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Peter Brook (1925 - 2022)

Updated: Feb 27

Peter Brook - A nu fi... sau a fi de ajutor

(Andrei Șerban)

De când l-am întâlnit - aveam 26 de ani - și până astăzi, Brook joacă pentru mine rolul de părinte, mentor, prieten și (cum insistă să-l numesc) coleg și camarad de călătorie. A adorat tot timpul să voiajeze în căutarea necunoscutului. Mă aflu printre cei foarte mulți care de o jumătate de secol simțim (poate excesiv) influența lui. Pentru că l-am însoțit o vreme în explorările sale, nu ne-a fost ușor să ne găsim fiecare propriul drum. Cum spunea Brâncuși, justificând despărțirea grea de mentorul său Rodin, "nimic nu crește la umbra unui stejar falnic". Probabil de aceea, după un an petrecut la Centrul Experimental din Paris, am pornit, încurajat chiar de Brook, în căutarea căii proprii. O caut și azi. Peter mi-a insuflat încredere că există un înțeles profund și pozitiv al cuvântului "rețea" (contrar conotațiilor negative pe care uneori le comportă), că ne putem susține și influența în bine, formând legături durabile bazate pe aspirații împărtășite. Că e posibil să stabilim un contact prin scopul comun, creând o rețea puternică de energie nebănuită, pentru a ajunge împreună la țintă. Descoperirea în preajma lui Brook că suntem în teatru pentru a ne pune întrebări esențiale a creat între noi conexiuni vii, ca o uriașă pânză de păianjen, adică o rețea de vase comunicante, peste spațiu și timp. (Andrei Șerban, Peter Brook - A nu fi... sau a fi de ajutor)

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Peter Brook's Mahabharata:

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Peter Brook and Traditional Thought

by Basarab Nicolescu

Translated by David Williams

“Tradition itself, in times of dogmatism and dogmatic revolution, is a revolutionary force which must be safeguarded.”

Peter Brook

~ • ~

Theatre and Tradition

The continuous investigation of the meaning of theatre, which underpins all of Peter Brook’s work, has inevitably led him to an investigation of Tradition. If theatre springs from life, then life itself must be questioned. Understanding theatrical reality also entails understanding the agents of that reality, the participants in any theatrical event: actors, director, spectators. For a man who rejects all dogma and closed systems of thought, Tradition offers the ideal characteristic of unity in contradiction. Although it asserts its immutable nature, nevertheless it appears in forms of an immense heterogeneity: while devoting itself to the understanding of unity, it does so by focusing its concerns on the infinite diversity of reality. Finally, Tradition conceives of understanding as being something originally engendered by experience, beyond all explanation and theoretical generalisation. Isn’t the theatrical event itself ‘experience,’ above all else?

Even on the most superficial of levels, Brook’s interest in Tradition is self-evident: one thinks of his theatre adaptation of one of the jewels of Sufi art, Attar’s Conference of the Birds, of his film taken from Gurdjieff’s book Meetings with Remarkable Men, and of the subsequent work on The Mahabharata. Clearly an investigation of the points of convergence between Brook’s theatre work and traditional thought is not devoid of purpose.

An important point needs to be made at the very outset: the word ‘tradition’ (from the Latin ‘tradere,’ meaning ‘to restore,’ ‘to transmit’) carries within it a contradiction charged with repercussions. In its primary familiar usage, the word ‘tradition’ signifies ‘a way of thinking or acting inherited from the past’(1): it is therefore linked with the words ‘custom’ and ‘habit.’ In this sense, one might refer to ‘academic tradition,’ to a ‘Comédie Française tradition’ or to ‘Shakespearean tradition.’ In theatre, tradition represents an attempt at mummification, the preservation of external forms at all costs—inevitably concealing a corpse within, for any vital correspondence with the present moment is entirely absent. Therefore, according to this first use of ‘tradition,’ Brook’s theatre work seems to be anti-traditional, or, to be more precise, a-traditional. Brook himself has said:

Even if it’s ancient, by its very nature theatre is always an art of modernity. A phoenix that has to be constantly brought back to life. Because the image that communicates in the world in which we live, the right effect which creates a direct link between performance and audience, dies very quickly. In five years a production is out of date. So we must entirely abandon any notion of theatrical tradition…(2)

A second, less familiar meaning of ‘Tradition’—and one that will be used throughout this essay—is ‘a set of doctrines and religious or moral practices, transmitted from century to century, originally by word of mouth or by example’ or ‘a body of more or less legendary information, related to the past, primarily transmitted orally from generation to generation.’(3) According to this definition, ‘Tradition’ encapsulates different ‘traditions’—Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, Sufi etc. (To avoid any confusion between these two accepted uses of the same word, a capital letter will be employed throughout when referring to this latter use).

