The Enduring Peter Brook

I never met him. I don’t think I ever even saw him, but Peter Brook, who died earlier this month at the age of 97, influenced my life.

I did not go to live theater growing up…unless a high school production of Our Town counts. Perhaps there were other forgotten school shows. Did the town have a community theater? I don’t remember it. But there was no professional theater, and our family was not the sort of family that would go to the larger city to see any.

In college, however, I took a course in modern drama. We saw a few classic movies—I remember M and Treasure of the Sierra Madre–but mostly we read plays. I found almost every one of them interesting, and I still remember many of them. On the other hand, I don’t remember any specific lecture by Alan Downer, the professor. They must have been informative, however, for I feel as though I have a fairly solid grasp of the development of modern drama, and that had to come from him.

There was a professional theater associated with the university, and I remember seeing Hedda Gabler, and I probably saw other productions, and I do remember seeing a roommate in a student presentation of Mother Courage. Playgoing, however, was akin to hearing the Modern Jazz Quartet, going to a ballet, or attending a fencing match; I had not experienced these things growing up, and I wanted to. I certainly had not yet learned the real power of the stage.

That changed soon after I moved to New York, and it came about because of Peter Brook. I was lucky enough to attend his now legendary Royal Shakespeare Company production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I learned that night that a script can be read, but that a play must be seen. This was not Shakespeare of the drab printed word, but the creation of a magical world on the stage. It drew me in. It was more immediate than any movie could ever be. It required live actors, a stage, and an audience. And a special director who used a nearly bare stage, trapezes, unexpectedly outrageous costume, twirly thingies that glowed in the dark and produced an ethereal sound. I laughed out loud, was moved, and learned that the theater could present an experience that could not be had anywhere else.

I have now seen a half-dozen or more of Peter Brook’s other theatrical productions, some in the last few years since The Brooklyn Academy of Music, and The Theatre for a New Audience, a block away from BAM, were his American homes. They are both mere blocks from my own home. Each production that I have seen had something of interest that could only be done with live actors on the stage.

I was lucky enough to experience another of Brook’s legendary efforts, The Mahabharata, the production that christened the opening of The Harvey Theater at BAM. In the heyday of movie palaces, the building had been one of those gilded theaters, but, like almost all of them, it had closed as TV rose to prominence. It became a bowling alley, I am told. However, I had only known it as a bricked up, decrepit building like many of its neighbors.

The Brooklyn Academy, in collaboration with Brook, decided to turn it into a live theater in the mid-1980s but not into a sleek, modern space with plush seats. Instead, Brook liked the look of decay the place had. The cracked plaster and paint-peeling walls remained. Backless, hardwood benches were installed because this was what Brook wanted for his staging of the ancient Sanskrit epic.

For some theatergoers, Peter Brook is such a powerful figure that they claim to have seen his Dream when they could not have. I think of that when I claim to have seen his Mahabharata. Those benches (subsequently replaced with human seating) were unbearable for a one-act play; the Mahabharata was a seven, or perhaps nine, or maybe even an eleven-hour play. (One could attend it over several days.) I don’t know its actual length because I did not make it to its conclusion. I am only confident that it did end because I have been to that theater many times since, and The Mahabharata is not still on the stage. The seats were uncomfortable, yes, but following the complex interaction of gods and humans was dizzying, and the spouse and I had little idea what was going on. At a break in the “action” (were there even intermissions?) the spouse and I sneaked out, forgetting that where we exited was also a place where actors gathered awaiting their entrances. As we embarrassedly slipped by them, in the days before cellphones, I nonsensically mumbled, “Babysitter problems” to explain our departure.

So I learned from Peter Brook that theater could be magical and produce an experience that could not be had elsewhere. There have been many more special moments since I started going to plays, and there have been many special productions. I now go to the theater a couple dozen times a year, and something important or magical or special does not always happen, but it happens often enough that I continue going. And I thank Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for initiating me into the joys of the theater.

But I also learned from Peter Brook that theater sometimes comes with uncomfortable seats and puzzling plots. Then, you just have to get up and go home.