of Henry V, however spectacular, is ever going to look realistic.
Even indoors, if you want to see the tiny details on the face of a crying woman—the tears, the trembling lips, the smudged mascara—a movie close-up will always be much more effective than the view from the thirty-fifth row of the orchestra. The question for anyone who thought that theater could still be a serious art form was: What else can we do besides realism? What choice is there but to go back to the roots of theater itself, to build on those things that cinema and television do not have—an empty space, the physical, bodily presence of the actor, the feeling that performers and audience are participating together in some kind of ritual? The answers to those questions led inevitably toward those kinds of nonrealistic, and for the most part non-Western, theater in which these basic elements had remained to the fore.
Peter Brook grew up in a culture where movies were already triumphant. Born in London in 1925, he was raised in a neat, respectable house in a middle-class…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.