IN MARCH 1968, PETER BROOK MADE HIS National Theatre debut with Seneca’s Oedipus. The production has been unjustly filed under “comedy” in theatrical folklore, thanks to three endlessly recycled one-liners: two improvised in rehearsal by John Gielgud, who played the title role; the third by an audience member on opening night. It merits more serious examination, for revealing disharmony within the National, and a huge gulf between Brook and Laurence Olivier.
The pair’s complex history stretched back to 1953 and Brook’s first feature film, The Beggar’s Opera. Starring as Macheath, Olivier felt John Gay’s masterpiece called for “18th-century elegance and artificiality…grace and charm”; to Brook, “the work breathed the stinking air of Hogarth…it needed to be violent and harsh.” Olivier tried to have him fired; the film set became a battlefield. “Between us,” Brook reflected, “we spoiled much of the picture,” which fared so badly at cinemas that it would be years before British movie producers offered him another job. “When you flop to the tune of a quarter of a million pounds, you have to do penance until the people concerned forget you or die off,” we said.
In 1955, rehearsing with Olivier in the title role of Titus Andronicus in Stratford, Brook surprisingly found “latent feuds” from The Beggar’s Opera transmuted into “perfect harmony”; they advanced “on parallel rails…in mutual confidence,” and delivered an interpretation of such power that critics reevaluated a play dismissed by T. S. Eliot as “one of the stupidest and most uninspiring” ever written. In 1961, Peter Hall asked Olivier if he would play King Lear for Brook at the Royal Shakespeare Company. “I do want to do Lear again,” he replied, “but this…would be one of those rare instances in which I would not be entirely happy about Peter directing…This may sound ungrateful after Titus, but my reasons germinate more from his production of Hamlet [in 1955], another great play which does not need ‘saving’ more than Titus or Measure [for Measure, in 1950], which certainly benefited by the dear boy’s saving grace…I have produced the play myself once and would like to do it again.” This allowed Paul Scofield to play Lear for Brook in Stratford in 1962. Despite that production’s great acclaim, Olivier deplored the way actor and director had cut the hero down to size, “slicing away his majesty”; he dubbed it “Mr. Lear.”
He appeared to have valued Brook’s contributions to the National Theatre Building Committee, but they arrived at Oedipus still distant personally, and fundamentally at odds about performance. Olivier thrived on the surface detail of makeup and costume, and blocked his productions using peg-dolls; Brook had long been convinced that to go into rehearsal with pre-planned ideas “led to deadly theatre”; each play should be terra incognita. Brook had warned in the Sunday Times after Olivier’s appointment as the National’s Director: “In the hall of [the NT] I would put up a great gold sign reading ‘Beware of Quality’…A large slice of the English audience…is bedazzled by Quality…[and] the…death trap for [the NT] could lie in persuading the audience that it represents the best we have to offer by the seemingly irrefutable evidence of marshalling, even in the smallest parts, the greatest performers of the land.” Olivier’s banner in the foyer of the Old Vic (where the NT made its home until 1976) might have read “Celebrate Quality”; he relished showcasing “the greatest performers of the land.”
Brook made expensive and potentially divisive stipulations for Oedipus: 10 weeks’ rehearsal for a play that would last about 90 minutes, and the commissioning of a new version by the poet Ted Hughes, based on the script the National wanted Brook to use, David Turner’s recent translation for BBC Radio. Brook insisted on importing two of his regular collaborators: Geoffrey Reeves as associate producer (a position that is today called assistant director) and the American composer Richard Peaslee, instead of in-house composer Marc Wilkinson.
Brook outlined his “rules of engagement” by telephone to NT producing assistant Sunny Amey: His only interest in Oedipus “would be to attempt something extremely difficult,” requiring great patience from the NT’s costume department and workshops, who would have to do without the usual sketches and wait for Brook and costume designer Jean Monod to see what evolved during rehearsal. On casting, he sounded like a sculptor requisitioning stone: “I must be extremely demanding about the quality of the raw material.” There should be no difference in style between Gielgud (a celebrated Angelo in Brook’s Measure for Measure) and the others: “Everyone must be modest and prepared to help one another.”
