Balancing Act

Irene Oppenheim is an adjunct professor of humanities at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College and the artistic director of the Firehouse Theater Company

There are few who would not rank the English director Peter Brook among the most influential theater makers of the last four decades. Brook's theatrical manifestoes have left their mark on a generation of drama students, while his productions continue to challenge our conception of theater as a mirror of reality. Brook creates his own realities. It's a quest that persists in changing directions, even as Brook, who when he first emerged into prominence seemed a cultural revolutionary, has, in ways disappointing to some, reinvented himself as a guru of minutiae.

A high point in my own Brook saga came in the early 1970s, when I stood in a narrow Paris alley gazing at a street-level doorway. I don't remember any identifying signs on either the door or the adjacent bell but, having carefully sought the place out, I knew, or felt I knew, that somewhere in the building in front of me Brook had established his International Centre of Theatre Research. There, perhaps at that moment, he might be guiding his handful of chosen acolytes through explorations which would at the very least make theater explosively relevant or at the very most--it was a dreamy time--save the world. I didn't knock or make any other effort to actually witness this process. I simply wanted to pay homage to someone who had become, to me and many others, a cultural icon.

For Brook, the 1960s and early '70s were astonishingly productive. In slightly more than a decade, his directorial accomplishments included the film "Lord of the Flies" (1963), the stage premiere of "Marat/Sade" (1964), the collectively produced anti-Vietnam War play "US" (1966), the filming of "Marat/Sade" (1967), the staging of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (1970) and the film "King Lear" (1971). In the mid-1960s, Brook, along with the American Charles Marowitz, began the Antonin Artaud-inspired Theatre of Cruelty, a brief but seminal experimental project under the aegis of the Royal Shakespeare Company. In 1968, Brook published his polemic "The Empty Space." With its passionate characterizations of theater as "Deadly," "Holy," "Rough" and "Immediate," it was a book held near the heart of anyone who believed the arts in general and theater in particular could reclaim oracular power and reveal primal truths.

While most believers tried to resuscitate theatrical primacy in their neighborhood lofts and store-fronts, Brook himself took the quest more literally. In 1972, Brook and 11 actors, including 26-year-old Helen Mirren, set out for Africa. There, he said, he would work toward the creation of a cross-cultural "universal language." Prior to this trip, Brook had spent his previous years in Paris experimenting with sound, gesture and wordless improvisations in an attempt to transcend national and social boundaries. Now, Brook wanted to test his discoveries before African audiences, audiences he contended had not been tainted by Western commercialism.

To many Brook observers, this odyssey seemed both naive and mystifying. Did African audiences, even rural African audiences, possess the "untutored" qualities Brook claimed to be seeking? And further, why would Brook, a theatrical magician who in his acrobat-inspired "A Midsummer Night's Dream" created dazzling intricate conjunctions of visual wizardry and language, want to diminish those elements?

In his book "The Shifting Point: Theater, Film, Opera 1946-1987," Brook defended his African adventure as springing from purely theatrical motives. The process "of really starting from zero" was, he stated, of extraordinary value. Certainly, the African experience would strongly influence subsequent Brook productions; these would include his interpretations of the Persian tale "Conference of the Birds" and the "Mahabharata," an internationally cast nine-hour epic Brook brought to the Los Angeles Arts Festival in 1987. But while enriching our dramatic vocabulary may have been high on Brook's African itinerary, his new book "Threads of Time" indicates that he may have had another motive: to test some of the perceptual theories of G. I. Gurdjieff, a Russian-born mystic who settled in England and whose ideas attracted a number of artists including Frank Lloyd Wright, Katherine Mansfield, Georgia O'Keeffe and J.B. Priestley.

There had been rumors, but for me, Brook's involvement with Gurdjieff's philosophy didn't surface until 1979, when he directed a film based on the Gurdjieff book, "Meetings With Remarkable Men." Even then, the extent of Brook's Gurdjieff affiliation remained mysterious. This mystery may have been partly due to the secrecy andoral nature of the Gurdjieff master-student relationship. Still, Brook has hardly been forthcoming. I was present at a radio interview Brook gave around the time "Meetings With Remarkable Men" opened, and Brook spoke simply of his admiration for Gurdjieff as a storyteller. Gurdjieff is referred to only in passing in "The Shifting Point,' and neither Gurdjieff's concepts nor their influence on Brook makes any notable appearance in Brook's other works. Given the prominent role Gurdjieff's teachings play in "Threads of Time," the intimation is that Brook's commentaries have been heretofore incomplete.

