Peter Brook: A Biography

Peter Brook: A Biography

by Michael Kustow

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Peter Brook is one of the world's legendary theater directors. His productions are a byword for imagination, energy, and innovation. From his ground-breaking production of Marat/Sade, to his "white box" A Midsummer Night's Dream, to his monumental staging of The Mahabharata and beyond, Brook has always been the pioneer of what a director and a company of actors can conjure out of an empty stage. In this first authoritative biography, arising out of an association and friendship with Brook over forty years, Michael Kustow tells the fascinating and revealing story of a man whose life has been a never-ending quest.

Born into a Russian émigré family in London, Brook has been fascinated by theater and film since childhood. He studied at Oxford, where he made a film of Laurence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey and was almost sent down during his turbulent undergraduate years. As a brilliant young man influenced by the theatrical visionary Gordon Craig, he turned his hand to Shakespeare, opera, new French drama, and mainstream comedy. Following Craig's philosophy, Brook began to search for a simplicity, harmony, and beauty that would incorporate all aspects of the stage production under the control of one person. He also began the lifelong search for authenticity on the stage, a search that led him around the world from London to New York, to his legendary Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris, to Broadway and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was in Paris, in the 1970s, that he attempted to discover a universal language of theater with an international group of actors. This collaboration resulted in a series of visually spectacular andinnovative shows including The Ik, The Conference of the Birds, and The Mahabharata.

In his long and influential career, he worked with some of the world's greatest actors and writers including Glenda Jackson, Paul Scofield, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Irene Worth, Jeanne Moreau, Peter Weiss, and Truman Capote. His films, such as Lord of the Flies, Moderato Cantabile, King Lear (with Paul Scofield), The Beggar's Opera, and the film of Marat/Sade moved the camera and the screen to borders they had not reached before. His book The Empty Space continues to be one of the classic works on theater and drama in the Western canon and his memoir, Threads of Time, gave us a glimpse into his personal development. In this biography, based on extensive interviews with Peter Brook and many of the actors, writers, producers, and directors he's worked with throughout his life, Michael Kustow goes to the heart of Brook's theater, his self-searching and his unceasing desire to produce work that redefines theater and life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466879751
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 09/02/2014
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
File size: 475 KB

About the Author

Michael Kustow is a theater and film producer as well as a journalist and theater critic. He is the author of Theatre@risk and Tank: An Autobiographical Fiction. He lives in London.

Read an Excerpt

Peter Brook

A Biography

By Michael Kustow

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2005 Michael Kustow
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7975-1



'If you close your eyes and try to think what the world looks like, what do you find?' Peter Brook asked a group of young actors in London in 1992. 'As I was born in Turnham Green, my first impression of a universe went in one direction as far as Richmond Park and when my mother took me to Kew Gardens, the world was all sweetness and light. But when we needed pâté or salami in the home, my father would take me in the opposite direction, along the Goldhawk Road, to the other end of the world, all the way to Mr Eisner's delicatessen in a mysterious zone of dark excitement called Shepherd's Bush.'

Peter Brook was born on 21 March 1925 to parents who were Russian-Jewish émigrés from Latvia, then part of the Russian Empire, finding their feet in the London suburb of Chiswick in the 1920s. He grew up in comparative comfort, interrupted by the occasional crisis, like the economic crash of 1929. His dynamic father, an entrepreneur as much as an electrical engineer, left an especially deep impression on his younger son. The Russia which Simon and Ida Brook had left behind them in 1914 still permeated the house where Peter was born.

In his frank yet masked memoir Threads of Time he decodes the topography of the family house at 27 Fairfax Road, its 'green front door with a brass knocker and the number in shining brass'; its cellar, 'a complete underworld of coal and cobwebs and grime'. But this 'place of blackness', he writes, had its own light, warmth and security, and 'when the war came ... became our shelter from the bombs'. As he showed later in his work and his journeying into hidden worlds, there is no negative that is wholly negative, no black that does not make light more radiant. 'My mother later swore that the happiest time of her life was holding her family close to her in this deep womb.'

