Conversations 1967: Peter Brook
Explore the archive with this 1967 interview in which theater critic Elliot Norton sits down with prolific film and theater director Peter Brook. Brook discusses how he unites the two mediums and his constant search for the new Shakespearean theater with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
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Narrator: "Elliot Norton Reviews."
Mr. Norton appears at the courtesy
of the "Boston Record American" and the "Sunday Advertiser."
Tonight Mr. Norton has, as a special guest,
one of the directors of the Royal Shakespeare Company
of England, Mr. Peter Brook.
Peter Brook is here this evening.
Mr. Brook is one of the directors
of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre of England.
He's known in England and in Europe
for a number of extraordinary productions of classics
and of modern plays, too, and he's known in this country
particularly for his brilliant "King Lear,"
which starred Paul Scofield, and for his "Marat/Sade,"
which stirred great excitement in New York,
and which he has now done in a motion-picture version.
At the Royal Shakespeare Theatre,
which operates both in Stratford-on-Avon and in London,
Mr. Brook shares the leadership with Peter Hall,
who directed "The Homecoming" by Harold Pinter
and with Michel Saint-Denis.
He came to Boston to deliver the Adolf Ullman Lecture
at Brandeis University,
and he's come here this evening to talk about Shakespeare,
about the Royal Shakespeare Company,
about "Marat/Sade" and such other topics
as he and I can get around to in the next half-hour.
I think I'll begin by asking him, if he will,
to tell us
just what the Royal Shakespeare Company is set up to do.
What is the background of the company?
The background is that, for a long, long time,
there was a festival at Stratford-on-Avon.
Mm-hmm. And this festival has evolved.
It started as two weeks of Shakespeare.
Then it became three weeks, six weeks, two months,
and then settled into a routine
of a summer festival of Shakespeare.
Then, after the war, its first great director,
Sir Barry Jackson...
Oh, yes. ...had the idea of reviving it
by getting a different director in for each play,
and this really turned the place upside down.
Paul Scofield played for the first time
during that season.
I went there for the first time that time.
A succession of other directors,
and the place got more and more brilliant
until it had its grand season for Shakespeare's centenary
with a great star
as well as a different director for each play --
Olivier, John Gielgud,
all the great actors played there at that time.
Then Peter Hall came,
and he had a completely new idea.
He said, "This must evolve one step farther.
We mustn't be dependent each season on guest stars.
We must make a permanent company,
and if this permanent company is going to be really flexible
and really bring an imaginative and modern approach,
the actors must also do as much time in modern work
as in Shakespeare, so we need two theaters."
Oh. So it was Peter Hall's vision
to introduce this revolutionary step
of saying that there must be two theaters,
and this two-week festival now must become an organization
that lasts all through the year.
Then after a bit, fighting single-handed
with this enormous organization,
he invited me to join him, Michel Saint-Denis,
and now Paul Scofield, who is one of the directors.
Oh, Scofield is a director, too?
He's a director of the organization.
And so it's come to this present state
where the root of the policy is that the modern theater
is the same theater for Shakespeare
or for modern works.
Mm-hmm. And a modern --
a young, modern actor
must have every sort of experience,
and it's the next step in this evolution
is our making films. Oh.
It's part of the necessary life of the organism.
Well, the films are part of the program
to help fund it, help support it?
True. Or is it an artistic extension?
We are all the time... It's such a big program
that we're all the time crying out for more money.
Mm-hmm. The government --
we've blackmailed the British government.
They hate it.
They know that with theater people, we're insatiable.
Each time they reluctantly give us another few thousand.
We've never yet said, "Thank you."
We've always made a newspaper statement saying,
"Look how mean they are. It's not enough."
The next year they give more, and it really isn't enough.
So we're helping now to finance our actors,
who are underpaid,
and ourselves with films, and we believe
that this is a necessary artistic development today
where films are part of our lives.
How do you tie in the two?
Now you do the "Marat/Sade," and you do the "King Lear."
Is there some connection when you choose the plays?
Are you choosing modern plays
that have some relationship artistically to the classics
that you're doing like the "Lear"?
You mean for films or in general in the theater?
No, I mean in general. Oh, yes.
I think that we all search very hard
to find the new Shakespearean theater.
Mm-hmm. What this is, nobody knows.
