While visiting Moscow in the mid-1950s, director Peter Brook -- then about 30 years of age -- caught a performance of Mayakovsky's The Bedbug directed by Valentin Plouchek. Unfamiliar with Plouchek, Brook was drawn to the production by the buzz it had created in the local theater community. Weary from a run of tedious evenings in Moscow playhouses, the youthful Englishman was longing for aesthetic relief, and that's what he found in Plouchek's interpretation of Mayakovsky.

"As Brook watched the performance," writes Michael Kustow in Peter Brook: A Biography (St. Martin's Press, 336 pp., $27.95), "he had the strange sensation of thinking, 'Now, that's exactly how I would have done that scene.' " Later, answering a knock on the door of his hotel room, Brook discovered Plouchek, come to deliver the startling news that they -- Brook and Ploucheck -- were first cousins. To Brook's astonishment, Ploucheck explained that he (Plouchek) was the son of Brook's long-lost Aunt Faynia, a favorite sister of Brook's father, left behind when the elder Brook fled Latvia before World War I. As the two directors became acquainted, they discovered that their careers had followed what screenwriters would call similar "arcs" -- remarkably similar, in fact. "If my father had never left Russia and I'd been born there," Brook told Kustow in an interview for the new biography, "Plouchek's life could have been mine."

This sort of coincidence, unheard of outside romance novels and 19th century melodrama, somehow doesn't seem incongruous in Kustow's narrative. Brook -- currently in residence at Columbia University with his international theater company and their production of Tierno Bokar -- appears at first glance to have led a charmed life. Reading Peter Brook: A Biography, though, one begins to understand that he's like those nonchalant British university students who maintain a polite pose of lassitude while secretly striving to excel, to succeed, to outstrip the competition. Always a self-starter, Brook is a Horatio Alger of theater and film whose life has indeed been charmed but, in large measure, charmed by his own devices. Brook's fertile imagination and unremitting efforts have kept his theatrical experiments in the crosshairs of cultural focus in a way that's unparalleled among directors in today's English-language theater.

Brook turned 80 last month, almost half a century after he set the agenda for his directorial career by ridiculing "Walter Kerr, and the audience of The Miracle Worker and...most of our politicians grinning from ear to ear and buried up to their necks" like Winnie in Beckett's Happy Days. Brook has made no secret of his contempt for the audience (or critic) that "glibly asserts that life is good, that there is always hope and that all will be well." Observing him as the prophetic figure he is today, it's easy to overlook the fact that he didn't start life as an iconoclast.

Raised by affluent, loving Russian-Jewish parents in suburban London, Brook received a privileged education: Westminster School, Gresham's, and Oxford. (His father was proprietor of a company that produced a popular laxative sold under the trademark Brooklax.) Even before college, Peter Brook landed a flunky's job in a south London motion picture studio, intending to get a back-lot view of the movie industry. By the time his internship concluded, he was substituting for an ailing screenwriter. While an undergraduate, he attracted press attention with a production of Dr. Faustus which he mounted not at Oxford but in a London pub. He made his first motion picture -- an adaptation of Laurence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey) -- under the auspices of the Oxford University Film Society, of which he was president. Having gained all that practical experience before graduation, Brook grabbed his Oxford degree and hit the ground running.

As a fledgling director, he freelanced regularly for Binkie Beaumont, impresario of H.M. Tennent Ltd. and producer of polite, hyper-literary West End shows. He also directed Shakespeare at Stratford-on-Avon, Arthur Miller in London, Tennessee Williams in Paris, the Lunts in New York, and opera at Covent Garden and the Met. He worked with Truman Capote, Harold Arlen, George Balanchine, Pearl Bailey, Alvin Ailey, and Diahann Carroll on the ill-fated musical House of Flowers; had a triumph on both sides of the Atlantic with Irma la douce; and staged a good deal of Anouilh before grappling with Beckett and Artaud.The journeyman stage of Brook's career only came to an end in the early 1960s when he joined Peter Hall at the Royal Shakespeare Company. His radical experimentation began in earnest in 1964 with the RSC's much-discussed Theatre of Cruelty season.

A collaboration of Brook and American director Charles Marowitz, the Theatre of Cruelty season was a seminal event for the English-speaking stage. It paved the way for Brook's production of Peter Weiss's The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum at Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade and for much that was considered new and important in Western drama during the decade or so that followed. The notion of the "theater of cruelty" derives from the work of Antonin Artaud, who argued that "[t]he theatre will never find itself again...except by furnishing the spectator with the truthful precipitates of dreams, in which his taste for crime, his erotic obsessions, his savagery, his chimeras, his utopian sense of life and matter, even his cannibalism, pour out on a level not counterfeit and illusory, but interior."

Artaud's aim -- to help the theater find itself by recourse to the deep structures of human experience -- became Brook's objective for all of his subsequent career. In mapping out that career, the 45-year-old director left England and the freelance economy of its theater. In 1970, he established the International Centre for Theatre Research (known by its French acronym, CIRT) and a company of actors focused on experimentation, its solidarity dependent upon what Brook called "the pre-expressive substrata that underlie cultural stereotypes and imitations." With headquarters in the Bouffes du Nord, a refurbished Parisian playhouse built in the middle of the 19th century, Brook and his ever-changing rainbow assembly of thespians have traveled the world (including an epic journey through the Sahara and Central West Africa), exploring their personal capacities and the potential of theatrical art.

