Peter Brook on Shakespeare

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John F
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Peter Brook on Shakespeare

Post by John F » Wed Oct 05, 2016 10:28 am

Book Review: 'The Quality of Mercy' by Peter Brook
John Heilpern
Oct. 4, 2013

Peter Brook, widely considered to be the most influential director in theater, has written a slender book of only 110 pages about Shakespeare. "The Quality of Mercy," though, contains within its scintillating reflections the essence of all that he has learned over a lifetime.

Whoever imagined that a book about Shakespeare could also be such fun? "In Africa there is a saying," Mr. Brook writes in his introduction. "To be too serious is not very serious." He is therefore good-humored, writing as a theater insider from vast personal experience. (At 88, Mr. Brook is still directing.) "This is not a scholastic work," he announces provocatively in the opening sentence, and though his work has been informed by scholars—notably, in younger days, by Jan Kott's 1964 "Shakespeare Our Contemporary"—his irreverent disclaimer couldn't be more refreshing. But perhaps he has a small ax to grind.
The Quality of Mercy

His opening chapter and curtain raiser, titled "Alas, Poor Yorick," describes how some years ago "the most reputable of intellectual magazines asked a panel of scholars to explore the great question, 'Who wrote Shakespeare?' " Invited to contribute, he responded with a comic reductio ad absurdum of all the loony theories and ended with a reference to the humorist Max Beerbohm, who apparently proved that the works of Tennyson had been written by Queen Victoria. But Mr. Brook's dissenting essay was prissily rejected as "not worthy of the high academic level they expected of their contributors."

He seizes his opportunity in "The Quality of Mercy," via merciless common sense, to demolish the "Shakespeare wasn't Shakespeare" school. Gossip is the coin of every realm, and Mr. Brook points out that nowhere is this more so than in the excitable, jealous world of theater. "Theatre people often refer to themselves as a family," he writes. "In a family all the secrets and lies are known to everyone." A few academics and leading actors like Derek Jacobi still argue that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, was the real author of Shakespeare's plays, but Mr. Brook asks us prosaically: How come Shakespeare's rival playwrights—including Ben Jonson, who knew him well—never exposed him as an imposter? And is it conceivable that no one who worked backstage with Shakespeare at the Globe—no stagehand, no prompter, no actor—ever smelled a rat? "I'm sorry, academics—if you'd been part of any rehearsal process you would think differently," Mr. Brook concludes.

But he goes on to argue that it doesn't matter in the least who in fact wrote the plays. "Forget Shakespeare!" could be his credo. Shakespeare's enigma and genius transcend the speculative autobiographical traces and all attempts "to pluck out the heart of his mystery." In an implied rebuke to the New Historicists led by Stephen Greenblatt of Harvard, he holds firmly that Shakespeare doesn't belong to the past. The only thing that has ever mattered to Mr. Brook as a director is to get at the truth of the plays "with the eyes of today."

"The Quality of Mercy" makes clear, however, that he resists the tendency to reduce and dumb down the plays in the forlorn hope of making them "accessible" and "relevant." In his chapter "A Cook and a Concept," he reveals his profound suspicion of conceptual art—and therefore of directors who cook up their own concepts to help us understand Shakespeare better. "If the concept is imposed in advance by a dominating mind, it closes all the doors."

To the contrary, one is struck by Mr. Brook's open-mindedness. He is a grand experimenter in his own way. His rehearsal process has always been an obsessive search to unlock ultimate meaning through painstaking improvisations. "Never stop," I once heard him tell an exhausted actor. "One always stops just when something is about to happen." His respect for Shakespeare's language is palpable whenever he discusses the giddy challenges of staging the plays. "The Quality of Mercy" reveals him approaching the verse with a sense of awe, step by step, word by word.

To that quixotic end, Mr. Brook has staged the most hackneyed great play in history, "Hamlet," four times in four different versions. His 1953 production with Paul Scofield was quite conventional; 42 years later he explored how the play might have been staged by such contrasting theater giants as Stanislavski, Brecht, Artaud, Meyerhold and Gordon Craig. He intuits the humanity of Shakespeare the working playwright. "I feel that when he came to the end of 'Measure for Measure,' Shakespeare seemed to have been in a hurry," he writes of the Bard's surprising device to bring the somber play to a swift, happy end. "Perhaps he had promised to deliver the play by nightfall. . . . Perhaps the Dark Lady was sitting on the edge of the bed, getting impatient with the writer and his repeated, 'Just a minute!' "

He adds spice to the book with just the right balance of backstage gossip. Reminiscing about his 1955 production of that bloodbath "Titus Andronicus," which starred Laurence Olivier, with Vivien Leigh as the brutalized Lavinia, he notes how "Vivien's grace and talent could transform this play, in the way that the Japanese theatre transforms awesome acts of cruelty in Kabuki legends." But during the production's European tour, a true tragedy merged with the unmerciful events onstage as her fragile mental health deteriorated to the point of madness.

Shakespeare is Mr. Brook's touchstone. Soon after his landmark 1970 production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," he took his newly formed international troupe of actors on a half-mad 100-day journey through the Sahara and Central West Africa (which I joined as an observer). The company, unable to speak the same language as its audience, invented a language for the little shows they created spontaneously along the way. But, on his return to his new theater base in Paris, Mr. Brook's first production was "Timon of Athens." He has traveled to numerous countries—Afghanistan, Iran and India, among others—and all the journeys inform his work. But Shakespeare, one grasps from "The Quality of Mercy," is his unending journey.

In his last chapter, about Prospero's last words in "The Tempest," he throws into question their meaning and significance. He believes the renowned epilogue ("Now my charms are all o'erthrown . . .") isn't about the middle-aged—and weary—Shakespeare offering a farewell to theater, as is too frequently assumed. Rather, within Prospero's desolate plea for a prayer that "assaults Mercy itself" in order to bring about a transforming freedom is found Shakespeare's final message to mankind. But, after three different productions of "The Tempest," Mr. Brook concludes that Prospero's epilogue is a riddle, to which—he is content to admit—he has yet to find an answer.

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John Francis

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Re: Peter Brook on Shakespeare

Post by jbuck919 » Wed Oct 05, 2016 10:17 pm

And what's the point, sir? Why are we talking about him like this? --Hamlet to Osric, in decidedly not a hackneyed play.

Every college-educated person in the world with any sense knows that Shakespeare was the greatest writer in human history, with no explanation for it saving his own graces. The literary critic Harold Bloom was very late into his career before he could even mention his name, let alone write a book about him.

Edited to change "Herman" to the correct "Harold." All those male names beginning with "h" sound the same, don't you know. :)
Last edited by jbuck919 on Fri Oct 07, 2016 6:31 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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John F
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Re: Peter Brook on Shakespeare

Post by John F » Thu Oct 06, 2016 9:19 am

And yet it's college-educated people who argue most volubly that the non-college-educated glover's son from the provinces could not have written the plays credited to William Shakespeare. Could it be that they overestimate the value of a college education such as their own? :mrgreen:

The book was being sold at the Harvey Theatre's book kiosk, just the hard-cover edition at a high price, but though part of what I paid would go to BAM, I'm too cheap and have ordered the paperback at half the hardcover price from Barnes & Noble. Looking forward to it.
John Francis

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