Dvinsk, where Peter Brook's grandfather Matthew was born, was a centre of both Russian and Jewish life. His father, Simon, fifth child of nonobservant-minded parents, was born in Dvinsk in 1888, and grew up in a liberal atmosphere. At sixteen, showing a radical temperament and a determination to join in the mainstream of Russian political life, Simon joined the Mensheviks. They were the moderate faction of the Russian Social Democrat Party, led by an intellectual from Odessa, born Julius Cedarbaum but taking the conspiratorial nickname Martov. The Mensheviks were in continual conflict with the Bolsheviks. They supported Alexander Kerensky, Russia's first post-revolutionary prime minister, who was then deposed by the Bolsheviks. The Mensheviks, in constant cut-throat dispute with the Bolsheviks, gave the young Simon Brook a spring-board for his social fervour and political ideas. A rebellious young man, he earned a scant living by selling newspapers. 'It was probably a double rebellion,' his son Alexis, Peter's older brother, told me, 'political, and against his strict, authoritarian father.' Simon Brook was arrested and jailed for two months for making inflammatory political speeches, before securing his bail through family connections and setting out for Belgium. He catapulted himself out of his native place, as many did in this period of upheaval.

After leaving Russia, Simon Brook settled in Liège where he joined the university to read physics, mathematics and electrical engineering. The family name underwent its first metamorphosis, courtesy of frontier officials. From the letters BPYK, it was transliterated by a Belgian official to Brouck. In London it would be transformed again into Brook. Ida Judson, his future wife, who he had met in Russia, joined him in Liège. She studied chemistry, and wanted to be a doctor but she gave this up because any country she settled in would have required extensive retraining. They got married in 1914, while on holiday in Germany; she with an excellent degree as Doctor of Science, he with a reasonable one as an electrical engineer.

As the Great War threatened to engulf Belgium in early 1914, the young couple caught the last train to Brussels, where the local students were digging trenches, and then the very last train from Brussels to Ostend, where, with a group of Russian engineers, they travelled to England, arriving with one English pound in their pockets. Simon Brook found his first job in England, with a London firm making field telephones; by the end of the war he had become works manager. His wife (who features less vividly in Brook's memoir than her husband) worked for a firm making antidotes to poison gases.

Brook was a rotund baby, already with the sharp gaze that is one of his defining features. His father was beginning to make his way, starting an electrical engineering company and acting as the English representative of a German engineering firm. But he lost his business as a result of the crash of 1929. With the help of his wife, and her chemistry degree, he switched tracks and started a manufacturing pharmaceutical firm, Westminster Laboratories. The company patented and marketed several successful brands of the time – a stomach powder called Magtriz, a form of aspirin, and a best-selling laxative called Brooklax, no less. When Peter started out in theatre, some English actors and technicians were less than kind to this small, irrepressible director, and made jokes in the pub about 'the little shit'.

Outwardly, Brook grew up as a cultivated, well-heeled middle-class English boy. 'My parents,' said Alexis, 'always spoke Russian between themselves, particularly anything Peter and I were not supposed to understand.' Their mother came from that part of Latvia which was strongly influenced by Germanic culture.

Theirs was already a household through which different cultures flowed. As the fortunes of 'Papa Brook' (his family nickname) looked up, the family were able to afford a servant, who combined cooking and cleaning. A key figure in Brook's childhood was his piano-teacher, a Russian, Mrs Biek, whose son Leo became one of Peter's boyhood friends. In a moving passage of his memoir, he reveals that it was Mrs Biek who taught him the essential artistic lesson of rhythm, and an even more vital sense that 'there was no such thing as preparation; you have to be fully prepared each time'.

There may have been many painful moments in childhood which I have put to one side. But essentially, everything was exciting. And if it wasn't that, I was looking for excitement, which meant the inexhaustible excitement of this strange unknown thing called life, all around, on every level. I can't look back on any painful experiences. I suppose I have a mechanism that puts them out of the way, so I would say very simply that for the first segment of my life – twenty or thirty years – every single response I had was so totally involved and engaged in the world, my world, that I never turned introspective. I had nothing to connect with the phrase 'inner life'. What was 'inner life'? There was life. Everything was one hundred per cent extravert.

