Swans Commentary » swans.com June 6, 2005  



Peter Brook At Eighty


by Charles Marowitz






(Swans - June 6, 2005)   When I first met Peter Brook in the early sixties, he was just making that fateful transition from West End Wunderkind to avatar of the avant garde. For those who know him only in his latter guise, it may seem bizarre to imagine that he was a director who worked with performers like Clare Bloom, Pearl Bailey, Vivien Leigh, and Rex Harrison and staged commercial musicals such as "House of Flowers," "Irma la Douce" and the ill-fated Bond parody, "The Perils of Scobie Prilt," which may have been the only out-of-town production by Brook that never made it into London.

Always the conscious artist and painfully aware of the fact that there was a trendy public and a staid one, Peter was zealous about being associated with the former. It was that impulse that first drew him to Encore Magazine, a small circulation bi-monthly which had an influence out of all proportion to its minuscule readership. A magazine which, in the inchoate 1950s, was already championing Brecht, Artaud, Pinter and the dazzling new French ensembles like those of Jean Vilar and Roger Planchon.

I was one of its triumvirate of editors beavering away without pay for the greater glory of the New Wave, and it was there that I first came into contact with Peter. Both of us were, as he put it, "looking in the same direction, if not always seeing eye to eye." We corresponded about issues which appeared in various editions, found we shared an admiration for Antonin Artaud and eventually met up in person. He would often pump me about what members of the staff felt about this or that new production, the tacit assumption being that there was a hip way of viewing current events in the theatre and one that was more practiced and bourgeois. Rather than disillusion him, I refrained from explaining that some of the "hipper" members of Encore's inner circle were too doctrinal and dogmatic in their socialist beliefs to be able to deliver enlightened opinions about anything which wasn't heavily steeped in Marxism.

Out of these talks came an invitation to collaborate on the Jan Kott-inspired, Paul Scofield production of "King Lear" which Peter was readying for the Royal Shakespeare Company. I was duly taken on as Assistant Director and unofficial dramaturgist for a walloping twelve pounds a week and immediately entered the charmed circle which was then dominated by Brook, Peter Hall, Michel St. Denis, and John Barton. My main function in this venture was discussing with Peter the intellectual nuances of Shakespeare's play; why Edgar, brutally cobbled by his nefarious brother Edmund, decides to pretend to be a half-naked, maniac roaming the countryside; why Gloucester doesn't recognize his errant son when they meet in the hovel; how to prevent Regan and Goneril from becoming the twin "wicked sisters" of British pantomime, etc. etc. I delivered my copious notes on the production's progress, made two or three specific suggestions about interpretation but essentially was there as a kind of intellectual mascot to help Peter clarify his ideas about the most opaque classic in the Shakespearean canon. The other members of the company kept darting suspicious glances towards the young, bearded American who seemed to be a troubling, usually silent, presence during rehearsals; could he be a kind of company mole planted there to report esthetic transgressions to the Master?

What struck me most forcibly about Peter's work with the actors was that they were passionate about pleasing him. There was an enormous respect for this -- even then -- legendary theatre director, and all their offerings came out of a psychological context in which they would sooner impale themselves on naked spears than offer routine or sub-standard results to so demanding a director. I discovered that one of a director's most effective tools is the allegiance of a devoted company; but of course, to reap the artistic benefits of that allegiance, the director himself must first have accumulated a track record as impressive as Peter's.

Two incidents stand out from that rehearsal period. At one, the costume designer balked at Peter's requirement that the costumes for Lear's daughters be made out of real leather. Protesting the excessive cost of such an extravagance, he vociferously opted for "leatherette," a plasticized version of leather which would "read" as leather from the front, but Peter wasn't buying it. Real leather had a texture and swish to it which could not be duplicated by any cheaper substitute. The designer refused to approve the excessive cost and blurted out many of the stupid things irate designers say at rehearsals when their suggestions are repulsed. Peter, in a very low, balanced, and barely audible voice replied: "I am very angry about this," although nothing in his tone or manner betrayed any anger. He might just as well have been saying: "I see then we will have to agree to disagree" but what was pulsating beneath that placid, utterly calm façade was the swirling "anger" he was quietly declaring. He got his genuine leather.

At one rehearsal, there was a set of drums in the studio and Peter sat down behind them and started beating out different tattoos and cymbal clashes. "Wouldn't it be marvelous," he said, "if we could use rhythms like this as directions to actors, instead of words." It was a period when "the word" had fallen into disrepute and rooting out subterranean "sub-text" had an appeal that no linguistic construction, no matter how eloquent, could possibly equal. That was the way Peter's mind worked. It was constantly searching for alternative means of expressing ideas. It was that instinct which probably led him to Antonin Artaud's "Theatre and Its Double" and to our next collaboration which was the creation of a "Theatre of Cruelty Season" in a small theatrical adjunct to the Royal Shakespeare Company off Sloane Square where many of Artaud's more tantalizing ideas could be researched and tested.

Artaud had been one of my own early mentors and I, like many directors of that period, were intellectually bewitched by the ideas of the mad Frenchman who, in his early 40s, after a life willed with tragic failures, wound up in a mental institution at Rodez. I had produced one of the first documentaries on Artaud for the BBC and had written an article for The Evergreen Review about his malevolent incarceration under the oppressive domination of the psychiatrist Dr. Gaston Ferdiere. It was while preparing the Theatre of Cruelty Season (a term created by Artaud himself) that Peter and I delved deeply into the poet's writing to see how ideas he himself never managed to realize could be fleshed out using a hand-picked group of actors under the aegis of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC).

