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 suburb. But the modernizing turmoil of a wider Europe was not far away. His father (the family name was Bryk) had been a Menshevik agitator in Russia. Imprisoned for a time in Moscow, he was released on condition that he emigrate, which he did, moving first to Paris, then to Liège, and then, with the outbreak of the First World War, to London, where he worked as an electrical engineer and as an industrial chemist. Brook’s mother, also a chemist, followed his father westward. From Brook’s marvelously evocative and beautifully written memories of his childhood in Threads of Time, it is clear that the world of his parents was that of the secular, scientific, industrial intelligentsia of Central Europe. It seems fitting that his first encounter with Shakespeare was not in some Victorian theater in the West End of London but through the earphone of a crystal radio set on which he heard scratchy BBC voices intoning lines from Julius Caesar. Modern technology, not primitive awe, was the keynote of his introduction to a dramatic tradition which he would later so generously enrich.
It is fitting, too, that his own early artistic ambitions lay in the cinema. As he wrote in 1973 in an essay collected in his book The Shifting Point, “I first began working in the theatre not with any particular love for it. It seemed to me a dreary and dying predecessor of the cinema.”1 In Threads of Time, he writes that his childhood “idol” was a film projector belonging to his father, an object that he seems to have regarded with the utmost reverence:
For a long while, I was never allowed to touch it, as only my father and my brother could understand its intricacies. Then the time came when I was considered old enough to attach and thread the little reels of nine-and-a-half millimeter Pathé film, to set up a tiny cardboard screen within the proscenium of my toy theater and to watch with ever-repeated fascination the scratched gray images.
That fascination remained with him, and Brook has directed many films, among them a superbly accomplished screen version of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Paradoxical as it may seem, one of the things that perhaps made Brook a great theater director is that he did not really want to be one at all. He entered the playhouse, by his own account, not in stage-struck awe but reluctantly, even grudgingly. He directed his first professional production in 1945, when he was just twenty, in the hope that a “detour through this old-fashioned province could eventually lead me back to the highway I wanted to take”—a career as a film director. In his early theater productions, indeed, Brook’s approach seems to have been based on what a brilliant but brash young man might imagine to be the style of a big-time movie director.
He recalls that at first, even working for the stage, he “just followed an instinctive wish to make pictures that moved. The proscenium frame was like a stereoscopic cinema screen on which lights, music, and effects were all as important as acting.” He worked like a film director, planning his images and compositions in advance, then ordering his actors to create them. And, though he does not say so, this method clearly required the director to be a tyrant, forcing the actors to conform to his own preconceived notions of how they should move and speak. John Harrison, who played Benvolio in a controversially unromantic production of Romeo and Juliet at Stratford-on-Avon in 1947, later recalled Brook’s direction as “dictatorial” and spoke of the young genius “masterminding through a megaphone.”2
Gradually, however, Brook translated his initial skepticism about the future of the theater into a ceaseless questioning of its habits, clichés, and conventions. At the heart of his best work is a deep-seated conviction that theater cannot be what he initially thought it was—the dull poor relation of film. It has to be something else, and that something has to be invented each time a new production begins rehearsal. Even when Brook’s work has been unsuccessful or his methods debatable, it has never been because he has started out with lazy preconceptions about the innate value of a piece of theater. There is always the sense in what he does that, in the era of the electronic image, the presence of actors on the stage has to be justified.
Many of Brook’s predecessors and contemporaries, of course, shared his feeling that if theater was to survive as an important art form it would have to start out, not with a written text, rich costumes, and elaborate scenery, but with its own unique and primal qualities: a space, an audience, actors, and the mysterious, even mystical relationship that can develop between them. It would have to locate its future in an imagined past, before industry, before technology, before the age of mechanical reproduction. The most ironic aspect of this return is the complete reversal of the longstanding relationship between theater and religion in the West. Having been for centuries the reputed work of the devil and the domain of prostitutes and whoremasters, theater has become, in its most radical forms, oddly holy. As society has become more secular, theatrical experiment, even when conducted by political radicals, has become more religious, more tribal, and more ceremonial.
Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theater shared homemade loaves with its audience, making a conscious use of the sacramental meaning of bread in Christian cultures. The Polish director and teacher Jerzy Grotowski imagined his actors as a gnostic, ascetic cult with its own rituals of initiation and progression, eventually finding the audience an unnecessary distraction and abandoning performance altogether. In California, El Teatro Campesino tried to recreate ancient Indian religious ceremonies. Julian Beck and Judith Malina imagined their Living Theater as a nomadic tribe bound together by love and ascetic rejection of material values, a hippie version, in other words, of the Franciscans.
Peter Brook represents in many respects the culmination of all of these tendencies. Though he has not been a follower of any one of the great avant-garde figures, he has borrowed from all of them. He has vindicated, for a wide international audience, the flight from technological modernity. He has led his actors to Iran, to Africa, and to India in search of ancient wisdom, journeys that are recalled in Threads of Time, and he has collaborated with practitioners of traditional, non-Western forms of drama. He has, through his own productions and through the influence on others of his brilliant 1968 polemic The Empty Space, restored a sense of physical presence to the center of theatrical creation, reminding both actors and audiences of the essential truth that the performance, not the play in its abstract, written form, is the thing. He has made nonsense of the old distinction between the creative and interpretive arts by showing that a living, physical interpretation of, for example, a play by Shakespeare must be an act of creation.
One of Brook’s great strengths, indeed, has been his lack of dogmatism, his willingness to take good ideas where he finds them. In his celebrated 1964 production for the Royal Shakespeare Company of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade, he brought together two of the great opposing conceptions of twentieth-century theater, on the one hand Artaud’s insistence on exposing violent impulses with great immediacy and on the other Brecht’s skeptical, alienating idea of distance. Inspired by Artaud’s fascination with the disordered mind, he emphasized the madness of the patients in the Charenton asylum, where the play is set, and encouraged his actors to mimic in the most graphic manner the symptoms of paranoia, catatonia, schizophrenia, and syphilitic dementia. The performers, schooled by visits to asylums and prisons, faced the audience with shockingly convincing portrayals of disturbed and dangerous people who, at one point, threatened to spill out into the auditorium. Yet at other times in the play Brook sought precisely the opposite effect, using typically Brechtian devices—having the stage manager come on with a whistle to bring the actors back into line, for example—in order to remind the audience that this was just a play and that they should sit back and think about its meaning.
One might think that the use of these contradictory devices in the same production would result in an incoherent mess. But in practice, even on video, Brook’s Marat/Sade is astounding. The two devices create the impression that the audience’s point of view is constantly changing, now zooming in on a terrifying reality, now panning out for a cool, objective look at the larger picture. Ignoring apparent contradictions, Brook succeeded in creating something that, as well as having all the virtues of theater, had many of the virtues of the cinema.
Yet the frustrating thing about every great piece of theater is that it disappears when its run is over. A contradiction may be overcome in one production, but it reappears in the next and the next. And there is in avant-garde theater a contradiction that goes very deep and that Brook, for all his brilliance, has not managed to resolve. He has been in so many respects an exemplary figure that it is often difficult to remember that he has brought many of the uncertainties and confusions, as well as many of the great achievements, of the twentieth-century avant-garde to a head. Threads of Time, though it is a charming and engaging memoir of his professional career, leaves those contradictions unresolved.