All we know is that there is a terrific richness
and force in the Elizabethan theater
that is very rarely reflected in the modern theater.
And we're looking all the time for works
that have that sort of quality. I see.
Well, now, you did the "Lear,"
which, of course, was just magnificent,
which we saw in Boston,
and you did that in a way that you said,
at the time, reflected something of Samuel Beckett.
You were quoted as saying that Beckett...
What did you say that Beckett drew from Shakespeare?
Yes, I said, if I remember rightly,
the fact that Shakespeare contained Beckett and more.
Yes, yes. But that something of Beckett
was already there inside Shakespeare.
This was misinterpreted later to mean
that Beckett had written Shakespeare.
And as I'm now in Boston, the heart,
I gather, of the theory that Bacon wrote Shakespeare...
I don't know if you knew this, but in England,
we know that the Bacon theory originated in Boston.
Oh, yes, sure. Is that true?
And also there are, I know, at least one book being written
in Boston today which suggests that the Earl of Oxford...
...is going to push that particular theory.
You know who originated that theory?
The Bacon theory?
No, the Earl of Oxford theory. No.
A man whose name, curiously enough, was Mr. Looney.
Oh, is that so?
So you can draw you own conclusion.
Well, I know people are pretty level-headed today
who are working on the other thing.
Well, Mr. Level is there.
On the "Lear" now, you began by interpreting that in,
kind of, Beckett-ian terms.
As a tragedy without...
would you say, a tragedy without hope?
No, I'd...what I think the relationship
between them is very simply this --
In Beckett's plays, the action of the play
is an exploration
by Beckett of human existence.
Now, I think that "King Lear" is no more
and no less than an exploration,
through many different forms,
of human existence looked at unsentimentally
and pitilessly by Shakespeare at the harshest
and the most lucid moment in his life.
His play has got lost largely
because things that have got nothing to do with it,
which are romantic trappings of the 19th-century theater,
a whole historical and picturesque side
came with the play. When we took those away,
we were left with something very, very stark.
And I think that it was the starkness
that reminded people of Beckett more than anything else.
Well, there is certainly a kind of starkness and bleakness
in the plays you did.
There was immense sympathy for the man.
You see what is very interesting about "Lear,"
it also relates to this,
is that it's the only play of Shakespeare's in this range
which doesn't end on a message that life goes on.
If you'll think how from "Hamlet" through
to "Romeo and Juliet," after the tragedy,
the last couplet of the play is always,
"But we will see better times." Yes.
"But, thank God, tomorrow will be better.
Tomorrow is another day." Mm-hmm.
The exception is "Lear," where the last line of the play
doesn't suggest for one minute
that there's going to be a comforting dawn ahead,
and that's where the hard nature
of this particular tragedy lies.
Of course you emphasize that, didn't you,
by cutting out lines toward the middle the play,
after Gloucester's eyes were taken out,
when one of the servants rebels and is struck down?
Says in effect, "I can't take this anymore."
You chopped that out?
You made it a little bit more...
And you, when the battle was raging,
you put the old man, as I remember,
in the middle of the open stage
and let the battle rage all around him
as though he was totally isolated.
Yes, but you know why I did that?
Because I looked at Shakespeare's folio and found
that he doesn't write about a battle.
That this is other people have later
written the idea of a battle in.
In Shakespeare's folio, he just says
that the previous character goes off,
leaving Gloucester alone on the stage,
and a moment later, this character comes back again
saying the battle is won.
Oh, yes. And it seemed to me
that this actually was what Shakespeare wrote,
and there isn't any suggestion of soldiers coming onstage,
although one always sees them. That's right.
They do chase around, don't they?
'Course I thought the effect of it was magnificent.
It was stark and kind of daring.
And also the effect of -- at the end,
when you split the play in two
after Gloucester's scene,
then you brought the attendants on to set up the tables,
and the old man Gloucester you turned aside...
I remember that very clearly.
...and they pushed him out of the way.
And then you brought up the house lights.
I've never seen this done before so that
instead of letting the old man stumble off to Dover
by himself in semidarkness,
you rub the audience's face right in it.
I didn't want it to go off in the nice, romantic glow.
I wanted the audience suddenly to realize
that this is about something more serious than that.
And I suppose then part of the Beckett-ian touch
is Beckett, after all,
doesn't answer any question, does he?
That's very true.
He poses them.
