That is my wife in the photo, and not Peter Brook, the legendary British stage director. Together Katie and I took in two short productions this week at the Paramount Theater in Boston, both originally staged by Brook at Les Bouffes du Nord, his base of operations in Paris since 1974. An enfant terrible of the post-war British stage, Brook became associated with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1960s and mounted legendary productions of King Lear with Paul Scofield and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, all in white, with trapezes. As this review of a new Magic Flute shows, Brook is still active at age 86.
I have a warm place in my heart for Peter Brook. As a young actor who wanted to play Hamlet, I avidly read his book The Empty Space, still central to the canon of experimental theater. I met him on two occasions and if the dice had fallen differently I might have had an opportunity to work with his company in the early 1970s. But then there would probably have been no Katie in my life, and you yourself can judge what a loss that would have been!
The shows at the Paramount were based on works of Samuel Becket and Fyodor Dostoevksy. “Fragments” is in fact five short pieces by Beckett totaling only one hour of running time. Like T. S. Eliot, of whom I have written previously, Samuel Beckett is generally thought of as bleakly pessimistic. Brook’s production at the Paramount gives us odd but deeply human characters whose desire, yearning, and inexhaustible reaching out somehow lift them above the rote repetition of their lives. A program note by Brook explains his view of Beckett:
Beckett was a perfectionist, but can one be a perfectionist without an intuition of perfection? Today, with the passage of time, we see how false were the labels first stuck on Beckett—despairing, negative, pessimistic. Indeed, he peers into the filthy abyss of human existence. His humor saves him and us from falling in, he rejects theories, dogmas, that offer pious consolations, yet his life was a constant, aching search for meaning.
In Rockaby (left), Hayley Carmichael is haunting as a woman in a chair. Beckett’s original stage directions call for a rocking chair, but Carmichael carried on a simple straight-backed, four-legged chair which she magically transformed into a rocking chair during the final scene. Rockaby seems in every way a downer, as it quickly tracks a woman’s decisions to stop going out on the street, to stop looking for life from the window of her room, and then finally to go downstairs and sit in her mother’s rocking chair, where she will wait for death just as her mother did. Yet Carmichael invests her character with such searching eyes and yearning, twitching lips that it is impossible not to feel her deep humanity. This Beckett character is not just waiting for death. Even her turning away from the world suggested to me a searching inward.
You are probably familiar with the argument of The Grand Inquisitor—that the human freedom to which Christ calls us is devilishly difficult to live. That in fact, the devil invites us (in the person of institutions like the Inquisition or the State) to sacrifice our freedom for Mystery, Miracle, and Authority. Most of us do so. In the New York production, Myers had his lines memorized and worked the whole of a small stage brilliantly, while a young man (Christ) sat in a down-right corner. At the end, Christ stood and silently kissed the Inquisitor on the lips. Myers as the Inquisitor let Christ free, an action the actor could only speak of tonight. Then in New York, as in Boston, the Inquisitor delivered the powerful exit line:
The kiss burned in his heart, but he stuck to his words.
In that single line is all of the drama of human freedom—how confronted by the event of Christ we so often retreat into well-worn dogma, ideology, words. We are offered the Word and we settle for words.