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Brook, Peter (b. 1925)

BROOK, PETER (b. 1925)


British theater director.

Peter Brook has been the world's most influential theater director during the second half of the twentieth century and beyond. He mastered the arts and necessities of directing for the stage, bringing them to a pitch seldom seen before, and then has spent his professional life submitting the very idea of theater itself to the most revolutionary questioning. In internationally visible productions and writings, Brook has transformed the nature and process of theater directing and inspired several generations of younger directors.

Born in London to émigré Latvian Jews, Brook hurried through an Oxford education and burst onto the English theater scene at the age of twenty-one in Stratford-upon-Avon. His first great vehicle was what would later be called a "concept production" of Love's Labour's Lost, transferring Shakespeare's late medieval subject matter into the eighteenth-century France of Antoine Watteau's paintings. He was the very model of the wunderkind director—"the youngest earthquake I've known," according to producer Barry Jackson (Kustow, p. 43)—and an acolyte of Edward Gordon Craig (1872–1966), who held that directors must master all the varied theatrical crafts to become creative artists rather than interpretive artisans. In Love's Labour's Lost Brook also created exciting theater from a play that was virtually unproduced at the time, a pattern he would repeat with then neglected Shakespeare plays such as Measure for Measure (1950, with John Gielgud), The Winter's Tale (1951, again with Gielgud) , and most famously Titus Andronicus (1955–1957, with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh) .

Through his twenties and thirties Brook built a career on sensational, high-profile productions in Stratford-upon-Avon, London, Paris, Brussels, and New York. He put his assertive stamp on classics, operas, and much of the most important contemporary drama from France (Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Anouilh, Jean Genet), England (T. S. Eliot, Christopher Fry), and America (Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams). This phase of his career came to a triumphant conclusion in 1962 with a Stratford King Lear starring Brook's longtime associate Paul Scofield, a production thought by many critics to be the definitive midcentury vision of Shakespeare's great apocalyptic tragedy.

But beginning in the late 1950s, Brook began to question the most fundamental precepts of the art in which he was making such an astonishing success. This period of doubt and reevaluation was stimulated by many sources: French absurdist and German political drama, the writings of Antonin Artaud (1896–1948), French "new wave" cinema theory, exposure to American experimental companies such as the Living Theatre and Open Theater, travels among non-Western peoples such as the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico, and his own experiments in film (Moderato cantabile, 1960). So, through the 1960s, Brook progressively abandoned commercial theater altogether and launched a series of experimental theater projects. At the Royal Shakespeare Company he headed an experimental workshop that achieved international fame with Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade (1964–1966). At Britain's National Theatre he took such veterans as Gielgud and Irene Worth through the experimental process with Seneca's Oedipus (1968). A Paris workshop on The Tempest with an international cast resulted in a production at London's Roundhouse (1968) that forecast much of what lay ahead for Brook after 1970. Perhaps most influential of all Brook's activities during the 1960s was his book The Empty Space (1968), opening with some of the most famous words of modern theater: "I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged" (p. 9).

As if to prove these theories and forecast much of what was to follow, Brook created an international sensation with his last important production for the established theater, A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Royal Shakespeare Company (1970). Set in a huge box of white walls with actors on trapezes, stilts, and upper walkways, the production fused the techniques of experimental theater, circus, and Asian performance with the deepest English traditions of Shakespearean entertainment.

As Dream played in England and America, Brook's new life was already commencing in Paris, where he occupied an abandoned theater, the Bouffes du Nord, and assembled a permanent company of actors representing many continents and languages. With this group Brook perfected a new minimalist performance style in which "transparency" and "elimination" became his watchwords, traveling to many continents, experimenting with verbal and gestural language, and creating a series of productions based on myths and legends from the most culturally diverse sources: Orghast, The Ik, The Conference of the Birds, The Mahabharata, The Man Who, Tierno Bokar, and an assortment of Shakespeare experiments. Brook occasionally ventured beyond this work, to such shows as a star-studded version of The Cherry Orchard and three operatic experiments (The Tragedy of Carmen, Impressions of Pelléas, Don Giovanni). And he continued to write about theater (The Shifting Point, 1987; There Are No Secrets, 1993; Evoking Shakespeare, 1998) and about his own life (Threads of Time, 1998).

See alsoTheater.


Brook, Peter. The Empty Space. New York, 1968.

——. The Shifting Point: 1946-1987. New York, 1987.

Kustow, Michael Peter Brook: A Biography. New York, 2005.

Trewin, J. C. Peter Brook: A Biography. London, 1971.

David Richard Jones

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