The Empty Space: The Holy Theatre

Key quotes from The Holy Theatre, the second part of Peter Brook‘s seminal text, The Empty Space. The Holy Theatre explores the place of ritual and the holy in what was then contemporary theatre (1968). Among others, Brook analyses the works of Samuel Beckett with his existential characters, themes and symbols, while also examining the methods of Jerzy Grotowski and Antonin Artaud, two visionary 20th century theatre figures who investigated ritual and the holy in their writings, rehearsal, and performance.

The Holy Theatre is not about religion, but rather experience. It is here one ‘sees’ the invisible, such as human consciousness and states of being – things that normally escape our senses. The Holy Theatre is about the communion between actor and spectator, about rite, spirituality, the intangible, mystery, and ritual.

akropolis grotowski
Ritual in Jerzy Grotowski’s Akropolis, 1962.

I am calling it the Holy Theatre for short, but it could be called The Theatre of the Invisible-Made-Visible.

The actor searches vainly for the sound of a vanished tradition, and critic and audience follow suit. We have lost all sense of ritual and ceremony…

We have largely forgotten silence. It even embarrasses us; we clap our hands mechanically because we do not know what else to do, and we are unaware that silence is also permitted, that silence is also good.

In the theatre we shy away fom the holy because we don’t know what this could be…

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(Artaud) wrote tracts describing from his imagination and intuition another theatre – a Holy Theatre in which the blazing centre speaks from those forms closest to it. A theatre working like the plague, by intoxication, by infection, by analogy, by magic, a theatre in which the play, the event itself, stands in place of a text.

Is there another language, just as exacting for the author as a language of words? Is there a language of actions, a language of sounds …

Artaud maintained that only in the theatre can we liberate ourselves from the recognisable forms in which we live our daily lives. This made the theatre a holy place in which a greater reality could be found.

… to comprehend the visibility of the invisible is a life’s work. Holy art is an aid to this, and so we arrive at a definition of a holy theatre. A holy theatre not only presents the invisible but also offers conditions that make its perception possible.

The theatre, he (Jerzy Grotowski) believes, cannot be an end in itself … the theatre is a vehicle, a means for self-study, self-exploration, a possibility of salvation.

Here (in Grotowski’s theatre) there is a similar relation between actor and audience to the one between priest and worshipper…..this theatre is holy because its purpose is holy; it has a clearly defined place in the community and it responds to a need the churches can no longer fill.

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