There was a sign in front of the hospital that said: “The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed: it blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” I used to drive by it every day. It was in front of the public hospital, the place built on the land where two hospitals used to be, one black, one white, and where, my friends and I used to say, you wanted to be taken if you got shot, but not for any other reason. Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice, “the quality of mercy.” That surprised me.
The title of Peter Brooks’ latest book is The Quality of Mercy. I haven’t read it. I went to see him speak because I happened to see his production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream recreated at my high school, as well as a production of Marat/Sade. I had this incredibly rich public education, sending me out of high school with Mozart and Brecht and Shakespeare and Van Gogh and pretty much guaranteeing I would be all right, and that I could go to any city in the western world and feel at home seeing and hearing these heavy hitters.
Peter Brook is a terrible, I mean terrible, interview. Not Gene Simmons terrible, but worse than Stephen Sondheim. I don’t think artists we love owe us anything more. They’ve had a hard enough time producing the stuff we love. They don’t have to be good people or good interviews or let you get your picture taken with them or anything.
It was amusing how bad the interview was. Already, in line for the event, I was feeling a little funny, like, this is a line of people who know something. New Yorkers (this isn’t an event big enough to come from anywhere else) who like theater, and serious theater. I sort of felt like I belonged, having read The Empty Space and The Open Door, though some time ago.
As a beginning writer, theater books were important to me. The same way I learned more about Christianity by reading Buddhist books, I learned more about writing from theater books. Directing is like writing: you direct your characters and your story. And acting is like writing, too: you channel these other people through you, and you have to get your head straight about what is happening when that happens, and what it means and doesn’t mean about you.
Theater books were more accessible. And I spent a lot more time with theater people then. They seemed very cool. They knew how to talk to each other and hang out, which I had no idea how to do.
Later I was to spend more time with visual artists. Maybe just because it was cheaper. Theater costs money. Gallery openings are not only free, but have free drinks, too.
Brook covered: exercises are not commandments. They serve particular purposes. He refused to be pinned down to anything, which made it seem like he was one of my friends. He emphasized the importance of alertness, awakeness, like a Buddhist. He said we do everything for the joy behind it.
Without particular concern for politeness, he dodged questions from earnest seekers wearing fabulous glasses. He would not tell how to direct or act, leaving them with, “God knows!” or “I have no idea,” or “I hate questions like that.” He refused to confirm anyone’s suspicions, solidify any practice, or state an opinion about any piece of theater anywhere, any time, let alone right now.
His teaching is his person, and he knows you can do it, too.
A great part, he said, “acts like a can opener.” Parts of you you didn’t know “tingle, come to life.” He was willing to say that acting is a balance between accessing your own emotions and accessing something “greater than oneself.”
The last question came from a guy who was either insane or a deeply committed absurdist. This guy said some stuff no one understood, rambled about cycles and years and beginning and endings.
Instead of saying what the rest of us were thinking, which was, “What the hell?” Brook started suddenly speaking thoughtfully about the Indian calendar and how things were becoming “cruder and more vulgar.” He wrapped up by telling us that theater should leave people with “a tiny bit more hope and courage.” Although there were eight minutes left, no one, certainly not the whipped interviewer, was going to ask another question.
Two seats over, a man with white hair woke for the last time. He had spent most of the lecture asleep. Why he spent $30 and two hours to take a nap sitting up, I will wonder for a long time.
If I had been a disciple of Brooks’, I probably would have cried. I agree with the guy, though: you can hardly ever teach anyone anything about anything, and I don’t think he was being a dick by refusing to be anyone’s idol. Who cares what he thinks about this show or that?
Tonight we read this from Paul: “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?…. God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”
Not taking the opportunity to boss people around or tell them what’s up is mercy. Dodging questions is being weak, is being foolish. Refusing to let the exploration of art become a fossil, a code, does not feel good, but is honest.