This untroubled focus of consciousness was a great gift, and one Brook would expand. To the young Brook, the taste of life was grounded in a sense of wellbeing in which there was no fissure between inner and outer worlds. It came from an utter confidence and trust in the support of his father. In Threads of Time, Brook describes the security provided by his father's gaze and concern: 'I adored my father and never knew the tragic rejection of the father-figure that is so much part of our time.' More recently, he gives an even warmer picture:

My father was very proud of his adaptability, the fact that he had made many changes in his life, that he had gone through the Depression, so from the stories that he would tell – and he was always telling stories – I obviously saw there a line that taught adaptability. Within that, he had natural wide ambitions for his children. He would have liked me at a certain point to go into his business, but was delighted when I didn't want to. In wanting his children not to be like him but to go beyond him, it was clear to him that he should encourage, give the means and in no way hedge anything in. That can be boiled down to one word: constant encouragement. That was very fundamental. One of the things he would repeat was, 'If one day you commit a murder, and everyone in the world is against you, you know that your father will stand by you.'

Papa Brook was all the things the young Brook wanted him to be – playful, reliable, solid, clever – and physically lax. 'My father was absolutely there,' says Brook, in the documentary film Brook par Brook made by his son Simon in 2001. 'He was present. Loving. He transmitted the highest standards, yet he never imposed anything.' It was an enviable start in life.

By the time he was ten, Brook had been given his own movie camera, a 9.5 mm Bolex. He was already devouring photography magazines, thrilled by their talk of lenses, film-stock, tricks of shooting and printing. Seeing home movie footage of Papa Brook at play in Brook par Brook, you observe a bright, animated man juggle, puff at cigarettes, caress his sober-faced wife, perform conjuring tricks for Peter's camera. For Peter was already trying the magic of trick photography: Simon waves his arms and his sons appear. He waves them again, and they're gone.

Simon Brook looks like a man who was confident himself, enjoyed and understood his younger son, and was wise enough to make space for his determined and distinctive development. Peter was treated like a young man, not a small creature to be bent to his father's will. The presence of this unconditionally loving father fed Peter's self-belief. As his psychiatrist brother Alexis notes: 'Peter identified with Simon's drive and mastery. Simon saw some of his unacted hopes and achievements fulfilled through Peter.'

* * *

After the war, Brook's parents began to argue. His mother Ida was, in Brook's words, 'both stubborn and afraid. She had loyally followed my father to a science-orientated university without a medical school and renounced her deep wish to be a doctor. Because of this she never lost a sense of deep disappointment with herself in a life which gave no outlet to the special talents she had begun to develop. When guests came to the house, my mother would panic and hide in the bathroom, leaving my father to organise every detail of the evening.'

In the interplay between parable and documentation which makes Threads of Time such a moving but teasing read, Brook soothes out the strife of mother and father and its effect on their sons. In his writing, the disputes between parents become a wise balance, a see-saw of opposites: 'the unremitting struggle between energy, impulsiveness and determination opposed by a need for yielding, for balance, for reconciliation'. These were the two forces at work in Brook from early on: his father's forcefulness, his wish to conquer and control the real world, his mother's equilibrium, her withdrawal, and, perhaps, her resignation. It is noteworthy that Peter doesn't give such a vivid image of his mother as of his father, but what she had been through shouldn't be discounted: she had given up her profession for her husband, and had wound up in a culture that didn't accept that women should work.

She was very frustrated, and this became a focus of their quarrels. My father would be coming home from work at a quarter to six, and on the way he would meet my mother rushing out because she'd forgotten to buy butter. This became a coat-peg on which so much of the friction was displaced.

Meanwhile, his father was planning jobs for his sons, not wanting them to lack status in their new country. Papa Brook, like many émigrés, determined that his boys would have a better life than he'd managed. With so much insecurity following the 1929 crash, he wanted to ensure that both his sons were professionals: 'my son the lawyer and his brother the doctor'. From the age of fifteen, Alexis moved towards medicine, but Peter showed little interest in the law. By the time he was seven or eight, he was already a precocious play-maker. He had become enraptured by a Pollock's Toy Theatre, an enchanted miniaturised version of a traditional, nineteenth-century, gilt-and-velvet Victorian theatre. Pollocks supplied cut-out moveable scenery which a child could hand colour and scene-shift, and tiny cardboard actors striking heroic poses, which could be manipulated. Peter began to do both. (In his autobiographical film Fanny and Alexander, Ingmar Bergman traces his passion for theatre to a similar toy playhouse, and his love of film to a domestic projector, which in Brook's house also opened pre-television windows on the world.)

