Stage, Screen and Opera-Director Peter Brook Is Master of the Daring and Bizarre
The toddler, whose parents are members of Brook's acting company, will someday be told that he was the youngest person ever to see a show from the lap of the world's greatest, most daring stage director.
At 55, Peter Brook seems to possess almost spiritual power over people of all sizes and races. Though he is small and soft-spoken, he holds his gray, balding head with military erectness; his kind blue eyes have a steely center. In these contradictions lies a highly original mixture of Saint Francis and Napoleon Bonaparte.
This spring Brook took four plays to Australia and staged them in a quarry outside Adelaide. Now he is in New York City showcasing the same four plays at La Mama, a celebrated center for avant-garde theater, founded by his old friend Ellen Stewart. "We feel at home here," he says. The place swarms with actors of international backgrounds whom Brook has hired from Britain, Bali, Lebanon, the U.S., France, Africa, Germany, Greece and Japan. They perform in a mixture of English and French.
The son of émigré Russian scientists, Peter Stephen Paul Brook grew up in the comfortable London suburb of Chiswick, and showed a keen interest in the dramatic arts almost as soon as he was the age of the baby who interrupted his rehearsal. When Peter was 6, his father, Simon, a prosperous pharmaceuticals manufacturer who invented a popular laxative, gave him a toy theater. The boy promptly gave a six-hour performance of Hamlet, reciting all the roles to his stunned parents. The minute he heard their applause, he begged to do it all over again. They declined. In an early stab at filmmaking, Brook recalls, "I got outdoor 'dolly' shots by fixing a movie camera to a lawn mower and rolling it around."
In his early 20s, fresh out of Oxford, Brook was directing Shakespeare, Ibsen and Shaw, and though he could hardly read a note of music, he became head of production at London's Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. He also directed two Broadway musicals, including House of Flowers, a charming flop starring Pearl Bailey. When the Lunts made their final appearance on the stage, in Friedrich Durrenmatt's sinister The Visit, wunderkind Brook was again director. His biggest Broadway sensation was the brilliant 1965 nightmare by Peter Weiss called Marat/Sade. Acted by the Royal Shakespeare Company, it was imported intact from London, and introduced Glenda Jackson to American audiences. Superbly scary, Glenda was one of the inmates in a French insane asylum who supposedly were staging a play about the French Revolution directed by another inmate, the Marquis de Sade. As Charlotte Corday, she stabbed revolutionist Jean-Paul Marat to death in his bathtub, though she might have more effectively frightened him to death with her appearance. Brook required his actors to visit asylums and make a thoughtful study of their demented tenants.
The play carried a serious message about the conflict between idealism and tough pragmatism. But audiences were most shaken by its eeriness, and by a scene when Brook had Marat, played by Ian Richardson, bare his bottom at them. It was the most shocking bit of nudity seen up to then on the U.S. stage.
"I never use shock for its own sake," says Brook, "but to lift an audience out of its passive acceptance." In his version of Seneca's Oedipus, the play ended when a large gilded phallus was carried like a totem pole down the aisle by choristers singing Yes! We Have No Bananas. Laurence Olivier, head of Britain's National Theatre, objected. "He begged me not to do it," says Brook, "but I wanted to combat the stolid reaction to the old tragedy, to destroy the audience's sense of being official mourners, feeling nobly chilled, and confront them with something that seemed to boil up out of the lava of existence."
Brook's passion for hurdling the fences of orthodox entertainment led him to produce A Midsummer Night's Dream in a magical circus setting, with jugglers and acrobats and a scarlet feather bed floating in midair, and to direct a cast of schoolboy amateurs in the film version of William Golding's savage tale of children stranded on a tropical island, Lord of the Flies. His latest film, Meetings with Remarkable Men, deals with a Russian religious mystic, G.I. Gurdjieff, and his youthful quest for truth. Brook shot much of the film in the mountains of Afghanistan, where Gurdjieff had once roamed.
Brook's life entered a new phase with his growing desire to use the theater nonpolitically to help unify and encourage the races of man, or, as he puts it, "to crack the clichés of racial separation." Toward this end, in 1970 he started the Centre International de Recherche Théâtrale in Paris, where students of many nationalities are trained rigorously and incorporated into a touring company. For the last decade the center has been the heart of Brook's operations.
