A memory and an appreciation of the late Peter Brook
by Patricia Lynne Duffy
|“I’d never heard that miraculous word – synesthesia. When you explained what it meant, things became clear for me. But,” Carl carefully adds, “I know that you won’t try to take away this rich world I live in.”—The Valley of Astonishment|
The late, legendary director Peter Brook and his creative partner Marie-Helene Estienne brought multiple human realities—both cultural and neural– to the stage.
Sadly, in July 2022, the world lost the great director, who passed away at the age of 97. Brook is celebrated for a range of innovative theater and film productions including The Tempest, Marat/Sade, Lord of the Flies, and The Valley of Astonishment, the latter part of a neuro-trilogy of plays inspired by the work of Oliver Sacks, together with Brook’s own research into such neurodivergent states such as synesthesia.
Like so many, I was saddened by the news of Brook’s passing. For me, the sense of loss was attached to some vivid personal memories.
I’ll never forget the morning in 2013, when, as usual, I logged into my email –but found something very unusual: a message from Marie-Hélène Estienne, the long-time creative partner of Peter Brook. Estienne’s message said that she and Brook were working on a play which portrayed a synesthete-character —and would like to speak with me, as they had read Blue Cats, my book on synesthetic experience. Estienne’s email message was later followed by a phone call from Peter Brook himself. I was amazed by these events. To me, Brook had always seemed an almost mythical figure, who dwelled in the “realm of the greats”. I certainly never expected to hear his voice on the phone—or of his interest in depicting synesthesia on stage!
I was to learn that Brook’s entire life was devoted to understanding the diverse cultures, visions, and depths of humanity, as his wide professional experience attests: as director of the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1960s, Brook was celebrated for his innovative interpretations and staging of plays: his use of minimal stage sets, which sifted out the visual essence of a work.
By the 1970s, the director was forming his International Centre for Theater Research, a company composed of actors from around the world—who traveled to remote, rural villages of developing countries to perform plays, learn stories and new cultural viewpoints.
Brook later continued this research at a theater he founded in Paris, the famed “Bouffes du Nord”, which first opened in 1974 and continues to this day.
In 1992 Brook began his “neuro-trilogy” inspired by neuroscientist Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat . I remember being bowled over by the theater adaptation, The Man who…which I saw at New York’s famed Brooklyn Academy of Music. Brook developed his neuro-trilogy, as he had so many works, with partner Marie-Helene Estienne.
My initial communications with Brook and Estienne led to a meeting with the cast of the new, developing “synesthesia play,” which portrayed a neurodivergent character: the actors Kathryn Hunter, Marcello Magni, and Jared McNeill wanted to better understand the characters they would be playing.
Fast forward a few months to 2014: Brook and Estienne were in New York to develop the play. They invited the artist and synesthete Carol Steen and me for tea at Brook’s residence while in lower Manhattan. I remember looking out the window of the high floor to the lofty view of lower Manhattan and feeling part of a grand, exciting plan. It was a wonderfully congenial afternoon of sipping tea, munching on rainbow-color French macaron biscuits, and discussing experiences of synesthesia.
Our conversation included expressing thoughts on the work of a 12th-century Persian poet: Rumi’s Conference of the Birds, which Brook had asked us to read—and from which he’d drawn the play’s title, The Valley of Astonishment. In the poem, a group of seeker- birds must pass through seven valleys to reach Hoopoe, the great bird of truth: The sixth valley the birds must pass is “The Valley of Astonishment and Bewilderment”, where the birds glimpse the beauty of this truth, though do not yet understand its meaning.
The Valley of Astonishment, the third play in the neuro-trilogy, is based on the life of Solomon Shereshevsky, who experienced multiple forms of synesthesia (the second play in the trilogy, I am a Phenomenon, is also about Shereshevsky). For thirty years, Shereshevsky shared his intense synesthetic perceptions with his psychologist Alexander Luria, describing how “Each word has a taste, a shape and a weight”.
Shereshevsky’s vivid synesthetic and eidetic memory led to his becoming a mnemonist or “memory-artist”—who astounded audiences by demonstrating feats of memory, such as reciting a telephone directory of an unfamiliar city backwards — after having read it only one time.