Yes, and Shakespeare does also.
It's only commentators who say,
"This is what Shakespeare meant."
And I don't think one has any right
to play his plays in that way.
One has to play them as written --
to excite questions in the audience.
Well, certainly you did it in that.
'Course with Scofield, did you...
In a case like that, will you sit down
with Scofield long in advance and say,
"This is what I have in mind,
and let's work it out together"?
Or do you ask him if this makes sense to him?
Well, I think that in the theater,
the rehearsals are the process
in which the people working together think
and work aloud,
and discussion outside rehearsal
isn't nearly as important
as discovery through work together.
In other words, for me,
it is through working with an actor
that my own ideas become clearer.
And I think the same goes for Scofield.
I don't think either of us
know more than an instinctive hunch
before we start working on a scene,
and it's the actual work...
It's like with a sculptor feeling the actual material
that you begin to discover what you're looking for.
Do you then communicate on a level of discussion,
or are you guiding and letting him
work it out in his terms, too?
It's a dance. Is it?
You know, when you waltz
and the waltz goes 'round and 'round, who leads?
[ Laughs ]
With a great actor like that, would you agree?
My feeling is that
this is one of the few great, living actors.
I quite agree with you.
One of the three or four or five maybe at the most.
Mm-hmm, quite agree.
In a case like that, suppose there's conflict.
He begins to develop Lear in a direction
a little different than you envision.
That depends on the actor.
You see, with Scofield,
we've worked together 12 times.
And the relationship is so close
that a quick look is the communication. I see.
Now with other actors,
the opposite is sometimes true.
You have to discover before you start
whether broadly you're on the same line.
If with a great actor,
you are broadly looking in the same direction,
it's almost impossible,
unless both sides are very stupid, to reach conflict
because everyone in work
gets very open with the other person.
But if you start
on a completely different conception,
and so you start off really heading
in opposite directions and you don't realize it,
then, of course, there will be a collision
and usually an artistic calamity.
Mm-hmm. That happens quite often.
In a case like that, now, you've got...
The Royal Shakespeare Company stays in being pretty much?
12 months a year? Yes.
Have you found this a huge advantage?
Huge. Oh, yeah?
On every level, you see,
it gives the actor such security
that he can take risks that no actor
with only three weeks' rehearsal dares take.
And actor with only three weeks
in which to deliver the results
goes back on what he's done before.
He has created his image, his stereotype.
He tries to do variations on it,
but he won't get too far away from it.
Mm-hmm. He just stays in that track.
An actor with total security
and a much longer time of rehearsal
and for instance where I can both get more
and help more with the actor
is with all the smaller parts.
But if I do a play like "King Lear"
in three or four weeks,
I obviously have to give all my time
to the massive scenes and the big, central actors
because that's obviously
the first, primary importance.
But if I've got 8 or 10 weeks,
there is time to stop a rehearsal and give two,
three hours to someone
who's just got four or five lines.
Now, this, at the same time,
gives him a feeling of real place
and real importance, right importance,
in the whole construction.
He knows that what he does deserves
and needs that attention, and he responds accordingly.
There's no way around it.
This is to everyone's benefit. Mm-hmm.
As it showed up immensely
in the New York production of "Marat/Sade,"
I have some reservations about that play.
Mm-hmm, I remember you didn't like the play very much.
But with the acting, I have never seen a production
that occupied so many actors.
You had about 45 or 50 people on the stage...
Mm-hmm, yes, about that.
...in which every tiny part was acted in such a way
that everything fitted into the overall production.
Each one of those people in that lunatic asylum
seemed to me
to be characterized as an individual.
And each seemed to be doing something.
Sometimes they were doing the most awful things,
but they were all doing it.
Nobody attracted undue attention to himself.
Nobody was ever out of the picture.
There was never anything less than total coherence.
Well, let me... That is directly relevant
to what we were just talking about.
David Merrick, who is, in my view,
a very, very remarkable man of theater
with a great feeling for theater,
owned the American rights,
and he came to the opening night in London
wanting to get me to come over
and do a new production of it on Broadway.
Naturally I was interested. Mm-hmm.
The moment he saw it, he said afterwards,
"There is no question.
I will not attempt even to ask you
to come and do a new production
because this work depends on actors
working in conditions
that I, as a showman, cannot offer you."