So in essence Tradition is concerned with the transmission of a body of knowledge on the spiritual evolution of man, his position in different ‘worlds,’ his relationship with different ‘cosmoses.’ This body of knowledge is therefore unvarying, stable, permanent, despite the multiplicity of forms assumed in its transmission, and despite those distortions brought about by history and the passage of time. Although its transmission is usually oral, Tradition can also be conveyed by means of the science of symbols, by various writings and works of art, as well as by myths and rituals.

Traditional knowledge was established in ancient times, but it would be futile to look for a ‘source’ of Tradition. As far as its deepest roots are concerned, Tradition could be conceived to be outside both space (geographical) and time (historical). It is eternally present, here and now, in every human being, a constant and vital wellspring. The ‘source’ of Tradition can only be metaphysical. By addressing itself to what is essential in mankind, Tradition remains very much alive in our times. The work of René Guénon or Mircea Eliade have shown the extent to which traditional thought can be of burning interest for our own era. In addition, increasingly detailed studies demonstrate the points of convergence in structural terms between contemporary science and Tradition.

One can find a precise point of contact between Tradition and theatre in Tradition’s quality of vital immediacy—a quality reflected in its oral transmission, in its constant reference to the present moment and to experience in the present moment. Brook himself refers to just this, more or less directly, when he writes:

Theatre exists in the here and now. It is what happens at that precise moment when you perform, that moment at which the world of the actors and the world of the audience meet. A society in miniature, a microcosm brought together every evening within a space. Theatre’s role is to give this microcosm a burning and fleeting taste of another world, and thereby interest it, transform it, integrate it.(4)

Evidently, according to Brook’s vision, although the theatre is on the one hand by its very nature ‘a-traditional,’ it could be conceived to be a field of study in which to confront and explore Tradition. The reasons for Brook’s interest in the thought of Gurdjieff are also apparent: as we know, Brook devoted several years of work to realising a film version of one of his books. We believe that significant correspondences exist between Brook’s work in theatre and the teachings of Gurdjieff: and for that reason Gurdjieff’s name will recur throughout this essay.

While resolutely remaining a man of Tradition, Gurdjieff (1877–1949) managed to express his teachings in contemporary language. He also succeeded in locating and formulating, in a scientific manner, laws common to all levels of reality. These laws assure a ‘unity in diversity,’(5) a unity beyond the infinite variety of forms associated with the different levels. These laws explain why mankind need not be a fragmented state in a thousand realities, but in one multi-faceted reality only.

Aesthetic reality, spiritual reality, scientific reality: don’t they all converge on one and the same centre, while remaining utterly distinct and different in themselves? Hasn’t contemporary scientific thought itself (both quantum and sub-quantum) uncovered paradoxical and surprising aspects in nature, formerly entirely unsuspected—aspects which bring it significantly closer to Tradition?(6)

Theatre work, traditional thought, scientific thought: such a meeting is perhaps unusual, but certainly not fortuitous. By Peter Brook’s own admission, what attracted him to theatrical form as well as to the study of Tradition was precisely this apparent contradiction between art and science. So it is not at all surprising that a book such as Matila Ghyka’s Le Nombre d’Or (a discussion of the relationship between numbers, proportions and emotions) should have made such a strong impression on him.

The possible dialogues between science and Tradition, art and Tradition, science and art, are rich and fruitful, potentially offering a means of understanding a world borne down by and submerged beneath increasingly alienating complexities.

The Theatre as Field of Study — of Energy, Movement and Interrelations

We believe that Brook’s theatre research is structured around three polar elements: energy, movement and interrelations. ‘We know that the world of appearance,’ writes Brook, ‘is a crust—under the crust is the boiling matter we see if we peer into a volcano. How can we tap this energy?’(7) Theatrical reality will be determined by the movement of energy, a movement itself only perceivable by means of certain relationships: the interrelations of actors, and that between text, actors and audience. Movement cannot be the result of an actor’s action: the actor does not ‘do’ a movement, it moves through him/her. Brook takes Merce Cunningham as an example: ‘he has trained his body to obey, his technique is his servant, so that instead of being wrapped up in the making of a movement, he can let the movement unfold in intimate company with the unfolding of the music.’(8)

