V&A Acquires Personal Papers of Britain’s Greatest Living Theatre Director, Peter Brook
“The theatre is the last forum where idealism is open to question: many audiences all over the world will answer positively from their own experience that they have seen the face of the invisible through an experience on the stage that transcended their experience of life.”
(Peter Brook, The Empty Space 47)
Peter Brook was born in 1925, the year in which the V&A welcomed Gabrielle Enthoven and her collection of playbills and programmes into its hallowed halls. Enthoven had campaigned for a decade for the establishment of a theatrical section for the use of the producer, actor, writer and scholar wishing to research any aspect of current theatre practice or theatre history. It’s very gratifying that Brook, whose papers are now housed in the V&A, used the collection for his own work at the Royal Opera House – a fact that Enthoven proudly recorded in one of her last reports to the V&A before she died
That Brook was a ‘well-known’ producer at the age of 24 is a tribute to his incredible work ethic, artistic courage and enquiring mind – the same qualities for which he is now celebrated as a Grand Old Man of the theatre, still working at 89. Now thanks to funding from the HLF and a private donor, his collection of correspondence, notes, sketches and scripts amassed during his working life will be available for practitioners and scholars to access at the V&A for the same purposes Enthoven established nearly a century ago.
In visiting the Enthoven Collection Brook was following the example of Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966), a pioneer of experimental theatre whose advice and friendship he greatly valued.
He sought Craig’s advice on his 1957 production of The Tempest in which John Gielgud (Craig’s nephew) played Prospero. Brook wrote to Craig describing the play as ‘fearfully difficult’ but noting that: ‘once again I’m going to take your counsel and try to work all from one hand, sets, costumes and all’ (BnF, EGC Ms B 18, p.127-8). The surviving sketches Brook made for the production suggest he took up Craig’s idea of evoking an undersea landscape, using the tones and shapes of sea-life in his renderings of the spirits.
Brook was inspired by Craig’s quest for a purity and unity in theatre that disregarded soft lighting and painted sets in favour of stark lights and minimalism. He undertook a similar journey, moving from the lush romanticism of Love’s Labour’s Lost (1945) and King Lear (1962), both of which he designed as well as directed, and onto the famous white box A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1970); Oedipus (1968) at the National Theatre and Orghast at Persepolis, both collaborations with Ted Hughes. All of these iconic and inspirational works are extensively documented in the collection we have just acquired through working notes, letters, drawings and photographs and scripts. Everything in the collection reflects Brook’s constant search for new processes and refinements; every programme and book is covered in notes and doodles as he generated and refined his ideas.
The V&A will rehouse and catalogue the material to make it available to practitioners, researchers and students at the Museum’s Theatre and Performance study centre in Kensington Olympia. Selected material from the collection will be digitised and made available on the V&A’s online Search the Collections database. The HLF have also funded a structured programme of learning and outreach activities which will be undertaken in 2015-2016 in partnership with local schools, theatres and museums across London.
We are grateful to the Heritage Lottery Fund for their generous support of this project.