Towering theater director Peter Brook dies at 97

Placeholder while loading article actions

Peter Brook, a visionary English theater director who staged groundbreaking productions on both sides of the Atlantic, helping to demonstrate his belief that the trappings of conventional theater – the red curtain, the music, the costumes, the spotlights – were inessential to the art form, died July 2 in Paris. He was 97 years old.

Her son, Simon, said his health was declining but did not give a specific cause.

Mr. Brook was a towering figure in international theatre, widely described as the most influential theater director of his generation, if not of the late 20th century. His work ranged from the minimalist to the grandiose, from a stripped-down staging of Bizet’s opera “Carmen” to a nine-hour adaptation of the Sanskrit epic “Mahabharata,” which he originally staged in a career of limestone with an artificial lake. .

Theater critics noted that he had aspects of a shaman as well as a showman, searching for spiritual truth through his art and his travels through Asia and Africa, while keeping an eye on his box office earnings. Thin and bald, he had a rocky face that seemed to suggest the appearance of an oracle, and he cited Russian Armenian mystic George Gurdjieff as a key influence, noting the spiritual master’s insistence on questioning everything.

“Taste, test, question and never come to a conclusion,” Mr. Brook told The New York Times.

In his career as a director, that meant bouncing between art forms and genres, seeking new ways to delight, provoke and unsettle audiences. “I’ve really spent my whole working life looking for opposites,” he once said.

Mr. Brook has bridged the worlds of commercial and experimental theatre, directing canonical works by Shakespeare and Chekhov, modernist plays by Samuel Beckett and Jean Cocteau, as well as romantic comedies and musicals such as “Irma La Douce”, who played for three years in west London. End and became a Broadway hit in 1960.

He won Tony Awards in 1966 and 1971, respectively, for directing Peter Weiss’ brutal drama “Marat/Sade” and a sleek white-box production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The latter featured actors spinning plates and swinging on a trapeze and ended with the cast leaving the stage to shake hands with the audience.

Mr. Brook also directed operas and films, including a popular 1963 screen adaptation of William Golding’s novel “Lord of the Flies”, about schoolchildren marooned on an island, and a dark 1971 adaptation of ” King Lear”, with Paul Scofield.

A pioneer of color-blind and color-blind casting (he preferred the term “rich in color”), Mr. Brook worked with many of the leading actors of his day, including John Gielgud, Alec Guinness, Glenda Jackson, Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles. For one of his earliest productions, a staging of “Hamlet” he performed for his parents on a toy stage when he was 10, he simply used cut-out figures, reading the lines himself.

By his mid-twenties he was directing plays in Birmingham, Stratford and London, where he gained a reputation as a prodigy – “a super-confident, baby-faced prodigy who likes to shock”, as Time magazine put it in 1949. His early productions included elaborate stagings of costume dramas such as “Ring Round the Moon” and comedies like “The Little Hut”, although by the mid-1950s he began working to reduce, simplify and purify his work.

Sometimes he referred to himself as “distiller” rather than “director”. “Simple, pure, simple,” he said.

As Mr. Brook continued to experiment, he laid out his theories in lectures and books such as “The Empty Space” (1968). “I can take any empty space and call it a nude stage,” he began. “A man walks through that empty space while someone else watches, and that’s all it takes for a theatrical act to ensue.”

Proof of his point, he mounted international touring productions that could be performed outdoors, often with carpets serving as a stage.

The vehicle for his theatrical explorations became the Center international de recherche théâtrale (also known by its French acronym, CIRT), which he founded after settling in Paris in 1970. For decades he worked there with his lieutenant in conductor, Marie-Hélène Estienne, staging classics like Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” while working on new productions such as her adaptation of “Mahabharata”, a key Hindu text and seminal work of South Asian literature .

Developed over a decade with his collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière, the piece premiered at the Avignon Festival in France in 1985. “Mr. Brook, synthesizing all his previous theatrical inventions, did nothing less than attempt to transform Hindu myth into a universalized art, accessible to all cultures,” theater critic and journalist Margaret Croyden wrote in The Times.

The play featured a cast of 21 actors from 16 countries and toured the world for four years. But it also prompted a backlash from scholars and critics who accused Mr Brook of appropriating Indian culture. “He took one of our most significant texts,” wrote Indian playwright and director Rustom Bharucha, “and decontextualized it from its story in order to sell it to Western audiences.”

Mr Brook acknowledged the play ‘would never have existed without India’ but defended his interpretation of the text, going back to basics in 2016 with ‘Battlefield’, a four-character play he directed and wrote with Estienne. As he said, his “Mahabharata” was an effort to present art that appealed to audiences around the world, regardless of background.

“When we did that, the Indians said, ‘You are here, colonialists, stealing our heritage,'” he told The Times in 2019. “I said, ‘No, that belongs to the world’. And I know you have little companies all over India doing Shakespeare. Has anyone ever said, ‘That belongs to England?’

Peter Stephen Paul Brook was born in London on March 21, 1925. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who worked as chemists and ran a company that developed a popular chocolate laxative called Brooklax.

As a child, Mr Brook dreamed of becoming a foreign correspondent, seeing journalism as an escape from what he saw as the dreary world of London’s middle class. Decades later, he explained his wanderlust — and his decision to move from England to France — by quoting one of his favorite Shakespeare lines: “There’s a World Elsewhere,” from “Coriolanus.”

While studying at Oxford University’s Magdalen College, he directed plays including Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus”, recruiting the aging occultist Aleister Crowley to advise actors on the practice of magic.

Graduated in 1944 at the age of 20, he made short commercials and worked on a production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” for troops overseas. Liverpool theater manager William Armstrong saw him conduct a dress rehearsal and helped launch Mr Brook’s career by recommending him to the Birmingham Repertory, where Mr Brook made his 1945 debut directing ‘Man and Superman” by Shaw.

He soon staged operas at Covent Garden in London, including a 1949 staging of Richard Strauss’ “Salome” with sets and costumes by Salvador Dalí.

By 1953 he had arrived in New York, where he directed a production of Gounod’s “Faust” for the Metropolitan Opera, moving the action from the 16th to the 19th century. That same year, he made his first film, “The Beggar’s Opera”, the rare musical starring Olivier. It failed at the box office, and Mr. Brook later struggled to find a large audience for films such as “Seven Days…Seven Nights” (1960).

Working on films, he was at the mercy of studio executives and budget constraints, he says, whereas “in theater you can conjure up a universe in an empty space”.

Mr Brook was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1965 and a Companion of Honor in 1998. He was awarded Norway’s first international Ibsen Award in 2008 and India’s Padma Shri in 2021.

In 1951 he married actress Natasha Parry, who went on to appear in several of his productions. She died in 2015. Besides her son, a filmmaker, survivors include a daughter, Irina Brook, a theater and opera director; and two grandchildren.

Appreciation: Peter Brook was a dazzling explorer of the complexity of humanity

Mr Brook quit as artistic director of the CIRT in 2011, but has continued to work for the past few years, even as macular degeneration made it difficult for him to see. In 2019, he created a new piece, “Why? about experimental Russian director Vsevolod Meyerhold, whom Mr. Brook wrote and directed with Estienne.

“The only truth is that theater is a living experience,” he told the London Evening Standard that year. “As long as he is alive, he is alive. It fluctuates and changes. If we work in this form or write about it, we have a responsibility not to let the flame go out.

washingtonpost Gt

Not all news on the site expresses the point of view of the site, but we transmit this news automatically and translate it through programmatic technology on the site and not from a human editor.