The simultaneous presence of energy, movement and certain interrelations brings the theatrical event to life. With reference to Orghast, Brook spoke of ‘the fire of the event,’ which is ‘that marvelous thing of performance in the theatre. Through it, all the things that we’d been working on suddenly fell into place.’(9) This ‘falling into place’ indicates the sudden discovery of a structure hidden beneath the multiplicity of forms, apparently extending in all directions. That is why Brook believes the essence of theatre work to be in ‘freeing the dynamic process.’(10) It is a question of ‘freeing’ and not of ‘fixing’ or ‘capturing’ this process which explains the suddenness of the event. A linear unfolding would signify a mechanistic determinism, whereas here the event is linked to a structure which is clearly not linear at all—but rather one of lateral interrelationships and interconnections.

Event is another key word, frequently recurring in Brook’s work. Surely it is not simply coincidence that the same word covers a central notion in modern scientific theory, since Einstein and Minkowski? Beyond the infinite multiplicity of appearances, isn’t reality perhaps based on one single foundation?

In 1900, Max Planck introduced the concept of the ‘elementary quantum of action,’ a theory in physics based on the notion of continuity: energy has a discreet, discontinuous structure. In 1905, Einstein formulated his special theory of relativity, revealing a new relationship between space and time: it would contribute to a radical reevaluation of the object/energy hierarchy. Gradually, the notion of an object would be replaced by that of an ‘event,’ a ‘relationship’ and an ‘interconnection’—real movement being that of energy. Quantum mechanics as a theory was elaborated much later, around 1930: it shattered the concept of identity in a classical particle. For the first time, the possibility of a space/time discontinuum was recognised as logically valid. And finally the theory of elementary particles—a continuation of both quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity, as well as an attempt to go beyond both of these physical theories—is still in the process of elaboration today.

Like both contemporary scientists and Gurdjieff, Brook is convinced of the materiality of energy. Describing the characteristics of ‘rough theatre,’ he writes:

The Holy Theatre has one energy, the Rough has others. Lightheartedness and gaiety feed it, but so does the same energy that produces rebellion and opposition. This is a militant energy: it is the energy of anger, sometimes the energy of hate.(11)

Wasn’t it Gurdjieff himself who said that: ‘Everything in the universe is material, and for that very reason Ultimate Understanding is more materialist than materialism’?(12) Of course he distinguishes ‘matter,’ which ‘is always the same: but materiality is different. And the different degrees of materiality directly depend on the qualities and properties of the energy manifested at a given point.’(13) So ‘objects’ would be localised configurations of energy.

But where does this energy come from? What are the laws governing the transformation of non-differentiated energy into a specific form of energy? Is this non-differentiated energy the fundamental substratum of all forms? To what extent can actors and audience at a theatrical performance become implicated and integrated with the formidable struggle of energies that takes place at every moment in nature?

In the first place, we believe that it is important to recognise that, in Peter Brook’s theatre research, the grouping text-actor-audience reflects the characteristics of a natural system: when a true theatrical ‘event’ takes place, it is greater than the sum of its parts. The interactions between text and actors, text and audience and actors and audience constitute the new, irreducible element. At the same time, text, actors and audience are true sub-systems, opening themselves up to each other. In this sense, one can talk of the life of a text. As Brook has said many times, a play does not have a form which is fixed forever. It evolves (or involves) because of actors and audiences. The death of a text is connected to a process of closure, to an absence of exchange. In The Empty Space, we read that: ‘A doctor can tell at once between the trace of life and the useless bag of bones that life has left. But we are less practised in observing how an idea, an attitude or a form can pass from the lively to the moribund.’(14)

Might one not further suggest that the text-actor-audience system possesses another of the important characteristics of natural systems, that of being ‘modules of coordination in the hierarchy of nature?’(15) Certainly, in that instance when the spectator emerges from a theatre event enriched with new information in the sphere of energy: ‘I have also looked for movement and energy. Bodily energy as much as that of emotions, in such a way that the energy released onstage can unleash within the spectator a feeling of vitality that he would not find in everyday life.’(16) As the bearer of this ‘feeling of vitality,’ the spectator could participate in other openings and other exchanges, in life.

But what is essential is elsewhere—in the recognition, on its own level, of the action of those laws common to all levels. One can conceive of the universe (as in Gurdjieff’s cosmology, or scientific systems theory) as a great Whole, a vast cosmic matrix within which all is in perpetual motion in a continuous restructuring of energies. Such a unity is not static, it implies differentiation and diversity in the existence not of a substance, but of a common organisation: the determining laws of the Whole. These laws are only fully operational when systems are mutually open to each other, in an incessant and universal exchange of energy.

