Quality is sacred, says Peter Brook


"Threads of Time: Recollections," by Peter Brook. Counterpoint. 198 pages. $25.

From 1946 through the late 1980s, Peter Brook was the English-speaking world's greatest theater director. His productions ranged from King Lear (with Paul Scofield) and A Midsummer Night's Dream (the set was an all-white squash court with trapezes) to projects developed by Brook's International Center of Theater Research that included "The Conference of the Birds," "Mahabharata" (10 years in the making with an international group of artists), and "The Man Who Left to Right." When I saw Brook's production of "Marat/Sade," I felt his jarring theatricality an incessant epiphany.

In 1968, a 43 year old Brook wrote "The Empty Space - A Book about the Theater: Deadly, Holy, Rough, Immediate." The last lines of the book are, "To play needs much work. But when we experience the work as play, then it is not work anymore. A play play." In the Bible about theater, "The Empty Space" is an Isaiah or a Luke.

And, now in 1998, 30 years later, Brook writes "Threads of Time: Recollections." The range of recollections goes from Brook's description of his father's inventions (the precursor to Brook's theatrical inventions) to "... traveling in Afghanistan in search of the sacred, hoping to find traces of ancient, forgotten traditions."

Continually informing Brook's take on his productions was, and presumably still is, a more than 40-year search driven by the philosophy of the guide George Ivanovich Gurdjieff. "We have a world outside us, a universe within," said Gurdjieff.

Brooks responds: "I have an inner search that I cherish and respect but also a work in life for which I am grateful and cannot despise. Both seem valuable, but in different ways. What can help me to assess how much I should legitimately give to each, so as to maintain a balance?" says Brook.

Anyone who believes each of us is concurrently on an inner search and an outer journey will easily get caught up in Brook's quandary.

His "silent wakefulness" quietly echoes the spiritual outings from the Desert Fathers and Theresa of Avila to the 20th century contemplative Thomas Merton.

Brook is not only recollecting stories about a variety of ever-different theater productions, but also recollecting the rigors he demands from himself, that "quality is sacred, but it is always in danger."

The last lines of "Threads ..." are: "Ending is hardest of all, yet letting go is the only true moment of freedom. Then the end becomes a beginning once more, and life has the last word. In an African village, when a storyteller comes to the end of his tale, he places the palm of his hand on the ground and says, I put down my story here.' Then he adds, So that someone else may take it up another day.'"

In our Bible about theater, my bet is that "Threads..." will be part of the "Apocrypha" - things that are hidden, yet always worth looking for. If you believe that theater has the power to take you outside yourself, "... to open us to a wider vision," read "Threads of Time: Recollections." Hard work at times, yes, but the joy of play awaits you.

Peter W. Culman has been managing director of Center Stage, i Baltimore, since 1966 and before that was managing director of the Barter Theater, the state theater of Virginia. He was a Chinese linguist in the U.S. Army.

Pub Date: 6/14/98

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