In Brook’s play, the male Shershevsky-based character is transformed to a female named Sammy Costas. We see how Sammy’s intense synesthesia simultaneously brings the world to her and isolates her from it. Sammy has her audience’s awe, but not their understanding; she feels increasingly “alone” with her intense perceptions, as her mind becomes over- burdened with so many vivid and unforgettable sensory fusions. Sammy comes to rely more and more on her psychiatrist’s empathy and quest to understand the workings of Sammy’s unique mind.
The play also has a synesthete-painter character, Carl, (based on the real-life synesthete-painter Carol Steen) who employs the perceived colors and textures of synesthetic perceptions in creating artwork.
Like Sammy, Carl consults a group of doctors to better understand his synesthetic perceptions. In the play, we see a positive ‘coming together’ of the world of science and of art. The doctors bring the word, “synesthesia” to Carl—a “life-changing” word that puts his perceptions on the recognized terrain of human experience. As Carl tells the doctors, “I’d never heard that miraculous word – synesthesia. When you explained what it meant, things became clear for me.” “But,” Carl carefully adds, “I know that you won’t try to take away this rich world I live in.”
Carl’s plea reminds us how, in the psychiatric field, certain human ”anomalies” might be wrongly interpreted as “pathologies”, which need to be “cured”.
Indeed, in an earlier edition of an official medical reference, the “International Classification of Diseases” (or ICD) — “synesthesia” was grouped in the category of “disorders of the nervous system”. However, the past few decades of renewed scientific research into synesthesia has shown the perception does not generally interfere with their daily functioning and, in many cases, might even enhance it. For many synesthetes, any difficulties experienced have resulted more from the misunderstanding of others, rather than from their synesthetic perceptions themselves.
The opening of The Valley of Astonishment was magical. The performance of Hunter, Magni, and McNeill (each who played multiple roles) were stellar. The actors played their parts on the signature minimalist stage set where vivid colors made the scenes come alive.
The play’s opening night was also the opening of an accompanying art exhibition , Mandalas by Carol Steen. Mandalas consisted of intriguing works of art (with colorful abstract birdlike images) inspired by Steen’s synesthetic and hypnagogic imagery, together with inspiration from the Rumi poem, Conference of the birds.
Prior to that opening night, I remember a gathering with Brook and Estienne at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York—where a rehearsal of one of their plays was taking place. Before the play, Brook took time for a conversation with Carol and me. The conversation took various turns related to synesthesia. At one point, I found myself telling Peter about my experience in China’s famed Suzhou gardens – which contained pavilions allowing one to appreciate exquisite details of nature that might otherwise be overlooked: there was “The Pavilion for Listening to the sound of raindrops of Lotus leaves”, the “Pavilion for Listening to Fragrance”. Brook was struck by the description and I remember he asked me to share them with various people around us: actors, theater students, others. The Suzhou gardens and their cross-sensory environments had long been very close to my heart. I had not shared my experience of these with many people. Brook’s interest and reaction will always be a moving memory.
Memories of moments stay in my mind in connection with this period of life: Peter Brook, a kind and empathetic man with an amazing depth and intuition into how to develop layers of a theatrical work—and of the actors performing it; of Marie-Helene Estienne, sharp, strong, focused. Estienne has been called “the powerhouse behind Peter Brook.” While Valley of Astonishment was being developed and produced, she and I exchanged a number of emails with our thoughts about the play and about synesthesia. Estienne was struck by the beauty synesthetic perceptions can bring their hosts—but also by the pain of the sensory overload that some synesthetes report. She was moved by synesthetes’ struggle to communicate what they perceive—viewing it as encapsulating the struggle of all human beings — synesthete or non-synesthete — to communicate their one-of-a-kind vision of the world. As Estienne wrote me in one of her email messages,
“This is the beauty of life – … but it is more than that —- sharing — sharing —- sharing — pain and beauty — us”
The life work of Brook, together with his creative partner Estienne, had been to understand, embrace, explore, and show the spectrum of human experience. As Brook wrote in his classic work, The Empty Space, “Reality’ is a word with many meanings.”
Let’s hope that Brook’s surviving partner, Estienne, will continue the work and show us more.
Patricia Lynne Duffy is the author of the now classic, Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens: how synesthetes color their worlds, the first book by a synesthete about synesthesia. An audio version of the book with research updates, music by synesthete-composers, and an “Afterword ”is recently out. Available from Audible
She also contributed a chapter, “Synesthesia and Literature” to the Oxford Handbook of Synesthesia.