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Candid Camera !

By James Moore

Perhaps when Peter Brook celebrates his hundredth birthday we may anticipate a retrospect with some revelatory twist, stylistic shimmer, or special insight into this bafflingly complex character. Meantime we have Michael Kustov’s Peter Brook: A Biography, a well-meant journalistic reprise with all the poetry of “the time sponsored by Accurist”. We are reminded that Brook’s ‘white box’ production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ was a succès fou; that his book The Empty Space re-energised theatre; and that he discreetly resonates to the spiritual teaching of George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff.

During his long life Brook has met many people with interests similar to his own: and certainly many with magnetic readership pull - Castro, Grotowski, Hitchcock, Capote, Aleister Crowley, and Jean Genet (whom he alarmingly wanted to be Godfather to his daughter). Yet significantly A.W.O.L from Kustov’s text and ten-page index is William Segal, hero of A Voice at the Borders of Silence.

If Kustov’s is a dutiful exhumation, the Segal item (fulsomely prefaced by Brook) is an unindexed and undisciplined scrapbook, thrown together like a rich plum pudding by its subject’s widow Marielle Bancou-Segal. So blatantly does it sacrifice critical vigilance on the altar of conjugal love that it bids to give hagiography a bad name. Everyone gets swept away in a Tsunami of mutual admiration: Segal thinks gods to Brook, while Brook recklessly asserts that Segal’s “innermost core was an opening to eternity”.

Thirty evocative photographs redeem Kustov’s biography (not least David Farrell’s trapeze-lofted Oberon and Puck in the fairy realm above Bottom and Titania) and Brook himself is modestly presented...Segal was anything but camera-shy, blatantly viewing his entire existence as a serial photo-opportunity. When young he was photogenic in All-American mode: in old age, following a drastic car accident, he deployed a monocle and piratical black eye patch. He was an artist too. “William Segal the painter”, explains Brook, “looks at the outside world and leads us into William Segal the man.” He certainly does. Most of his paintings are self-portraits; his motive being analytical – and apropos he nods kindly to Rembrandt.

Brook has powered forward from Doctor Faustus in 1943 to Tierno Bokar in 2004, like a self-fulfilling prophecy - “a man who has guided his own profusion to a rich simplicity” claims Kustov, in his best sentence. By contrast, the young New York sophomore William Segal, heralded as the speediest left halfback of a decade and sentenced to “a brilliant gridiron future”, quickly swerved vocationally. Of Romanian Jewish ancestry and entrepreneurial flair, he somehow broke into fashion publishing and became emancipatingly rich. Looking down from his elegant office in Empire State Building, he would sometimes ruminate on profit margins, sometimes on difficulties facing “the average person”, and sometimes on Meister Eckhart.

Aptly enough, in the early 1940s, aged about thirty-eight, Segal chanced to fall in with the author of Tertium Organum Piotr Demian Ouspensky (“a regular fellow in many ways”); in 1947, the year Ouspensky died, Segal met the prolix Zen theoretician Daisetzu Teitaro Suzuki - cultivating him and even taking him to meet Madame Ouspensky and watch sacred dances at Mendham, New Jersey; in 1948 and 1949 Segal won sporadic contact with Gurdjieff himself, teacher both of Ouspensky and of the avant-garde lesbian Jane Heap. By 1951 Brook, aged twenty-six, had become a pupil of Heap in London, and Segal had launched the bon ton journal Gentry (“It truly had a superior audience”)...Curious lines were now converging.

It is Brook’s endorsement of Kustov’s biography which dignifies it; here then is the memorial or C.V. favoured by a first-rank cultural icon...Arguably more oblique is the American book’s significance. The wearisome extolling and self-extolling of Segal ranks for nothing historically compared with the en passant disclosure of how traditional Gurdjieffian praxis was radically modulated by a hitherto unsuspected coterie; those photographs alone are as revealing as a C.C.T.V. camera.

Gurdjieff, who died in 1949, never went to Japan but Segal did – and became entranced. Arriving in a B-24 bomber carrying introductory letters from D.T.S. (“I could see I was on the beam with Suzuki right from the start”) he hit the Zen Buddhist trail. As year followed year, Segal captured the interest of Madame Jeanne de Salzmann, Gurdjieff’s de facto successor, and her son Michel the heir apparent. Respectively at Kita Kamakura and Ryutaku-ji monasteries Segal introduced the de Salzmanns to Suzuki and Soen Nakagawa Roshi (superb calligraphist, haiku composer, and innovatory celebrant of the tea ceremony using instant coffee and polystyrene cups).

The striking Sacred Dances which climax Peter Brook’s film Meetings with Remarkable Men are supremely ranked in the portfolio of Gurdjieffian praxis, and no-one has prospered them more than Jeanne de Salzmann. In Japan she nevertheless allowed herself to be persuaded by an insistent Segal and Nakagawa that they needed buttressing by Zen-like meditation ‘sits’. Difficult to guess the critical moment when Madame de Salzmann acceded. Perhaps it was in cherry blossom time in 1966 when Suzuki, crying “Here, Mr Segal!”, threw a startled cat at him. Certainly the grand policy shift delighted Segal: “Because you can sit for 100 years and still say, oh yeah, I feel good.”

Segal died in 2000, aged ninety-six. And had he actually met Brook? Oh indeed, time after time (and sports ten photos to clinch it). As for his ‘enlightenment’, one only wishes it were susceptible of forensic proof. Yet if this self-fixated pilgrim inspired just one “average person”, let alone Peter Brook, that must suffice.

James Moore is author of Gurdjieff: the Anatomy of a Myth (1991) and of the Gurdjieff module in Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism (2005).


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