Peter Brook: A Biography chronicles the director's career project by project, with critical examination of his films as well as his stage work. (Brook's movies include Moderato Cantabile, Lord of the Flies, Meetings with Remarkable Men, and screen treatments of Marat/Sade, King Lear, and the Mahabharata.) Kustow provides vivid portraits -- or, in some instances, piquant sketches -- of those who have revolved around Brook and whose experiences with the director shed light on his character. There's Brook's tough-as-nails agent and business manager, Micheline Rozan; the visionary producer Harvey Lichtenstein; employers such as Binkie Beaumont and Sam Spiegel; actors Paul Scofield, John Gielgud, Alec Guinness, Yoshi Oida, Natasha Parry, Elizabeth Seal, and Helen Mirren; poets and writers Ted Hughes, Jean-Claude Carrière, and Marie-Hélène Estienne; theater artists Charles Marowitz, Joseph Chaiken, and Jerzy Grotowski. As characterized by Kustow, Brook is a stern taskmaster, a humane colleague, and a seeker remarkably open to influence -- most especially that of Shakespeare, Gordon Craig, Artaud, Grotowski, Georgi Ivanovich Gurdjieff (the Armenian mystic idealized by Brook), and the Gurdjieff acolytes Jane Heap and Jeanne de Salzmann.

Kustow, a critic and journalist, has been observing Brook for several decades. He's not exactly disinterested, having been a sort-of dramaturg and co-author of US, the RSC's 1966 anti-war piece that began as a brainchild of Brook's and evolved into a collective work inspired by various elements of the mid-1960s avant-garde. Though authorized by his subject and somewhat in awe of him, Kustow's a dogged biographer, willing to press the much-interviewed Brook on issues that he has ducked in the past, such as the impact on his work of Gurdjieff's teachings.

Michael Kustow
Michael Kustow
Because Kustow has sometimes lived on the periphery of the director's story, he occasionally lets the narrative perspective of the biography shift from scholarly detachment to the first-person of memoir. These shifts, which might have been discouraged by a stronger editorial hand at St. Martin's, aren't fatal to the book's effectiveness but they are a bit disconcerting. Where Brook's personal life is concerned, Kustow veers from provocativeness to pulled punches. He addresses forthrightly Brook's early love life: a schoolboy crush on a classmate at Gresham's, a passel of homosexual affairs at Oxford, and a long, painful alliance with Jean Boulting, wife of film director Roy Boulting. But he steers clear of Brook's later attachments, keeping his authorial eye on the mature artist's professional accomplishments and his spiritual search. From time to time, Kustow does slip in a reference to the director's libido -- which, he implies, has generally run at high velocity. At one point, Kustow associates Brook's sexual drive with the 15-foot phallus wheeled onto the stage of the National Theatre in the satyr-play finale of the director's 1968 production of Seneca's Oedipus. He makes cryptic mention of the "orientalism" of Brook's spouse, Natasha Parry, which may be a key to the longevity of the Brooks' union. Kustow's treatment of sex and the grown-up Peter Brook suggests that the writer, as an acquaintance and admirer of his subject, is torn between wanting to sidestep intimate matters and fearing that he may paint an emasculated portrait.

Whether or not Brook is the greatest living theater director, as Kustow maintains, he's certainly one of the most chronicled. Recently, for instance, there have been Margaret Croyden's fine compendium of interviews, Conversations with Peter Brook 1970-2000, and the 2003 film Brook par Brook by son Simon Brook. The director himself has set forth his philosophy of theater in The Empty Space, The Shifting Point, and The Open Door, as well as having written an elliptical autobiography, Threads of Time. Kustow is not the first journalist to benefit from generous access to his subject; the biography offers the same kind of behind-the-scenes glimpse of Brook's methods as John Heilpern's 1977 profile Conference of the Birds: The Story of Peter Brook in Africa, which was revised and updated in 1989. Kustow's advantage over previous studies is his perspective; he's able to look backward from Brook's 80th year across the epic sweep of the director's career.

"I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage," Brook proclaimed in 1968. "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." Three and a half decades later, Brook and the itinerant thespians of his CIRT are sustaining that sentiment, bearing the Persian carpets on which they perform around the globe, spreading them before a remarkable variety of audiences. They've played to Africans in remote village squares, migrant workers in rural California, arts festival patrons in Iran and among classical ruins near the Mediterranean, and intellectually-inclined urbanites at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. From the peripatetic Conference of the Birds through a streamlined Tragedy of Carmen, a nine-hour adaptation of the Hindu epic The Mahabharata, a provocative dramatization of Oliver Sacks' case studies called The Man Who, the elliptical Tragedy of Hamlet, and now Tierno Bokar, the director and his "research" team have whetted all kinds of appetites for theatrical engagement.

With the ethnic diversity of his company, an unquenchable delight in intellectual exotica, profound belief in the spirituality of humankind, and an emphasis on clarity of communication among actors and spectators, Peter Brook restores the playfulness of play-going in a secular age that's as skeptical about the significance of theater as it is about the insights of theology.