Evoking and Forgetting Shakespeare

by Peter Brook

Peter Brook is one of the most influential minds in today’s theatre. The impact he has had as an author and director of plays and films might just be immeasurable. His 1968 book The Empty Space as well as his 1970 Royal Shakespeare Company production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream have been hugely influential upon today’s scholars, directors, teachers and actors.

The Theatre Communications Group (TCG), has produced the Dramatic Contexts series to document “important statements on the theatre by major figures in the theatre.” Thank you kindly, TCG.

Being part of the Dramatic Contexts series, this isn’t a book that Brook published. This 47 page, large print book contains transcripts of two speeches Peter Brook made in the mid 1990s: Evoking Shakespeare and Forgetting Shakespeare, delivered in Berlin and Paris, respectively. If one were to compare this to Brook’s other works, Evoking and Forgetting Shakespeare leaves the reader wanting more.

The book is not large and can easily be read in an hour. This reviewer was left unsatisfied with only 47 pages of Peter Brook’s ideas. Why not include more speeches and articles? However, in so few words, the Brook still manages to make some profound statements about producing, directing, and studying Shakespeare’s works today. The first section (Evoking…) raises and attempts to answer questions such as “Why is Shakespeare still relevant today?”, “Who was Shakespeare – the man?”, and “What do we mean by calling him a genius?” Brook explores Shakespeare’s capacity for memory. An author whose writing contains such densely-packed language full of imagery must have had a super-human talent for conjuring such images and in his mind (and linking them together). He speaks of the challenges of producing Shakespeare’s plays today and attempting to make them feel new and “modern” without losing the power of the language.

Forgetting Shakespeare asks the actor (or director, etc.) to “Forget that these plays had such an author. […] So just assume, as a trick to help you, that the character you are preparing to play actually existed.” Why? Because you are not like Hamlet. Because you are not the news-caster for Shakespearean headlines. Because actors seem to do very well when the portray people who actually lived. Just look at any of your favorite biography films.. it’s true. This way we forget about the author, what his intentions may have been, his philosophy. All things that get in the way. So the only way to find Shakespeare is to forget him. My summarizing and paraphrazing is not nearly as eloquent or inspiring as Brook’s so I suppose you’ll just have to buy a copy and read it for yourself.

At nearly $9, it’s a little pricey for the amount of paper they used, so if you’re a casual Shakespeare reader this probably isn’t for you. This work, though, should be read by the die-hard fans as well as actors, directors, and teachers of The Bard. The ideas inside are well worth the price. And because of the short length, it’ll be easy to come back to again and again for inspiration.

Evoking and Forgetting Shakespeare