Here is a bit of stage-craft devised by Peter Brook with Marie-Helene Estienne in his play Battlefield. A statuesque African woman wearing a simple robe stands with her back to the audience. Two men hold a scarlet fabric, about the size of a bed sheet, up to veil her from the audience. When the men lower the red cloth screening her, the woman has turned to face the audience. It's a minimalist effect, but curiously jarring -- as if the mere fact of turning around to face the audience is a magic trick, a variety of sleight-of-hand. The men, then, drape the cloth over the woman's shoulders. The woman is Mother Ganga, the Ganges River, and she has seen her waters swallow the corpses of innumerable dead. She speaks a few lines about the cosmic battle in which these warriors perished and, then, says: "Now I must mourn my dead." With a swift gesture, she lifts the cloth up to cover her face and, then, emits two high-pitched shrieks of inconsolable grief. The screams are unexpected and the audience levitates collectively, literally startled out of their seats. There are many things to notice about this sequence of gestures, words, and sounds. First, the actress is from Rwanda and there is, perhaps, something personal in her cries of grief -- both personal and impersonal in the sense that the woman gives voice to not only her own sorrow, but the sorrow of all mothers who have lost children in pointless conflicts. Second, the effect's power arises from the clash between the most raw and potent subject matter and a highly formal, dignified, even stately form of presentation. Finally, Peter Brook's stage technique is so advanced, so carefully designed, that he can reinvigorate with an ancient power the theater's most fundamental gesture, the moment when an actor turns to face the audience to speak.
Battlefield is a late work, highly stylized and simplified to the bare bones, frighteningly direct and emotionally opaque -- the feelings represented in the play are signified by minimalist gestures and seem to come to us from a great distance. Brook is 92 and, as in many late works, he doesn't waste time getting to his points -- there isn't much time remaining. There is no circumlocution and no unnecessary clutter -- the play proceeds according to its laws efficiently and with as little fuss as possible. If this kind of theater speaks to you, you will be powerfully moved, indeed, almost moved to speechlessness, my reaction to this theater-piece. If Brook's austere and highly abstract staging seems too little too late, then, the play will bore you. Some audiences, I have learned from reviews, are rapt. Others snore. The work is a small pendant to Brook's magnum opus, his Mahabharata staged in the mid-eighties by a Parisian theater company at an abandoned quarry in Avignon, a nine-hour spectacle that famously began at dusk and ended at dawn. Battlefield is a sort of appendix to the play, an account of the aftermath of the colossal battle between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, the conflict that ends their world but is the inception of our history, as Brook proclaimed "the universal poetic history of the human race." Battlefield begins with the survivors of the apocalyptic war wandering the abbattoir where 18 million have perished, many massacred by weapons of mass destruction harnessing the power of the sun. The blind King Dritarashtra, the last of the Kauravas, has lost all 100 of his sons in the final battle. He encounters the victorious, Yudishtira, the sole survivor the five Pandava brothers. Battlefield recounts their encounter and, then, chronicles the education of Yudishtira, the new King who must reinstitute the Dharma, here translated as "Justice," in the ruined world. The 70 minute play shows us how Yudishtira is taught the Dharma and the way forward forged by the few, shattered survivors.
I'm unsure how much of this is new to this play and how much of the text is borrowed from Jean-Claude Carriere's original text for the nine-hour production of the Mahabharata, the source for the parables and anecdotes that comprise Battlefield. (Carriere is the French surrealist who wrote six of Bunuel's late movies and other renowned film scripts including the screenplay for Philip Kaufman's The Unbearable Lightness of Being.) I have a book with some of the script from the original production of the Mahabharata and can recognize that, at least, one episode from Battlefield is lifted verbatim from the earlier play -- although I'm sure the staging is radically different. The play concerns Yudishtira's getting of wisdom and, in fact, ends with someone whispering to him the transcendental truth, presumably the wisdom of the Dharma to him. (Of course, there is a distinct suspicion that what is whispered in his ear is only the entirety of the Mahabharata, the ancient Sanskrit scripture and compendium of all knowledge reputedly 15 times the length of the Bible.) Brook uses four actors, three men and one woman, who play many roles, most of them animals or supernatural beings -- the characters have to play the parts of a mongoose, pigeon, falcon, a worm and a snake. The actors, three of them African (or of African descent) and one white, move with great and deliberate gravity across an empty stage -- it's strewn with some broken wood and there are three clumps of bamboo posts at the back of the space. A Japanese master musician, Toshi Tsuchitori, plays a drum -- it's probably worth the price of admission to see him perform. Tsuchitori gets symphonic effects from his drum and his work punctuates the show and, in fact, provides its symbolic denouement. He sits on a chair about eight feet from the actors: sometimes, his drum sounds percussive, like rifle shots -- other times, he simulates the patter of feline paws on the jungle floor, the rustle of a forest fire, the rhythmic movement of men and women walking over the earth. At the show's end, he drums so rapidly that his hands become a pale lotus-shaped blur of motion.