Brook initially wanted Joan Plowright as Jocasta, Oedipus’s wife and mother, despite her being only 38, some 25 years younger than Gielgud (“Age does not enter into it. It is the nature and caliber of the actress”). He eventually chose Irene Worth (Goneril to Scofield’s Lear), who was 51. He rejected Derek Jacobi and other NT regulars, because “concealed” performers with brilliant techniques were no use; he needed “revealed” actors. Colin Blakely, cast as Creon, was a prime example: unvarnished, ready to reveal embedded feelings. As with Brook’s Marat/Sade (1964), in which RSC juniors had achieved individual “glory” in crowd scenes despite delivering only a few lines, so a member of the Oedipus chorus could make his or her mark. He wanted a company of 35; Amey thought the NT might manage 18 or 19. Brook got his way, and 16 new actors would be hired.
Brook asked Donald MacKechnie, one of Olivier’s assistant directors, to find him some “young bulls,” and at the resulting auditions, candidates more accustomed to reciting Shakespeare soliloquies had to “improvise the moving of an imaginary piano up a flight of stairs”; some walked out. As to what the group might expect, Brook promised: “This play is not going to be fun. It will come to a point where it is an acute, unforgettable experience…I will say at my first rehearsal this is an expedition; anyone in this room who is not prepared to go all the way must leave now; if you don’t go now you are in for it.”
REHEARSALS BEGAN IN JANUARY 1968, with the press night set for March 19. Mac-Kechnie observed many sessions at which Reeves, a “bright, and more important a big young man…was the perfect foil for the diminutive and introspective Brook,” whose methods turned unnamed backstage staff against the production:
Many said “How can we help Peter Brook?” Others, mostly on the slothful side, said “How can we stop him?” or “How can we teach him a lesson?” I think this action…was almost unconscious, but…appeared…concerted at times, and there [were] far too many instances, such as…monumental errors in workshops…for them all to have been a series of accidents…Olivier was not aware of such cabals, and…I regret that I did not speak to Laurence about what I thought was going on.
MacKechnie argued that by leaving Brook to his own devices, Olivier was testing “his own work…as Director. Had the company been well enough disciplined to work in this new way? Was all that experience with Chekhov, Ibsen, Shakespeare…going to be enough now to sustain the company?”
Brook arranged for a Tai-Chi master to lead the Oedipus cast in an hour of daily warm-ups. Gielgud was stretched to his physical and vocal limits. “It was a nightmare,” he recalled, “like being in the army…But I trusted [Peter].” Brook described Gielgud plunging in: “He tried humbly, clumsily, with all he could bring. He was no longer the star, the superior being. He was…struggling with his body, as the others would be later with their words, with an intensity and a sincerity that were his own.” In February, to evoke the play’s incestuous, patricidal horrors, Brook arranged the actors in a circle on the floor of the Old Vic rehearsal room and invited them to utter their most obscene or terrifying thought: “Wank,” “Shit,” “Cunt.” Then Gielgud: “We open on the 19th of March.”
After five weeks, Gielgud was anxious that there was still no completed version from Hughes. Brook asked how much time his star had been given to rehearse his last West End role, as Ivanov. “Three weeks.” Brook promised four weeks on Hughes’s language: “We are just ready to tackle the text when it arrives. We would not have been ready had it been here sooner.”
After “some tentative false starts,” Hughes had overcome his “embarrassment” at starting in on Turner’s text by going back to Seneca, “eking out my Latin with a Victorian crib.” He observed the improvisation exercises and was “conscious of drawing on [the company’s] single battery of energy: after quite a bit of fluid trial and error, the words crystallized suddenly…I was in complete sympathy with…Brook’s guiding idea, which was to make a text that would release whatever inner power this story, in its plainest, bluntest form, still has, and to unearth . . .the ritual possibilities within it.” He delivered “unpunctuated lines of syncopated phrases.” The Chorus opens the play
night is finished but day is reluctant the sun
drags itself up out of the filthy cloud it stares
down at our sick earth it brings a gloom not light
beneath it our streets homes temples gutted with the
plague it is one huge plague pit the new heaps
of dead spewed up everywhere hardening in the
After the scripts were distributed, Gillian Barge, a chorus member alongside Anna Carteret and Jane Lapotaire (all three in their mid-twenties), remembered being “split up into groups of about six, given verses…and sent to a dressing room where we worked…for a week…to render the verse into sounds…from the depths of our soul’s being…. It was crushingly…upsetting work; we tore ourselves apart trying to achieve the truth Peter had asked of us…
“We recorded our efforts and…I was terribly shocked on the Monday morning to find that Peter and Richard Peaslee had orchestrated the tapes, taken what they found useful, discarded what they didn’t like, and gave us various sounds/noises to be made on various words…. I would have liked…not to be manipulated into giving the production what was needed almost by mistake.. . . I remember getting into a real crisis…but [leaving] would have meant sacrificing my place in Olivier’s company…so I decided to cheat…. I was there only in body. Peter noticed…and I probably just confirmed his prejudice about English actors. Had I been older and wiser I would have spoken to him, but I was shy and frightened of authority.”
