(Re)telling Old Stories

Peter Brook’s "Mahabharata</I> and Ariane Mnouchkine’s "Les Atrides</I>

by Dominic Glynn (Volume editor)
©2015 Monographs 144 Pages


Peter Brook and Ariane Mnouchkine are among the most important directors in recent theatre history.
This book focuses on two of their landmark productions, Mahabharata (1985) and Les Atrides (1992–1994) respectively, in order to uncover parallel methodologies in the transfer of ancient mythological narratives to the contemporary French stage.
It investigates audiences’ relationship with these works re-told, questioning their/our relationship to heritage, at a time when marketing departments and politicians re-hash the same old stories to cajole would-be consumers and voters.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Content
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction. Grand Narratives
  • Chapter 1. Epic Storytellers
  • Granting Access
  • Giving Direction: Narrative Presence Shaping the Performances
  • Performing Sites: Spaces for Storytelling
  • The Shifting Point
  • Chapter 2. Struggles on the French Scene
  • (A Kind of) Theatre for Everybody?
  • Making Theatre Together
  • The Coming of Age of a Director’s Theatre
  • Contested Authority
  • Chapter 3. Dramas, Rituals and Symbolic Stage Actions
  • A Case Study
  • The Path to Enlightenment
  • Defining the Right Course of Action
  • Chapter 4. Participative Theatre Ceremonies
  • Translated spaces
  • Timely Pleasure
  • A Dislocated Ritual
  • Chapter 5. Culture Clashes
  • Universality and Difference
  • Embracing ‘Other’ Cultures
  • Mixing Cultures: Polyphony or discordance?
  • The Critical Afterlives of the Mahabharata and Les Atrides
  • Cultural interactions in a globalised age
  • Conclusion. Myths for Postmoderns
  • Bibliography

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I would like to thank those who accompanied the writing of this book in various ways. Thanks especially to Alain Viala for his keen insights and shrewd comments. Fiona Macintosh and Dominique Combe have also given me great encouragement and I thank them for it. Fiona introduced me to the Archive for Performance of Greek and Roman Drama (APGRD), which provided fantastic resources and staged stimulating debates. The Maison Française d’Oxford (MFO) was another wonderful forum for intellectual exchange. I wish also to thank Christian Biet and Wes Williams for their comments and suggestions. I want to acknowledge the support of the staff at the various Oxford libraries, the Paris university libraries, the different sites of the BNF, the National archives, the British Library, the Cambridge University Library, and the BPI. Most of all though, thanks goes to my family who have provided constant support. Mum, Dad, Ant, Elisa, Sam and Aidan, this book is dedicated to you.

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Grand Narratives

On 8 April 2014, Manuel Valls took centre stage in the Assemblée nationale to deliver his first address to parliament as Prime Minister. Cameras and microphones were turned on, social networking sites buzzed, and the audience in the hemicycle was hyped. Too much suffering, too little hope – no sooner had he uttered the first words than the room erupted.1 The opposition jeered, heckled and booed, while the government and its party majority cheered. Viewed from a distance, the event resembled a British Christmas pantomime with full audience participation. Considered up close, it was more akin to a bullfight. Valls, the toreador, had to use rhetorical bravura, combativeness and political guile to come out victorious. And victorious he was, for in the immediate aftermath, the self-appointed Caesars cum political analysts gave their thumbs up. The gladiator would live to fight again.

On that day in early April, Manuel Valls provided a textbook example of political storytelling.2 He explained how the country was in a bad place and that the previous government (of which he had been a member) had reacted too slowly. Now the time had come for action. Reforms needed to happen fast in order to change the state of the economy, to stimulate growth and to boost consumer confidence. Yet, few concrete solutions were provided. This is because Valls did not need to give much away other than vague hints at budgetary cuts. He was telling a frequently re-told story, that of the economic crisis.3 He was also giving a dynamic performance. In stark contrast to his predecessor, Jean-Marc Ayrault, Valls appeared vigorous. An astute communicator, he showed that the story needs a good storyteller. ← 11 | 12 →

A year on Valls’s performance that day has all but been forgotten.4 Yesterday’s news is already ancient history. Just as the electrically contracted world is no more than a global village, our relationship with time has changed. We are becoming accustomed to being hyper-connected, receiving emails and news updates on mobile devices throughout the day (and night). Leading newspapers have to compensate for the decrease in sales of their paper format, relatively recent rituals such as watching the 8 o’clock news en famille have died out and the profusion of images has brought about a form of hyper-reality.5 So the globalisation story is not disconnected (no pun intended) from that of the digital revolution. Thanks to the Internet, so the story goes, everything is now available on demand, from information to material goods via sexual gratification.

‘Every little helps’ a leading British supermarket tells us. I no longer have to go out to do my weekly shopping: I can order everything from home. I can even order someone else’s shopping for them. Or buy their Christmas presents and have them delivered to their door. If I am lucky, I may even receive an e-card in return. E-cards are good because they do not need to be printed and so save trees. The same goes for all the e-books that I can stash on my digital book reader. And I can download them quicker than even a very efficient distributor can deliver them. No more paperbacks, CDs, DVDs, the digital is replacing the physical object. Not that this seems to bother anybody. In a speech to launch the new season of House of Cards, actor Kevin Spacey argued that people were not concerned about whether they watched series on TV screens, tactile tablets, laptops or desktops, they were concerned about content.6 As long as film studios can find new distribution channels, the change to digital economy should do them little harm.7 There is no reason why record labels should not be able to adapt also – though they have hardly shown a willingness to do so, hence their current difficulties.8 ← 12 | 13 →

As people hide away behind computer screens or block out the rest of the world with their mp3 players, the notion of a collective or community has evolved. Though people still protest in the streets, the virtual world has put in place the equivalent of public meeting places – the Latin word ‘forum’ after all is used to describe a space where Internet users hotly debate a particular issue. Even when physical protests occur, participants document them and spur them on via posts and videos on social networks. The Internet, so we are led to believe, has opened up a vast number of possibilities in terms of communication, subversive political action and more generally interaction with people from all over the planet and from the comfort of one’s own home. But the change in social habits is problematic for activities that rely on people being physically present at a given moment, at a given time, as part of a group. Jean-Pierre Han noted in a recent article that there has been a significant increase in books bearing titles such as ‘What is the point of theatre?’ or ‘Where is Theatre Going’?9 Could this be an indication that the art form’s very existence is threatened?

