Peter Brook is a large object, artistically speaking. This is due in no small part to the echo effects of the world in which he moves an international terrain that stretches from the extremes of radical theatre experiment to the orthodoxies of opera tradition. In the case of his current appearance in New York, it’s due to the reverberating impact he has made by releasing the dramatic life from a cherished monument. His much-discussed Tragedy of Carmen is, in fact, the triumphant conclusion to some unfinished business that Brook—explorer, innovator and perpetual enfant terrible-tackled and abandoned decades ago.
Brook’s Carmen is a work of the barest simplicity, whose major presumption is to wield a great deal of force with very little fuss. In France, and during its tours of Europe over the past couple of years, the main scandal it caused was that of pleasure. The notion that it is wrong to tamper—the principal complaint here—is not so much regarded in what we like to call the Old World. There, monuments are not just monuments, as they tend to be for us; they were used once, and the idea of their being used once again is not especially shocking.
In America, of course, it was different. Brook’s scaled-down, dramatically intensified Carmen ignited a critical conflagration between those (mostly theatre) people who dwelt on what it was; and those (mostly musical) people who dwelt on what it wasn’t. Not only did the arguments fill more columns of newsprint than any critical “affaire” in recent memory, but they offered the unusual spectacle of critics arguing with one another on behalf of the same publications.
The resulting critical standoff suggests that some of our artistic categories have frontiers more rigid and fiercely patrolled than the Berlin Wall. By smuggling Carmen out of the Opera category into the Theatre category, Brook set off critical alarm-bells and machine-gun fire. “Quick, Carmen is defecting!” the opera authorities shouted. “She chose freedom. Hurray!” the theatre authorities rejoined. But such comments are anecdotal. In fact, Peter Brook was perpetrating something more unsettling than jumping frontiers, which is, after all, a backward form of recognition. He was ploughing them; his Tragedy sprouts in the furrows.
In the late 1940s, fresh from his acclaim as a young stage director, Brook put on part of an opera season at Covent Garden, including, among other things, Boris Godunov and Salome. The music critics (chiefly Ernest Newman and Desmond Shawe-Taylor) were hostile, labeling his work “direction at the expense of music.” It was a blow to Brook who, in his mid-20s, had known virtually nothing but critical praise. He was trying, even then, to liberate the theatrical life embedded in opera convention; but he was working at the time without the authority he now has to shape all aspects of his productions.
At the time, his biographer, J.C. Trevin, wrote that Brook had come to the conclusion that “opera as an artistic form was dead and could be revived only if all music critics were put on the retired list, and singers and composers underwent a change of heart.” It is a theme Brook has talked about, on and off, ever since.
During the rehearsals for Carmen at Lincoln Center last fall, Brook took a few moments to reflect upon the subject once more. He continued to find the jealous defense of tradition in opera an anomaly, but this time analyzed the problem principally in terms of the audience. “Why is it,” he wondered, “that Shakespeare lovers will go to the theatre for the genuine living experience of the moment, but that opera lovers go for the purpose of comparison with the memory of a performance they’ve been to some other time?” He mimicked the buzzing in an opera intermission: “She’s marvelous, but if you’d only heard her at Santa Fe! If you’d only heard Callas at Milan!”
“At the opera,” he continued, “people accept things that they’d not accept elsewhere. In the audience you will find the hyper-rich, whose characteristic is that they have a highly developed visual sense because they have been buying exquisite carpets and paintings with this very high standard of interior decoration. Now if they see an ugly or trite ballet, they will speak out. When the Bolshoi comes, the sophisticated raise an eyebrow at its old-fashioned visual taste. But these same people go to the opera and submit to having that same optic nerve violated without responding. They are anesthetized by the occasion.”
The emphasis on the audience is significant. If there is a key to the evolution of Peter Brook over 40 years of theatrical production, it is in his increasing consciousness of the audience as the lodestone of the art.
