Tag Archives: biographies

The Empty Space

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Empty Space: A Book About the Theatre: Deadly, Holy, Rough, Immediate [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Peter Brook.

Brook The Empty Space

This short book from 1968 is one I should have read as an undergraduate in the 1980s. It is the first book by famed director Peter Brook, collecting a series of four lectures on the state of theater and its possibilities. The pieces do progress and build upon one another, moving from the critical viewpoint, through theory and history, to more practical concerns and perspectives.

The first part is “The Deadly Theatre,” and in it Brook discusses all the ways in which theatrical works fail. “All through the world theatre audiences are dwindling” (10). There is a doom loop in which conventionality in writing, acting, and production, along with criticism and economic pressures, lead to lowered audience expectations, which in turn foster lackluster performances. The deadly theater is not integral to society, it is a superfluous appendage which can be profitably ignored.

In “The Holy Theatre” Brook addresses the ambition of the theater to make les Invisibles visible. He introduces the “illuminated genius” Antonin Artaud as the touchstone of this ambition, and recounts some of Brooks’ own experiments in a “theatre of cruelty.” For further demonstrations of the “holy” trajectory, he outlines the work of Merce Cunningham, Samuel Beckett, and Jerzy Grotowski.

Brook’s paragon of “The Rough Theatre” is Bertolt Brecht. The rough in some senses opposes the holy: rather than being drawn out of themselves by the holy, participants are thrown back into themselves by the rough. It is a theater of examination and exposure, rather than exaltation and ecstasy. But Brooks insists that these two are complements that can and should inform each other, as they do–he claims–in the work of Shakespeare.

“The Immediate Theatre” brings the focus to the actual work of theatrical production, eventually settling on a (provisional) formula in the Francophone terms of repetition (rehearsal), representation (performance), and assistance (spectatorship). That these are all to some degree false cognates Brook does not explicitly make a matter of concern. He concludes with questions about whether theater can have enduring transformative effects for either its producers or its consumers.

Throughout this book, the prose is beautiful and eminently quotable. “It is not the fault of the holy that it has become a middle-class weapon to keep children good” (46). “As I continue to work, each experience will make these conclusions inconclusive again” (100). “Today, it is hard to see how a vital theatre and a necessary one can be other than out of tune with society–not seeking to celebrate the accepted values, but to challenge them” (134).

More than half a century after its composition The Empty Space is certainly valuable to students of 20th-century theater history, but also, I think, to anyone still concerned to generate and appreciate living performances in stage environments.

The Three Dangerous Magi

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Three Dangerous Magi, The: Osho, Gurdjieff, Crowley by P T Mistlberger:

P T Mistlberger's The Three Dangerous Magi


The Three Dangerous Magi exceeded my expectations. As it was subtitled “Osho, Gurdjieff, Crowley,” I expected a book that would discuss the notion of a dangerous magus, and then provide an account of each of the three men named in order to demonstrate the phenomenon in the 20th century. The actual structure of this text is a lot more complex (some might accuse it of lacking focus), and I’ll describe it below.

Author Mistlberger is a therapist and workshop facilitator who has studied and practiced the teachings of all three of his titular magi. Of the three, his earliest but loosest connection seems to be to Crowley. As a reader, that was fine with me. I expected to be relatively critical of his treatment of Crowley, but I was interested in learning about the other two. The book is big — a 700-page doorstop — and it took me a while to get around to reading it after I picked it up.

The book is addressed to a popular audience, rather than a scholarly one, to the point where I sometimes found it a bit condescending. (Was it really necessary to define “neologism” for the reader?) Still, the prose is accessible, and it’s clear that the author has done his homework. There are three bibliographies in the end matter: an annotated listing of the main doctrinal texts produced by the magi themselves, followed by a catalog of relevant biographies with extensive commentary, and finally a general bibliography of works referenced. There are extensive endnotes, but alas, no index.

After an introduction in which he establishes his credentials and characterizes his interest in the material, Mistlberger jumps right into short biographies, one per chapter, for each of his three figures. Then he provides another triad of chapters to summarize the teachings of each of these three roguish spiritual leaders. I found these summaries pleasantly concise and accurate to my current understanding. The third and longest section of the book is called “Commentaries,” and it consists of nine thematically-oriented comparative studies of all three men, on such topics as sex, drugs, rivalry, community, and legacy. A further section provides a chapter for each magus describing the practical work they prescribed. And the last three chapters fade out towards the end matter (there’s no bracing conclusion) with discussions of cultural precedents for the three teachers’ work. There are a few appendices that supply more restricted and tangential comparative essays: Crowley-Osho parallels, Crowley and chess, Gurdjieff and Zecharia Sitchin, and Osho’s bibliomania.

While the comparative treatments were more ample and detailed than I had anticipated, my own knowledge of Crowley’s work enabled me to draw many connections that Mistlberger overlooked, especially in the “historical influences” section. The chapter on “Magical Warfare” includes a thorough and critical account of the personal interactions between Crowley and Gurdjieff, which I found quite interesting and useful.

Throughout the book, Mistlberger takes care not to minimize the faults and failings of these “dangerous” men, but his general gist is clearly sympathetic. His overall project is to popularize and rehabilitate these obscure and/or notorious figures, and he does credible work in that vein. As I got a better sense of how these three magi (and Mistlberger cops to the biblical allusion on p. 449) interrelated in the author’s mind, I couldn’t help but imagine Osho as a spiritual phallus for whom Crowley and Gurdjieff were the testes! [via]



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Reviewer sounds bitter and maybe needs some love

Reviewer sounds bitter and maybe needs some love at “Aleister Crowley: The Biography Review“.

“It is the belief of Tobias Churton that a perverse ‘hatred of bourgeois attitudes’ is what motivated Aleister Crowley until the very end of his days.

I’m not so sure. Crowley liked his creature comforts and his zany posturing would fit in well with upper-class dilettante life. Crowley lived off family money for as long as he could and, when the inheritance expired, tried to raise funds by suing everyone for defamation of character. Such were his delusions of grandeur one of Crowley’s aliases was Count Vladimir Svareff and, after graduating from Cambridge, he bought a castle near Loch Ness. There was also a villa in Sicily where Crowley presided over his orgies like a Victorian patriarch.”

And, check out the masthead for the Express, for a bit of synchronistic symbolism:

If you’re interested in biographies of Aleister Crowley, you may want to check out Aleister Crowley: The Biography: Spiritual Revolutionary, Romantic Explorer, Occult Master and Spy by Tobias Churton.