Brook of course is under no obligation to reveal his spiritual affiliation. It does appear, however, that theatrical pronouncements by Brook, which previously appeared simply aesthetic, may have had more Gurdjieffian roots.

Now 73 years old, Brook has, he reveals, been a Gurdjieff student since 1950 when, in his mid-20s, he discovered his first Gurdjieff guide.

What was it that drew Brook to Gurdjieff? While the fragmentary, mostly undated and altogether unindexed entries of "Threads of Time" hardly qualify as coherent, explanatory autobiography, the book offers a few hints. Born in London in 1925, Brook was the son of Russian refugees. His father was an engineer, his mother a chemist. Leaving school, which he found stifling, at the age of 16, the theatrically precocious Brook made his directing debut the following year. When Brook was 21, he directed Shakespeare's "Love's Labour's Lost" at Stratford-upon-Avon, and when he was 23, he began directing operas at Covent Garden.

Brook was unquestionably successful, yet there were problems. Since he had no formal dramatic training, his early directorial efforts relied largely on intuition bolstered by an exceptionally visual imagination. Though mostly praised, Brook had his critics. He began to feel that his scenic and technical skills had allowed him to bypass any in-depth explorations of the subtext, or emotional life, of the works he directed. Brook felt a need to "balance," to reconcile what he perceived as culturally fostered oppositions. It is this need that may have made Gurdjieff's teachings so attractive. For equilibrium--an active conjunction of "body, feelings and mind"--is one of the Gurdjieff movement's primary concerns.

In theatrical terms, Brook feels he has come closest to portraying this elemental balance in "The Man Who," a 1993 production based on the writings of the neurologist Oliver Sacks. In the play's opening scene, a man lights a candle, blows it out, then lights it again. "The audience," Brook proudly relates, "needed no preparation, no education, no reference and above all no culture. It understood directly what was going on." Not everyone, alas, will share Brook's sense of triumph. The theatrical breakthroughs so valued by Brook can, to others, seem like a compendium of trivial pursuits.

Brook, however, continues to take his mission seriously, perhaps too seriously. Given his penchant for solemn pontification, readers of "Threads of Time" may sigh with relief as they come upon more terrestrial anecdotes about artists such as Paul Scofield, Salvador Dali and Jeanne Moreau. There are, too, wondrous moments when Brook focuses simply on the theatrical process. He observes, for instance, that "a good performance is like a game of Ping-Pong, and the five acts of a play by Shakespeare make up one long phrase, a phrase that accelerates, slows down, pauses, but never stops. When the first word is spoken, an invisible spool begins to unroll, and the structure of speech and silence must then flow inexorably to the end of the very last line." My own heart accelerated on reading that passage. It seemed so true, so absolutely right, that I again knew why I had, in Paris, once stood at Brook's door.

When Brook formed his Paris-based international research ensemble, Yoshi Oida was a member. Oida went to Africa with Brook and was a featured player in "The Man Who." In his book "The Invisible Actor," Oida distills the knowledge he gained from Brook and from his experiences as a student of classical Japanese dramatic techniques. "The Invisible Actor" is a practical work. Divided into sections, "Moving," "Performing," "Speaking" and "Learning," the book offers a series of specific theatrical exercises. Some of these will be familiar to those who have studied yoga or t'ai chi, but Oida gives his lessons an appealing, personal context. The suggested activities are woven together with wise and charming anecdotes such as this cautionary one at the book's end: "There was," writes Oida, "a famous Kabuki actor . . . who said, 'I can teach you the gesture pattern that indicates "looking at the moon." I can teach you the movement up to the tip of the finger which points to the sky. From the tip of your finger to the moon is your own responsibility.' "

As a Brook alumnus, Oida joins a small army of those who have known or worked with Peter Brook. While memories of particular Brook productions may fade, his well-documented career and techniques now have a permanent place in the dramatic canon.

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