It was there from the beginning, of course. Beneath Brook’s innovations, his dazzling bits of invention, his theatrical panache, there has always been something more than a director using a theatre to express himself. Even when he burst out of Oxford, confident and full of himself—”It was as if he had come up by public request,” Kenneth Tran wrote—there was always the impulse that ultimately keeps the theatre honest: the oddly humble one of pleasing the audience. Those Shakespearean prologues and envois that crave the public’s indulgence seem quaint today, but they obey theatre’s deep knowledge of the source not only of its patronage but of its life.
Without this impulse to please, Brook would be (as practitioners of so-called “director’s theatre” can tend to be) a voluntarist, a narcissist, a stink-pot skipper chugging off in any direction he pleases until his gas runs out. Brook has various ingenious auxiliary motors aboard, plus an armory of whistles, rockets, masks and noise-makers; but essentially he is a sailor, and ultimately the audience is his wind as well as his compass.
Decades ago, along with the dazzlement, Brook’s sense of the public—not as something to flatter or condescend to, but to respond to and bring along—made him (in Tynan’s words) the most exciting director in the English theatre. Today this sense of the public has grown still deeper. It has nourished Brook and his dazzlement, preventing his effects from solidifying into mannerisms. “Most exciting” still applies.
The son of a Russian-born scientist and inventor, Brook entered Oxford’s Magdalen College at 17, hesitated, thought of joining the Secret Service, and then plunged into filmmaking and theatricals. A production of Cocteau’s Infernal Machine brought the Evening Standard critic down from London to call him “a sensitive artist and something of a thruster.”
Barry Jackson, at the Birmingham Rep, spotted him and took the risk of letting this untried youth direct Man and Superman. According to Trevin, Jackson waited nervously for reports of the first rehearsal until Mabel France, an old trouper, came out and told him, “That young man knows what he wants and he is going to get it.”
An Arcadian, Watteau-like Love’s Labour’s Lost launched him triumphantly at Stratford, beginning a quarter-century of innovative and transforming work with the Royal Shakespeare Company that would culminate in Marat/Sade and the seriously magical, trapeze-launched A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Tvnan gives us a witty glimpse of Brook at 25, at the height of his young prodigy days:
“Peter Brook is a small, sausage-shaped man: he looks edible and one gets the notion that if one bit into him he would taste like fondant cream or preserved ginger.” And: “He gives you the impression that the sun is dazzling him as he talks to you: the eyes are tiny and deep-set -twinkling ice-picks. His miniature hands are limp and flutteringly expressive: the rest of him stands quiet, dapper and smug.” And: “He is almost a perfect [director] and, sedately, he knows it.”
One can recognize some of this, still, 35 years later. Brook’s hair is white, his clothes are casual and loose, the dapperness is gone and he is no longer, in the words of one writer, “a cherub waiting to be gilded. The gilding is done, and it has weathered. There is still a striking sense of wholeness and containment, but it is not sausage-like. The air of knowing a great deal remains, but added to it is the air of wanting to know a great deal more. The eyes are more dazzled than ever—they convey an attentive astonishment.
Brook left the Royal Shakespeare Company at the end of the ’60s and set up his Center for Theatre Research in Paris. He has been there ever since, aside from his travels—the latest trip was to India to prepare a theatre version of the immense epic the Mahabharata. The Center has been his vehicle for working out his ideal of direct or immediate theatre. Both words imply the same thing: contact with an audience.
Brook’s extraordinary journey with his company through the Sahara and sub-Sahara some years ago was, more than anything, a research into this contact. With a carpet thrown down on the ground of a village or open space to delineate the area of imagination—not unlike a story-teller’s “once upon a time”—actors and spectators would feed each other.
