Farewell Peter Brook...
I learned of Peter Brook's passing on July 2 while sitting at the airport waiting for my flight to London. It has taken me a few days to process. Brook, one of the greatest and most influential theatre directors of our time, changed my life. He was the main reason I decided to pursue a doctorate in theatre. I really didn't know much about Brook until my master’s program when I read several of his books (The Empty Space, The Open Door, The Shifting Point, Threads of Time), watched Marat/Sade, The Mahabharata, and whatever else I could find, and facilitated a lecture/discussion on him in my Theatre/Theory class. I was immediately enraptured with this theatre pioneer, with his work, and with how he could articulate, so poetically, what he was searching for (and fighting against). He inspired me to go deeper as a theatre artist-scholar, to experiment further, to question and question again.
When I decided to focus my graduate research on improvisation, and particularly, on the work of Keith Johnstone, who also personally encourages me to question everything, Brook’s theories resonated anew. Brook applied improvisations in rehearsals as early as 1963 during the Theatre of Cruelty season at RSC. The aim of improvisation, for Brook, was always to get away from Deadly Theatre, that is, bad theatre, theatre that “fails to elevate or instruct” and “hardly even entertains” (Empty Space 8).
When Johnstone first applied improvisations at the Royal Court's Studio, it was to explore and research the nature of comic improvisation but also to unearth authentic human behavior from professional actors using techniques that relied on spontaneity and imagination. This was Johnstone’s fight against Deadly Theatre (or what he sometimes called “necrophilia theatre” or “theatre of taxidermy”!).
Although Brook and Johnstone’s careers and body of work greatly differ, both fought against the establishment and both were extremely interested in the unique communion between performers and spectators. In The Open Door, Brook advised the spectator: “Each time you go to the theatre and you are bored, not to hide it, not to believe that you are the guilty party, that it is your fault. Do not let yourselves be truncheoned by the beautiful idea of ‘culture’. Ask yourself the question: ‘Is there something missing in me or in the show?’ You have the right to challenge this insidious idea, socially accepted today, that ‘culture’ is automatically ‘superior’.”
In the program for the first Loose Moose Theatre Company production of Waiting for Godot, directed by Johnstone, Keith wrote: “Theatre has to be funny, or sad, or awesome. It has to do more than make the audience feel ‘cultured’, or ‘educated’, or ‘superior’. Many people…will watch any sort of crap as long as it’s packaged as CULTURE…. Theatre as a ‘cultural experience’ is like a church without God.” And just below this declaration were 4 “Culture Stamps,” featuring the Moose mascot, for audience members to cut out and paste into their Culture Booklets. One full booklet entitled the owner to miss any culture event over the following 3 months!
Stylistically different, too, but both Brook and Johnstone aimed to create immediate theatre that would not put the audience (Keith’s “large intelligent beast that needs to be tickled”) to sleep. Both also pushed boundaries and emigrated from Britain in the early 70s. Brook went to France and Johnstone to Canada. Brook once said in an interview, "The only place I can't get my plays on is Britain." Keith said as much about his plays which almost always garnered aggressive critical responses, bad and good.
Brook, like Johnstone, was always questioning what theatre could do, what it was for, who it served, and how it functioned. He spent a lifetime searching for answers within and beyond theatre spaces and I am so grateful for his work, his research, his words.
Unfortunately, I never saw, in person, a production directed by Peter Brook; but in 2011, while on a research trip for the biography I was writing on Johnstone, I did see Kafka’s Monkey directed by Walter Meierjohann starring the amazing Kathryn Hunter at Brook’s Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris. I understood immediately why Brook had brought this Young Vic production to his theatre.
In The Empty Space, Brook outlines his “acid test.” It is the answer to the question, “When a performance is over, what remains?” He says it’s not the fun had, the emotions felt, or the arguments made, but, rather: “When emotion and argument are harnessed to a wish from the audience to see more clearly into itself – then something in the mind burns. The event scorches on to the memory an outline, a taste, a trace, a smell – a picture. It is the play’s central image that remains, it’s silhouette, and if the elements are rightly blended this silhouette will be its meaning, this shape will be the essence of what it has to say.” He continues: “When years later I think of a striking theatrical experience I find a kernel engraved on my memory: two tramps under a tree, an old woman dragging a cart, a sergeant dancing, three people on a sofa in hell – or occasionally a trace deeper than any imagery.” Kafka’s Monkey, its central image, its essence burned in my mind and changed the way I think about theatre and about how humans live. And just being in Brook’s theatre, where center stage is only 10 meters from furthest spectator at ground level, was magical. I felt his presence in every detail.
Thank you, Peter Brook, for inspiring so many. And thank you to those researchers and scholars who continued to interview and write about Brook over his long life and to the educators who will share his legacy with future theatre makers. It is important we do not forget these trailblazers.