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The Tao of Peter Brook

Peter Brook A Biography Michael Kustow St. Martin's: 336 pp., $27.95

January 01, 2006|Benjamin Barber | Benjamin Barber is Kekst professor of civil society at the University of Maryland and the author of several books, including "Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism Are Reshaping the World" and a forthcoming study of commercial culture, "Consumed."

THERE is perhaps no figure in modern theater who better embodies a theater that is visionary as well as commercial, challenging as well as flattering to its audience, than Peter Brook. A celebrated international theater researcher and director, Brook has had an immensely diverse career, including legendary Royal Shakespeare Company productions of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "King Lear," "Marat/Sade" and the Vietnam War piece "US" as well as controversial film versions of "King Lear" and William Golding's "Lord of the Flies" (in which children marooned on an island assume murderous tribal identities). He's also experimented with the concept of a world theater, testing and pushing the limits of conventional theater, through the Theatre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris, which Brook has run for more than 30 years.

At this moment in history, when Brook's biographer Michael Kustow points out that "world theater audiences are dwindling" and the theater is not only failing "to elevate or instruct" but also "hardly even entertains" anymore, it is a blessing to have Kustow's compelling story of this towering figure. Unwilling to engage in the kind of gossipy expose typical of the show business genre, "Peter Brook: A Biography" takes both Brook and the idea of the theater seriously -- without succumbing to hagiographic ponderousness. Brook's lifelong seriousness was no bar to wit, sex or fun, as Kustow shows, and no one is more attuned to the dangers of an overly earnest "Deadly Theater" than Brook himself.

Kustow's deftly told story of the man who came to embody "the radical spirit of contemporary theater" traverses the ground from Brook's slightly alienated early life (his parents were Russian Jewish immigrants) at Oxford and in London to his days as a prodigy. Called by a producer "the youngest earthquake" he'd known, Brook had managed, before he turned 30, to have worked with many of the finest actors around, including Paul Scofield, Alec Guinness, Jeanne Moreau, Peter Ustinov, John Gielgud, Flora Robson, Laurence Olivier and the Lunts, and to have collaborated with Truman Capote, George Balanchine, Harold Arlen, Kenneth Tynan and Noel Coward.

Brook had been named director of productions at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, where he persuaded Salvador Dali to design sets for "Salome," had been reviewed glowingly by "angry young man" playwright-to-be John Osborne, persuaded CBS to do a television version of "King Lear" with music by Virgil Thomson and starring Orson Welles and had even seen himself featured in Vogue magazine.

Readers of a certain age will recall that Brook was a kind of magic pinball ricocheting from one theater celebrity to another and racking up a "score" that, by the 1960s, made him one of the most commercially successful directors of his generation at the RSC as well as in the West End and on Broadway. Yet what is most stunning in his career, what Kustow rightly features, is what occurs at the precise moment of Brook's greatest commercial success.

As a radical theater pioneer who had nonetheless made his way in conventional drama, Brook decided in 1972 to abandon the RSC, leave England and the dulling pressures of theater as usual and embark on a journey inspired by his reading of theatrical pioneers Gurdjieff and Jerzy Grotowski. As recounted much later in his autobiography, "Threads of Time: Recollections," Brook was embarking on a kind of "struggling, groping, rising, and falling endlessly" that would deliver him over to a "searching for a there that in the whole future course of human history" might never be known. This journey was a way -- a Tao -- leading him to a concept of global theater, to a method of speaking directly to audiences in venues where there are no stages.

Brook insisted, in words that are also the title of his influential 1968 theater treatise, "The Empty Space," that he "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 theater to be engaged."

Brook's quest was for the "there" inhabiting empty space. It led him to the interior of the world soul in search of a quintessential theater, taking him first to a carpet factory in Paris and then to the decrepit burlesque house at the Bouffes du Nord, which would become home to his new international company -- not just a theatrical troupe but also a research organization devoted to studying and understanding the intersection of culture, politics and play. From this new base, from which he still operates today, Brook traveled the world -- to Iran, Africa and Japan, among other places -- seeking audiences that had never set foot in a theater to try out dramas rooted in his research on religion, myths and language.

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