PRINT April 1995


Peter Brook's The Man Who

The Man Who, directed by Peter Brook, Majestic Theater, BAM

In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), David Hume, the skeptical Scot, wrote that “custom is the great guide of human life,” arguing that quotidian habit is what allows us to believe we have stable, continuous identities. But some of us aren’t that lucky, as theater director Peter Brook shows in The Man Who, his pellucid depiction of neuropathic patients who are “constantly struggling to remake a life instant to instant.” Ironically, perhaps, the work shows Brook continuing a 50-year habit of his own—the habit of using the stage as an investigative laboratory. For him, The Man Who is not a play but a “theatrical research, ” by which he seeks a “language of music and gestures that would enable an audience to watch a play in the way a doctor observes his patients.” No mere clinical experiment, the production’s multiethnic quartet of performers from the Centre International de Créations Théâtrales (Brook’s Paris home and company since the early ’70s) displays human behavior in its most tragicomic mode: fractured I’s before our very eyes. An examination of the synaptic misfirings of aphasics, amnesiacs, and Tourette’s syndrome sufferers, The Man Who, which recently opened at New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music, was inspired by The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1986), the widely read book by the neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks. Sacks believes that “to be ourselves we must have ourselves—possess, if need be repossess, our life stories”; he tells these stories “magnificently,” says Brook, “and in the manner that every dramatist, from the Greeks to the playwrights of the present day, has attempted penetrating hidden areas of human beings.” Even so, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat served as Brook’s initial impetus only; the director and cast conducted their own ethnography of patients in mental hospitals, honing their performatory research over several years. By observing patients with similar pathologies, Brook developed a “completely nonassociative form” to narrate the nonnarrated souls that populate his drama. The work resists a story line at all costs; “For some audiences,” Brook admits, “this is very difficult.”

The Man Who opens with an austere setting of a VCR, a video camera, and two large monitors, suggesting both the interior, mental activity of processing images and the state-of-the-art diagnostic testing of the hospital clinic. During the 100-minute performance the Tourette-driven “tic-er” confesses that he experiences himself as “cut in two,” another patient feels as if he inhabits his body only when he sees it, while still another elides time and space altogether (“I was there and here at the same time”). Each of four actors plays many different characters, including the role of doctor, a move made sartorially, by slipping on a lab coat; the simplicity of the gesture underlines the evanescent border between observer and observed. Patient is watched by doctor, who is in turn watched by the ever vigilant audience, which now constitutes the next anthropological frame. Though The Man Who suggests fractured identity—people unformed and unfinished—Brook insists that “these remade lives are both very heroic and very full.” Still, as the elliptical title makes plain, all the work’s people are of unrealized potential, sentenced to inner worlds while they await any verb, yet to be uttered, to connect them to outside reality.

Brook has long had a fascination with the nether regions of the human mind, as demonstrated in his groundbreaking Royal Shakespeare Company productions of King Lear (1962) and Marat/Sade (1964). He recalls, “There was a time in the ’60s when we tried to reveal behavior by using abstract signs in the theater, using the body in a nonnaturalistic way to break away from the tyranny and the banality of naturalism.” A little over a decade later Brook was charting the opposite course, in The Ik, his 1976 collaboration with anthropologist Colin Turnbull, in which he “tried to find the abstract sign through everyday behavior.” In this respect The Man Who resembles The Ik—less overt in its storytelling but equally uncanny in mimesis and unflinching in pathos.

Although The Man Who is more an intimate psychological incursion than an epic excursion (as compared to, say, Brook’s nine-hour version of The Mahabharata, 1987), the director sees the work’s tales, quoting Sacks, as “terrifying human tragedies that are, at the same time, mythic adventures. Once you carefully observe and go beyond the surface behavior of these people, you can’t fail to encounter archetypes.” Indeed extranarrative allusions are easy to make during The Man Who: we’re watching historyless figures in a post-Modern “culture of amnesia, ” for example. But while he credits Sacks for placing his patients’ cases in a philosophical context, Brook states that “we tried to do only what the theater is meant to do—that is, place pure behavior before an audience. There’s no cultural analysis or philosophical commentary on our part. Only a series of human beings in exceptional circumstances. Critics and audiences may bring to it what they will.”

Critics and audiences have remained rapt by The Man Who every step of the way, first in Paris, where it premiered as L’Homme Qui in 1993, then in London last year. Its current run at BAM’s Majestic Theater continues until the middle of this month. This theater was renovated to Brook’s specifications for The Mahabharata, and his critically acclaimed Cherry Orchard appeared there in 1988; but no Brook production has appeared in New York since. So this is a homecoming of a kind. A tireless director, writer, and “theatrical researcher,” Brook continues to find new forms, chase new themes, and conduct new performance anthropology with the mutability of an artist who is still transforming himself along the way. With this return to BAM, Brook has, as he says, “come home again,” but this time from a vast terra incognita: the frayed and faraway edges of consciousness in the territory of the human mind.

Steven Drukman is a freelance writer and a professor of drama at New York University.