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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.

AIRED: July 31, 2019 | 0:29:53
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TRANSCRIPT

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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.

Good evening.

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.

Mm-hmm.

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.

I see.

Well, the films are part of the program

to help fund it, help support it?

True. Or is it an artistic extension?

Both. Mm-hmm.

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.

Mm-hmm.

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.

Mm-hmm.

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.

Yeah, ah.

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.

Yes?

You were quoted as saying that Beckett...

Yes.

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.

No.

And as I'm now in Boston, the heart,

I gather, of the theory that Bacon wrote Shakespeare...

Oh?

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...

Oh, yes.

...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.

Mm-hmm.

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.

Mm-hmm.

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.

Mm-hmm.

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.

Forgive me.

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.

Mm-hmm.

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?

Yes.

Says in effect, "I can't take this anymore."

You chopped that out?

Yes.

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?

Why?

Because I looked at Shakespeare's folio and found

that he doesn't write about a battle.

Mm-hmm.

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?

Yes, but...

'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.

Yes.

And then you brought up the house lights.

Mm-hmm.

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.

Exactly.

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."

Mm-hmm.

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.

I see.

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.

Oh, yeah.

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.

I see.

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?

Yes.

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

will experiment,

and for instance where I can both get more

and help more with the actor

is with all the smaller parts.

Ah.

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.

Mm-hmm.

Each one of those people in that lunatic asylum

seemed to me

to be characterized as an individual.

Yes.

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."

Mm-hmm.

"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.

Yeah.

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,

this "Marat/Sade"?

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?

Yes.

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.

Mm-hmm.

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.

Yes, yes.

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.

Mm-hmm.

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.

Mm-hmm.

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?

Oh, yes.

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?

Oh, yes.

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.

Mm-hmm.

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.

No.

This is something that was added.

Yes.

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.

Mm-hmm.

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.

Mm-hmm.

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.

Oh.

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.

Mm-hmm.

'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.

Yeah, yeah?

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.

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.

♪♪

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