Showman v. Shaman

David Edgar

  • Threads of Time by Peter Brook
    Methuen, 241 pp, £17.99, May 1998, ISBN 0 413 69620 0

For all its glories, the postwar British theatre has driven an embarrassing number of its brightest stars into exile. Conventional wisdom attributes this to a combination of parsimony and pragmatism. Finding the balance between inadequate subsidy and the need for the box office to make up the shortfall has contributed to a no-nonsense, suck-it-and-see anti-intellectualism. For socialist playwrights like John Arden and Edward Bond, the consequence, in one case, is external and in the other a form of internal exile. But the most noted instance of the prophet rejecting his own country is the director Peter Brook who, having forged a glittering career in the British theatre, from a consummate King Lear to a definitive Midsummer Night’s Dream, decided to up sticks and set up an international company of actors abroad.

Peter Brook describes Threads of Time as ‘a relatively full answer’ to the question ‘Why Paris?’ It is the first of his books not to have started out in another form. The Empty Space (1968) was based on lectures; The Shifting Point (1988) consists of articles, interviews, speeches, programme notes and other occasional writings drawn from his whole career; There Are No Secrets (1993) began life as three talks on acting delivered in Paris and Kyoto.

The new book is a memoir and started out as it is. Brook’s autobiographical writing is recognisably clean, clear and colloquial, only occasionally falling into what David Hare calls ‘the Esperanto patter of the higher mysticism’. From the start, Brook avoids ‘personal relationships, indiscretions, indulgences, excesses, names of close friends, private angers, family adventures or debts of gratitude’, though there is a wistful moment later on when he speaks of the ‘book that is not to be written’, a family history of memories that belong only to those who share them. Equally, he claims to have spurned ‘the well-known splendours and miseries of first nights’.

Unencumbered by private or professional anecdotage, Brook is able to chart two voyages of discovery. The first is his conversion from the magical illusion of the toy theatre (what he calls the conventional ‘two room’ theatre of darkened auditorium and blazingly illuminated stage) to the sterner, less flashy but infinitely more powerful theatrical space that is the shared possession of actors and audiences. Parallel to this journey is his trajectory from ambitious theatrical prodigy to Zen pupil, from busy careerist to seeker after spiritual truth. Like the rivers which provide so much of Brook’s theatrical and literary imagery, these two courses eventually meet, as Brook starts to work developmentally with small groups in the Royal Shakespeare Company. ‘For years,’ he writes, ‘I had rigorously kept my inner explorations and theatre experiments apart.’ However, ‘nothing can stay for long in watertight compartments’ and in the early Sixties Brook realised that, far from being the truth-seeker’s day job, ‘the theatre was becoming a practical field in which the possibility existed of observing laws and structures parallel to those found in traditional teaching.’

This book charts the consequences: the Theatre of Cruelty work at the RSC leading to the celebrated productions of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade, the Vietnam-based ‘group-happening-collaborative spectacle’ US, and finally the Dream; the setting up of his Paris ensemble in the early Seventies; his search for the well-springs of mimesis in the villages of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and on to his productions based on the Sufi poem ‘The Conference of the Birds’, Colin Turnbull’s anthropology, the Hindu epic Mahabharata and Oliver Sacks’s The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat. Often Brook writes of unlearning as much as learning: the story he tells is of a man peeling away the trivial theatrical trickery that had first seduced him, and finding amid the ruins of the footlights and the proscenium arch the foundations of his chosen medium.

Yet for a book so assertively unluvvie, there is still more than a whiff of the sort of theatrical memoir in which you demand and expect three good backstage yarns before the end of Chapter One. There are indeed a lot of excellent theatrical anecdotes, not all of them unthreatening to the dignity and grandeur of Brook’s project. There are, it is true, some possibly apocryphal stories which do not find a place: the incident when the actors in US, told to put paper bags on their heads and think of Vietnam, slipped quietly and silently from the rehearsal room, leaving the still-bagged Brook alone; and the occasion when John Gielgud, invited with the rest of the cast of Seneca’s Oedipus to think of the worst piece of news he could possibly hear, announced: ‘We open on Tuesday.’ There are also some stories which appear in truncated form: the actor, again in US, who let loose a box full of butterflies, picked up the last one by its wings, and burnt it with a Zippo lighter – Brook admits it was a paper butterfly, but not that he’d threatened the RSPCA that if they told anybody, he’d have the actor burn a real one.