Brook begins the play at the pitch where almost all other theater ends. The world has been destroyed. The devastated survivors search for meaning amidst the mountains of corpses being torn into pieces by "carnivorous creatures." One expects that the play will chronicle the rapprochement between the last of Kauravas, the blind King, and Yudishtra, the sole survivor of the Pandavas. The encounter between the two men occurs within the first six or seven minutes of the play and, with shocking suddenness, the two enemies are reconciled. The blind King says that he has lost all 100 of his sons and so he declares his enemy, the man instrumental in the destruction of his family, to be his son. This gesture of reconciliation drains any suspense from the play -- within the first ten minutes, the conflict is resolved. This is an extraordinarily bold development but one, I think, that is fundamentally true. After all the Mahabharata is the story of a single family, the Bharatas. The Pandavas and their adversaries are all related -- indeed, they are cousins. The truth proclaimed by the ancient scripture (as in the Old Testament) is that all men are related, all members of the same human family, and that all violence, which is inevitable in human affairs, is fratricidal, a gruesome war between people who blood-relatives -- all wars are civil. Brook and the ancient scripture understand that it doesn't take much to get people to murder one another -- in Serbia and Croatia, in Rwanda, people who had lived as friends and neighbors could be induced to slaughter one another by a few words whispered on the radio. Bloodthirstiness is an aspect of human nature. But so is friendship and cooperation and the startling simplicity and alacrity of the reconciliation between the warring Kings recognizes this aspect of human nature as well. As soon as I stop trying to kill my brother, I am likely to express my love for him.
After the kings are reconciled, Yudishtra must be educated to be a noble and just ruler. Various interlocutors tell him animal parables. A snake defends himself against the charge of murder -- it was my nature, the snake proclaims, and, furthermore, who is so wise as to know the real cause of any event. The snake speaks very persuasively, but, of course, the actor forces us to recall that it is, after all, a snake speaking and there is a level of guile and malice in the creature's sophistry. A pigeon is attacked by a falcon. The king protects the pigeon by hacking off his own flesh and placing it on a scale to balance the weight of the fearful, little bird. Miraculously, the pigeon weighs more than the King's entire flesh and the just ruler disincarnates himself, reducing his body to a skeleton to protect the bird. A worm tries to creep across a road as a chariot approaches. The interlocutor tells the worm that there's no reason that he should hasten -- after all, you are only a worm, the lowliest of creatures. But the worm protests that he loves his life as well and wants to go on living, up to the very moment when the chariot squashes him. A mongoose tells the king to give all of his worldly possessions to the poor -- the mongoose has hurled himself into a fire where gold is melting hoping to gild himself in the molten metal. The king distributes his garments to the people in the first row of the theater -- "are you poor, sir?" the actor asks an audience member. "I don't know," the audience member says. "You're sitting in the first row of the theater," the actor tells the man. "Take it from me, you're poor." The survivors of the massacre wander through the woods and, finally, perish by walking into the flames. The king meets a skeletal figure of mendicant Dharma in the woods and takes that doctrine into himself. At the end of the play, the king has wandered 18 years seeking the truth and found only a boy grinning at him under a banyan tree. The boy opens his mouth and invites the king to enter and the ruler finds within his belly another world complete with forests, people, cities, and starry firmament. The ruler wanders in the belly of the boy for another 18 years and still can't discover the truth. The boy vomits out the King. "Did you find the truth?" "No," the king says sadly. "Why did you give up so soon?" the boy says. He grins at the king again and, then, whispers into his ear. While whispering the drummer plays his solo and the play ends. Each of these episodes is acted with simple authority. We see the different animals, the supernatural creatures, the representations of nature such as the mourning Mother Ganga. As the old King and his niece (he has lost 100 sons; she mourns her first-born) walk toward the flames of the forest fire, they see their dead emerge as pillars of white froth on the surface of the Ganges River. Someone remarks that the earth has been destroyed many times before and that it will be destroyed now and always in the future as well. A king, we are told, must perish in battle or go into the forest alone to die.
The acting in the show is uniformly powerful, understated and dignified, Brechtian in the sense that everything is directed toward presenting as effectively as possible fables that have a didactic meaning. The three African actors appear to us as representatives of an archaic, immemorially ancient world -- their dark faces seem to be the masks of the primordial human beings, the guise in which the first people appeared, half divine, with the ichor of the gods in their veins. The woman is very handsome: she is either a teenage Madonna or 800 years old. The grinning boy under the banyan tree at the end of the play seems like a messenger from the gods -- no one has ever grinned with such fiendish joy. The white actor in the play has an Irish accent and his face is also rigid and mask-like for much of the play -- he is a huge man with a voice like a cannonade and, playing the blind King, he is a mixture of Oedipus Rex and Zeus, at once immensely powerful and completely helpless. The play is staged as a series of spectacular tableaux, the characters draped in shawls or scarves, barefoot on a stage that is the color of clay.
I saw Peter Brook's Battlefield at the Guthrie Theater (McGuire Proscenium) on April 15, 2017. There was a standing ovation. At the end of the play, the boy whispers the truth of the Dharma to the King and the drummer plays for a couple minutes and, then, there is profound silence, no one moves, the audience is spellbound (or asleep), and the play's end is signaled by the house-lights gradually being brightened. In the deep and highly charged silence at the end of the work, someone's cell-phone rang -- the ring-tone was melodic, perhaps, from the Beach Boys: "I wish they all could be California girls."