Alexis was very interested in photography, 'but not with the same degree of passion,' he says. 'My father played with both of us much more than my mother. In the family, playing was always with Dad. Caring was from them both, though more from her. It wasn't an integrated family.'

Brook has an often-told story about staging Hamlet in the family drawing-room for an initially entertained and eventually sorely tried audience of his parents and their friends. The title page of his script was inscribed 'Hamlet, by William Shakespeare and Peter Brook'. He divided the drawing-room in half with a scarlet curtain, making a proscenium and an auditorium, cut the play, made the puppets, pulled their strings and spoke everyone's lines. Having got to the end, and exhausted his family, the excited Peter wanted to start all over again with a different version of the play. He had to be dissuaded, thanked and sent to bed; an early precursor of his hunger to get to the bottom of a piece of work in every way.

Aged ten, Brook was happy with his toys. 'I had my camera and my puppet theatre, I was passionate about photography. It simply never occurred to me that after school you could do these things as proper jobs.' At his preparatory school, St George's, he played only minor parts in school plays. The school magazine gave 'the talkative Brook – will he never stop his chatter?' his first review, as the Governor of Harfleur in Henry V: 'The best acting was by Brook, who has the power of almost changing his personality.'

Brook detested his prep school, and all the bullying, toadying, philistine, xenophobic qualities which it ground into its pupils. As a clever, lively, not-altogether-English boy, he was the butt of bullying by the more powerful boys in the school's rigid hierarchy. The teaching staff did not approve of his reluctance to join in school games, to wave the flag for his 'house' and follow the 'team spirit'. 'School', he wrote, 'was the smell of latrines, sweat, unkindness, and boredom; it was boxing, with blood streaming down the face; it was never being left alone; it was being bullied.' It drove him inwards, made him a stranger to the group, to common pursuits.

When he first arrived at Westminster School, he recalls being accosted by an archetypal master-race prefect called 'Brown' – and when he tells the story, he stretches the syllable out so it's halfway between a drawl and a yawn – who pronounced the Pirandellian sentence, 'You're my shadow; I'm your substance.' In addition to being a fag, obliged to carry out any menial task for Brown, Brook junior had to trek around in the senior's footsteps, aping him, learning the customs of the school. Full of ideas and bright chatter, Brook did not seem to fit the role very well, so one day he was summoned to a kind of kangaroo court run by the seniors. 'You're getting too big for your boots,' announced Brown. 'We have to take you down a peg or two.' (It's a phrase which Brook still considers an index of English resentment.) The punishment could have been worse; they made him stand on a table and sing a funny song and pull faces, and they all fell about.


Excerpted from Peter Brook by Michael Kustow. Copyright © 2005 Michael Kustow. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
I Lighting the Fire,
1. Sons and Fathers: 1925–39,
2. Entering England: 1940–4,
3. Signs of a Calling: 1945–50,
4. The Pulse Beats Faster: 1951–53,
5. From the Beggar's Opera to the Bolshoi: 1953–58,
II Breaking Through Boundaries,
6. Embracing France: 1958–60,
7. Journeys into Darkness: 1960–63,
8. From Artaud to the Asylum: 1963–65,
9. Tell Me Lies About Vietnam: 1966–7,
10. A Myth, A Dream, A Departure: 1968–70,
III Cutting Loose,
11. To Paris and Beyond: 1970–73,
12. The Way of Theatre: 1974–78,
13. Meetings: 1978–1984,
14. Of Gods and War: The Mahabharata: 1985–89,
15. Departures and Returns: 1989–2000,
16. Belief without Believing: 2000–2004,
Coda: Brook in Barcelona, July 2004,
Chronology of Plays and Films,
Select Bibliography,
A Note on the Author,
Also by Michael Kustow,

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In this biography, based on extensive interviews with Peter Brook and many of the actors, writers, producers, and directors he's worked with throughout his life. Michael Kustow goes to the heart of Brook's theater, his self-searching and unceasing desire to produce work that redefines theater and life.

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