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Peter Brook on the right to be bored

Posted by Laura Collins-Hughes  March 24, 2011 05:01 PM

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The legendary British director Peter Brook has two pieces of theater on view right now in Boston, a city that hadn't seen his work onstage in 40 years. His program of Samuel Beckett shorts, "Fragments," opened last night at the Paramount Theatre, and his Dostoyevsky adaptation, "The Grand Inquisitor," opens tonight at the Paramount Black Box.

Some of what Brook, 86, had to say in a wide-ranging telephone interview went into our Boston Globe feature on him. Here's a condensed and edited version of the rest.

On theater as a living experience:

Don't forget, the theater only exists in the present, and you can't bluff an audience by saying, "You should be enjoying it." And this has been a terrible thing for schoolchildren over years who've been forced to be bored because they've been told that "you've no right to be bored, because this is acknowledged to be a great work." That is the denial of the fact that the theater, the art of the theater, is a living experience for now. And that doesn't mean bringing in cell phones. That is the stupid way, and the easy way. But to find truly within the work what can touch us now, directly now, at the moment when one's sitting in the theater. And that's why when we say there's a "presentation" of a play, it's a hell of a good word, because it means that it is being brought into the present. So the word "present," I think, is the word to oppose to the word "classic," which to me is for museums and for university students.

On the relevance of Dostoyevsky's Spanish Inquisition character, the Grand Inquisitor, to the contemporary world:

What is topical is that he is brilliant. He produces the most intelligent, most compelling, most marvelously put arguments. You could say that [Libyan leader Moammar] Khadafy today is exactly like that because he has managed -- as [former Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak did -- he has managed over the years by his intelligence, by his eloquence, by his knowledge of human weaknesses, to be in the position he is in. So the Grand Inquisitor today makes us think of all our leaders, from [former President George W.] Bush through to Mubarak, who managed to convince the people around them by their personality and their skill and their arguments that they were right, because they believed it. It's a tragedy, "The Grand Inquisitor," because he believes he's right. And then the terrifying end is even more terrible for today. The last words of Dostoyevsky's: "Having been shaken to the core, he then resumes everything he was doing." And this is again our present world.

On what made the "Grand Inquisitor" chapter of "The Brothers Karamazov" right for theatrical adaptation:

When you read it in the book you read the text, but in fact it's a dialogue. I've written about this, you may remember this, in [the 1968 book] "The Empty Space": The moment there are two people, you're in drama. Just two people meeting, two people on a stage. If two people come from different sides and look at one another, even if they look at one another and shake hands, there's already an expectation in the audience: What is now going to happen? There is a meeting and a conflict, and when you have a situation so theatrical, so dramatic -- Jesus Christ meeting the man who is burning people -- what could be more theatrical?

On whether he missed making theater in English during his decades in Paris as the head of the International Centre of Theatre Creation and the Bouffes du Nord Theatre, from which he recently stepped down:

Oh, yes. Naturally, it's my closest language. So although it's very interesting to access the other thought pattern and the other feeling pattern of other cultures, which I've done with pleasure with many languages and many countries as the basis of our international center, the pleasure of coming home is something quite different. Coming home physically is always marvelous, and coming home in terms of language is always marvelous. I'm at this moment in Milan, and have been doing a bit yesterday a conference with press in Italian, and that was amusing and stimulating and enjoyable. But, ooh! A pleasure to talk to you in English.

On Shakespeare as the exemplar for present-day playwrights:

It's the same in painting, it's the same in music, in everything. And in political life. It's the same with Abraham Lincoln. When there have been one or two people who rise above even the highest ordinary level, they must be cherished as reminders to us that whatever we do is so far from what a human being can achieve. And so one must continually return to Shakespeare, because no one since Shakespeare or before Shakespeare did it as well. Every one of our writers must continually, for his own good, return to Shakespeare. It destroys any megalomania that he or she could have.

On the fundamental query he poses in "The Empty Space": "Why theatre at all?"

Oh, that's a question I ask myself all the time. The one thing I can't bear is being called a theater lover. But anyone who just loves a form is a prisoner of that form. I love the living experience; that's all. And I think that today, at a time when the theater world is genuinely elitist, because it's only the middle and upper classes who are being catered for -- There was a revolution against this in the '60s. I was part of it. But today it's the exact opposite, with Internet and television. Everything is available to everyone, whatever their income, whatever their class. I mean, Facebook is, worldwide, open to everyone of every sort. So the theater can't be elitist. But the theater can be like a laboratory in which certain things that can't be done on a mass scale can be done. And here, theater, because it's a voluntary act -- you don't have to go to theater -- the theater draws to it the people who need to have their own experience, their own nature, challenged, opened, and refreshed. And so we don't all go to the same place on holiday. We don't all go to the same restaurant. We don't all go to the same doctors. So something that is for a small number of the millions of people in the world is not elitist. It is responding to a certain human necessity. For some people this is essential to develop in their own lives. So that's a very different thing.

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Culture Desk is a blog that serves to highlight both local and national stories of interest in the worlds of art, music, movies, TV, theater and more. Most items are written by writers and editors from The Boston Globe arts and culture staff.

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