It is precisely this exchange that confirms what Gurdjieff called ‘the general harmonic movement of systems,’ or ‘the harmony of reciprocal maintenance in all cosmic concentrations.’(17) The opening of a system prevents its degeneration, and ultimate death. In-separability is the safeguard of life. It is well known that all closed physical systems are subjected to Clausius-Carnot’s principle, which implies an inevitable degeneration of energy, a growing disorder. For there to be order and stability, there must be opening and exchange. Such an exchange can take place between syntheses on one single level, or between systems belonging to different levels.

Almost all of the actors’ ‘exercises’ and ‘improvisations’ in Brook’s Centre seem to aim at engendering opening and exchange. First-hand testimonies to this effect are numerous: one thinks of those published accounts of the preparatory processes for Conference of the Birds, Orghast and Carmen.(18) Brook has explicitly said himself that, by means of these exercises and improvisations, the actors are trying to ‘get to what’s essential: in other words to that point at which the impulses of one conjoin with the impulses of another to resonate together.’(19 ) Michel Rostain describes how, during the preparation for Carmen, one singer would turn his/her back on another, in order to try to recreate the gesture accompanying the other person’s singing without ever having seen it. Actors sitting in a circle attempted to ‘transmit’ gestures or words: and in the end the force and clarity of internal images enabled them to be made ‘visible.’ This is genuinely precise and rigorous research work.

1 Petit Robert, Paris, S.N.L., 1970, p. 1810.

2 Peter Brook in Gérard Montassier, Le Fait Culturel, Paris, Fayard, 1980, p. 121.

3 Petit Robert, op. cit., p. 1810.

4 Peter Brook in Le Fait Culturel, op. cit., p. 122.

5 P.D. Ouspensky, Fragments d’un enseignement inconnu (hereafter Fragments …), Paris, Stock, 1978, p. 393. Published in English as In Search of the Miraculous, this remains the most thorough and illuminating introduction to Gurdjieff’s thought. For a study of the relationship between Gurdjieff and contemporary scientific thought, see Basarab Nicolescu, ‘G.I. Gurdjieff,’ in Encyclopédie des Sciences Esotériques, Paris, Quillet, 1985.

6 Basarab Nicolescu, ‘Physique contemporain et Tradition occidentale,’ in 3ème Millénaire no. 2, May/June 1982, pp. 4–13.

7 Peter Brook, The Empty Space, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1977, p. 58.

8 Peter Brook, ibid., p. 64.

9 A.G.H. Smith, Orghast at Persepolis, London, Eyre Methuen, 1972, p. 257.

10 John Heilpern, Conference of the Birds: The Story of Peter Brook in Africa, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1979, p. 103.

11 Peter Brook, The Empty Space, op. cit., p. 79.

12 G.I. Gurdjieff, Gurdjieff parle à ses élèves, Paris, Stock/Monde ouvert, 1980, p. 35.

13 P.D. Ouspensky, Fragments…, op. cit., p. 133.

14 Peter Brook, The Empty Space, op. cit., p. 13.

15 Ervin Laszlo, Le systémisme—vision nouvelle du mond, Paris, Pergamon Press, 1981, p. 59. This is an excellent introduction to systems theory.

16 Peter Brook, Le Fait Culturel, op. cit., p. 111

17 G.I. Gurdjieff, Récits de Belzébuth à son petit-fils, Monaco, Rocher/Litérature, Vol. I, pp. 84, 166, 167, 254.

18 See A.C.H. Smith, Orghast at Persepolis, op. cit.: John Heilpern, Conference of the Birds, op. cit.: Michel Rostain, ‘Journal des répétitions de La Tragédie de Carmen’ in Les Voies de la Création Théâtrale, Vol. XIII, Peter Brook, Paris, Editions de C.N.R.S., 1985.

19 Peter Brook in the programme for La Conférence des Oiseaux, Paris, C.I.C.T. 1979, p. 75.

Peter Brook's The Empty Space (1973) - fragment:

Extras din documentarul lui Gerald Feil, The Empty Space, din 1973, îi arată pe Peter Brook și compania sa de teatru internațională experimentală, realizând experimente de actorie teatrală. Helen Mirren a făcut și ea parte din grup

Peter Brook: The Esoteric and the Profane in Shakespeare:

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