“He was still alive?” was my not unnatural question when I just now learned that theatre director Peter Brook passed way in Paris yesterday at age 97.
When I was at theatre school (1986-88) our profession was still abuzz with marvelous chatter about the then-recent advent of Brook’s most ambitious work, a theatrical adaptation of the Indian epic The Mahabarata, which had premiered in 1985. A townie from a fishing village, I knew nothing of the man, but quickly learned about his important contributions from my teachers and fellow students, many of whom were doing graduate work at the time. Brook’s breakthrough production, the English-language debut of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade had exploded into the world two decades earlier (1964), followed shortly thereafter by his seminal book The Empty Space (1968), a copy of which you will find on the shelves of almost every serious theatre practitioner (probably not far from a copy of Marat/Sade).
Brook was an evangelist for the theories of Brecht, Artaud, Meyerhold (whom his cousin Valentin Pluchek had worked with in Moscow) and Grotowski, and a disciple of the Absurdists, often bringing their aesthetics to interpretations of classics at the Royal Shakespeare Company and elsewhere. He collaborated multiple times with Gielgud, Olivier, Paul Scofield, and others. A 1970 Midsummer Night’s Dream starred a young Ben Kingsley and Patrick Stewart. Among his numerous American productions were the original Broadway production of Duerrenmatt’s The Visit (1958) with Lunt and Fontanne, and Irma La Douce (1961) which Billy Wilder later made into a film.
Brook also directed a handful of movies, the best known of which was surely his 1963 adaptation of Lord of the Flies. A decade earlier he directed a screen version John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera with Olivier, Hugh Griffith, and Stanley Holloway. He also created screen versions of Marat/Sade (1967) and King Lear (1971, with Scofield). Also in 1967, he collaborated with Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson on an anthology film called Red, White and Zero.
Born and raised in London, Brook was the son of Latvian Jewish immigrants. He was directing theatre as late as 2019!
Jason Zinoman just reminded me of this inspirational Peter Brook quote: “I take an empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space while someone else is watching him, and that is all that is needed for an act of theater to be engaged.” Words I have lived by many a time! Now time to re-read this…