Curse of the Legend Class: The Apparent Tragedy of Peter Brook

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Do artists do themselves harm by indulging in idolatry and worship? The Guardian’s Jan. 17 profile of master theater director Peter Brook — there I go, adding to the idolatry and worship — brings the issue to the fore.

On the one hand, who in the theater possesses the kind of vision, status and sheer insight and brilliance of Brook? I, too, subscribe to the cult of Brook, as this post, linking to my late 2008 review of The Grand Inquisitor, proves.

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But do we inhibit other artists when we place them on pedestals?

Unwittingly, Fiachra Gibbons‘ profile of Brook raises just this question.

Notice how the profile — which ran on the occasion of a play Brook has been working on for 50 years — acknowledges how Brook is in an impossible situation, effectively unable to measure up to, or exceed, his own press, legend and cult, yet fundamentally compelled to try:

There is certainly a danger of ¬≠forgetting what Brook has achieved. …Yet his ideas, once so revolutionary, have now been so absorbed by the mainstream they have become obvious, even banal.

The Brook I find before me is ¬≠somehow more himself, more ¬≠reduced, more human, as if a balance has finally been found between the Monster and the Mystic….

Brook began to slip into exile in the late 1960s, shortly after writing The Empty Space, whose opening lines became the commandments on which modern theatre was built: “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space, whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.”…

Photo by Graeme Robertson

Semiotically, too, note the impression created by the photo used by the Guardian to illustrate the article (and this post). It is shot from above; on the Guardian’s website, Brook is composed well to the right, like an gawky, clumsy, unwanted oddball sidelined from the action. There’s a fearful hint of the haunted in his eyes, like a reminder of yesteryear’s glories left like wreckage on the side of the road. Brook’s blue eyes add a mournful coda of desperation to the melody of the Guardian’s profile, one singing “Help me” in a soft moan.

That kills me. I’m painfully aware of never having seen Brook’s greatest work in the moment of their greatest impact. The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, more familiarly called Marat/Sade, is a graduate school text more than a work that shattered cliches for me in the moment of their shattering.

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It’s simply an accident of birth, really. But it doesn’t negate the bottom line:

That which is visceral is a first-generation experience.

For succeeding generations, the best we can hope for is to approximate what visceral felt like at the time.

Meaning no disrespect to Gibbons, who did a lovely job on the piece, but one comes away from her Brook profile with the distinct impression that one of the most influential and farsighted theater directors of the 20th century has simply lived too long — long enough, certainly, to have been bathed for a few decades in the adulation that accompanies our recognition of real innovation, but so long that his innovations are now integrated into the art, accepted conventions that leave him looking like an ossified relic, much like the directorial relics that Brook rebelled against in his prime. As Gibbons’ quoted from an unnamed source:

“…he hasn’t done anything decent for 20 years, not since The Mahabharata. I blame the French. He’s gone mouldy like their cheese.”

Worse for Brook, observed the unnamed source, he’s theatrically impotent:

“If Brook was to stand and fart for an hour on the stage of the National, you will have people queuing to tell you he is a ¬≠genius. The myth has killed the man.”

Which raises the question: Who created and perpetuated the myth?

Stateside, a good parallel might well be Stephen Sondheim. The American musical theater’s undisputed grand master, now nearly 80, cannot fail — for he’s Stephen Sondheim, for heaven’s sake. What kind of pressure do our expectations of genius from geniuses actually gear those individuals toward mediocrity and failure? What does that do to the theater — or, more broadly, to art? And, more than that, how do we avoiding putting our geniuses on pedestals if want them to continue to be geniuses? For them, doesn’t it seem like a cruel twist of fate?