Peter Brook, celebrated stage director of scale and humanity, dies at 97

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Peter Brook, celebrated stage director of scale and humanity, dies at 97
Malia Bendi-Merad and Raphael Bremard in Peter Brook's "Magic Flute," at John Jay College in New York, July 5, 2011. Brook, whose ambitious, adventurous and endlessly creative stage work ranged across seven decades on both sides of the Atlantic and earned him a place among the greatest theater directors of the 20th century, died on Saturday, July 3, 2022. He was 97. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Benedict Nightingale

NEW YORK, NY.- Peter Brook, whose ambitious, adventurous and endlessly creative stage work ranged across seven decades on both sides of the Atlantic and earned him a place among the greatest theater directors of the 20th century, died Saturday. He was 97.

His death was confirmed by his son, Simon, who did not specify where he died.

“Peter is the quester,” director Peter Hall once said, “the person out on the frontiers, continually asking what is quality in theater, where do you find truth in theater.”

He added: “He is the greatest innovator of his generation.”

Peter Brook was called many other things: a maverick, a romantic, a classicist. But he was never easily pigeonholed. British by nationality but based in Paris since 1970, he spent years in commercial theater, winning Tony Awards in 1966 and 1971 for the Broadway transfers of highly original productions of Peter Weiss’ “Marat/Sade” and Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” He staged crowd-pleasers like the musical “Irma la Douce” and Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge.”

He was equally at home directing Shakespeare, Shaw, Beckett, Cocteau, Sartre and Chekhov. And he coaxed brilliance out of actors like Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, John Gielgud, Paul Scofield, Alec Guinness, Glenda Jackson, and Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.

But he was also an experimenter and a risk-taker. He brought a stunning nine-hour adaptation of the Sanskrit epic “The Mahabharata” from France to New York in 1987. In 1995, he followed the same route with “The Man Who,” a stark staging of Oliver Sacks’ neurological case studies. In 2011, when he was 86, he brought an almost equally pared-down production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” (he called it “A Magic Flute”) to the Lincoln Center Festival.

Restless and unpredictable, Brook was also indefatigable, staging almost 100 productions over his long and acclaimed career.

He first won a reputation for freshness and daring in 1946, when, at 21, he staged a precocious revival of Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost” in Stratford-upon-Avon, where Barry Jackson, the director, was in charge of the summer festival. “The youngest earthquake I’ve known,” Jackson called him.

Peter Stephen Paul Brook was born in London on March 21, 1925, a son of Jewish immigrants from Latvia. His father, Simon Bryk, had moved from his Baltic village to Moscow, became involved in revolutionary politics and was forced to flee, first to Paris and then to London, where he became a citizen and anglicized his name. Both he and his wife, Ida, were industrial chemists and prospered in London. Peter, the younger of their two sons, went to private schools, where he was bullied and unhappy. He won a place at Oxford University at 16.

At 7, Peter staged a four-hour version of Hamlet for his parents in a toy theater, advertising the play as by “P. Brook and W. Shakespeare” and speaking all the roles himself. But he seldom went to the theater as a boy, thinking it “a dreary and dying precursor of cinema,” as he later put it, and aspiring to be a movie director. He came close to expulsion from Oxford after neglecting his studies for the University Film Society, which he had founded in 1943.

After graduating, he took a job with a company specializing in making commercials. But his employment ended in disgrace after he shot an advertisement for a washing powder in the style of “Citizen Kane.”

His undergraduate staging of Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus,” presented in a tiny London theater, raised 17 British pounds for the Aid to Russia Fund. And in 1945 he directed Jean Cocteau’s “The Infernal Machine” and Rudolf Besier’s “The Barretts of Wimpole Street,” also on the London fringe.

These brought Brook an invitation to stage a touring production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” for the British army, and he caught the attention of Jackson, who founded and ran the highly regarded Birmingham Repertory Theater. There, Brook successfully directed Shaw’s “Man and Superman” and Shakespeare’s “King John.” He also formed a professional bond with Paul Scofield, who had leading roles in both plays. When Jackson took over Stratford’s summer festival in 1946, he brought both men with him.

