Peter Brook – The empty space

Many people can easily go through life reading nothing but novels. I admit that is better than not reading at all, of course, but it wouldn’t do for me. While the novel is still my favourite genre, I always need to mix it with other reading matter: history, travel, short stories, graphic novels, essays, drama. I don’t think I’ve ever read a collection of essays on theater before, though.

The empty space is apparently an essential text for drama students; I’d never heard of it. Its idea is simple, to give an overview of the position of theatre at the end of the 1960’s. Writer Peter Brook, a celebrated director who has worked with many famous actors and companies, divides his topic into four parts: deadly theatre, holy theatre, rough theatre and immediate theatre. To summarize these four parts is hardly possible, but I will give it a go. The deadly theatre is what theatre should not be, but all too often is: fake, shallow, overly dramatic or popular. The holy theatre is what theatre can be under ideal circumstances: life-changing, giving energy, inspiration and creating a sense of community. The rough theatre is where that battle is constantly fought, striving toward the pureness of the holy theatre, but getting stuck in mundane deadly theatre. The immediate theatre, finally, is where Brook tries to bring it all together: by talking of his experience as director he goes from designing a set to the first rehearsals and from an opening night to the necessity of an audience. This, I will admit, is what I remember from reading this book.

The trouble with The empty space is its density, or to put it a little more bluntly, its absolute vagueness. Many sentences I had to read two or three times to get any sense from them. I often found myself staring at a page for some minutes, not being able to let the words form themselves into meaning. Although I took it only one part at a time I did force myself to at least finish each part every time I sat down with the book. Nevertheless, at the start of each new chapter I’d mostly forgotten what preceded it; it just wouldn’t stick in my head. The question is though, does that really matter? Is it bad when you forget the details but retain a strong overall impression? Perhaps this is better than remembering all the details in a book but failing to come up with any impression at all.

Brook’s love of the theatre comes across strongly, no matter how densely his writing can be sometimes. During my studies I took two drama classes, the inevitable Shakespeare class and one called Anglo-American Drama. Reading this book, some moments of these classes I hadn’t thought of for years suddenly came back. One was warming up with exactly the same exercise as Brook recommends here: with a group of people reading the line ‘To be or not to be, that is the question’, one word by each person until the sentence becomes fluent within the group.

Not only does Brook make me want to dive into Shakespeare again, he also makes me enthusiastic about Brecht, Beckett, Chekhov and Pinter. Despite his vagueness, Brook is clear enough about the power of theatre, about the uniqueness of every performance, how wonderful it is to witness a group of actors playing live for you and how even more wonderful to be among those actors on the stage yourself. Simply put, I like theater and, if struggling through The empty space eventually makes you realize that once more, it must be worth reading it.

Penguin Classics, 2008
Originally published in 1968
160 pages


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