Interview with Peter Brook

The following interview is taken in its entirety from The Nancho Archives.

Nancho Consults Peter Brook

On Audience, Energy and Alchemical Communion

Peter BrookPeter Stephen Paul Brook CBE, director, filmmaker, author, painter, pianist and theater man to the bone, is a giant of world culture. Born on the spring equinox in 1925, Brook produced an acclaimed Faust at Oxford at 17 and at 20 became the youngest-ever director of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. He has since directed over 40 major stage productions, created ten films, and with multiple stage, cinema and television versions returned the dramaturgically languishing gods of India’s Mahabharata to full-time international employment. Although he has produced works as varied and bizarre as Marat Sade, Lord of the Flies, Conference of the Birds, and The Ik, the Paris-base Brook constantly cycles back to the Shakespearean canon for renewal. His primary legacy to the modern stage is a sense of immediacy bordering on possession, taking theater back to the numinous ground where ritual, seance and coven convene.

– Verbatim Excerpts –

Nancho: Among all the institutions collectively known as “Japanese culture” today, the few indigenous ones are actually the dramatic forms – kabuki, bunraku, noh, even ankoku buyo. And despite what you see on television, there is a lot of dramatic talent in this country, like Britain perhaps. What does it mean when a culture or a country has a high “histrionic quotient” or level of thespian ability?

Peter Brook: I remember a number of years ago an English actor saying to me that he felt that there was something very much in common between England and Japan in relation to acting. He said that one of the reasons why the English are normally more gifted for acting than Latin countries is that any Latin, as everyone knows, acts naturally. He has no inhibition whatsoever about immediately and completely expressing himself outwardly. There is nothing that holds him back. This absence of resistance, of course, leads to bad art. It leads to natural communication, but no need for the creative act that comes from difficulty and friction. And he said that the English paradox, that the English who are normally not considered a theatrical nation, a theatrical people, can express themselves through the theatre because there is a meeting between two opposing impulses – an inner impulse that wishes to express itself powerfully outwards, and an inhibiting influence that prevents that through the nature of the education and culture. And he said there is the same thing to be found in Japan, where you have this tremendous meeting between two opposing pressures: the pressure to express outwardly and the pressure not to express outwardly. And this produces a very intense need to create, not easy forms, but in the end, difficult forms. I think this analysis is very convincing.

Do you think the Japanese theatre traditions have anything to offer to modern theatre, or are they simply traditions?

PB: The answer can’t be yes or no. Everywhere in the world there are traditions, traditional theatre. When I started working in England there was a Shakespeare tradition. It was abominable. There wasn’t anything whatsoever to be preserved or respected, and it had nothing to do with Shakespeare anyway. On the other hand, you come to these great traditions – the Noh, the bunraku, kabuki – and one has to salute and respect some of the greatest forms the world’s theatre has ever known, forms of extraordinary beauty, making enormous demands which, to begin with, set a standard of quality, of pure quality, quality on all levels. Most of all in the bunraku, for the simple reason that, apart from the quality of the image, there is something which has to be brought to life every time – this incredibly fine, living interrelation between the operators and the puppets. This is something in the present, like in a martial art. This is not something that exists in the past, because however long bunraku operators have been operating, in each performance they have to rediscover that extraordinary interrelationship between their teams, the dolls that they are bringing to life, and the actions that the dolls make together. It is a supreme exercise, quite apart from the story that it is telling, This sets a standard for the body, for the sensitivity, for the lightness and quickness and execution of all actors in all styles all over the world. – It is a peak in interrelation, in teamwork, in group feeling, requiring the highest level of bodily, emotional and intellectual sensitivity. In that way it is not just a monument, but a monument in terms of its life for each performance.

But from another point of view, one can’t say that any pictorial form that has become frozen can truly express what is needed to be expressed in the present day. You can relate it also to similar forms in India and Southeast Asia. These forms are there to be admired in the way that you can admire great works of art in a museum, which are very important, or great works of music from the past, as showing a degree of quality that today, when our general sense of quality is so low, it’s very hard to reach. They have to be there and they have to be preserved in as living a form as possible, but they mustn’t be thought to be a substitute for the obligation there is to find the present form.

