As I move into the topic of iconic directors, I’ve decided, rather than present an overall discussion of career highlights, to focus on individual credits, many of them available online and on disk. I’ll be using personal reflection on the work as well. This article is about three important 20th Century directors. Sir Peter Brook, at 95, remains a vital influence on theater. Julie Taymor has a remarkable sense of audience and uses the magic of puppetry to inform her work. As both a playwright and director, Emily Mann, uses strong emphasis on theme and text as she creates exhilarating theater. I chose these three together because I think they’re at the top of the list of directors whose continued creativity motivates us to challenge our own work.
Sir Peter Brook
Peter Brook firmly established himself in the theater of the 1940s, frequently with challenging versions of Shakespeare’s works. When the cinema came calling, Brooks found a terrific project for his first film.
In 1953, Laurence Olivier’s marriage to Vivien Leigh was in turmoil. Brook had recently directed the two of them in Titus Andronicus. While his notices were good, hers were not. She began showing signs of bipolar disorder following her stage and screen performances in A Streetcar Named Desire and while filming Elephant Walk in Ceylon, suffered a breakdown (she was replaced by Elizabeth Taylor).
The Beggar’s Opera (1953)
While Leigh recovered, Olivier accepted the role of Macheath in Brook’s film version of John Gay’s ballad opera, The Beggar’s Opera. His only musical, both he and Stanley Holloway did their own singing (Holloway went on to play Alfred P. Doolittle in My Fair Lady). Now available to stream, the movie is a delicious treat, in that glorious, rich technicolor only the British could use properly!
Set in Newgate Prison, Macheath, a highwayman and scoundrel, is awaiting trial. The Beggar (Hugh Griffith) is thrown in, pages from his great work fluttering around him. When he meets his own play’s hero, he’s dissatisfied until Macheath starts singing. The action moves to the moors of Surrey, as he robs a coach, later sharing some of his booty with the beautiful Polly Peachum (Dorothy Tutin). When her parents learn that Polly has married the scoundrel, they plot their revenge.
When Macheath visits a brothel, he’s arrested and imprisoned. However, the gatekeeper’s daughter, Lucy Lockit, who’s pregnant with the outlaw’s child, helps him escape. Later, we encounter several other women claiming he’s the father of their children as well. We return to the Prison, where, not pleased with his original outcome, the Beggar gives the story a happy ending. At the time it was written, The Beggar’s Opera was a political commentary of life in the early 18th Century. Now it’s a great little gem among movie musicals.
While many of my readers are probably too young to have seen it, The Guthrie did a superb production in the late 1970s. David Canary, fresh from Bonanza, played Macheath, with Joan Morris as Polly and Tara Hugo as Lucy. Curiously, the Peter Brook film was an expensive failure in 1955, but is a now a rare treasure among British film musicals.
The Lord of the Flies (1963)
Every director enjoys experimentation and nowhere is this more evident than in Brook’s outstanding adaptation of William Golding’s dystopian novel, The Lord of the Flies. Filmed on an Caribbean island near Puerto Rico as the Bay of Pigs Invasion unfolded nearby, this represents his best work as a filmmaker.
Set during wartime, the story follows a group of schoolboys marooned on an island in the Caribbean when their plane crashes after being shot down. The boys quickly turn savage and divide into two tribes, one lead by Ralph, the other by Jack. The latter group defines themselves as the hunters, and search of food, eventually killing, roasting and eating a goat.
One of the boys, nicknamed Piggy, tries focusing on survival and rescue, only to be constantly bullied and ridiculed. The cast of over 30 (one of them a Minnesota native) was mostly unprofessional and this was their only film. Two of them, however, James Aubrey and Nicholas Hammond, went on to acting careers; Hammond played Frederic von Trapp in the film version of The Sound of Music. Brook wisely shot the film in black and white, only using the script as a guideline, improvising much of the dialogue and action.
Lord of the Flies is a brilliant, devastating movie, still disturbing sixty years later. Many of us read (or were supposed to read) the book in High School, and Peter Brook’s screen version is a remarkably faithful adaptation!