Trying to build theater up again from its most basic elements, the avant-garde has followed two very different paths, usually at the same time. One is rational and rigorous, couched in the language of science: “laboratory,” “research,” and “experimental” are its key words. The other is irrational, religious, and couched in the language of mystical voyages: “ritual,” “primitive,” and “myth” are its key words. Peter Brook switches at will from one mode to the other. At times, he presents himself as a scientist, trying by empirical means to discover the basis for human communication. At other times, he is a mystic who construes that exploration as a search for the ultimate truth of human existence. The result is a basic inconsistency in Brook’s thinking between a mystical desire to escape from the material world on the one hand and the fact that theater, as an intensely practical, inevitably political art form, is always bound up in the structures of the society from which it springs. Since the term “guru” has acquired associations of charlatanism, it is understandable that Brook, as he writes, “winces” when he is called one. It is true, nevertheless, that he has done much to transform the notion of the great director from that of an authoritarian visionary to that of a benign, much-loved sage, leading a shifting tribe of fellow seekers who follow him not out of fear but from a desire not to disappoint the master.
John Kane, who played Puck and Philostrate in Brook’s wonderfully imaginative production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1970, wrote an unpublished account of the rehearsals from which J.C. Trewin quotes in his biography of Brook. It captures both the joys and the frustrations of Brook’s approach:
We had many hours of black despair when we tried unsuccessfully to recapture the sensations we had first felt when we knew that a moment of the play had been “experienced” properly. Peter…would sit down with us and shake his great head in disbelief that we could have gone so far forward in one direction while taking so many steps back in another. And then painfully he would, step by step, recover the ground we had travelled and we would once more all nod our heads in agreement…. And then, even as we walked through the door of the studio at the end of the rehearsal, our certainty would fade like cigarette smoke.3
Brook’s broad ideas are often as hazy and evanescent as cigarette smoke, and yet the process that Kane describes led to a truly great piece of theater. John Kane also described the other side of Brook’s methods, the fiercely rigorous and intensely practical insistence that Shakespeare’s words and the actors’ movements should be fused into a single dramatic motion:
The stage management produced a bundle of short sticks and these were distributed among the company. We were encouraged to twirl or bounce them as they were passed round the ring from hand to hand. Peter asked us to experiment with them among ourselves in the three weeks before rehearsals in order that we might acquire a basic dexterity. But their real value lay in the equation of them with words. As we passed the sticks from hand to hand, to the rhythm of drums, over long distances or from great heights, so we were to learn to handle words and speeches, sharing and experiencing them as a united group.4
Again, as with Marat/Sade, Brook created his production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from an apparently incongruous mix of elements, in this case of the technical and the mystical. On the one hand, Brook used a bare, white-walled stage, lit by harsh white light, that reminded members of the audience of an operating theater or a gymnasium. Electronic sound effects, a raised gallery on three sides, iron ladders and dangling ropes, all contributed to the sterile, laboratory atmosphere. Within this setting, however, Brook and his actors achieved a mysterious delight. They used acrobatics, juggling, and trapeze acts to give physical expression to the play’s meditations on appearance, fantasy, and love.
If, after such a triumph, Brook had continued to move from production to production, no one would care whether or not there was a coherent set of ideas behind his work. If contradictory ideas were involved in Marat/Sade and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, then all the better for intellectual incoherence. But in 1970 Brook moved from London to Paris to lead the International Center of Theater Research, where he has worked ever since. When he did so, he turned his open-minded, essentially pragmatic approach to theater into an important institution. He implicitly held out the promise of universally applicable discoveries. As a record of what he has found, Threads of Time, like much of Brook’s writing since The Empty Space, is oddly evasive.
In his own mind, as he stresses in Threads of Time, Brook has found in the theories and principles of the Turkish-Armenian savant George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff a way of fusing the scientific and the mystical elements of his own work. The importance of this influence is clearly immense. Brook made a film—though not a very good one—of Gurdjieff’s Meetings with Remarkable Men. He reveals in the book that one of his reasons for moving to Paris was that he could be in the “luminous presence” of the master’s friend and disciple, a certain Madame de Salzmann. As the inheritor of Gurdjieff’s mantle and of his papers, Madame de Salzmann seems to have elaborated a system of “dances, movements and exercises,” presumably intended as rites of passage into some mystical state, which she passed on to initiates.