His family life is harmoniously flexible. Peter's beautiful Anglo-Russian wife, Natasha Parry, whom he met in London and married in 1951, is a busy film and stage actress. She is also a member of his troupe. They keep two apartments in Paris but share a London home. Their two children, Irina, 17, who Natasha says is a very "motherly" daughter with acting ambitions, and Simon, 13, whose principal preoccupation at the moment is model airplanes, go to boarding school in England. They often stay with the family between terms in the house outside of Paris where Natasha's mother lives.
In its first big tour, the CIRT troupe went to Iran for two months in 1971 at the invitation of the then Shah. Brook had a startling new play, written by Ted Hughes. Called Orghast, it was a melding of legends for which Hughes invented a new language, with echoes of ancient Greek and Latin. The strange tongue was meant to transcend workaday wordage. As one of Brook's actors explained, "We can't listen to our hearts because there are so many words in our minds."
The show was presented at sunset or in moonlight in the ruins of Persepolis, the ancient Persian capital of Cyrus and Darius the Great. "It was like being at Stonehenge when the Druids played," remembers actor Bruce Myers. The Shah never saw the drama but the Empress Farah did, surrounded by nervous troops who were baffled by what was going on and refused at first to let the actors onstage. A year later, learning of the Shah's despotism, Brook turned down further royal patronage and signed a manifesto against the monarch.
A more venturesome road show began in 1972 in Algiers. Brook and his wife led a troupe of 10 actors in a motorcade of five Land-Rovers and a giant truck on an 8,500-mile trek across the Sahara and into five African nations. Their equipment included 700 gallons of fuel, axes, crowbars and 8,000 tea bags—the transportation crew was English. There were almost no stage props except a big carpet that could be unrolled anywhere to indicate the acting area, and a collection of corrugated boxes for actors to jump into or hide behind.
The more primitive a village, the more Brook wanted to play there. Shows were announced by music. The actors took what they wanted from a box of instruments, mostly flutes and drums. Brook had two sticks to bang together. Many of the tribes who gathered around had no idea of a theater or a show. It didn't matter. As soon as the actors began to sing or dance or act out simple tales, the audience shouted and laughed. Perhaps for the first time, they were meeting visitors bent not on converting or exploiting them but simply on entertaining them. Brook invited the audiences to reciprocate with their own style of hootenannies. The visitors warmly applauded, and they were all in show business together. Brook found that the Africans quickly lost interest if any of his actors became perfunctory or fakey. They had an instinct for honest acting, and nothing would do but the best.
As told in a chronicle of the trip, Conference of the Birds by John Heilpern, there were troubles. Malaria, despite all medical precautions, felled almost all the actors. Brook was arrested on a (false) charge of stealing a mattress. A grateful tribe gave the troupe a live ram, which they had to butcher (sloppily). Despite all the tribulations, though, the tour was a smash hit and a haunting experience for actors and audiences.
The four plays now being shown in the U.S. have become classics in the troupe's repertory—yet the actors never stop polishing. After every performance, it is customary for the cast to sit in a circle on the floor with Brook. Faithful to these sessions as monks to matins, they discuss what went wrong or right, and what could be changed. Brush-up rehearsals are called continually, with Brook giving his actors such advice as "Try to rediscover what you are saying to each other."
The current program, which has been acclaimed by critics, includes a 12th-century Persian poem about a flock of birds flying to a magic mountain in search of a true God, only to find that the potential for godliness is within themselves. The story is made exciting by a wild cantata of chirping birds, masked creatures, a lordly ostrich and a VIP (Very Important Peacock).
Another folk play tells how a man through greed and selfishness wills himself to death. And still another, The Ik, is based on a true incident in Africa: A tribe of Ugandan hunters was forced out of its homeland to make room for a national park in 1946 and resettled on barren land. The tribesmen in the play become totally dehumanized by starvation. A mother, offering her famished child a bit of meat, holds it over a fire so that when he reaches for it his hand is scorched, and he runs away crying. The mother's insane laughter could be the death rattle of the whole world. In Ubu, the fourth production, greed is held up to wild, slapstick ridicule, as if the Marx Brothers were playing Macbeth.
Next season Brook's troupe will disband for a year. Alone, he will produce three works including his own idea of Carmen, and then go to India to prepare to rehearse his company, by then reassembled, in a dramatization of the legendary epic about civil war and peace, the Mahabharata.
Peter Brook has reached a position of immense freedom and privilege. He has been made a Commander of the British Empire. His projects are handsomely funded by many cultural foundations. He says, "I don't want to be the person who gives other people orders." In the theater he makes it possible for actors to express themselves freely; yet in the end he feels that he must assume complete responsibility. He longs for balance. "What I want in the world is a condition that is neither autocracy nor mess."