Theatre is an ephemeral art that exists within the relationship of artists and audience. It is an art form that must be re-born at each performance and never breathes the same way twice. In this way, it lives only in the present. Essential theatre starts with the question, “Why theatre at all?” This is the premise of The Empty Space by Peter Brook, 1968.
The book addresses theatre as a social art form and the responsibilities of the parties involved. “Theatre’s unit is a few hours of public time.” Because theatre cannot exist without artists (actors, directors, designers), subject matter, and audience, each bears responsibility for the quality of the theatrical experience. Any party can be deadly, so all must work together toward a living, essential theatre. Brook writes from experience in mid-century, post-war European and American theatre. From this experience, he comments on the commercial models of theatre where actors and audiences seek protection in the agency of critics to protect the audience and agents to protect the actors. Poor press can seriously hamper the financial performance of any show – whether the show is good or not. “The vital critic has clearly formulated what the theatre could be and is bold enough to throw this formula into jeopardy each time he participates in a theatrical event.” Here, Brook claims that critics take an active role in shaping theatre and so share the responsibility for success and failure. Brook deplores increasing ticket prices while acknowledging the system that makes them necessary and writes a great deal on the need for actors’ continuous learning. He recognizes that the current system does not always encourage nor prioritize artistic development over (or even hand-in-hand with) career advancement. How do we change this system? Can it be changed? Should it be changed? These are questions with which we must wrestle in our pursuit of a living theatre.
The Holy Theatre and the Rough Theatre, as defined in this book, stand at odds. The Holy Theatre makes the invisible visible through ritual, addressing lofty themes and grand truths. It is theatre that transcends life. The Rough Theatre approaches truth in another way. The Rough Theatre is the popular theatre, operating in poverty with whatever means available. It is revolutionary in that it is the theatre fighting for survival, turning tools and debris into weapons striking at social sensibilities. It speaks to its audiences simply and truthfully, and its audiences rise to meet it, recognizing a human struggle and drive to share its experience, to be heard, to matter. It attains through context and topical devices a connection polished sophistication cannot. It is dirty, crude, and base – not ironically, but out of necessity. Even though the Holy and Rough are at odds, both can exist in one play. Brook acknowledges that Shakespeare was a master of counterpointing the Holy and Rough.
Brook finishes with practical concerns in his chapter “The Immediate Theatre.” The looming deadline of opening night galvanizes the group of people working on a play in the same way war unifies government.
No tribute to the latent power of the theatre is as telling as that paid to it by censorship. In most regimes, even when the written word is free, the image free, it is still the stage that is liberated last. Instinctively, governments know that the living event could create a dangerous electricity – even if we see this happen all too seldom. But this ancient fear is a recognition of an ancient potential. The theatre is the arena where a living confrontation can take place. The focus of a large group of people creates a unique intensity – owing to this forces that operate at all times and rule each person’s daily life can be isolated and perceived more clearly.
Here, Brook sums up the great potential of theatre. At its best, theatre transforms its audience and sends it out to the world charged for action. Theatre can disturb, provoke, inspire, teach, entertain, enlighten, activate, heal, purge, disgust, raise, and lower audiences. It is not the artist’s responsibility to force these things on the public, but to prepare the way for them. An actor meets an audience after preparation, discovery, and repetition. It is in the meeting place of performance that theatre is re-born each night.