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Peter Brook, Legendary Theater Director Behind Landmark Midsummer and Marat/Sade, Dies at 97

Brook also authored the seminal theater text The Empty Space.

Peter Brook
(© Martha Swope/New York Public Library for the Performing Arts)

Peter Brook, the legendary theater director behind works like Marat/Sade and The Empty Space, has died at the age of 97. Brook passed in Paris, where he has lived since the 1970s.

Born March 21, 1925, in London, Brook's career spanned eight decades, bringing untraditional and experimental approaches to classics of the theatrical repertoire and new works alike. His career began with a production of Dr. Faustus in 1943, and he served as director at the Royal Opera House from 1947 to 1950, where, among his works, was a production of Salome designed by Salvador Dali.

Brook joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1950, where he staged Measure for Measure and The Winter's Tale with John Gielgud, Titus Andronicus with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, a much talked-about King Lear with Paul Scofield, and one of his defining productions, 1970's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Midsummer would take on a life of its own, moving to the West End from its original run in Stratford-Upon-Avon and going on a world tour. Regarded now as one of the 20th century's most important Shakespeare productions, it removed the trappings of classic works and set the play in a bright white box. Among the actors were Ben Kingsley, Frances de la Tour, and Patrick Stewart.

Brook won his second of two competitive Best Director Tony Awards for Midsummer. His other was earned for Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade in 1965, and he was given a special award in 1984 for his production of La Tragedie de Carmen. Brook began his Broadway career with 1953's The Little Hut, and it included the original production of Irma La Deuce (1960), and The Visit (1959).

In more recent years, Brook and longtime collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne worked regularly with the New York-based Theatre for a New Audience, staging The Grand Inquisitor (2008), Fragments (2011), The Valley of Astonishment (2014), The Prisoner (2018), and, finally, 2019's Why?, which ran in the fall of 2019 and would mark Brook's final New York production.

Another of Brook's storied productions is Jean-Claude Carrière's The Mahabharata, a nine-hour production (11 hours including breaks), which toured the world for four years. Critically acclaimed, it was adapted for television as a six-hour miniseries, which was edited for theatrical release into a three-hour piece. Brook returned to the work in 2015 for a new adaptation, created with Carrière and Estienne, called Battlefield.

Brook's 1968 book The Empty Space has become a staple of the modern theater, translated into more than a dozen languages and regularly taught in college and graduate courses. He co-founded the International Centre for Theatre Research in 1970, and ran its permanent base, the Bouffes du Nord Theatre, until 2008. He was named Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1965 and Commandeur de la Légion d'honneur in France in 2013.

Brook was married to actor Natasha Parry for 64 years, until her death in 2015. He is survived by their children.

In a 2018 interview with our sibling website WhatsOnStage, Brook said that working in theater excited him most because "our shared work can be useful and meaningful to others." The biggest detriment? "The monstrosity of excessive seat prices."

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