Influential theater director Peter Brook dies at 97 Brook's work ranged from classical star-studded productions to radical experiments in theater. He reinvented King Lear and explored the fragility of civilization in the film Lord of the Flies.

Influential theater director Peter Brook dies at 97

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/344034980/1109737548" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Avant-garde theater director Peter Brook has died at 97. Brook's seven-decade career ranged from star-studded productions of Shakespeare to radical experiments in theater form. NPR's Bob Mondello says a defining moment was the sensation he created in 1964 with a play known as "Marat/Sade."

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The 26-word title seemed to say it all - "The Persecution And Assassination Of Jean-Paul Marat As Performed By The Inmates Of The Asylum Of Charenton Under The Direction Of Marquis De Sade." But all those words didn't prepare audiences for the freak show that Peter Brook had devised - drooling maniacs in rags rubbing elbows with audience members, shrieking from the stage and ending the night's political diatribe in a full-scale riot.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "MARAT/SADE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Bar, take this down - Saturday, the 13 of July, 1793, a call to the people of Paris.

MONDELLO: Even "Marat/Sade's" curtain call was provocative. As the audience cheered, the cast, still twitching and drooling, squelched a standing ovation each night by applauding back mockingly from the lip of the stage, not dropping character until every audience member had left the theater.

PETER BROOK: When the audience applauded, they were naturally applauding the actors, applauding the show.

MONDELLO: Peter Brook in an NPR studio in 1992.

BROOK: But as the mad people came and parodied the audience's applause, it was, I think, a valuable moment of deliberate discomfort because suddenly they saw, yes, but it's not only a show. This show is about something.

MONDELLO: Getting at the meaning of performance was Brook's lifelong quest, explored in everything from grand opera to a sort of primal, almost wordless theater. To illustrate the verbal gymnastics in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," he put his cast on trapezes. To explore the fragility of civilization, he turned mostly nonprofessional children into painted savages in the film "Lord Of The Flies."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LORD OF THE FLIES")

HUGH EDWARDS: (As Piggy) Which is better - to have rules and agree, or to hunt and kill?

MONDELLO: Brook used hand-held cameras - unusual in 1963 - to give "Lord Of The Flies" a spontaneous, unscripted feel, and he played with form far more aggressively in his theater work, searching for a down-to-earthiness he described in his book "The Empty Space" and made literal in his nine-hour adaptation of "The Mahabharata." He took the colorful, stylized conventions of East Indian theater and anchored them in performance with things hard, practical and real - fire, earth, water.

BROOK: And if you can juggle all the time with those two balls, somewhere in between where they meet, you - sometimes, you can have a flash of what seems like truth.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONDELLO: Peter Stephen Paul Brook was born in London to immigrant Russian-Jewish parents. He didn't much care for formal education, but even as a child managed to live and breathe culture. At 7, he reportedly performed his own four-hour version of "Hamlet," and by his early 20s, he was directing at Stratford, one of the world's great classical stages. But painted sets and declaiming actors bored him, so he founded the International Centre for Theatre Research in Paris dedicated to experimenting with avant-garde notions - taking actors to a mountaintop in Iran, say, to perform a play in an invented language that no one present actually understood. The idea, he said, was to explore how meaning was carried by the musical and rhythmic aspects of the spoken word. That fascination with language was no less present when he dealt with great actors and great words - Paul Scofield, for instance, and Shakespeare.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "KING LEAR")

PAUL SCOFIELD: (As Lear) This is not Lear. Does Lear walk thus, speak thus? Where are his eyes? Waking? 'Tis not so.

MONDELLO: Brook's stage "Lear" stripped the text down to bare essentials. And when he adapted his stage version for the screen, he applied all the avant-garde tricks available to filmmakers in 1971. The result was no longer Shakespeare's "Lear." It was Peter Brook's "Lear" - a new conception that illuminated a celebrated text while deconstructing it. What should the audience take away? Brook let his work speak for itself. And when asked what he wanted audiences to take from his life and work, he said much the same thing.

BROOK: The only thing that truly concerns me is what happens now, in the moment, whenever that moment is taking place. The rest is up to others in their present. It's no longer my problem.

MONDELLO: Director Peter Brook. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.