"These actors had worked together over months.
I can only give you three weeks.
It's not worth my while."
It was very interesting.
I mean, there was immediate reaction on those lines
from someone who knew the ingredients
that he could muster.
In three weeks, I wouldn't think you could even cast
that play in New York.
No, it's a very sad thing because there are
so many hugely talented people
in the theater in this country,
but the system that has gradually evolved
is destructive to their work.
There's no question about it.
It's a tragic... It's a tragic thing.
...and getting worse. Mm-hmm.
In the motion-picture version,
now, this is the first motion picture
that the Royal Shakespeare Company has done,
That's right, yes.
How far did you go in developing it?
Did you develop or expand it beyond the theatrical form?
Did you move it outdoors at all?
No, we did the exact opposite.
We moved it in. In?
Rather as we here, talking... I see.
...are being closed in on by television cameras.
In the case of the "Marat/Sade,"
where the vital element is claustrophobia,
where the whole point of the story
is that these people are forced to act out their fantasies
because they're locked inside four walls,
which they can't get out of,
instead of using one possibility of the camera,
which is to go outside and rove the world,
we used the other part of the camera,
which is to come in closer and closer
and really pin the action --
the microscopic side of the camera.
This is on a sound stage, I take it?
Not in a playhouse? No, no, no, it's...
We built in a studio the Asylum of Charenton...
I see. ...the bathhouse of Charenton,
and then moved in with the technicians
and move out again
until everybody was nearly at breaking point.
Everybody was ready for a real asylum, I suppose?
Where we started is there were 40 inmates,
and with the crew, we ended with 80.
[ Laughing ]
And did you use no more space in that sound stage
than you would have in the theater in New York?
No, we made experiments.
We even built a model, which was a bit bigger,
and realized this was a mistake.
A model for what, the asylum?
The set, yes, for the asylum. Oh, yeah.
And we realized that, on the contrary,
the cramped nature of it was its strength,
and the interesting thing of the lens
is the magnifying glass just to focus.
I know you can, with the lens,
you can move in even closer, can't you?
Yes, you can really focus. Yeah?
Do you do a good deal of close-up work with it?
We...Part of this is extremely close,
and most people who have seen both find
that the play emerges more strongly
and more clearly than the film.
I'd be very interested to see your impression
because Peter Weiss' work comes off better
because there is such concentration.
And we're in the theater they're undoubtedly
the spectacular side,
made some of the text much harder to make riveting.
In the cinema, I think
we've done more justice to Weiss' work
because we can close in on it.
Ah, you are really experimenting there, aren't you?
Because in addition to the story, which he's telling,
which Weiss is telling
about the assassination, you're also...
He's also conducting a debate on philosophical lines
between de Sade and Marat.
Can you hold a movie audience with that debate?
Do you break into it?
No, on the contrary.
We've got a lot of action scenes,
which are really wild, free cinema with handheld cameras
being really trampled on and dashed about
in the thick of the action,
and then when we come to the debate,
we go to the other extreme.
And there is a long debate between de Sade and Marat,
which is held in one, long close-up for,
I should think, four or five minutes.
Oh, my. And curiously enough,
this sudden break of all this movement
gives this enormous, motionless face
a great value.
And this is something that television has shown,
that you can hold an audience
by looking straight into a lens and talking,
and here whenever we have something interesting to say
in the text, we play straight to the camera
because that's where the spectator is.
I know, but what you...
And you lock him in the eye and don't let him move.
But with ideas...
After all, this is two philosophies,
de Sade expressing a philosophy
and the other man expressing a philosophy...
Yes, well, you see we have traded on something
that television has taught the cinema.
And that's what's happening here.
You and I are two men talking theater
philosophy at this moment,
and we hope that people will stay and watch us
for half an hour.
If this is so, it also shows
that this is also possible in the cinema.
Well, I hope so
because after all don't the movie people feel
you can't do that?
Isn't this a kind of a...
They don't know.
On the set, of course,
they were pretty amazed at the thought of the close-up.
And pretty unhappy I'll bet at the beginning.
Really, yes, at the thought of a close-up
going that length of time.
So in other words, this is experimental?
A good deal of it? It is certainly.
Ah, did the motion-picture company finance this now
for the Royal Shakespeare Company?
Yes, entirely. I see.
United Artists was splendid.
