Reenvisioning Shakespeare with Peter Brook’s “Tip of the Tongue”

I love a book one can read in a single sitting almost as much as I love to explore the workings of an inquisitive mind. I was therefore delighted to come across Tip of the Tongue: Reflections on Language and Meaning, Peter Brook’s last book before he died in July 2022 at the age of 97.

Brook was one of the most renowned and visionary theater directors of the twentieth century. His career spanned more than 70 years. He was a former co-director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, a two-time Tony Award recipient, and the founder of the International Centre for Theatre Research in Paris in 1970. He collaborated with luminaries such as Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Paul Scofield, Glenda Jackson, and Ted Hughes. 

In a 2019 profile and in his 2022 obituary, both in The New York Times, Brook was feted for his probing curiosity. Questioning “why” was his long career’s “animating principle.” He was on an unceasing “quest for fundamental truths about life and the theater that he insisted could never be definitive.”

His curiosity is in full view in Tip of the Tongue — a tiny volume of just under 100 pages despite the large type and plentiful white space. In its pages, Brook muses in the first person on various topics: the differences between the English and French languages, his first experience of what he came to call the “formless hunch,” additional thoughts on his seminal concept of theatrical “empty space,” and how a skyscraper is a metaphor that aptly describes Shakespeare’s body of work.

I was fascinated by the challenges Brook describes experiencing in the eponymous chapter, “Tip of the Tongue” while putting on the play Timon of Athens in French as opposed to English. English actors speak Shakespeare’s lines slowly; they break up every line. But the French speak fast — French syntax is different — and they could not be directed as if they were English speakers. Brook reflects: “I had failed to recognize that, if in English we speak words, the French speak thoughts.” 

An avid appreciator of Shakespeare, I also enjoyed Brook’s understanding of Shakespeare’s plays as individual skyscrapers with multiple and shifting “levels” of meaning. The natural movement of meaning in his plays goes from “esoteric” to “profane.” It goes up and down deliberately. “Some [meanings] take you a few floors up, some pull you a few floors down,” writes Brook. There are moments of ethereal astonishment when we are watching Shakespeare when we are “touched by a moment of truth,” before we are brought back down to earth again, and reminded that “we’re all part of the human race, all part of humanity.”

Tip of the Tongue is part of Brook’s “Reflections” trilogy, which also includes The Quality of Mercy: Reflections on Shakespeare and Playing by Ear: Reflections on Sound and Music. It’s also a companion to Brook’s most influential work, The Empty Space: A Book About the Theatre: Deadly, Holy, Rough, Immediate.

Like any professional theater-maker, Brook waxes poetic about the power of theatre to bring about transformation. He writes: “Theatre exists so that the unsaid can breathe and a quality of life can be sensed which gives a motive to the endless struggle.” But, like Shakespeare, he also brings us down again, to the soil, to everyday life. “Every form of theatre has something in common with a visit to a doctor,” he says. “On the way out, one must always feel better than on the way in.”

Tip of the Tongue: Reflections on Language and Meaning
By Peter Brook
Theatre Communications Group
Published December 6, 2022