Playing Himself

THREADS OF TIME: Recollections
By PETER BROOK
Counterpoint
288 pages
$25 hardcover

If you're not in the theater, you may be unaware of Peter Brook's eminence as a director. ("Theater's living legend," is how the London Times describes him.) But you don't have to be a theater buff to enjoy Brook's mostly marvelous autobiography, Threads of Time.

For the record, then: Brook's stage work ranges from Peter Weiss' 1964 Marat/Sade - a product of his theatrical experiments, undertaken with Charles Marowitz, in what has come to be known as the Theater of Cruelty, and widely regarded as the most significant theatrical event of its decade - to The Mahabharata, an epic retelling of Sanskrit legend. Brook's visually Spartan, Chinese circus-influenced interpretation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and his austere staging of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard remain benchmarks for directors striving to "reinvent" classics with wildly conceptual approaches. In addition to writing his seminal treatise on theater, The Empty Space (required reading for any drama student), Brook has also directed operas and films, including the original production of Lord of the Flies. All this from a man who was suspended from Oxford for impertinence (he entertained an amateur film crew all night in his dormitory and failed to pay a college fine) and started working in the theater with almost no training.

More by epistemological and poetic design than by caprice, Brook excludes all mention of dates from his memoir. He writes in short takes, each of which connects to the next, sometimes set decades later. The cumulative effect is that of a tapestry stitched with words, a haunting meditation on memory and its relations to art and to life. Here's an example shortly after the book opens: Just before surgery, a 5-year-old Brook recalls the smell of ether - "a wild plunging and a surging swing upward. I try to hold on, but I lose; noise and fear merge into pure horror, then oblivion. It was a first disillusion, and it taught me how hard it is to let go."

The next section, also about letting go, takes place years later, at Oxford. Brook describes himself as a pathetic army-officer recruit, ordered by his disdainful sergeant to cross a river on a log. Instead, he stands at the bank, upon the log, clinging precariously to a single leaf over his head. ". . . The sergeant bellows, 'Damn it, let go of that bloody leaf!' . . . For a moment, I lean like the Tower of Pisa, then at long last I let go of the leaf and fall splashing into the stream below . . . [It is] the essential conflict that I have tried all my life to resolve - when to cling to a conviction, and when to see through it and let go."

For a while it looks as though Threads is going to accomplish a literary miracle, not just discussing the transfer of experience into art but embodying that process. By midsection, it's clear that the book can't rise to that challenge, its initial impressionistic ardor yielding to the easier temptation of pleasant celebrity anecdotes that remind us Brook has rubbed shoulders with the likes of Salvador Dali, Bertolt Brecht, Sir Laurence Olivier, Jean Genet and Jeanne Moreau. The Who's Who sections feel diminutive when compared to, say, the image of Brook as a college student playing with a primeval film projector and reflecting on the essences of shadow and light, or on how a building's architectural rhythm connects to the rhythm of a symphony.

If you didn't know Brook before reading Threads, you won't know him after. For Brook is an Englishman who wears his formality like a cloak. That's his prerogative: This is a book about artistic process, about ideas and passions. He writes of the harrowing years of World War II and the urban dreariness that followed, of how his excursions into theater and cinema were searches for glimmers of beauty. Such glimmers appear repeatedly in Threads, an enchanting portrait of an enigma. Which is exactly how Brook would have it.


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