I began to read the Sunday New York Times when I was 14, and quickly became aware of Brook’, through his production of Peter Weiss’ German play Marat/Sade. The director leaned heavily on aspects from Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty to scrutinize the death of Jean Paul Marat, a journalist of the French Revolution who was an advocate of the poor. He was murdered in his bath by activist Charlotte Corday.
The play’s full title is The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade). Following its presentation at the Old Vic, it moved to Broadway, winning the Tony for Best Play, Best Director, Best Featured Actor and Best Costumes. A filmed version of the play was released in 1967, and later broadcast on PBS. Both the play and film brought Glenda Jackson to prominence.
Set in the asylum where the Marquis de Sade was sent for obscenity, Patrick Magee serves as actor and commentator, telling with dialogue and songs, the story of the title. Jean Paul Marat was a radical activist during the French Revolution. Played by Ian Richardson, like his character, he spends most of the play in a medicinal tub, soaking, as Marat did, due to a degenerative skin disease. Charlotte Corday is here played as a narcoleptic (Glenda Jackson) who must be awakened for her big scene. Even in black and white, the PBS broadcast was both magnificent and stimulating. Totally impressed, it caused me to buy and use Brook’s book, The Empty Space as a resource for years. This production is available on YouTube.
While I regret not seeing Brooks’ shorted dramatization of his epic theater piece, The Mahabharata when it played at the Guthrie under the title Battlefield a few years ago, Based on a Sanskrit epic of ancient India, Brook created a stunning theater piece originally lasting nine hours. It was presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Brook has been refining the work ever since (as evidenced by the Guthrie’s presentation). A five-and-a-half version of the play is available on YouTube, as are interviews with the director, and Time Flies, a documentary about a reunion with Brook, several actors and crew members from Lord of the Flies.
The Beggar’s Opera, Lord of the Flies and Marat/Sade are fine examples of work done by Peter Brooks, whose career, lasting three quarters of a century, is definitely important to observe and study.
To my mind, the Twin Cities officially became a first-class theater city in 1997, when two shows played their pre-Broadway engagements at the Orpheum Theater. Blake Edwards’ and Julie Andrews’ stage version of Victor/Victoria was first. It went through considerable changes before it opened later that year at the Marquis Theater on Broadway.
Having been pleased by audience response to Beauty and the Beast, Disney chose Minneapolis to test The Lion King. They had little to worry about. Under the brilliant direction of Julie Taymor, this is a truly awesome theater experience, even a quarter-century later. The moment the show begins and the remarkable animal puppets gather for the Circle of Life, it’s non-stop brilliance. The first time I saw it, I commented that if this is what Disney’s going to do to Broadway, do it again! They have, with The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Mary Poppins (which I saw twice in London) and Tarzan.
Trained in Indonesia with Teatr Loh, Taymor developed a matchless visual style, which, of course, makes The Lion King so remarkable. The show is a smash hit the world over. In London, it’s playing in the classic Lyceum Theater, built in 1834. Renowned actor Henry Irving called this theater home. (Irving’s manager was Bram Stoker, who wrote portions of Dracula here).
The Magic Flute
The next time I saw a stage production directed by Taymor, I attended a children’s matinee of my favorite opera, Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Metropolitan Opera. I wasn’t disappointed. The production began with a Chinese dragon chasing the young Prince around the stage, but as the story unfolded, giant bears appeared onstage, one with huge legs as three cherubs rode upon its back. The Queen of the Night was dressed like Vampira and had four puppeteers maneuvering her dress. The Prince’s challenge scene was done with giant blow up pillows. The entire production was an afternoon of magic. This production is still in the Met’s repertory.
Taymor’s film work, though, is easily accessible, and here, too, her work is always impressive and filled with imagination. If I had to choose one film that best represents her style on the screen it would be her biography of Frida Kahlo.
The idea for a film biography of Frida Kahlo was been tossed around for years. At some point, actors like Madonna and Meryl Streep (of course) were attached to the project, but it’s Julie Taymor’s visually stunning version that’s a primary example of her work on film. It’s a beautifully wrought movie that includes animation, puppetry and Selma Hayek is stellar in the title role.
