Peter Brook (born 1925) was a world renowned theater director, staging innovative productions of the works of famous playwrights.
Peter Brook was born in London in 1925, the son of immigrant scientists from Russia. A precocious child with a distaste for formal education but a love of learning, Brook performed his own four-hour version of Shakespeare's Hamlet at the age of seven. After spending two years in Switzerland recovering from a glandular infection, Brook became one of the youngest undergraduates at Oxford University. At the same time he wrote scripts for television commercials and introduced to London audiences his first professional stage production, Marlowe's Dr. Faustus.
Brook, called the "golden boy," did his first production at Stratford Theatre, one of the world's most prestigious stages, at the young age of 21. It was Shakespeare's Loves Labours Lost. He spent the next several years staging acclaimed productions of plays. He worked at the Covent Garden directing opera, as well as designing the sets and costumes for his productions. Always seeking innovations and styles which would make his productions speak to modern audiences, he ended this experience with opera by calling it "deadly theater." He directed plays with prominent actors, including Laurence Olivier in Titus Andronicus and Paul Schofield in King Lear. (Brook also directed the film version of this production.) In 1961 Peter Brook directed one of his seven films, the chilling Peter Shaffer adaptation of Lord of the Flies.
Despite his successes and the fact that he was named as one of the directors of the famous Royal Shakespeare Company in 1962, Brook continued to seek out alternative ways to create vibrant, meaningful theater. This search led him to direct a season of experimental theater with the Royal Shakespeare Company in which he was free from the commercial constraints of box office concerns. The season was called "Theatre of Cruelty," a name taken from the works of Antonin Artaud, one of this century's most influential theater men. Brook's desire was to turn away from stars and to create an ensemble of actors who improvised during a long rehearsal period in a search of the meaning of "holy theater."
Out of this search would come the director's finest work. In 1964 Brook directed Genet's The Screens and Peter Weiss' Marat Sade, for which he received seven major awards and introduced Glenda Jackson to the theater. Influenced by Bertolt Brecht and Artaud, Marat Sade shocked the audience with its insane asylum environment. In 1966 he developed US, a play about the Vietnam experience and the horrors of war. The production reflected a collective statement by all of the artists involved and was certainly a departure from traditional theater. Jerzy Grotowski, one of the most important theater directors of this century and a man who profoundly influenced Brook, came to work with the company during this production. Brook also did an adaptation of Seneca's Oedipus by Ted Hughes, a renowned English poet who continued to collaborate with the director for many years. The culmination of this phase of Brook's work was his production of A Midsummer Night's Dream (1970). Using trapezes, juggling, and circus effects, Brook and his actors created a sense of magic, joy, and celebration in this interpretation of Shakespeare's play. It was a masterpiece of the theater.
After this highly successful production, Brook went to Paris and founded the International Center of Theatre Research. He wanted to find a new form of theater that could speak to people worldwide—theater which was truly universal. He also wanted to work in an environment of unlimited rehearsal time in order to allow for a deep search-of-self for all involved. The first production that came out of this third phase was Orghast (1971), which employed a new language based on sound developed by Ted Hughes. This production, performed at the ruins of Persepolis in Persia, used actors from many different cultures. Brook sought a communication that transcends language, to find the common experience of all of us. In 1972 and 1973 his group traveled across the Sahara and elsewhere in Africa with the Conference of the Birds project, performing in each village and learning their ancient rituals.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Brook saw a variety of his productions staged, both in Europe and America. He directed The Cherry Orchard, first in Paris in 1981, then later in New York in 1988. Other works during this time included Tchin, Tchin (1984), Qui Est La (1996), and The Director Who … (1996).
Qui Est La was staged in Paris and was a reinterpretation of Hamlet. Typically for Brook, his choices were anything but traditional. At one point in the play, a character delivered a speech in Japanese, which led James Fenton to observe in The New York Review of Books (1996), "You are going to have to rely on your memory now, and on your imagination, as much as on what you see and hear." The play was not a complete Hamlet, as many might have hoped, but rather a combination of Shakespeare and Brook's dialogue about theater. Of the production, Fenton further observed, "What is tantalizing - frustrating even - is to see suggested a whole production of Hamlet…. only to have it whisked away again as we return to the dialogue about theater."
Brook never relied on traditional approaches in his direction. Although his next work, The Man Who … (1996), met better critical acclaim than Qui Est La, it too relied heavily on theory. Brook's objective with the play, as with many of his other works, was to transcend what separates all people, whether culturally or intellectually, and find a common language within the context of the play. In The Man Who …, he painted portraits of insanity, taken from the case studies of Oliver Sacks, a psychiatrist whose work formed the basis for the opera The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, as well as the film Awakenings (1991). In the play's program notes Brook wrote, "For a long while, within our theater work, I have been searching for a common ground that could involve the spectator directly…. whatever the social and national barriers, we all have a brain and we think we know it." His experiment met much critical success when performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in spring of 1996, though some reviewers didn't find the work entirely gratifying. In The New Republic Robert Brustein wrote, "[Brook] … persists in seeking One Worldism through theater experiments … The problem is that, whatever Brook's prodigious theatrical gifts, playwrighting is not among them. The piece grows tedious because it displays no dramatic progress."
This type of work was highly experimental in the world of theater and was not accepted by all. Undeterred by opinion, Brook proceeded into exploration of this little known area of the theater. He believed that traditional theater had lost its meaning, and his journey was to learn about his own barriers and his own deceptions and to face them. Essentially a theater scientist with an intellectual approach to theater, he wanted to discover the soul. Brook had the courage to be an innovator in the world of the theater.
Brook wrote an important book, The Empty Space (1968), and was the director of over 60 productions, including an acclaimed production of Bizet's opera Carmen.
Further Reading on Peter Brook
In 1988 Brook published his autobiography, The Shifting Point. Peter Brook, A Biography (1971) by J.C. Trewin is a thorough examination of Brook's work, and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Directors' Theatre (1968) by Judith Cook includes a short biography of the director. In 1996 several biographies were published, including Peter Brook: Directors in Perspective, edited by Albert Hunt and Geoffrey Reeves, as well as Into Brook's Rehearsal - And Beyond - An Actor Adrift, by Yoshi Oida with Lorna Marshall. The following books are examinations of individual productions or projects: Peter Brook's production of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1974) by Glen Loney; The Making of A Midsummer Night's Dream (1982) by David Selbourne; Orghast at Persepolis (1973) by Anthony Smith; US: The Book of the Royal Shakespeare Production (1968) by Peter Brook; and Conference of the Birds: the Story of Peter Brook in Africa (1977) by John Herlpern. For insight into Brook's theories see his book The Empty Space (1968).