Last week I heard two programmes on Radio 4 within the space of an hour which seemed strongly connected and set me thinking. First, I heard Peter Brook talking about his new production 11 and 12 (on at Tramway in April) on Start the Week. There has always seemed to be something quite elemental in Brook’s work – a search for some basic truths of life that has seen him explore some of the great world myths and stories, including The Mahabharata, as well as head of on a journey through Africa with a group of actors in the 1970s. Brook is always fascinating to hear because he has such a restless, inquiring mind – always exploring, never satisfied but always defining interesting points on the journey. As a side note, he was particularly interesting about politicians and the common belief that they lie to us. Like any actor, he said, a politician can only be convincing if he or she believes absolutely in what he or she is saying. To me, this idea is much more interesting than assuming that, say, Tony Blair lied about Iraq.
Immediately after the programme came A History of the World in 100 Objects – British Museum director Neil McGregor’s new series which aims to do exactly what the title suggests. The item under discussion was an Assyrian clay tablet more than two and half thousand years old. In 1872, only a dozen years after The Origin of Species had been published, a story startlingly similar to the Biblical story of the Flood, but much older, was found on this tablet. The man who translated it and realised its significance was an autodidact named Charles Smith who was apparently so excited by his discovery that he began to dance around the room stripping off his clothes, to the understandable alarm of those in the room with him. This discovery caused some difficulty for the religious (and continues to do so for those of a fundamentalist persuasion) because it seemed to contradict the idea that the bible was the word of God. Was God perhaps a plagiarist?
The answer is that there are some stories that are so fundamental and important that they will continue to be retold and reinvented (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks makes the argument that there is a fundamental difference in the intention of the two stories). The flood myth that appears in the epic of Gilgamesh appears in many civilisations. These stories are mythical in the best sense of the word, which to me suggests something that is fundamental to our understanding of life rather than untrue. There is actually something unnervingly truthful about great myths, which I suppose is why they survive, they seem to make us understand something about ourselves without us necessarily completely understanding what it is – more like an intuition. This gets to the heart of what I think art should do – make us sense something about ourselves without necessarily understanding what it is that we now understand.
Peter Brook’s restless search has seen him continue to work into his 80s and he seems to tap into that same sense of indefinable truth that myths contain. Although 11 and 12 has had a mixed response, it will still be fascinating to see his latest thoughts.