In the Japanese tradition one sees this renewal into the present in an immensely interesting way in fashion design, where without the great beauty of traditional Japanese dress being in any way challenged, the great designers of today have found a true renewal, using methods, materials and a vision that comes out of the present day, yet doesn’t deny their heritage.

In theatrical traditions such as kabuki, great importance is attached to the formalized movements called kata. How do you assess this style of learning?

PB: Again it’s not yes or no. It is much more, how do you feel yourself in front of a formalized movement? If you feel that what is needed is to imitate it perfectly, then it can be a barrier, because imitating it perfectly leads to one saying: So what? I have taken something very difficult and I have learned to do it like someone else once did it. So what’s the value? However, and this is very very rare, if you can go beyond this and say: This difficult form is like a bridge, and if I can completely absorb it to a point where I come to the other side, I can find something that comes to life in myself – this is a very different attitude.

I don’t know about Japan, but in India I saw a lot of this in classical dancing. Once the great dancers were so completely free of the difficult forms that they could use them to express deep human truths. It’s the same in Europe in Western classical ballet. The very rare great dancer goes beyond the form, and the form then is a support, and something very simple can come through. I’ve seen an Indian dancer, a great dancer, doing very artificial movements, but what came through was a mother calling to her child. Her child was the little god Krishna, and all that one saw, all that one could be touched by, was the pure quality of the feeling of Krishna’s mother. One wasn’t seeing the complicated form. In the same way, I’ve seen a great European ballet dancer playing Giselle, and all one sees is the true feeling of madness in this character. But this is very very rare. In India it is more and more rare, and in all the classical schools it is recognized that today all the pupils end at the level of virtuosity. They’ve reached the point where they can do and show the difficult movement, and that’s where the question comes, who cares? You only care if the person wishes to use this like a line of Shakespeare, to lead to something far beyond.


You’ve spent many years celebrating Shakespeare, and presumably studying his era and society. What is your position on the “pit question?” Did the common people, the audience in the “pit,” really only come because of the few bawdy scenes or obscene references, or was there a higher level of searching or understanding among common audiences than we see today?

PB: Well, I don’t think that there is much area for controversy here. Shakespeare, more than any other dramatist that we know, recognized the need to make what happens on the stage a reflection of all forms of life. And by all forms, I mean both philosophical life, spiritual life, inner life, intellectual life, sophisticated life, and popular life – all as being interrelated facets of this great mass that we call living experience.

Edward de Vere (1550-1604), 17th Earl of Oxford

And he knew – and this is something that I’ve found confirmed by experience all through my life – that you can only do that if it is matched by a corresponding audience. That you produce in the theatre just as much as your audience can receive. So if you have an entirely academic audience, to satisfy them you produce intellectual plays. If you have an entirely popular audience, in the lowest sense of the word, you produce crude popular entertainment. Linking levels is one of the hardest things in all human activities. But Shakespeare’s aim and his art was constantly to engage each part of the audience at the same time. And very recently, English poet Ted Hughes has written a penetrating bookon Shakespeare, which has yet to be published, in which he even analyzes this in terms of the single line. How within one line of Shakespeare, he will use an elaborate word that most of the audience could not understand, but which would excite the intellectuals who were sitting close to the stage, and then by the use of the word “and” he would immediately follow it by a second word, which turns the same sense into very everyday use. And the two together, the elaborate word and the ordinary word put side by side, give an excitement to both parts of the audience and, in a lightning flash, both parts of the audience were equally involved.

I think that you’ll find that Shakespeare did something that we learn all the time in the theatre, and which every orator knows as well, which is to never let any part of your audience slip for too long. Because one recognizes that there is this phenomenon in audiences – an audience that switches off. And the aim of all theatre work is never to lose your audience for a moment. Because if you lose an audience, even for a matter of seconds, it’s very hard to capture them again. And if you look at the structure of Shakespeare’s plays, you can find that he alternates all the time between one level and another. And, in this fluctuating movement, he keeps in touch with everyone. There is an element of crude melodrama followed by an element of sophisticated politics, and at once something else that comes in, and something that refers to a very difficult idea.

You can take Hamlet. If you think that Hamlet is inexhaustible as a deep, philosophical play, and yet it is totally accessible and eternally popular as one of the most widely played pieces of dramatic writing in history. And there’s a perfect example of how he could write for an enormous audience. He was only doing what big film-making always strives to do, and which succeeds to a degree.