It is certainly an invitation for those engaged in making theatre today to deal with the threat. One means of doing so is to move towards a hybrid form of performance by embracing the use of modern media and technologies. The young director Cyril Teste, for instance, makes heavy use of multimedia in his shows.10 Another option though is to create a form of theatre that explores what it means to bring people together to see stories performed. This is the type of theatre that directors Peter Brook and Ariane Mnouchkine have created throughout their careers.

Comparing Theatre Practices

To say that Brook and Mnouchkine count among the most important theatre directors in the world over the last fifty years is no overstatement.11 Such is the renown of both that they are not only highly regarded in France, where they ply their trade, but have also become actors on the international stage. In university theatre departments, many students will have some appreciation of their practices. Some will be able to quote ← 13 | 14 → the opening lines of Brook’s 1968 seminal treatise on theatre, The Empty Space, which outline the basic conditions required for a performance to take place: ‘I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across that space whilst another watches, is the only condition needed to engage an act of theatre’.12 Others will be able to explain that the highly visual nature of the performances by Mnouchkine’s company, the Théâtre du Soleil, owes much to a radical reinterpretation of non-Western performance traditions. Such has been their influence that simply listing the names of each director’s productions provides an outline of key moments in recent theatre history; French history first and foremost, but the history of Western theatre more generally also.13

The fact that a substantial body of research is devoted to the work of Peter Brook and Ariane Mnouchkine is testimony to the authority of the director in European theatre in general, and in French theatre in particular. The emergence in the nineteenth century of a figure invested with the authority to coordinate, manage and thus ‘direct’ the staging of a dramatic work was a (r)evolution.14 However, the reason why these two directors in particular have attracted scholarly attention is that throughout their careers they have provided strong interpretative visions of keystone works of dramatic and non-dramatic literature, most remarkably in the Mahabharata (Brook) and Les Atrides (Mnouchkine). It is tempting to analyse their work side-by-side, if only because they have been major theatre practitioners during roughly a fifty-year period (1960-2010), and comparing and contrasting two major figures during any given time frame often yields valuable information about the scene in which they were involved.

Several scholars have already sought to find similarities between Brook and Mnouchkine, citing their collaborative working methodologies or interests in non-Western theatres. Marvin Carlson, for instance, constructs illuminating parallels between Ariane Mnouchkine’s L’Indiade and Peter Brook’s Mahabharata in his article ‘Brook and Mnouchkine: Passages to India?’15 Also, in the introduction to Ariane Mnouchkine and the ← 14 | 15 → Théâtre du Soleil, Adrian Kiernander explains that ‘Peter Brook occupies a special position in relation to Mnouchkine’s work, and there is a mutual admiration between the two companies’.16 Judith Miller provides further evidence of a shared approach to theatre practice by listing exercises that Brook’s long-term collaborator Sotigui Kouyaté worked on with actors of the Théâtre du Soleil.17

It is common for Mnouchkine’s practice to be documented in books that also devote chapters to Brook.18 It is also the case that a number of theatre scholars have analysed the work of both directors at different points in the course of their academic careers. David Williams is perhaps the most notable among these.19 However there are currently no substantial comparative studies of Peter Brook and Ariane Mnouchkine’s work that seek to go further than anecdotal evidence for the similarity of their approaches. I believe that it is particularly important to undertake such a study now that they are now in the final stretch in their careers. Peter Brook is no longer in charge of the venue heavily associated with his work since his move to Paris, the Bouffes du Nord. True, he remains at the helm of the Centre International de Création Théâtrale (C.I.C.T.), and continues to direct.20 Yet recent production have featured less of the magical moments of stagecraft that he has accustomed audiences to. Tellingly also is his absence from recent studies such as Maria Delgado and Dan Rebellato’s Contemporary European Directors (a successor to David Bradby and David Williams’s Director’s Theatre).21 While Mnouchkine is younger (and also still directing), she is nevertheless in her seventies, and the rigors of living company life with the Soleil are taking ← 15 | 16 → their toll.22 Indeed, she has explained that she finds personal conflicts and disagreements within the troupe more difficult to deal with, as she grows older.23 Moreover, it is the case that many in the up and coming generation of actors and directors, describe these directors as old-fashioned and out-dated.24 This study therefore provides insight into the practices of both directors at a time when they are being forced away from the circuit.

Design and Structure


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (April)
Comparison of Peter Brook contemporary stage adaptions ancient mythology Ariane Mnouchkine
Bruxelles, Bern, Berlin, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 144 pp.

Biographical notes

Dominic Glynn (Volume editor)

Dominic Glynn trained as a director in London before completing his DPhil at the University of Oxford. He has collaborated with Olivier Cadiot, Ludovic Lagarde and Joël Pommerat amongst others, authored articles in leading journals, and taught at universities on both sides of the Channel.


Title: (Re)telling Old Stories
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148 pages