I was instructed to cull from several hundred applicants an underpaid squad of twelve actors and actresses that would be given three months of rigorous training based on Artaudian precepts, without any actual production being slated. (The running joke was that the definition of "Theatre of Cruelty" was "twelve actors earning twelve pounds a week.") Among the new recruits was a sorely unemployed actress named Glenda Jackson and about a dozen other talented and adventurous performers ready to join and Peter and me in leaping into the deep end. Here, the collaboration changed radically. The improvisations, exercises, tests and tactics I devised for the actors, derived from work I had been doing with my own company, was alien territory to Peter and he was eager to sop it up. I could feel myself being excavated for tests, tactics, and techniques which were as novel to Peter as they were to the actors, but always with staunch encouragement and rabid curiosity. Improvisation was then something of a dirty word in the British theatre. The more stolid members of the RSC rejected it out of hand and when in 1963 William Gaskill tried to introduce it to members of The National Theatre Company in his production of Farquhar's "The Recruiting officer," one could feel the resistance, like a volt of electricity, shudder through the rehearsal room. Olivier, to his credit, broke the ice by saying: "Why not have a go?" and so a crude but self-conscious form of improv actually took place, although long after the event Olivier admitted it served no useful purpose in a context with traditionally trained, established West End actors. At the RSC Experimental Group, it was spoon-fed to twelve actors on a regular basis for three months and, because it was underwritten and encouraged by Peter, became a vital force in subsequent productions such as the opening surrealist revue which was labeled "Theatre of Cruelty Season," Genet's "The Screens" and later, the "Marat/Sade."

Throughout this period Peter was open to every innovation that emerged; expressing dramatic impulses using only paint on canvas, inventing sounds, cries and alternating rhythms, giving nonsense texts subtextual meaning which, though sometimes in gibberish, could still be communicated to an audience. It was an adventurous, startling, endlessly stimulating experience for all the members of this Dangerous Dozen and no one was more conducive to the bizarre, the exceptional, the outrageous and the "off the wall" than the man who, heretofore, had established a reputation as a talented and commercially respectable member of England's theatrical Establishment.

Peter was always the epitome of good sense, intellectual curiosity, and unpredictable innovation, but highly susceptible to betrayal. He had come up through the theatrical ranks easily but warily: "Easily" because he was already a theatrical luminary as a precocious undergraduate at Oxford, the breeding ground from which leaders of the British theatre were regularly cultivated; and "warily" because early in his career he had been exposed to the treacherous in-fighting that besets all theatre practitioners and had seen ambitious people use guile and trickery to further their own causes and try to outfox the competition. Peter felt, and probably still feels, that allegiance once offered and accepted forges an insoluble bond which should never be broken. In our case, that bond was frayed, if not actually broken, when as a critic in the late 1960s, I expressed a dim view of his anti-Vietnam farrago "US." One of the tenets of loyalty, it seemed, was restraint, and restraint meant not voicing negative criticism against those with whom one had previously been professionally involved. Now that he has escalated from "outstanding British director" to International Icon, I would imagine he has discarded much of that vulnerability. "Enemies" no longer exist that can possibly threaten either his status or his achievement. Peter has reached the point where even poor reviews cannot diminish the glitter of the work he deems to be worth undertaking.

Every artist is, consciously or unconsciously, eclectic. They alchemize ideas and inferences from other people's work into their own. Peter took many of Artaud's ideas and gave them a form they never had before; he worked closely with Jerzy Grotowsky and that minimalist approach to theatre unquestionably influenced his own scaled-down work on the classics. Several of his French productions most notably the "Mahabharata" have been filtered through his immersion in the ideas of Gurdjieff -- just as many of his earlier productions bear the circus-like influences of Meyerhold, a director we all know only by legendary report, although I know of no one who has actually beheld a Meyerhold production with his own eyes. But in the process of theatrical alchemy, once base metal has been transformed into gold, its former constituents no longer exist; it has been enriched by the metamorphosis into richer material, and that is the real point about Peter's achievements. He is the catalyst who, after effecting the changes that take place through catalysis, remains unchanged at the end. It is Peter's style and sensibility that emerges with pristine clarity, even when, on reflection, we detect trace-elements of other artists.

As he has entered his 80th year (he turned 80 on March 21, 2005), Peter reveals none of the creaky signs of the octogenarian. His latest work, "Tierno Bokar," is yet another excursion into what Michael Billington described as "timeless questions about the subversiveness of faith, the meaning of existence and the conflict of free will and destiny;" intellectual preoccupations he has been dealing with since "Caspar" and "Les Iks." The mind is bristlingly alive and the instinct to create is as ravenous as it ever was. The great advantage of being genuinely "avant garde" is that everyone else has to double-time in order to catch up with you. In theatres in both the East and the West, directors are still playing catch-up while Peter himself, surging forward, disappears behind a cloud of dust.

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About the Author

Charles Marowitz on Swans (with bio). [Charles Marowitz worked in close collaboration at the Royal Shakespeare Company with Peter Brook and elsewhere.]



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Old Set, Establishment And The Rest Of Us - Milo Clark

Have The Meanings Of Words Been Hijacked? - Philip Greenspan

Decline And Fall Of The Plastic Empire - John Steppling

Funding A Rational Treatment For Obesity - Jan Baughman

Saul Bellow In Retrospect - Louis Proyect

Peter Brook At Eighty - Charles Marowitz

Stalin's Dream State - Poem by Gerard Donnelly Smith

A Plea To The US Antiwar Movement - Joe Davison

Blips #20 - From the Editor's desk

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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art11/cmarow19.html
Published June 6, 2005