Very, very good films, on the whole, do bring together enormously different people. And if you think of the very best American movies, there have been a great number of extraordinary pictures that have played to, in New York for instance, to very sophisticated people, and are then playing in remote parts of the Middle East and Asia to very popular audiences. And all of them are held by the same film at the same time, and yet they are seeing different aspects of it. That is the great Shakespearean art and no one has outdone that.

Because the one thing that no one can deny about Shakespeare is that… Well, there are two things you can’t deny. The popular nature is proven by statistics because of the amount his works are played all over the world. But I don’t think that anyone would say that in all writing there is anything spiritually and philosophically deeper than what is in the core of Shakespeare’s writing. And there, there is no concession. That the deepest ideas are expressed without being popularized or cheapened. And for that there is no precedent in theatre writing. The only equivalents are in novel writing. We have a writer like Dostoyevsky, who has also those two sides, whose depth or thought go very deep, and yet whose form is irresistible to a very, very wide audience for its dramatic intensity.

I wasn’t questioning his art, but there was this debate as I remember about the quality of the audience itself, that we haven’t come so far educationally and culturally, that the kinds of things the audience of the Elizabethan era were fascinated with were not merely the vulgar scenes, the same popular baiting that we get in the media today, but that they were actually concerned with deeper issues. That there was an active interest, even among the lower segments of society, in greater questions.

PB: Well, I think you touch on two very important and interesting things. One is that always audiences – their level of understanding – is always underestimated. And that every section of the population is capable of more than the people responsible for creating mass entertainments are aware of. That is a universal truth. But then there’s a more specific truth. That is that every theatre event is a process. And by that I mean that something happens which is not the same in the middle as at the beginning, and not the same at the end as the middle. And when the event is right, in other words, when the words are properly conceived by the author, when the acting is properly conceived and implemented by the actors, there is a change of temperature. That, whatever the audience, it is hoisted to a higher level of understanding than it is normally capable of. And one sees this with an actor. An actor may be a very ordinary and dull person in everyday life. But as he begins to play a great play like Hamlet or King Lear, gradually he becomes a higher level of human being than he is before or after. And the same thing happens to an audience. But an audience, if the work is right, is carried to a higher level. Now this is not only true of Shakespeare’s audience – we imagine because we can’t know how it really was in Elizabethan times – but it is true today. But a good Shakespeare performance will take people, who most likely will say, “oh, I never even thought Shakespeare could interest me,” and because they’re seeing a good performance, which is rare, and not a dull, academic performance, they, despite themselves, are led to be interested in questions, experience feelings that are above their normal level of quality of experience. And that’s what the theatre is for.

That’s what the church used to be for…

PB: No longer, of course. The only difference is that – of course in Japan the temple and the theatre are much more, were much more, closely related than in the European tradition – the great difference is that the church spiritual experience is meant to take hold of the person and last longer than the theatre experience. So the difference is that both aim toward the same goal, but the theatre is like, in show business terms, like the trailer for a great movie. The theatre experience can lift you to a spiritual height for two minutes, and then that’s taken away and you leave the theatre and you’ve gotten it. Then you realize that there is something called a spiritual way that, in a much more painful and much harder and much slower process, can lead you there on a more permanent basis. And that’s where the two are intertwined.

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3 Comments

  1. dani karmakar said:

    This interview had published in kolkata’s theatre magazin. Bengali translation.Do you know?

  2. We wear different costumes till we’re dead—
    but if you rip apart the fibers in your head
    you’ll find we’ve all been woven
    from a single thread.

    THANK YOU for a profound dialogue with the great Peter Brook. His erudition and clarity have been and will continue to be a lighthouse to all us storm-tossed fellow sailors…

  3. Of all the brilliant splendors and alluring vices of baroque France, why would the stern philosopher Pascal dub theater the most dangerous of all social or artistic seductions? The answer is simple: though the period is known for its wildly opulent court festivities, its mania for gambling, and the worldly “gallantry” (as it was then decorously called) of its salons, none of these diversions exercised so forceful a hold on the public as did theater. As Pascal’s remark makes clear, the stage captivated audiences with what seemed a perfect reflection of life, an image of human emotions “so natural and so subtle” that it could equal, and even best, the real thing.

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