Peter Brook, Celebrated Stage Director of Scale and Humanity, Dies at 97

By then Mr. Brook, who took delight in “shaking up terrible, stultifying old conventions,” as he put it, had become a thoroughgoing iconoclast. Some mark that change at his 1960 Paris production of Jean Genet’s “The Balcony,” a work considered boldly subversive at the time. For Genet’s scenes of exotic life in a Paris brothel, Mr. Brook used striking-looking amateurs, found in Paris bars, as well as professional actors and dancers. But a radical revival of “King Lear,” staged for the Royal Shakespeare Company in London in 1962, was more significant.

Not only did Mr. Brook encouraged Scofield to play the titanic hero of tradition as a painfully flawed human being, but just before the production’s opening, he threw out the set that he himself had designed, ensuring that the plot unfolded on a bare stage under plain lighting. The resulting epic unforgettably exposed the cruel absurdities of humanity.

Mr. Brook had made great use of improvisation and theater games when he was rehearsing “The Balcony,” and in 1964, he took that process further in a series of experimental workshops financed by the RSC and called the Theater of Cruelty season, in tribute to the theories of the French dramatist Antonin Artaud. The idea was to encourage a troupe of actors, among them the young Glenda Jackson, to find new forms of physical and emotional expression and to ask basic questions about their calling. As Mr. Brook recalled in “Threads of Time,” these were: “What is a written word? What is a spoken word? Why play theater at all?”

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Mr. Brook never stopped asking such questions. His career from 1964 onwards may be seen as a quest for fundamental truths about life and the theater that he insisted could never be definitive. The search led to what he called the “Theater of Disturbance” — as exemplified by “Marat/Sade,” his exploration of madness in revolutionary France; and “US,” his evocation of the Vietnam War — and to such inquiring works as “The Man Who” and the 1996 play “Qui est La?,” which used readings from Bertolt Brecht, Konstantin Stanislavsky and other theorists and combined them with “Hamlet” as they might have staged it.

Some perceived a change of emphasis in his work. Much was dark, troubling, even despairing: “Titus,” “Lear,” “US,” and, in 1975, “The Ik,” which involved an African tribe morally ruined by relocation and lack of food. Indeed, the most successful of the few films he eventually made was a 1963 version of William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” which Mr. Brook described as “a potted history of mankind.” Mr. Brook’s still-famous 1970 production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” full of airy acrobatics derived from his visit to a Chinese circus, ended with smiling actors shaking spectators’ hands.

In “The Conference of the Birds,” based on a Sufi poem, the birds of the title found a new spiritual understanding when their long, troubled journey ended at the threshold of paradise. And his 1985 reworking of the “The Mahabharata” brought dynastic wars and suffering onstage, only to end with another vision of paradise, this time as a place of music, food, conversation and harmony. Theater, Mr. Brook wrote in his memoir, should affirm “that light is present in darkness” and be “a powerful antidote to despair.”

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