Finding ‘Natasha’

When he was 12, Brook had fallen in love with the heroine of “War and Peace” and decided to marry someone named Natasha. “And so it came about,” he wrote in his memoir, “Threads of Time” (1998). He married actress Natasha Parry in 1951. In addition to their son, Simon, a documentary filmmaker, they had a daughter, Irina, a stage director.

Parry appeared as Lyubov in Brooks’ revival of “The Cherry Orchard,” as Winnie in his staging of Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days,” and in several other of his productions. She died in 2015. Brook’s survivors include their two children.

Brook spent most of the first 15 years of his career in the commercial theater. In the 1940s, his work ranged from a fiery “Romeo and Juliet” at Stratford to Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit,” with Alec Guinness, in the West End. In 1956, he staged the British premiere of Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge.” Also in the 1950s, he directed Scofield as Hamlet; Gielgud in “Measure for Measure,” “The Winter’s Tale” and “The Tempest”; the Lunts in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s “The Visit” on Broadway; and Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in a revival of “Titus Andronicus,” which did much for the reputation of what had been regarded as Shakespeare’s crudest play.

He also directed Andre Roussin’s “The Little Hut,” a long-runner in the West End. He staged musical comedies, too, among them Truman Capote and Harold Arlen’s “House of Flowers” on Broadway.

On the one hand, Brook was the enfant terrible with a talent for resuscitating classic plays and drawing major performances from major actors. On the other, he relished sheer fun. As critic Kenneth Tynan put it in 1953, his rich, bold work appealed to the theatrical gourmet: “He cooks with blood, cream and spices.”

However, there was one art form whose rigidities he could not yet shatter. In 1947, Brook was appointed director of productions at the Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden, personally staging “Boris Godunov,” “La Bohème” and “The Marriage of Figaro.”

But his attempts to improve the quality of acting and décor upset some singers and critics, who thought the music had suffered. A production of Richard Strauss’s “Salome” was the last straw. With designs by Salvador Dalí, the staging featured gorgeously eccentric effects, but the management drew the line at a plan to divert the Thames and bring an oceanliner onstage.

Brook’s contract was not renewed, and he left Covent Garden feeling that “opera is a nightmare of vast feuds over tiny details; of surrealist anecdotes that all turn round the same assertion: nothing needs to change.”

Though he staged “Faust” and “Eugene Onegin” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in the 1950s, and found the musicians more cooperative and the critics more receptive, he renounced opera until 1983, when he staged a pared-down version of “Carmen,” bringing it from Paris to New York. Frank Rich called the production “mesmerizing” in his review for The New York Times. “Mr. Brook has forced us to feel the fated denouement as if it were new again,” he wrote

By then Brook, who took delight in “shaking up terrible, stultifying old conventions,” as he put it, had become a thoroughgoing iconoclast. Some mark that change at his 1960 Paris production of Jean Genet’s “The Balcony,” a work considered boldly subversive at the time. For Genet’s scenes of exotic life in a Paris brothel, Brook used striking-looking amateurs, found in Paris bars, as well as professional actors and dancers. But a radical revival of “King Lear,” staged for the Royal Shakespeare Company in London in 1962, was more significant.

Not only did Brook encourage Scofield to play the titanic hero of tradition as a painfully flawed human being, just before the production’s opening, he threw out the set that he himself had designed, ensuring that the plot unfolded on a bare stage under plain lighting. The resulting epic unforgettably exposed the cruel absurdities of humanity.

Experiments and Questions

Brook had made great use of improvisation and theater games when he was rehearsing “The Balcony,” and in 1964, he took that process further in a series of experimental workshops financed by the Royal Shakespeare Company and called the Theater of Cruelty season, in tribute to the theories of French dramatist Antonin Artaud.

The idea was to encourage a troupe of actors, among them the young Glenda Jackson, to find new forms of physical and emotional expression and to ask basic questions about their calling. As Brook recalled in “Threads of Time,” these were: “What is a written word? What is a spoken word? Why play theater at all?” Brook never ceased asking such questions.

His career from 1964 onward may be seen as a quest for fundamental truths about life and the theater that he insisted could never be definitive. The search led to what he called the “Theater of Disturbance” — as exemplified by “Marat/Sade,” his exploration of madness in revolutionary France; and “US,” his evocation of the Vietnam War — and to such inquiring works as “The Man Who” and the 1996 play “Qui Est La?,” which used readings from Bertolt Brecht, Konstantin Stanislavsky and other theoreticians and combined them with “Hamlet” as they might have staged it.