MacKechnie found Brook “wondrous to behold in these moments when he casts his spell on a company…exceptionally good at…trapping the tension he detects in an actor and diverting that energy into the work.” One afternoon in the Old Vic, he noticed Brook becoming “a little agitated” as the crew wheeled onto the stage a box measuring about 18 by 12 inches. This was attached to a reversible system used by cleaners to vacuum the auditorium. The box opened and “a grey, shapeless mass” started to emerge. Brook watched the actors’ reactions. The object was inflated to some six or seven feet in height; its phallic shape and “slightly bulbous end” left the company spellbound. Then it collapsed, reduced to “withered impotence” because “some jolly prankster had turned the [vacuum] from blow to suck.” Brook was outraged, so too MacKechnie: it was “shaming and pitiable” that the NT employed the “arsehole” who ruined “an exercise in observation and participation” by a director of “great integrity.” The phallus was packed away and stored on the street in an NT van—which was stolen overnight. Following the deflationary sabotage, Mac-Kechnie thought the theft was another “inside job”; the van was recovered, minus its cargo.
Brook and Monod decided that the actors should wear plain, contemporary clothes, dark trousers and pullovers (with a robe for Oedipus, and a long dark dress for Jocasta). The director designed large flats representing, upstage, the walls of the Theban palace, and cubes “the size of small tea chests,” to be used by the chorus as seats or drums; a much larger cube was left “spinning quietly in mid-stage, covered in gold, [reflecting] light like some huge stroboscope,” and opening out to represent a crossroads. MacKechnie was urged—he does not reveal by whom—to persuade Brook to alter aspects of the set, and inadvertently let him read the relevant memo, which proved “there were forces in the workshops poised to deny him” and “malevolence” in upper tiers of the administration, though not from Olivier. Brook endured these slights with “infinite patience.”
At a dress rehearsal on the Saturday before the Tuesday opening the stage was set for Jocasta’s suicide: “She was to lower herself ‘onto’ a sharply pointed, slim, ‘gold’ pyramid, referred to as the Spike, which…was to be placed on a small gold box, referred to as the Plinth. One actor placed the spike behind [her], another placed the plinth beneath the spike.” It was to look as though Jocasta disembowels herself through her vagina. The second actor forgot his appointed task and Worth called out, “Where’s the plinth?” Gielgud’s head popped out from the opposite wing and asked: “Plinth Philip or Plinth Charles?” Company and crew collapsed into laughter. Brook, watching from the gallery, asked, “What did you say, John?” Sheepishly, Gielgud repeated himself. “Oh, I see,” said Brook. “Yes, very funny.”
After another run-through on the Monday, Brook spoke for more than an hour, praising the technical skills of the NT workshops, and urging his actors to maintain discipline and confidence. It was “a brilliant, quiet redefining” of nine weeks’ work, but MacKechnie was sure Brook “was setting something up.”
ALL ALONG, BROOK HAD PLANNED to emulate the ancient tradition by which “a satyr-play concluded a trilogy of tragedies, performed by half-human half-animal creatures, the actors donning horns and hairy goat-legs” to displace “the tragic action [with] humor, licentiousness and wine”: the Oedipus audience would see a form of bacchanalia. After Brook’s Monday pep talk, the company were allowed to don for the first time elaborate costumes made of golden paper, with matching masks, and invited to improvise “a joyous atmosphere.” They “gyrated, danced and cavorted”—all but one, who stood dead center. Frank Wylie, a 32-year-old Scot, pulled off his mask, moved downstage center and shouted, “This is fucking bollocks! Bollocks!…I’m not going to go on with this fucking shit for another fucking second.” He summoned MacKechnie to the stage.
Wylie: Donald, what the fuck is going on?