The stories he tells against himself include the incident, early in his work in Paris, when he repeated a successful Stratford experiment and brought in children to join the work. The company tried to encourage the children to enjoy the freedom of the space, but they ran wild: ‘after a humiliating session when they had seized our bamboo sticks, chased us into corners, and beaten us up, we thought again.’ Then there was the ancient dervish, of whom Brook asked a very carefully composed metaphorical question about hearing sounds in his house: the sage responded by enquiring if they might come from pipes, and whether he had called a builder. Earlier, Brook confesses that, establishing his authority as a young director, he dressed down Jeanne Moreau for being a quarter of an hour late on the first day of rehearsals, only to discover that his watch was set 14½ minutes fast.

This is not the only story of celebrity. Brook is both engaging and perceptive about his relationship with Laurence Olivier, whose brilliance and speed in performance masked a peasant doggedness in rehearsal (‘The dazzling virtuosity of his acting came from a painstakingly composed mosaic of tiny details, which when finally assembled could flash by in sequence with breathtaking speed, giving the illusion of glittering thought’). Having worked with Salvador Dalí at Covent Garden (where he was artistic director at the age of 22), Brook was slightly disappointed on a visit to Cadaques to find the great surrealist a serious and uneccentric collaborator – until the morning when his host appeared with a flower in each nostril, announcing: ‘We have guests.’

So what is happening here? Is this enjoyable knockabout merely a response to the demands of the form? Or are we to take the anecdotes as a kind of warning, a ‘before’ photograph in the advertisement for Brook’s disillusion with the theatre of glamour, magic and spectacle?

Brook describes his career as a series of oscillations, provoked (surprisingly for so seemingly sepulchral a figure) by a kind of panic. It becomes clear that what might appear to be a linear progression from showman to shaman is actually a continuing struggle between the two. In his preface to The Shifting Point, Brook admits that while he has never believed in a single truth, he has discovered that at any one time ‘one can only live by a passionate, and absolute, identification with a point of view.’ Certainly, a cynic could regard his Sixties writings as a catalogue of aesthetic and political fads, not all of them entirely benign (‘In Peking today,’ he argues in The Empty Space, ‘it seems to make good sense to show giant Wall Street caricature figures plotting war and destruction and getting their just deserts’). But time serves more often to soften current prejudices, most clearly in Brook’s view of the much maligned theatrical decade in which his career began. So in 1960, the theatre of the Forties was ‘a tired attempt to reassert pre-1940 cultural values’; eight years later, it was ‘the theatre of a battered Europe that seemed to share one aim – a reaching back towards a memory of lost grace’. And in Threads of Time, Brook’s patron, Sir Barry Jackson of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, the author of many ‘fleeting images of delight’ in the Forties, has emerged as a kind of hero.

Brook’s move away from the theatre of illusion did not involve the retrospective intolerance usually associated with conversion. He admits that having been forced by circumstances into producing a Covent Garden Bohème with the faded prewar backcloths, he realised that the opera ‘will never look so good again, and I willingly accept that even the war against tradition has its exceptions’. He quotes, rather disarmingly, his own utterly persuasive case for picture-frame theatre to a young architect in the Fifties, all of the arguments of which he had rejected by the time the theatre was built. As is clear from the tortuous story of how he financed and completed his film of Lord of the Flies, he is not immune to the bruising pleasures of making do in a commercial world (‘This was not an ideal technique,’ he says of the cut and paste editing, ‘but it was the only technique open to us’). And while his whole directorial career has been about not cutting corners, he admits that there are moments in any rehearsal process when the only useful things to tell the actors are ‘Speed up,’ ‘Get on with it,’ ‘It’s boring’ and ‘Vary the pace.’

Boredom is, in fact, a crucial concept in Brook’s aesthetic. Its presence is ‘a guide that has helped me again and again in the theatre’; his mission is the ‘deep desire not to inflict on others that squirming and wriggling misery, that mind-killing ennui that was so often my experience during my first years of theatregoing’. In The Shifting Point, he invents a parable in which God writes down the one thing that is essential to the theatre: not belief, or passion, or conflict, or recognition, or scale, but ‘interest’.

What is clear from all his writings is that Brook’s theatre is not the opposite but an extension of showbiz. In The Empty Space, Brook describes how, in ancient Mexico, ‘gangs of slaves had to carry giant stones through the jungle and up the mountains, while their children pulled their toys on tiny rollers.’ The point being that when ‘good actors play in bad comedies or second-rate musicals, when audiences applaud indifferent classics because they enjoy just the costumes or just the way the sets change, or just the prettiness of the leading actress, there is nothing wrong. But none the less, have they noticed what is underneath the toy they are dragging on a string? It’s a wheel.’

