The Development of Theatre: Peter Brook and the Human Connection

By Sawyer A. Theriault
2009, Vol. 1 No. 12 | pg. 1/2 |

An actor is on stage. He begins to speak, and as he does so the hearts of the audience wrench. The actor is pronouncing his love to a woman through song; or he is swearing revenge against the man who killed his father; or he is staring at the back of his best friends head, just before he pulls the trigger.

The audience feels for each situation: they are swooned by the man pronouncing his love; they are angry at the man who killed the actor's father; and they feel pity for the man who is forced to kill his best friend. When the audience can truly feel these emotions–sympathize with them–the actor has succeeded. When the audience sits bored, listening to a recital of words with no emotion, the actor has failed. This idea is the soul of Peter Brook's work as a director, actor, and writer. To Brook, the human connection is the essence of good theatre.

Brook defines the human connection through many different mediums, one of which is directing. He claim's “the supreme jujitsu” style of directing “would be for the director to stimulate such an outpouring of the actor's inner richness that it completely transforms the subjective nature of his original impulse”(Brook, 61). What he is describing is non-directional directing. In order for the actor to authentically feel what his character is intended to feel, he must discover those emotions on his own, without the director telling him what they are. The director's job is then to attempt to call forth existing emotions within the actor. If this can be done successfully, then an authentic human connection will be made between the actor and audience.

Though directing may be Brook's most austere style of presenting this human connection, it is the concept that epitomizes his career. Brook did away with conventional methods of acting, staging, and performance. He replaced “quasi-realistic settings” with “bold scenography that often revealed the mechanics of the stage and created startling visual effects” (Aronson, 1). Brook would often use acrobatics and highly physical elements in his performances, shifting emphasis from oration to action. Simply, it was a matter of letting actions speak louder than words.

After seeing Brook's famous production of King Lear, one reviewer stated: “So believable was the acting that audiences were often too stunned and terrified to applaud”(Aronson). His goal was not necessarily a new one, in fact many of his ideas were borrowed from his avant-garde contemporaries, but Brook was unique in his ability to present these ideas on stage. He did this through experimenting with the very nature of theatre, perhaps most famously with his creation of the Theatre of Cruelty Workshop within the Royal Company.

First conceptualized by Antonin Artaud, the Theatre of Cruelty sought to “abolish the separation between the audience's space and the performance space”(Kramer, 1). Through a series of violent lighting, staging and acting, the Theatre of Cruelty would astound the audience–shock them– into a state that transcended just entertainment. It would place them into a new consciousness, hopefully leaving them with some type of revelation within themselves. In this form, the word “cruelty” did not necessarily mean or torture or some other aspect that is often associated with it; to Artaud the word “cruelty” was used as a “cosmic rigor or implacable necessity imposing itself on the bodies of the actors” (Kramer, 2). Peter Brook put into action the ideas of Artaud.

In Brook's Theatre of Cruelty, the same characteristics of this shock-and-awe technique were abided, but unlike Artaud, Brook was able to make the concept clear on stage. In 1935 Artaud produced a show called The Cenci, a play about “murder and incest”. The production “failed to incarnate [Artaud's] ideas on theater in a clear way and ended after seventeen days” (Kramer, 1). Artaud was eventually admitted to an insane asylum in for nine years and gave one performance after being let out, just before his death in 1948. The Theatre of Cruelty Workshop that Peter Brook founded was not only more successful than Artaud's demonstration of the concept, it also had a somewhat different aim.

While Brook did use the techniques that Artaud put forth in writing, he was not as spiritual as the Frenchman. Artaud believed that his cruel theatre could act as a guide to enlightenment; it was an instrument to all of society for a spiritual awakening. Brook's belief was simpler: his “goal was to reinvigorate the theater through a theatrical vocabulary not tied to language”(Aronson, 1). would no longer serve as the main device for communication. Brook used all aspects of theatre to stage this: lighting, set, props, costumes, and most importantly, action. All served to present the audience with a real, raw, and emotional experience.

One exercise that Brook practiced in his Theatre of Cruelty Workshop involved an actor attempting to portray a certain state without using physicality at all:

“We set an actor in front of us, asked him to imagine a dramatic situation that did not involve any physical movement, then we all tried to understand what state he was in. Of course, this was impossible, which was the point of the exercise” (Brook, 49).

Exercises such as this encompass what Brook's version of the Theatre of Cruelty was. Through the physical, human nature and emotions are authentically evoked. We sympathize more with the crying woman whose body is wrenching in sobs than we do with a woman who is standing still, struggling to produce a tear.

This style of emotion-through-action took no consideration of the accretion that the last century's Theatre produced. No longer was emphasis on the spectacle. Brook had no interest in theatre that imitated reality: “we are” he claims “more conscious of what is imitative than what is real”(Brook, 34). If the production's goal is an imitation of reality, than it will never go beyond that. Instead, Brook insists, reality itself must be the goal. In his chapter “The Holy Theatre” in The Empty Space, Brook describes this theory as the “invisible”. The “invisible” is an act of communication between actor and audience produced out of the need to impart some emotion. The audience may not consciously acknowledge the fact that they are being moved by the emotion, yet they are still moved: the invisible. Brook says “it is like crossing an abyss on a tightrope: necessity suddenly produces strange powers”(Brook, 50). Through the invisible, the actors goal is to access the “hidden impulses of man”(Brook, 71), ultimately establishing a human connection that is inherent in the audience.

This is not to say that Brook did not use abstract methods to achieve this accessibility. In fact, abstractness in performance became a trademark for Brook's productions: Sensationalism in his production of “Marat/ Sade”; glamour in the 1970 Midsummer Night's Dream. These are the productions that Brook will be remembered for. New York Times critic Clive Barnes said that Brook's Midsummer Night's Dream is a “theatrical production that is going to be talked about as long as there is a theater”(Barnes, 1).

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