Threads of Time: Recollections by Peter Brook - review by Richard Eyre

Richard Eyre

In Restless Flight to be an Auteur

Threads of Time: Recollections


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I’ve become inured over the years to people telling me – in the same tone of voice reserved for inveighing against blood sports – that the theatre is a spoilt brat, a minor art, impoverished in imagination, hopeless, dull, feeble, sclerotic, rotten, boring and just plain bad. I think, perversely perhaps, that it’s to the theatre’s credit that it inspires so much hostility: it must be doing something right.

I admit that when theatre’s bad it is as dismal and redundant a social ritual as Beating the Bounds of the City of London. I admit that it can be inert, dispiriting, clubby, self-regarding, tacky and embarrassing, but what I like about the theatre is the fallibility that goes hand in hand with the immediacy; it happens in the present tense. John Updike spoke for many when he said: ‘I’ve never much enjoyed going to plays. The unreality of painted people standing on a platform saying things they’ve said to each other for months is more than I can overlook.’ But, for me, this is missing the point: it’s the recreation that animates the art and makes it unique, and it is this element – the heart of ‘performance’ – that has fascinated and absorbed Peter Brook for over half a century.

Peter Brook has spent most of his professional life in restless flight from what one of his actors caricatures as ‘the bloody British theatre’ – insular, class-bound, text-bound, earth-bound. There are vices peculiar to the British theatre, but in truth all theatre can be ‘bloody’. All theatre has a tendency to decline into the trivial, the ephemeral, the impermanent, the frivolous, but every now and then someone comes along and shakes it up: Shakespeare, Jonson, and Moliere in the seventeenth century; Goethe, Schiller and the Duke of Meiningen in the nineteenth century: Stanislavsky and Namivorich-Danchenko, Meyerhold, Brecht, Shaw and Granville­ Barker in the early twentieth; and in the late Fifties and early Sixties Joan Littlewood, George Devine, and Peter Brook. All of them demonstrated, implicitly or explicitly, the notion that the the­atre was an art, a forum, a faith, something to be fought for, something that was about something. They taught that it was virtuous to be ambitious for the work before the career, and to be sanctimoniously unembarrassed about being serious.

Threads of Time is, as publishers are given to saying, Peter Brook’s long-awaited autobiography. Those looking for professional or sexual revelations will be disappointed; those looking for an elucidation of the methods of the magus will have already learnt from his previous books – The Empty Space and There Are No Secrets – that, indeed, there are no secrets. Brook invariably asserts that however complex the thinking, however tangled and intense the spiritual quest, the allure of theatre is that its effect are achieved utterly pragmatically, through speech and movement, through the medium of actors. ‘Rehearsing’ , he says, ‘is thinking aloud with others … nothing in a theatre performance is more important than the people of whom it is composed.’

In spite of his supreme command of stage machinery, Brook wearied early of the ‘train set’ side of theatre, what he describes as the ‘quincaillerie’ of stage production, which so fascinated him as a child and an absurdly young and confident director of theatre and opera. He writes winningly of playing with toy theatres, staging conjuring shows for his parents, of being a dauntingly precocious undergraduate who thought nothing of approaching ‘The Great Beast’ – Aleister Crowley – to ask for his help in raising spirits in Doctor Faustus, and, as Director of Productions at the Royal Opera House at the age of twenty-two, in a willfully self-destructive mood, inviting Salvador Dali to design a production of Salome. Sadly, this was never staged: the design required the Thames to be diverted so chat an ocean liner could burst through the back wall of the Covent Garden stage. Brook’s emotional reserve and (admirable) desire to refrain from the confessional lead occasionally to some mildly comic obliquities: ‘There are private events which I cannot refrain from recording’ is how he describes the births of his two children. Much of the book is an account of a spiritual journey that began when, as a child lying in the long grass on a hot summer’s day, he asked himself ‘What if at this moment you are as close as you will ever be to the truth?’ The attempt to answer this question has led him as much to the teaching of Gurdjieff, and to travelling the Sahara with a group of actors, as to working with his own company in Paris.

It is only in the description of his spiritual journey that Brook’s seriousness becomes solemnity, and leads occasionally to a kind of impenetrable (at least to me) gnomic epigram: ‘The enigma of tradition and the mystery of transmission cannot change, but the great set of keys is always there.’ More accessible in the writing – and in the man –  is his ability to tell wonderful stories and animate his meetings with unforgettable people: Brecht, Beckett, Genet, Boris Christoff, Laurence Olivier, Paul Scofield, Jeanne Moreau, Glenda Jackson are all recalled with vivid detail.

Autobiography seeks to give shape to a life, and Peter Brook’s life has been, by his account, a search for meaning. I infer from his book more coherence than he admits to. The search for spiritual enlightenment is the search for an inner world – or a flight from the outer one. Theatre is the same: a re-creation of another world, more intense, distilled, meaningful, even more real than the ‘real’ one. Most of Brook’s life displays a restlessness, a febrile search for peace in other worlds – in theatre, in film as a flight from theatre, in travel to Mexico, Afghanistan, Persia, the Sahara, as a flight from both film and theatre, the ‘feverish’ Paris of Brassai and Piaf, as a flight from the ‘slowness’ of London.

Every director, at heart, wants to be God, or god-like – to be the ‘maker’, the primary creator; but however inventive, however imaginative, however inspiring a director may be, the creative pulse will always be derived from the people who are on show, whose souls are at stake: the writer and the actor. The most frustrating search in Peter Brook’s life, it seems to me, is for the elusive goal – or the grail – of becoming an auteur. ln the theatre, directors are the negotiators, the diplomats, the translators, the mediators, suspended between the writer’s need to impel the play forward and the actor’s desire to stand still and create a character, obliged to interpret the blueprint, not to redraw it. All Peter Brook’s theatrical experiments are attempts to square the genius he has for directing with the desire he has to be the auteur. In his most recent play, The Man Who, based on the work of Oliver Sacks, the two strands became indivisibly linked.

Brook’s work is invariably the supreme refutation of those who think the theatre is a redundant art form, and an inspiring example to those who try to re-invent it: ‘I put my story down here’, he quotes an African story­teller, ‘so that someone else may take it up another day.’

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