Frida, opens in Kahlo’s colorful garden, complete with roaming peacocks and art covering the walls. Kahlo, now confined to her bed, is being taken to attend an exhibition of her work in her hometown. We then flash back to 1925, when, as a student, she first met the amorous painter who would become her husband, Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina).
Filmed in slow motion, we almost experience the pain of the trolley accident that would affect Kahlo’s body and spirit for the remainder of her life. Confined to bedrest in a body cast for close to two years, among the more memorable sequences is an animated one where Dia de Los Muertos figures operate on her. Another is a nightmare scene featuring Kahlo, Rivera and King Kong.
Frida is filled with style, subtlety and great detail, much of it manifested in Hayek’s performance. We come to understand how the artist used her paintings to chronicle how she felt when her body betrayed her. It’s a brilliant movie!
Julie Taymor brings such energy and creativity to the stage. The imagination that’s featured as a Taymor-led production takes shape is inspiring, bringing energy and such creativity to audiences. Her work gives us hope for the theater of tomorrow!
It was in early June of 1979 when Emily Mann’s production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie opened at the old Guthrie Theater. Featuring Barbara Bryne as Amanda, (she later told me she thought it was the best role she’d ever played); Jeffrey Alan Chandler as Tom, Cara Duff-McCormick (later Virginia Ness) as Laura and John Spencer as Jim. Played on a beautiful , gauzy teal blue set designed by Ming Cho Lee (who won a Tony for designing Sweeney Todd that same season), it was a beautiful production. What sets this production apart from others is that Mann understood that Williams was, first and foremost, a poet and her ensemble found the poetry in this great play!
Emily Mann’s work includes directing over 150 productions. For 30 years, she was Artistic Director at Princeton’s McCarter Theater. Sarah Rasmussen, former Artistic Director of the Jungle Theater will take over as Mann moves into becoming an independent artist.
Originally commissioned by the Eureka Theater in San Francisco, Mann’s play, Execution of Justice was presented at the Guthrie in 1985. I saw it on October 21, 1985. Just before I left for the theater, I heard on television that Dan White, who had murdered both Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk, had committed suicide. This news was worked into the script that night. In collaboration, Walker Art Center screened the documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk (for which, I wrote the program notes).
The GLAAD Award-winning play, as Mann identified it, is “theater of testimony,” drawn from transcripts and other documentation surrounding the trial of Dan White, who, after resigning from San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, murdered Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk, the first openly gay city Supervisor, in cold blood. Claiming an addiction to junk food, White’s lawyer pleaded the “Twinkie Defense” and his client was sentences to five years in Prison. His conviction caused the “White Night Riots.”
Execution of Justice went on to a Broadway production. John Spencer, who created the role of White at the Guthrie, played it on Broadway, along with such Guthrie alumni as Adam Redfield, Isabel Monk, Nicholas Kepros, Donal Donnelly and Gerry Bamman. A film version, for which Mann adapted her play, featuring Peter Coyote, Tim Daly and Tyne Daly was made for television.
In the 1990s, Amy Hill Hearth, a reporter for the New York Times, went to interview Sarah Louise (Sadie, a teacher) and A. Elizabeth (Bessie, a dentist) Delany, two African American women who were entering their second century. Their father had been the first Black Episcopal Bishop in the country, and he made sure all of his children were well-educated. Mann adapted their story into the two-hander, Having Our Say, which I first saw when the tour came to the Fitzgerald Theater following its Broadway production. Mann adapted her play into a teleplay and the story was filmed for television in an excellent production starring Diahann Carroll as Sadie and Ruby Dee as Bessie. It won a Peabody Award for Outstanding Television.
In October, Minnesota’s History (renamed Herstory) Theater produced Mann’s recent play, Gloria: A Life about the legacy of Gloria Steinem. This play was also featured on PBS’ Great Performances.
Mann’s strong emphasis on theme and text a value lesson for us all, but the passion she brings to her work is vital. I know that I will continue following the work of Sir Peter Brook, Julie Taymor and Emily Mann, because they’ve informed my work and will continue doing so.