The Empty Space: The Deadly Theatre
This post explores key quotes from The Deadly Theatre, the first part of Peter Brook’s seminal text, The Empty Space. The Deadly Theatre is the bad theatre of Broadway and the West End, the commercial theatre with deadly directors and deadly actors performing works by deadly playwrights, all existing within a machine and adhering to well-practised formulas on an impossible timeline dictated by economics, instead of art.
Many readers of The Drama Teacher would most likely have read or studied this wonderful book. First delivered as a series of lectures at four UK universities titled “The Empty Space: Theatre Today”, they were later compiled into a book with four distinct sections: The Deadly Theatre, The Holy Theatre, The Rough Theatre, and The Immediate Theatre.
In a series of four posts I will extract and publish some of the most pertinent quotes from The Empty Space in the hope that they may instigate a conversation, or at least inspire students of theatre who may never have read this book to purchase and consume it. The Empty Space has stood the test of time, with many of Brook’s statements on theatre being as relevant today as they were when first written in 1968.
The Deadly Theatre
I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.
The Deadly Theatre can at first sight be taken for granted, because it means bad theatre.
…it is most closely linked to the despised, much-attacked commercial theatre.
Of course, nowhere does the Deadly Theatre install itself so securely, so comfortably and so slyly as in the works of William Shakespeare.
To make matters worse there is always a deadly spectator, who for special reasons enjoys a lack of intensity and even a lack of entertainment.
After all, one associates culture with a certain sense of duty, historical costumes and long speeches with the sensation of being bored; so, conversely, just the right degree of boringness is a reassuring guarantee of a worthwhile event.
The Deadly Theatre approaches the classics from the viewpoint that somewhere, someone has found out and defined how the play should be done.
Broadway is not a jungle, it is a machine into which a great many parts interlock. Yet each of these parts is brutalized; it has been deformed to fit and function smoothly.
If good theatre depends on the audience, then every audience has the theatre it deserves.
The word theatre has many sloppy meanings. In most of the world, the theatre has no exact place in society, no clear purpose, it only exists in fragments: one theatre chases money, another chases glory, another chases politics, another chases fun.
There are countless actors who never have the chance to develop their inborn potential to its proper fruition.
The appalling difficulty of making theatre must be accepted: it is, or would be, if truly practised, perhaps the hardest medium of all.
Incompetence is the vice, the condition and the tragedy of the world’s theatre on any level…
…whether scholar or actor, too few authors are what we could truly call inspiring or inspired.
…we are often forced to choose between reviving old plays or staging new plays which we find inadequate, just as a gesture towards the present day.
(in Elizabethan theatre…) Drama was exposure, it was confrontation, it was contradiction, and it lead to analysis, involvement, recognition and eventually, to an awakening of understanding.
If you just let a play speak, it may not make a sound. If what you want is for the play to be heard, then you must conjure its sounds from it.
Deadliness always brings us back to repetition: the deadly director uses old formulae, old methods, old jokes, old effects, stock beginnings to scenes, stock ends…
When we say deadly, we never mean dead: we mean something depressingly active, but for this very reason, capable of change.