Some perceived a change of emphasis in his work. Much was dark, troubling, even despairing: “Titus,” “Lear,” “US,” and, in 1975, “The Ik,” which involved an African tribe morally ruined by relocation and lack of food. Indeed, the most successful of the few films he eventually made was a 1963 version of William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” which Brook described as “a potted history of mankind.”

Brook’s still-famous 1970 production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” full of airy acrobatics derived from his visit to a Chinese circus, ended with smiling actors shaking spectators’ hands.

In “The Conference of the Birds,” based on a Sufi poem, the birds of the title found a new spiritual understanding when their long, troubled journey ended at the threshold of paradise. And his 1985 reworking of “The Mahabharata” brought dynastic wars and suffering onstage, only to end with another vision of paradise, this time as a place of music, food, conversation and harmony. Theater, Brook wrote in his memoir, should affirm “that light is present in darkness” and be “a powerful antidote to despair.”

Exasperated by an England he felt was suspicious of experimentation and attracted by generous French subsidies, Brook moved to Paris in 1970, assembling a multinational, multiethnic company, and founding the International Center for Theater Research. And, because he hated the slickness of modern playhouses, Brook restored the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, a derelict 19th-century theater, to a state of manageable shabbiness, and made it his actors’ permanent home in 1974.

There he remained — until giving up his post as artistic director in January 2011 — staging work as various as a “Hamlet” starring British actor Adrian Lester, Anton Chekhov’s “Cherry Orchard,” a chamber version of Claude Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande,” Caryl Churchill’s apocalyptic “Far Away,” a play about a Malian Sufi called “Tierno Bokar,” and “Fragments,” an evening of work by Samuel Beckett that he took to Boston in 2011.

From his Paris headquarters, his company made journeys abroad, not only to America but also to Iran in 1971, where the troupe performed a version of the Prometheus myth in a language invented by poet Ted Hughes, and, in 1972, to West Africa.

There the company toured villages bordering the Sahara, using a carpet as a stage upon which to improvise stories in imaginary languages. The trip led to inadvertently comic moments — one actor’s primordial cries turned out to signify “vagina” in local slang — but also to exhilarating performances.

‘One Complete Act’

In 1968, he published a series of influential lectures under the title “The Empty Space.” Here he made his celebrated distinction between four varieties of theater: “deadly,” signifying hackneyed or ossified; and “holy,” “rough” and “immediate.” At his Paris center, the aim was to synthesize the last three: to use simple, or rough, means to bring to immediate life theatrical work that combined an earthy, even comic, feeling for human reality with a holy search for the elusive, hidden and mysterious. As he wrote in The Times in 1974, “There can be no separating an act of theater into the political, the spiritual, the joyful. There is only one complete act, which, in its truth, contains all elements.”

His own job, he said, was to encourage and enable, clarify and refine, and not to dictate. He had ceased preplanning, or “blocking,” movement onstage as a young director in 1946, when he came to the first rehearsal of “Love’s Labour’s Lost” with plans that, after a few moments with the actors, he realized were absurdly inflexible and promptly tore up. He was never known to lose his temper during rehearsals, and he sometimes lapsed into an amused detachment. But his seriousness was never in doubt.

For Brook, theater was “a whole mirror of human existence, visible and invisible,” which should challenge both performers and audiences to reassess the world and their lives.

Brook’s long and globe-spanning career continued well into his 90s. In September 2019, “Why?,” a play written and staged by Brook and his longtime collaborator, Marie-Hélène Estienne, opened in New York after a debut in Paris, with a tour planned for China, Italy and Spain. And a new book, “Playing by Ear: Reflections on Music and Sound,” was published the next month.

With his piercing blue eyes and quiet authority, Brook had undeniable charisma, though he disliked being described as a guru. He wryly rejected his nickname, the Buddha, since he felt that he was far from attaining spiritual certainty and, indeed, didn’t think any certainty was possible.

He was influenced by George Gurdjieff, a mystic who believed that nothing was to be taken for granted, that everything needed questioning, and that collaboration with others was vital. As Brook told The Times in 1998, “I am ready to disclaim my opinion, even of yesterday, even of 10 minutes ago, because all opinions are relative.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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