MacKechnie: Well, Frank, what is going on is a mess, but that is really what Peter suggested it might have been anyway. This is a shapeless thing at the moment, and it can’t be anything else. It has had a bit more energy than the rest of the evening.
Wylie: Well, I think it’s a load of bollocks.
MacKechnie: Well, Peter just said try it and see what happens.
Wylie: And where is he? [Pause] Where the fuck is Peter?
Brook was nowhere to be found. Mac-Kechnie had “never seen so irate a group of actors.” Then Reeves confessed that before the improvisation Brook had set off for the Odeon Leicester Square to join his wife Natasha Parry and the Queen at the royal premiere of Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, in which Parry played Lady Capulet. The Oedipus company knew that their colleague John McEnery, Zeffirelli’s Mercutio, had been refused permission to withdraw from playing Hamlet in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, on tour in Oxford, to attend the London screening; actors could not be released “just for a social function.” The thought of Brook abandoning the rehearsal to enjoy what McEnery had been denied was too much for Wylie: “I’ll hang the fucking bastard.”
MacKechnie suggested the actors meet Brook early the following morning in the Aquinas Street rehearsal room. At 10:15 a.m. “the huge energy” of the previous evening had evaporated, and “even Frank Wylie was as nice as pie.” Brook, MacKechnie notes, was pleased to have heard of an effective dress rehearsal and that as expected the bacchanalia was a bit shambolic and some people had been a little upset…he was not present . . ..
He knew and I think most of the company knew…that what had happened the night before had to happen…. The inherent angers and disappointments of any rehearsal period had to be given an outlet….
I pay [Peter] the highest compliment when I say that…his not “being there” was one of the entirely best pieces of direction I have ever witnessed.
The inflatable phallus should have been the centerpiece of the bacchanalia, and was replaced by a solid model, some 12 feet tall. Peaslee set the revelry to his arrangement of “God Save the Queen,” which was still played over the public address speakers at the end of Old Vic performances. This “riffed trombone orchestration” was played on “rasping, raucous slides…clever musically, and witty…[like] so many musical variations on passing wind.”
From what Olivier had seen of rehearsals, Oedipus was “a wonderful show, infinitely clever,” but to his “growing horror it was clear…that Peter was determined to risk the whole work by being clever-clever” with this climactic “note of rude and vulgar jollification”; the anthem’s effect “was just childishly insolent and couldn’t have provoked anything other than puzzled boredom in an audience.” He asked Brook to drop it; in return, Olivier would end the playing of “God Save the Queen” altogether. “[Peter] gleefully agreed, knowing what was to him, as to quite a few others, the laughable extent of my patriotism.”
In Olivier’s dressing room the following evening, with NT literary manager Kenneht Tynan and associate director Frank Dunlop in attendance, Olivier tried to persuade Brook to cut the phallus from Oedipus. Accounts of the ensuing argument vary considerably. Tynan spoke of a whisky-fuelled, five-hour debate in which Olivier said that this needlessly offensive prop would “alienate audiences and the board.” Dunlop has Brook deliberately smashing a glass and then, accidentally, colliding with and fracturing the mirror on the back of the dressing-room door. Olivier has Brook standing his ground, then leaving, at which point Dunlop and Tynan persuaded their boss to concede; Olivier felt weak and so “gave in. Peter came back in, and I told him the decision. Almost with a crow Peter said, ‘Well, I’m going for a drink. Anyone join me?’ The others said good night and left, and I was alone, naked in my misery.” Brook recalled “the big dressing room scene [being] won at the end not only by Tynan and Dunlop but by Ted Hughes and his sister/agent [Olwyn] playing their trump card: ‘If you insist, we’ll withdraw the text and you’ll have to get a new translation and have everyone learn it before the first night.’”
The Brook/Olivier arguments, Simon Callow argues, illustrated “a problem inherent in a company without a formal aesthetic, one largely built, in…repertoire and personnel, on the taste of a group of individuals: to what extent was the company still itself, even when executing the will of an outside director, someone with a highly evolved aesthetic of his own?”