In his book The Empty Space, Brook describes an early experiment in this mutual sustenance. He called up a member of a college audience to read a description of the bodies at Auschwitz. The horror gripped both reader and listeners, and this shared emotion shaped the reading and made it perfect. Another audience member was given the list of the dead at Agincourt from Henry V. The reading this time was stagey and self-conscious; the audience was restless and uncomfortable. “Why the difference?” Brook asked. He suggested that the audience combine its images of Auschwitz and Agincourt; again the mutual feeding began, and this time the reading caught it; the staginess dropped away and rhythm and emotion joined together. “When this was ended,” he wrote, “no explanations were needed. The audience had seen itself in action. It has seen how many layers silence can contain.”
Brook uses the American musical as an example of such interaction. “The reason they became folk operas,” he said once of commercial musicals, “is that, in the course of 12 weeks on the road, something like 100,000 Americans contributed by their critical presence to their final form.”
The experiments conducted at the Theatre Center in Paris, and such explorations as The Conference of the Birds and The Ik—both, despite their unconventionality, possessing a very direct emotional impact—have nourished Brook’s more recent work. His 1980 production of The Cherry Orchard, for example, is the most successful and most moving version of the play that I have ever seen. Paris audiences took it to their hearts, gave it a sold-out run and forced its revival last year. Brook’s staging has a characteristic bareness, and it has gaiety. Major and minor roles are indistinguishable: even the oddities—Yepikhodov, Yasha, Pischick—are fully realized characters of tragicomic stature rather than caricatures. To quote myself at the time of the first production: “It is such a vital and distinct set of characters, so firmly linked to one another that one could almost imagine the production being done without Mme. Ranevskaya, so clearly do they define the space around her.”
Brook’s grave and direct use of human feelings both in The Cherry Orchard and Carmen, reflects his view of the theatre as a kind of compensatory dosage for society’s wounds. Theatre, he says, should variously provide what societies may variously lack. Consciously or not, the imaginative enchantment of the early RSC productions came at a time when Britain was struggling to recover from a World War II victory that often felt like defeat; Brook’s theatre was there to alleviate the grayness. Later, in the complacent and prosperous ’60s, he was there with the savage political satire US and the shattering Marat/Sade.
“In a materialistic world,” Brook has said, “the theatre should be mystical. If we are doing theatre in ancient Egypt, governed by religion, it should be blasphemy.” Now, in more alienated and unattached times, the equivalent compensation lets us rediscover the emotional weight of such notions as “home,” “departure” and “loss” in The Cherry Orchard, and of “heroic passion” in Carmen, and to make us receive them without strain or condescension, as if they were born in us.
It is odd, in a way, to look back on Brook’s record as innovator and consider that all his experimental and imaginative gifts are in the service of the ancient idea of representing to mankind an image of itself. And if there is something else that sets Brook apart from the avant-garde of which he has been such a central figure, it is another highly traditional occupation: getting actors to act superbly.
There are the externals. Brook’s acting exercises are a part of theatre tradition by now; their result can be seen in the consummate rhythm and precision with which the demanding movements of Carmen are executed. The lighting and extinguishing of three bonfires are not only a demonstration of superb drill on the part of the actor, but they have the grace and solemnity of ritual as well. The comical undressing of Lt. Zuniga by Carmen and her pimp is a gem of farce timing.
But what most characterizes Brook’s work with actors is his balancing of internal motivations with the need to perform an action or pronounce a sentence in a way that unites actor, character and audience.
“For theatre to be seen at its most alive, there has to be a very, very exact balance between the living personality of the performer and the second personality, which is that of the character,” Brook says. “Certainly the actor’s personality is important. All spontaneous forms of theatre have something in common with our own music-hall and variety theatre; that the audience is held by the person of the performer.
“But it isn’t, as with the Living Theatre, the terrible banality of actors turning in on themselves. It is a flash of insight that comes from the confrontation of the performer’s hid den world and the hidden world of character.