It was this which Brook went to Paris to reinvent. There has been much criticism (within the profession) of Brook’s decision to leave his country. There has much greater criticism (from the academy) of what he did when he arrived. Most virulent have been the attacks on what is generally seen as his greatest project, Jean-Claude Carrière’s massive adaptation of the Mahabharata, which has been variously accused of insensitivity, trivialisation, Eurocentrism, neocolonialism, racism and a ‘Messianic paternalism, translating the mysterious into the banal for the grateful, exotica-starved home-front’ – this last from Lisa Henderson, quoted in Peter Brook and the Mahabharata, edited by David Williams (1991). The most sustained attack is by Rustom Bharucha (again, in Williams), which places detailed criticisms of Brook/Carrière’s treatment of key episodes from the narrative within an overall charge of cultural appropriation for the international market. Bharucha sees Brook’s Mahabharata as an essential part of his universalist Parisian project – the assembly of an international group of actors from a wide variety of backgrounds and cultures in order to find out what, if anything, they share – while arguing, compellingly, that the Mahabharata cannot be understood outside the context of the Hindu culture.

Brook has not answered these accusations in either of the books he has published since, which is a pity. Like many academic critics of artistic endeavour (though he is also a practitioner), Bharucha assumes that when Brook proclaims a theory he doesn’t quite know what he is doing. (Similarly, Williams accuses Brook of ‘a defensive philosophical smokescreen of equivocating vagaries’.) Certainly, Bharucha’s personal remarks about Brook – and his endlessly repeated attacks on Brook and Carrière for trivialising the Indian epic to accord with Western tastes – are intended to suggest that any theoretical framework Brook might come up with is self-serving.

In 1973, Brook described the purpose of assembling his Paris company. It was not a skills swapshop, each member displaying his tricks and operating ‘an exchange of techniques’. Rather, Brook said, ‘we are seeking for what gives a form of culture its life – not studying the culture itself but what is behind it’; allowing a new situation to emerge ‘which enables people of all origins to create together’ and what they create to take ‘on a colour of its own’. Brook felt the only way to achieve this was to remove his actors from any known cultural context – from any possibility of shared jokes, signs or even language. For the same reason, Brook’s first major performance project was to seek what he described as an ‘optimum’ audience in the villages of rural Africa, to the chiefs of which he would announce that ‘we are trying to see if communication is possible between people from many different parts of the world.’

Brook was aware of the horror with which anthropologists (and literary critics) would greet such an idea, but argued that while cultural habits go deeper than clothing, each race and each culture, stripped of these specificities, ‘can bring its own word to a phrase which unites mankind’, the moment ‘to which all theatre leads’. In this he may be wrong, but he knows what he’s saying, and he has thought through the consequences. Throughout his career, Brook has sought to define the nature of that moment, of itself and in relation to the moments which surround it. In the essays that make up The Shifting Point, Brook frequently reiterates his belief that theatre is fundamentally about concentration (‘Shakespeare seems better in performance than anyone else because he gives us more, moment for moment, for our money’). In There Are No Secrets, he defines the intensity of the theatre moment in terms of the actor’s ability to concentrate his or her intellect, emotion and physicality in the service of a single intention.

Brook has always recognised that the individual moment only communicates meaning as part of a flow, consisting of moments of varying intensity, during the entirety of a theatrical event. Threads of Time is his most sustained attempt to define this flow theoretically, and, indeed, autobiographically. His search for a universal quality in experience began with his discovery of the rules of proportion in painting and architecture, and his realisation that ‘the movement of the eye as it passes across a painting or across the vaults and arches of a great cathedral is related to a dancer’s leaps and turns and to the pulse of music.’ It was his perception of rhythm in this sense – the search for what in life ‘can bring to the shapeless succession of moments their true beat and flow’ – that led Brook to merge his spiritual and artistic journeys.

This project can be and has been accused both of presumption and pretentiousness. Of the first, it must be said that it accords with what directors, writers, actors and audiences actually do more accurately and usefully than any theoretical model of their endeavours. And the fact that actors and audiences from so many different cultures have found that Brook’s project speaks to them would suggest that some universal set of shapes, tempos and proportions might indeed cross cultures and unite them.

On the question of pretension, it seems to me that Brook is saved by his past. Whether or not the solution lies in Paris, Brook’s question could only be asked by someone who spent his formative years trying to stop British audiences falling asleep. Einstein once said that not having asked the usual child’s questions about the universe, he was able to bring an adult intellect to bear on them when he got round to asking why stars twinkle and the sun shines. When Brook started his career, he was ignorant of the theoretical schools of Continental theatre, with their masters and maestros, their sacred texts and bitter denunciations. He came into a theatre in which Paul Scofield could go from King Lear into a West End musical and not see any essential difference between the two endeavours. Only in England could Brook have posed the question he has striven to answer in France.