WHEN OEDIPUS OPENED WRITES Brook’s biographer, Michael Kustow, the audience “was wrapped in a tapestry of noise that swept the entire space; members of the chorus were planted throughout the auditorium, live caryatids were bound to the pillars and balconies…After Ronald Pickup’s account [as the Slave] of Oedipus’s self-blinding, blind Tiresias handed a pair of dark glasses to Gielgud…who had sat impassively listening to the horrifying speech. The elemental became tangible.” For the bacchanalia, “God Save the Queen” had been replaced by a jazz band performing “Yes We Have No Bananas” in Dixieland style. A carriage bearing a veiled object was pulled on by revellers. The glittering red veil fell to the floor, revealing the golden phallus, to a collective gasp. Then, from a seat in the front stalls, the actress Coral Browne declared loudly to her female companion: “Nobody we know, dear.” Cue amazed laughter. Callow and his colleagues in the box office wondered if they should answer the phones: “Dirty Old Vic.”
In The Observer, Ronald Bryden identified Oedipus as “a kind of cathedral laboratory of the 21st century, a wind-tunnel designed to contain a hurricane of human emotions.” The press response “was deeply divided between those who saw Brook as a genius who could do no wrong, those who wished that Gielgud had not been so totally deconstructed” and those who yearned for “the comparative simplicity” of Olivier’s performance as Sophocles’ Oedipus, 20 years earlier.
What did the bacchanalia mean? Brook explained on radio: “Birth, bed, womb, blood—every word Seneca wrote seemed to prepare for the confrontation with this object. The phallus is a religious object…. We offered not a closed interpretation, but a colorful opening-up of real speculation upon the mystery…of the active and masculine force of life.” To Colin Blakely, the phallus communicated the following: “One: You’ve just seen a load of old cock. Two: In olden days the Romans used to do this after the play. Three: You see what can happen when you fuck about? Four: Don’t go to bed with your mother. Five: Don’t take it too seriously, now you’ve been through hell, forget it, you can deal with it. Number five is valid. The rest ultimately is belittling.”
The stockpile of anecdotes kept growing. Ralph Richardson arrived at the Old Vic with his wife, Mu, and walked down the aisle to buy a programme, only to find the nearest “usher” lashed to a pillar. “When I asked him for a programme all I got were these strangled sounds. He was gagged, you see. The whole experience upset me very much. I’m a very square man.” Members of the audience sometimes vomited as the Slave described Oedipus blinding himself:
His fingers had stabbed deep into his eye sockets he hooked them gripping the eyeballs and he tugged twisting and dragging with all his strength till they gave way and he flung them from him
Brook had encouraged Pickup to deliver this three-page speech “in slowly mounting shock…[like] a creature wading through blood.” The phallus prompted some to walk out, and the National received outraged letters: “I have never before experienced the shock of gratuitous obscenity….” A week of extra performances was added, and Brook and Olivier planned to bring Oedipus back in the autumn, provided the majority of the cast stayed on. Seven of the 35 actors declined; others gave qualified assent, demanding roles in other shows, or better pay; one, recalling Brook’s improvisations, said, “Yes, as long as it doesn’t mean being a snake for three weeks.” Olivier might have killed off Oedipus as “revenge,” but tried hard to prolong it—although one might detect relief, or sarcastic hyperbole, in the letter to Brook confirming that company reluctance precluded the revival: “I am an idolater of your work…It is a glory for us to have this production…Charges of improvidence will inevitably come my way.”
He hoped to offer Brook another NT show, but it was not to be. Even without the hostility described by MacKechnie, Olivier’s Old Vic was surely the wrong environment for a director who had begun his irreversible move away from British centers of production to his own international research base at the Bouffes du Nord in Paris, “where he could control the entire theatrical process” without being challenged by an employer, let alone one with diametrically opposed views. Brook’s status “as a world-class theatrical guru” would grow exponentially later in 1968, when he published The Empty Space, a slim volume whose definitions of “Deadly,” “Rough,” “Holy” and “Immediate” remain influential to this day.
Gielgud had become particularly devoted to Blakely and Pickup, and was sad to be leaving Oedipus behind, although the part “never really satisfied me…I couldn’t help secretly suspecting I could have done it better my own way, but that would not have fitted [Peter’s] enormously complicated plan…Irene…achieved it far better.” Brook felt that Worth had given “the outstanding” performance in a company who all acted to “a high standard.”
Oedipus’s final performance on Saturday, July 27, was the NT company’s 1,500th at the Old Vic, and Gielgud joined the celebrations in the basement bar; he was attending a royal reception the next day and left the party threatening to “take the phallus to the palace.”
This article is excerpted by permission from The National Theatre Story, to be published this month by Oberon Books of London. To purchase, visit www.tcg.org/publications/books.