They put up the money and didn't in any way
try to intervene artistically.
United Artists put up the money,
watched you work in one set with those close-up cameras,
and then went off and prayed.
No, they were marvelous.
Have you used some of the techniques
that you did on the stage, for instance, the girl...
Peter Weiss has the girl
lashing de Sade at his request with a whip.
You had her lashing him with her own hair,
which I thought was fairly sensational.
Yes, oh, yes.
Is that in the picture, too?
Now, why did you change that?
Well, it seemed to be a necessary point
but a crude device, you know?
The idea that he is being whipped
has a real philosophical meaning and romantic meaning.
And whipping him with a whip is crude,
rather banal, and can't be done well
because either you really crack a whip across his back,
which the actor wouldn't take, or you do it symbolically,
which dramatically is then rather feeble.
A girl doing that with a symbolic whip
and a man doing that,
and it was out of that problem we sat down in rehearsal,
and we said, "Well, now what are we going to do?
We can't do it this way. We can't do it that way.
We need something."
And we began to experiment, and it was a chain reaction.
I couldn't say whose idea it was.
It came from trying something, Pat Magee experimenting,
Glenda Jackson doing something,
my proposing something else, and suddenly we found
that we'd arrived bit by bit at this,
which seemed to be a stronger version of the same idea.
Well, it was certainly a more spectacular version.
[ Laughing ]
What about the idea of Marat getting up in the bath,
out of his bath naked?
Is he still...Have you still got Ian Richardson walking?
Oh, yes, in full color.
In full color?
[ Laughing ]
That's not in the version of the text that I have.
This is something that was added.
How did that come about... This is to...
That came about in our revising of the production
after the first season because Peter Weiss felt
that we hadn't given sufficient importance to Marat,
which is very difficult to do
because de Sade has most of the best lines.
And I wanted to help this
by showing what the title says,
that Marat is not only assassinated,
he's also persecuted,
and in a way make him sympathetic
because he takes so much from everybody.
And so we set out in the nightmare scene
to strip him in every sense of the word,
that de Sade has stripped him intellectually...
Ah, wow. ...and his father, his mother,
his schoolteacher, all attack him.
And then all the madmen turn on him
until in the end you have something that brings you
right back to "King Lear," which is the poor...
Isolated? ...naked, forked animal.
You know, Edgar in the storm, who Lear looks and says,
"Is man no more than this?" seeing this naked man, a worm.
Isn't that what he says?
Standing there shivering in the storm,
it was that image actually
that I have in mind in taking Marat
and stripping of all his...
of any pretenses and of any protection
until he's this great, flamboyant revolutionary
is just this shrinking, naked man.
That was how it arrived.
'Course it didn't suggest entirely that.
It suggested sensationalism.
Well, that's in the eye of the beholder.
I think it was in the eye of a number of beholders.
Did Peter Weiss, did he see your production, Weiss?
Oh, yes, yes. Did he come to London?
You didn't do it in Germany for him?
No, he came to London, and then he came to New York.
Oh, did he in New York in September?
At the very end of the run, he saw it in New York.
And it was done in Berlin.
He saw it in Stockholm, too, didn't he?
Yes, yes, yeah.
What was his reaction to your production?
Did he feel that these things that you had done
had kept the point of what he was trying?
Oh, yes. You see, he wanted...
When he wrote the play, he wanted this form of theater.
He wrote it in the hope that it could be developed.
He had a sort of nightmare vision,
which he wanted put on the stage, and when he saw it,
he recognized that this was what he had meant.
Ah, I see. He was very pleased with that.
I see. He was...
You arrived at it independently?
Yes. And he came and said,
"This is what I was striving at. This kind of starkness"?
Yes, that sort of theater, yes.
I'm sorry we've come to the end of our time.
I'd like to talk about another 1 1/2 hour,
but they're signaling that this is the end.
Thank you ever so much.
Yes, they're doing the sign.
And good night.
Narrator: You've just heard Elliot Norton in a discussion
with one of the directors of the Royal Shakespeare Company
of England, Mr. Peter Brook.
Mr. Norton is drama critic of the "Boston Record American"
and the "Sunday Advertiser"
and is lecturer in dramatic literature at Boston University.
"Elliot Norton Reviews" is recorded
in the studios of WGBH Boston.
This is NET,
the National Educational Television Network.