Peter Brook, and: The Theatre of Robert Wilson
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Directing is an evanescent art form. Like all theatre work, the director’s art passes quickly into the complexly mingled realms of memory, commentary, and documentation. So writing about directing is necessarily complicated. The critic of directing, like all critics of performance, must negotiate a highly mediated relationship to an absent object. But writing about this elusive art form poses an even more fundamental challenge. What, exactly, is the director’s work? The tasks of the director are both indistinct and endless. One might focus on the director’s dramaturgical functions and praise revelatory insights into shopworn plays. Or examine a director’s working process and unpack interactions with various collaborators as they impact the event actually experienced by the audience. Or situate the work within its producing contexts and link particular directorial choices to broader institutional and ideological imperatives. Or, yet again, one might simply account for the sorely underappreciated details of directorial craft. How to explain the surprising force of that downstage cross, the alarming clarity of that simple gesture, or the just-so fade of that lingering light cue? This is all the stuff of directorial work, and any comprehensive analysis of a contribution to the art form should surely traverse a ground as multiplicitous and embroiled as the act of directing itself.
Two recent studies of major directors illuminate the challenges of writing about the director’s work. Peter Brook by Albert Hunt and Geoffrey Reeves and The Theatre of Robert Wilson by Arthur Holmberg both survey the careers of two hugely influential directors. On the surface, these books have much in common. They both issue from a series called Directors in Perspective published by Cambridge University Press and edited by Christopher Innes. In each case, the authors write in part from first-hand experience with their subjects: Hunt and Reeves worked with Brook on several groundbreaking productions in the late 1960s and early ‘70s; Holmberg was Wilson’s dramaturg for a production of Heiner Müller’s Quartet at the American Repertory Theatre in 1987 and observed him in rehearsal on a number of other productions. Both studies position themselves at a provocative intersection of artistic and scholarly practice. The authors address both theatremakers, eager to get the inside scoop on how these masterful artists work, and theatre scholars seeking to place the directors’ oeuvre within determinant historical, aesthetic, and ideological contexts. Both books are knowledgeable, thorough, and provocative. With some justification, each will probably become the standard single-volume treatment of its subject.
Although they share some important features, the authors organize the task of writing about the director’s work rather differently, and their contrasting approaches lead to quite different sorts of books. Hunt and Reeves have ostensibly written a history. They approach Brook’s work on a production-by-production basis, summarizing his directorial achievements one-by-one. Occasionally they adopt the pose of the critic and articulate their own opinions about the work, but their energy is principally directed toward presenting thorough narrative reconstructions of Brook’s shows. Holmberg, by contrast, has written a critical study. He organizes his book thematically, analyzing Wilson’s directing in a theoretically sophisticated and highly individual manner. Only slightly interested in amassing an exhaustive record of Wilson’s productions, he delves into and celebrates the work of an artist whom he deeply admires. The strengths and limitations of each study derive from how the authors [End Page 200] have grappled with the challenge of encapsulating the life’s work of a major artist in a single volume, and the results are revelatory.
Hunt and Reeves present Brook’s directorial creations chronologically, tracing his evolution from a daring showman and hit-making enfant terrible to an artistic seeker and hit-making theatrical guru. Over a career of some 60 years, Peter Brook has pursued a far-flung quest to understand the essence of theatrical expression. The principle contribution of this book is a detailed description of most of the major productions that resulted from that search. While Hunt and Reeves nod to the post-Oxford productions of the 1940s and ‘50s, they present the work of the mid-‘60s and onward with far greater specificity. The chapters touch, to various degrees, upon three features of Brook’s direction: the rehearsal process, the production itself, and critical responses. In effect, each chapter reconstructs a major production from start to finish, noting Brook’s stated aims and working methods, quoting from Brook’s collaborators, describing the various incarnations of the piece, and summarizing the range of audience reactions.
