Theater as we know it was born 2,500 years ago with Aeschylus. And reborn 97 years ago, with Peter Brook.
Whether you are aware of it or not, if you are a lover of what comes to vibrant life in an empty space, your experience was nourished by Brook. “The Empty Space,” in fact, is the title of his renowned book, the slim volume that has schooled generations of directors, actors, designers and audiences in the endless, adventurous possibilities of meeting in a room for the enrichment of the soul.
“A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged,” Brook wrote. That sentence is etched in figurative marble on the walls of every rehearsal room, drama school classroom, conventional auditorium or repurposed warehouse in which theater unfolds. The statement was an abiding feature of his own artistry, which took him on a kind of reverse journey, from some of the grandest halls of his profession to far humbler ones.
“It declares that theater is the art form of human beings,” Gregory Mosher, the Tony-winning director and friend for 50 years, said Sunday of Brook’s ethos. “We’re about the complexity of being alive. That’s the theater, and that mystery — because people are a mystery — was a lifelong quest for him.”
Brook was not contained by theories. He led by example. In 1970, he revolutionized how we saw Shakespeare by staging “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in a white box (designed by Sally Jacobs) with actors on trapezes. (Among them, Ben Kingsley, Frances de la Tour and, a year later, Patrick Stewart.) The Royal Shakespeare Company production expunged “limits” from the vocabulary of classical staging, a controversial service he provided again in dazzling fashion a decade later for opera, with a compressed and restructured version of Bizet’s “La Tragédie de Carmen” on carpets and sand.
He out-Brecht-ed Brecht with Peter Weiss’s “Marat/Sade” for the RSC in the 1960s, a shattering coup de théâtre with Glenda Jackson as an asylum inmate and Patrick Magee as the Marquis de Sade. He daringly ventured further afield for textual inspiration, with a nine-hour production of the Sanskrit epic “The Mahabharata.” At the height of his powers in the ’70s, he set up shop in Paris at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, the location that would be his creative engine for much of his ever-metamorphosing career.
“He had been working with the greatest actors in the English language and walked away from that,” observed Mosher, now professor and theater department chair at Manhattan’s Hunter College. “He sat down in a burned-out old theater on the north side of Paris, and with this group, tried to figure out what theater was — at a time when he was the most important director in the English language.”
Brook coined the cautionary phrase “deadly theater,” which exists as a challenge to every director and actor. Brook was both an inveterate showman — he owned Tonys for both “Marat/Sade” and “Midsummer” — and an advocate for those coming up after him, urging they not be held back by custom. “We talk of the cinema killing the theatre,” he wrote in “The Empty Space” back in 1968, “and in that phrase we refer to the theatre as it was when the cinema was born, a theatre of box office, foyer, tip-up seats, footlights, scene changes, intervals, music, as though the theatre was by very definition these and little more.”
His work with text was nonpareil; his 1962 RSC production of “King Lear,” for instance, starring the incomparable Paul Scofield (and later made into a movie) presented a tragedy in stark and forbidding coldness. That inclination for authenticity of language didn’t perforce yield greatness: His stripped-down version of “The Cherry Orchard” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1988, performed in the barest of surroundings, on Persian rugs, prefigured other minimalist revivals of Chekhov. But it proved a tediously long sit, freighted perhaps by an underwhelming translation.
It was, though, an indicator of Brook’s trajectory as a theater artist, as he intensified his search in his later years for what is quintessentially human in the empty space. In 2005, Mosher, then at Barnard College, brought Brook’s “Tierno Bokar,” a fable about a Muslim ascetic, set in a West African village, to a converted gymnasium at the college. What I remember most about it was its stillness, and my unsuccessful effort to adjust my overactive metabolism to its soft rhythms. As I reflect on Brook’s visionary prescriptions, I wonder whether, in these turbulent times, I’d be better able to appreciate the outstretched hand from another culture.
Then again, in what would prove to be a twilight exhibition of Brook’s greatness, one could sense the fullness of this incomparable director’s journey. “The Suit,” performed at the Kennedy Center in 2014, a South African story by Can Themba (with direction and music by Brook, Marie-Hélène Estienne and Franck Krawczyk), seemed at one with Brook’s long-ago ruminations about theater’s boundless potential. The tale is of the revenge a cuckolded husband exacts on his wife, in the form of a suit her lover has left behind. It prompted me to write: “The suit, propped on a chair at the dinner table, its arms hanging loosely, resembles a corpse. And when we gaze at it, what we see is a kind of death — the mortal remains of a troubled union.”
That mystery of human complexity is what animated Brook. The lyrical power of that evening reminds me of the words with which he ends “The Empty Space”:
“In the theatre, ‘if’ is the truth,” he wrote. “When we are persuaded to believe in this truth, then the theatre and life are one. This is a high aim. It sounds like hard work. To play needs much work. But when we experience the work as play, then it is not work any more. A play is play.”
No one played with more joy, and more freedom, than Peter Brook.