(Benedict Nightingale’s article appeared in The New York Times, 7/3/22; He was called “the greatest innovator of his generation,” leaving an indelible mark with plays, musicals, opera and a relentless curiosity.)
Peter Brook, whose ambitious, adventurous and endlessly creative stage work ranged across seven decades on both sides of the Atlantic and earned him a place among the greatest theater directors of the 20th century, died on Saturday. He was 97.
His death was confirmed by his son, Simon, who did not specify where he died.
“Peter is the quester,” the director Peter Hall once said, “the person out on the frontiers, continually asking what is quality in theater, where do you find truth in theater.”
He added, “He is the greatest innovator of his generation.”
Mr. Brook was called many other things: a maverick, a romantic, a classicist. But he was never easily pigeonholed. British by nationality but based in Paris since 1970, he spent years in commercial theater, winning Tony Awards in 1966 and 1971 for the Broadway transfers of highly original productions of Peter Weiss’s “Marat/Sade” and Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” He staged crowd-pleasers like the musical “Irma la Douce” and Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge.”
He was equally at home directing Shakespeare, Shaw, Beckett, Cocteau, Sartre and Chekhov. And he coaxed brilliance out of actors like Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, John Gielgud, Paul Scofield, Alec Guinness, Glenda Jackson, and Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.
But he was also an experimenter and a risk-taker. He brought a stunning nine-hour adaptation of the Sanskrit epic “The Mahabharata” from France to New York in 1987. In 1995, he followed the same route with “The Man Who,” a stark staging of Oliver Sacks’s neurological case studies. In 2011, when he was 86, he brought an almost equally pared-down production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” (he called it “A Magic Flute”) to the Lincoln Center Festival.
Restless and unpredictable, Mr. Brook was also indefatigable, staging almost 100 productions over his long and acclaimed career.
He first won a reputation for freshness and daring in 1946, when, at 21, he staged a precocious revival of Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost” in Stratford-upon-Avon, where Barry Jackson, the director, was in charge of the summer festival. “The youngest earthquake I’ve known,” Mr. Jackson called him.
Peter Stephen Paul Brook was born in London on March 21, 1925, a son of Jewish immigrants from Latvia. His father, Simon Bryk, had moved from his Baltic village to Moscow, became involved in revolutionary politics and was forced to flee, first to Paris and then to London, where he became a citizen and anglicized his name. Both he and his wife, Ida, were industrial chemists and prospered in London.
Peter, the younger of their two sons, went to private schools, where he was bullied and unhappy. He won a place at Oxford University at 16.
At 7, Peter staged a four-hour version of “Hamlet” for his parents in a toy theater, advertising the play as by “P. Brook and W. Shakespeare” and speaking all the roles himself. But he seldom went to the theater as a boy, thinking it “a dreary and dying precursor of cinema,” as he later put it, and aspiring to be a movie director. He came close to expulsion from Oxford after neglecting his studies for the University Film Society, which he had founded in 1943.
After graduating, he took a job with a company specializing in making commercials. But his employment ended in disgrace after he shot an advertisement for a washing powder in the style of “Citizen Kane.”
His undergraduate staging of Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus,” presented in a tiny London theater, raised 17 British pounds for the Aid to Russia Fund. And in 1945 he directed Cocteau’s “The Infernal Machine” and Rudolf Besier’s “The Barretts of Wimpole Street,” also on the London fringe.
These brought Mr. Brook an invitation to stage a touring production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” for the British Army, and he caught the attention of Mr. Jackson, who founded and ran the highly regarded Birmingham Repertory Theater. There, Mr. Brook successfully directed Shaw’s “Man and Superman” and Shakespeare’s “King John.” He also formed a professional bond with Paul Scofield, who had leading roles in both plays. When Mr. Jackson took over Stratford’s summer festival in 1946, he brought both men with him.
When he was 12, Mr. Brook had fallen in love with the heroine of “War and Peace” and decided to marry someone named Natasha. “And so it came about,” he wrote in his memoir, “Threads of Time” (1998). He married the actress Natasha Parry in 1951. In addition to their son, Simon, a documentary filmmaker, they had a daughter, Irina, a stage director.