At their best, Hunt and Reeves identify the central achievements and lasting impact of these influential productions. They remind us that Brook’s Marat/Sade of 1964 fused the bodily grotesquerie and psychic mania of Artaud with the formal disruptions and cold-eyed commentary of Brecht, creating a potent amalgam of modernist techniques that remains a functional template for much high-art theatre with political themes. His Midsummer Night’s Dream of 1970 asserted the now obvious sexual content of the play and celebrated the joyful magic of theatrical convention with such élan that almost 30 years later it remains a paragon of directorial invention. His 1975 adaptation of The Conference of the Birds, a 12th-century Persian poem, incorporated “research” by his Paris-based International Centre for Theatre Research into the theatrical sensibilities of African tribespeople and Southern Californian campesinos, sparking still-unsettled debates about the ethical parameters of intercultural artistic exchange. His 1981 Tragedy of Carmen radically revised the text and traditional mise-en-scène of Bizet’s masterpiece, subsuming musical integrity to theatrical viability and busting open some stultifying practices of operatic direction. His Mahabharata of 1985 condensed India’s most revered sacred text into a nine-hour dramatic tour de force, accruing both plaudits and hostile, articulate charges of cultural imperialism.
Taken together, the chapters trace Brook’s evolving artistic concerns, his growing international stature, and the controversies that he frequently has provoked. The authors traffic between a sympathetic presentation of Brook’s laudable commitment to the revelatory power of the theatre and a keen-eyed skepticism about his sometimes obfuscatory rhetoric. The best passages in the book interrogate the ethical ramifications of Brook’s theatre. Despite the apparent diversity of Brook’s subject matter and his purported embrace of the unknown, Hunt and Reeves perceive a doggedly bleak, antipolitical worldview running through the work. As Hunt writes in an individually credited analysis of Brook’s Les Ik (1975):
This man, who wants to question everything, and who asks audiences to question their own most cherished values, who believes in approaching experience naked and entirely without either illusion or faith, holds himself with a stubborn tenacity to his own faith in the futility of human action based on intelligence.(209)
Intermittently, they critique Brook for disavowing the despair he puts onstage and replacing it with nothing more substantive than his own special brand of theatre magic. Brook emerges as an impassioned visionary with galling blind [End Page 201] spots, an artist of serious purpose and sure-handed grace who remains reticent at best about accepting responsibility for the moral consequences of his work. More often than not in these pages, Brook the showman bests Brook the seeker. The master craftsman stages theatrical events of such stirring exactitude that their directorial vigor obscures the facile nihilism they too often purvey.
Although this eminently useful book ably chronicles Brook’s sizable body of work, the burden of reconstructing so many different productions sometimes leads the authors away from their most original insights. As a result, the study suffers from a diffuse authorial voice. Hunt and Reeves pack the chapters with bountiful detail, but do not always clarify how the quotes, anecdotes, and descriptions add up to a coherent point of view. Isolated from an organizing hermeneutic frame, the presented facts are often curiously inert. We learn how rehearsals went or how a particular moment worked or what the set looked like or what some critics had to say, but not always how this information advances a perspective on an already much discussed artist. Sadly, the descriptions of the productions themselves are the least engaging sections of the book. More often lists of data than evidence in an argument, the abundant source material rarely communicates the experiential force of Brook’s direction or fleshes out an identifiable critical agenda. Hunt and Reeves speckle their jointly authored book with brief essays by one or the other of them. To my mind, these are the most exciting passages in the book. Opinionated and lively, they add new thoughts to the voluminous literature about Peter Brook. Hunt’s essay on US (1966) is one of the most complexly layered ruminations on a rehearsal process I have ever read, and I longed for more such critical interventions. In the end, I wish that Hunt and Reeves had relieved themselves of the responsibility to treat so much and include the opinions of so many. Their own takes on Brook are so interesting that they merit more replete elaboration than they have allowed themselves here.
Arthur Holmberg’s study The Theatre of Robert Wilson also examines an immense body of work by a late-20th-century theatre director, but it is a very different sort of book. Since the late 1960s, Wilson has been staging surrealistic tableaux vivants of operatic ambition and exceptional beauty, creating over 60 full-scale theatre works in the United States and Europe. Rather than march through Wilson’s productions one-by-one, Holmberg organizes his study thematically. Each chapter identifies one of Wilson’s artistic obsessions and explicates it with references to numerous productions. He weaves together outlines of a few of the major productions, abundant interview material, minutely detailed readings of brief moments, piquant stories about the director in rehearsal, glosses on related artworks, and revelatory philosophic citations to illuminate Wilson’s engrossing concerns. Holmberg is an unabashed apologist for Wilson. He wants to demonstrate the complexity and sophistication of Wilson’s sensibility and help the reader appreciate the distinctly pleasing but ofttimes opaque greatness of his work.
