Skip to main content

Barbara and I watched the Bill Maher conversation with Bari Ross and Thomas Chatterton. Unlike much of Maher’s programming, which often seems deeply rooted in controversy for the sake of yelling on TV, I found that both he and his guests offered a most sober and reflective 15 minutes of television. It was almost Amanpour. We’ve been discussing it off and on for the last few days driving about town or on one of our discovery walks of the Parks of Pittsburgh. Speaking of which, we’ve been spending a lot of time exploring the relatively new 9 mile Run section of Frick Park, which was built – is that the right word? – on the slag heap where US Steel dumped endless piles of waste from the Homestead mills until well into the 20th Century. Last night we found them or at least a big chunk of their remains. Going back this evening to continue our adventure. Promise to learn more and send photos.

Driving home last night I posed the question of “do you think anyone who watches this (the Maher) will come away persuaded by its arguments?” We both were quiet for a moment before simultaneously speaking just as we reached the corner of Forbes and Braddock, streets named for British Generals who fought in the French and Indian War.

“I don’t think so,” we said.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Peter Brook this week. (Is Peter Brook still a household name of the theater or has he been consigned to something of the slag heap of theater? As a good friend of many years said when I asked him if he planned on seeing Brook’s “Why?” at TFANA. “I’m done with him.”)

But for many of us who came to theatrical age in the late 60s and early 70s Brook was the man, or should I say the person? His book The Empty Space became the Bible and made Brecht a household name in theatrical households and influenced American theatre from the universities to Harold Prince’s Broadway production of Cabaret.

The book begins, “I can take any space and create a bare stage.” The four Brook lectures upon which it was based: the Deadly Theater, the Holy Theatre, the Rough Theatre and the Immediate Theatre became our rallying cry and formed the basis for and inspiration for the work done by grass roots theaters all across the United States and Europe, including Irondale.

That its reach extended even further than the Euro-North American axis is attested to by my friend Jorge Guerra who often spoke of the influence Brook had on him and his fellow theatre students growing up in Peru.

Brooks’ bold experiments at the RSC (Marat/Sade and his airborne Midsummer with Patrick Stewart and Frances de la Tour) and then his bold work with his own theater in Paris the Centre for Theatre Research which reached perhaps his most acclaimed achievement with the creation of The Mahabharata (which many of you may remember as the first performance in the United States which took place in a former ruined movie theater in Brooklyn then known as the Majestic and now the Harvey.) Next time you’re there take a look at the stage. Hopefully what you are seeing is light in scenery, because what stands before you, unadorned, is the empty space of the set of The Mahabharata. Do you see the laddered rungs driven into the back wall? They were placed there because an actor needed to climb up something in The Mahabharata.

Brook discovered The many discoveries happen – paging Christopher Columbus – pretty much by accident. As he writes in his introduction to the printed text of the play.

“One of the difficulties we encounter when we see traditional theater from the east is that we admire without understanding and unless we possess the keys to the symbols we remain on the outside fascinated perhaps by the surface but unable to contact the human realities without which these complex art forms would never have arisen. The day I first saw a demonstration of Kathakali, a dancer was presenting a scene from the Mahabharata and his first appearance was an unforgettable shock. Through the magnificent ferocity of the movements, I could see a story was unfolding. But what story? Gradually, sadly, I realized that my interest was waining, the visual shock was wearing off. After the interval, the dancer returned without his make-up, just a likable man in shirt and jeans. He described the scene he had been playing and repeated the dance. The impenetrable image had given way to an ordinary, more accessible one, and I realized that I preferred it this way.

Later I recounted the experience to Sanskrit scholar Philip Lavestine, who spent a long evening and early morning regaling me and my collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere with a series of stories told to us with passion and enthusiasm. Through him I began to understand why this was one of the greatest works of humanity and how, like all great works, it is both far from us and very near. Jean-Claude and I were so fascinated that standing in the rue St. Andre des Arts at 3 o’clock in the morning after this long storytelling session, we made a mutual commitment. We would find a way of bringing this material into our world and sharing these stories with an audience in the west.

The production employed the Shakespearean craft Brook had honed in long years at the RSC working with the other great Peter of the British theatre (Peter Hall), and John Barton, coupled with the 15 years of theatre research undertaken by his Paris Research Theatre and its Actors – people like Ryszard Cieslak formerly of Grotowski’s company, Yoshi Oida, and Bruce Myers. Myers seems to have shown up in every Brook undertaking since the day many years ago when he pulled up in front of the outdoor café at the Memorial Theatre in Stratford. Stopping in front of a table where Brook was dining with friends, he shouted, “What do I have to do to get out of the fucking British theatre?” He was in.

The nine-hour Mahabharata that emerged from Brook and his company of actors was from the beginning determined not to be a reconstruction of Dravidian and Orion India of 3000 years ago. “We have tried to suggest the flavor without pretending to be what we are not.”

Brook’s Mahabharata was first staged in a quarry just outside Avignon. It toured the world for four years. Later, it was reduced to about three hours as a film for theatrical and DVD release.

About 2 years ago, Terry and I had the luck and great pleasure to see Brook, now almost 95, introduce a screening of the film in one of the small theatres at BAM. He struggled to make his way down the stairs at the side of the auditorium, but once he reached the stage, he was once again the great man of the theatre in his prime as he spoke without notes for 25 minutes of the adventure of making The Mahabharata.

That was two years ago. I wonder how things have changed. A few months ago, I would have said not much. But now has this remarkable achievement in the theatre also been caught up in the buzz saw that is cutting its way across various segments of the American artistic world. Seeing it once again is a great reminder of the possibilities of a certain kind of theatre which may or may not be appreciated today. Will seeing the film version for the first time, change anyone’s mind about what theatre should or shouldn’t be or do right now, today, Tuesday, August 4, 2020? Like the Maher conversation with Barbara, I find myself wondering about this question before coming to the conclusion that I fear it won’t.

And that’s what’s on my mind.


Jim Niesen


Author Irondale

More posts by Irondale

Leave a Reply