“It’s not a question of the actor saying, ‘What would I do in these circumstances? But, ‘Given these circumstances, how can I understand what he, the character, is doing?’ “
The notion that a performer must “conceive” a character before presenting it is a partial one, in Brook’s view. Conception, in the theatre, by no means precedes birth; it more or less goes along with it. “People would ask me what my conception of Carmen was,” Brook says. “Was she the first feminist, a sex symbol or what? To me, beyond a certain sort of cliché, there’s nothing to say,” he reasons, “except that she’s a very rich character, and the more you look at her the more you find she is inexhaustible.”
The seamless integration of character, music and drama in Carmen is an accomplishment that brings Brook full circle, fulfilling the artistic promise of his ambitious first season at Covent Garden—and raising some of the same critical hackles. Today Brook is looking, noticing, watching for things to appear and take shape, helping them along. It is a sharp contrast to the youthful Brook who was once described as coming to his first productions “with every single lighting-cue worked out in advance.” He has grown old enough to wait.
‘Carmen’: Second Sight
In brief—because the The Tragedy of Carmen has been so extensively written about-what does it do? Brook and his collaborators (librettist Jean-Claude Carriere and the musical adapter Marius Constant) have taken elements of Merimée’s original story, of Bizet’s music for the opera and of the Meilhac-Halevy libretto, and fashioned a theatrical tragedy in which the music helps to construct, and at times deliberately deconstruct, the mounting dramatic tension. That, of course, is what the musical world has complained of: that in musical terms, Bizet’s score is diminished, and that it has lost the pride of place that it holds in its traditional opera form.
Both points may well be true, but they are not really relevant. Shakespeare’s words come off to diminished effect in Verdi’s Falstaff; and clearly, it is the music that holds pride of place. It is almost too obvious to mention, but the only way Brook could literally have desecrated Bizet would be by acquiring all extant copies of the score and burning them. Carmen will continue to be performed, recorded, hummed and parodied. Children will continue to advise the Toreador not to spit on the floor but to use the cuspidor (since that’s what it’s for). Brook compares what he has attempted to making a film based on a play or a book. Great Expectations is no less a classic, and no less read, because David Lean made a beguiling movie out of it; the Russians have made a stunning film that finds a force in King Lear different from that brought out in our stage versions; King Lear will nonetheless continue to be performed.
The music used in Brook’s Carmen gets its beauty from Bizet, but it works differently from the way it does in the opera. The scaling down of the score and its dynamics allows the performers to integrate singing and acting in a way impossible in traditional opera. The extraordinary knife duel betweel Escamillo and Don Jose would be inconceivable if the performers had to sing at full volume. But much more important, and the heart of Brook’s Carmen, is that singing itself becomes dramatic action, along with speech and gesture. It becomes communicable thought, as if, besides watching the actors act and hearing them speak, we gained through the music still one more means of sensing the drama they were enacting; something akin to second sight.
What results from the intensified drama, the rhythmic pace—each brief scene is like another stanza in a ballad—and the delicately wrought detail, is a very direct and powerful communicativeness. Brook not only managed to open the closed Vivian Beaumont Theatre and demonstrate one way it can be used; he made it intimate. The three tiny bonfires in the mountain scene work remarkably to that end; the fires’ warmth, smell and above all the incantational properties of flame and smoke infiltrate the audience, pulling us in. When Micaela sings from the rear of the theatre, she is in the same landscape as Carmen, clambering down rocks to get to her.
Through a fluke, the communicativeness can actually be watched. Brook, who found the ticket prices too high, insisted that a group of $10 seats be made available. They are cushions placed on the stage floor, in front of the first circle of seats. Those who squat there are visible to everyone else in the audience; and at the start it is a hindrance. Their expressions—those of the theatre-goer who is settling in and is apprehensive, expectant or checking his parking stub—are small clouds that float up in front of the action and very slightly disrupt it. By midpoint, it is just the reverse. The circle of rapt faces acts to intensify what everyone else is seeing.
Richard Eder is a staff writer and book reviewer for The Los Angeles Times. He was formerly a theatre critic and foreign correspondent for The New York Times.
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