It is easy to see why the notion of a systematic progression from physical exercises to some state of spiritual transcendence would appeal at once to both the scientist and the mystic in Brook, and we can imagine that the control over body movements he learned would have been of use in directing actors. But it is impossible to gather from Threads of Time what it all amounts to. Brook never suggests with any clarity what it is that he has taken from Gurdjieff and his acolytes. He writes with awe of his instructors, but we never have so much as a hint of what goes on in the sessions he attends in London and Paris. We have to take it on trust that he gained some illumination that cannot be described.
This occult strain in Brook’s thought and practice sits uncomfortably with his status as an exemplar for the contemporary theater as a whole. Precisely because he is so important a figure, Brook’s work raises large questions about the relationships between radical theater and the powerful institutions that fund it and between ethnic cultures on the one hand and metropolitan centers on the other. Brook is, after all, not a lonely ascetic exploring at the extremes of contemporary culture, but an international star with his own gorgeous relic of a theater, the Bouffes du Nord in Paris. He works in conditions of considerable privilege, free from the treadmill of a fixed repertory, from the usual constraints on rehearsal times, and from exces-sive commercial pressures. Institutions around the world put up very large sums of money to create special conditions for the staging of his shows, as the Brooklyn Academy of Music did for the visit of his epic dramatization of The Mahabharata in 1987. Throughout his career, Brook has worked in the most opulent of art forms, opera, most recently directing Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. His experiments are subsidized by the French state and by corporate charitable foundations.
All of this is as it should be, and Brook’s work certainly justifies the resources given to it. But it does create a situation in which vague mysticism is hard to take. Brook’s theater, however much it may be motivated by a desire to seek out spiritual values beyond the fallen world of the contemporary West, is in fact very much a part of that world. The problem is that Brook tends to be rather coy about acknowledging this reality. There is a peculiar moment in Threads of Time when mysticism meets money and the encounter is especially embarrassing. Brook is trying to raise the funds to set up his institute in Paris. He arranges a meeting with “a Texas multimillionaire named Mr. Anderson” at the latter’s house in the ski resort of Aspen, Colorado. There is a spectacular collapse in the stock market, and Mr. Anderson is planning to turn down the request for funds. But his plane is unable to land because of fog and, embarrassed by his failure to meet a guest who has traveled so far to see him, he sends word by radio of his decision to give Brook the maximum available grant.
“So it was a tiny act of chance that shaped many years of activity,” Brook writes. “The International Center of Theater Research was born, thanks to a fog—the perfect symbol for a journey into the unknown.”
Instead of contemplating the irony that the search for theatrical forms beyond the inauthentic world of Western wealth has to be funded by an American multimillionaire, Brook takes flight, as he sometimes does in the face of difficult contradictions, in vapid metaphor. There is surely something amiss when the work of a research center can be symbolized by a fog. In The Empty Space thirty years ago, Brook himself warned that “if we get dissatisfied with the hollowness of so much of the theatre of revolutionaries and propagandists, we must not for this reason assume that the need to talk of people, of power, of money and of the structure of society is a passing fashion.”5 Yet too often, in discussing his own work, Brook manages to avoid precisely those subjects.
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.
November 19, 1998
The Shifting Point (Harper and Row, 1987), p. 8. ↩
See J.C. Trewin, Peter Brook: A Biography (London: Macdonald, 1971), pp. 34-35. ↩
Trewin, Peter Brook, p. 181. ↩
Trewin, Peter Brook, p. 180. ↩
The Empty Space (Simon and Schuster, 1997), pp. 96-97. ↩
Yoshi Oida and Lorna Marshall, The Invisible Actor (Routledge, 1998), pp. 62-63. ↩
The Shifting Point, p. 124. ↩
The interview is republished in The Shifting Point, pp. 135-137. ↩
The Shifting Point, p. 142. ↩
The interview is republished in Grand Street 66 (Fall 1998). ↩