The chapters trace successive stages in Wilson’s development and elucidate the nagging questions that hold together his prodigious creativity. The first chapter, “Contextualizing Wilson,” nods to diachronic tastes and groups Wilson’s work into four major periods distinguished by the director’s evolving relationship to text. Holmberg argues that the organizing trajectory of Wilson’s maturation has been a growing interest in words. Although haunting pictorial images have always graced Wilson’s stage, over time he added the musical and, later, the expressive potentialities of language to his directorial arsenal. Subsequent chapters examine Wilson’s productions synchronically, discussing concepts or topics that recur throughout his works. “The Cracked Kettle” explicates Wilson’s problematization of language. Holmberg identifies [End Page 202] multiple strategies that Wilson employs to short-circuit the desire for univocal signification and unleash the generative, limitless play of language celebrated by poststructuralists and their 20th-century forebearers. “Alchemy of the Eye” and “The Deep Surface” take up Wilson’s exceptionally refined construction of the visual mise-en-scène. Holmberg admires Wilson’s architectural organization of space, his painterly love of light, his craftsman’s appreciation of well-made objects, and his choreographer’s insistence on precise movement. He also gathers Wilson’s image-repertoire, unpacking such insistent motifs as Nature, the Outcast, the Family, the Voyage, and the Apocalypse as they burble through a range of pieces. “The Dream Work” and “The Valley of the Shadow: Trauma and Transcendence” present a cautiously psychoanalytic reading of Wilson’s art. For Holmberg, the mysterious, oneiric quality of the productions derives from their immediate proximity to what Freud called the primary process. He reads them, in effect, as the riveting but deeply unsettling dreams of a troubled and troubling Western modernity. The final chapter notes with admiration that Wilson has recently returned to teaching and is actively creating opportunities for younger, similarly expansive artists to follow their own, idiosyncratic muses as Wilson has unflaggingly heeded his.
Holmberg is a sympathetic and incisive guide to Wilson’s theatre. In each chapter, he contextualizes Wilson’s concerns within related aesthetic and philosophic developments. He locates Wilson within an antiempiricist current of Western art that leads back to the 19th-century romantics by way of the symbolists and the surrealists. These historical antecedents situate the work within a sometimes surprising network of influences ranging from Shelley to Cézanne to Artaud to Warhol. Holmberg’s book demonstrates that despite Wilson’s patent originality, he is fruitfully engaged in a dialogue with his own highly selective version of the canon. Holmberg also gives ample time to Wilson’s exacting mastery of theatrical craft. We learn, for example, the three colors of gel that account for the luminous beauty of his lighting designs. And we see him in rehearsal, berating actors who cannot maintain the rigorously fixed counts that pattern his gestural sequences.
Holmberg both appreciates Wilson’s contributions to the formal language of theatre and excavates the passions that drive him on. He recognizes that Wilson’s principle innovation has been his elevation of scenography to a preeminent status in the director’s job description. As he writes:
Wilson’s great gift to us all is to have ripped the blindfold off Melpomene and given the Muse eyes. Wilson challenges the dominant tradition of Western drama, grounded in idolatry of the word. Wilson changed the way theatre looks and sounds. Few artists make that kind of difference.(76)
But in addition to reiterating Wilson’s obvious affinity for optical pleasure, Holmberg advances a penetrating reading of the omnipresent anxiety on Wilson’s stage: “In Wilson, life is trauma” (182). He argues that while Wilson’s productions are famously cool, they are motored by keen awareness of the endless varieties of violence that plague us and by unrestricted empathy for its victims. More than anything, Wilson emerges from this study as an artist of deep feeling and resurgent compassion. It is a surprising but amply justified representation of this director’s art.
While I admire the erudition and experience that went into making both of these books, I preferred reading Holmberg’s. Hunt and Reeves have created a rich compendium and a valuable summation of work on Brook, but only occasionally did they augment existing ideas about him. Holmberg, on the other hand, has compellingly argued an informed and gloriously partial opinion. [End Page 203] The next time I see one of Wilson’s productions, I will appreciate it more fully for having encountered this book. And for this, I am grateful.
James Peck is Assistant Professor of theatre at Muhlenberg College.