My Guide As A Dramaturg
The following two pieces describe Jeremy Brooks, my teacher, friend, and occasional rival at the RSC. Jeremy served as Literary Manager for the Shakespeare during roughly the same period held down by Kenneth Tynan at the National Theatre. The first of these two pieces recalling Jeremy is by Michael Kustow, another close friend at the RSC, whom I have described in one of the chapters from my "'Sixties Book" included on this website (Freedom of the Press in England).
Jeremy BrooksPragmatist with a poet's vision
JEREMY BROOKS was the kind of writer who plunged into all kinds of literature with zest, delicacy and huge energy. Novelist, playwright, adaptor and translator for the stage, drama critic, literary manager for the Royal Shakespeare Company, he brought to all his pursuits the down-to-earth practicality of the seasoned writer and the rare vision of a poet. I never met anyone less prone to pretentiousness. Maybe the war knocked it out of him. He was at school in Brighton when it broke out. Evacuated to a grammar school in Llandudno (Wales, where he died, was to become his personal Eden), he was selected as officer material and sent for a year to Oxford, where C S Lewis was his tutor.
By the age of 19, he was on minesweepers in the Mediterranean, and participated in turning back ships of Jews fleeing Nazi Europe - an experience which seared him. After the war, rather than go back to Oxford, he went to Camberwell Art School, and then became a scene painter and backstage factotum at the Theatre Royal, Deptford, the beginning of a raffish bohemianism which, with his Jack Hawkins-like good looks, battered roll-up cigarettes and conversation-fueling glass of whisky, marked him as one of the first members of the post-war British Beats.
Like his Oxford contemporaries and friends, John Wain and Kingsley Amis, he had a war-fed dislike of falsity, and a sense of writing as one of the few unstained tasks worth attempting. Unlike them, Jeremy was never conservative. Even his idea of what was a classic was challenging, something constantly to be remade, never at rest. Yet what would now be called his "lifestyle" (a phrase that would offend his acute literary taste) was open, experimental, romantic and daring. Yet he was a man with a prodigious sense of responsibility, providing for his painter wife Eleanor and his four children, Josephine, William, Margaret and Polly, through ceaseless productivity. Marrying and beginning a family led him to move to Wales, where he rented a ramshackle idyllic cottage from Clough Williams Ellis, the inventor of the nearby mock-Italian town of Portmeirion. Jeremy worked there as an occasional wine-waiter, which gave him insights into the folly of the British at play.
His fiction aspired to, and often achieved, a Chekhovian mixture of comic concision and pathos. Jampot Smith is a small classic about the delight and pain of sexual awakening; it will outlast its period and provincial setting. He brought the same feeling precision to his versions of five plays by Gorky, directed by David Jones and Terry Hands; they moved Gorky out from under Chekhov's shadow. He also translated Gogol (a wonderful Government Inspector in which Paul Scofield dazzled), Chekov, Ibsen, Ostrovsky, and with his close friend Adrian Mitchell, Dylan Thomas' A Child's Christmas In Wales, which became a perennial seasonal favourite worldwide. Most of these stage versions were for the RSC. Later he worked closely with his "neighbourhood theatre" at Clwyd, for whom he made a magnificent version of Medea, starring Eileen Atkins. He was a nurturing and conscientious "dramaturg" for Peter Hall's Royal Shakespeare Company from 1962. Sharing an office with him I saw how he gave younger writers, me among them, the best kind of advice: tangible, practical, rigorous but gentle. He was the sort of wordsmith who made you think art was demanding, but maybe within your reach.
JEREMY BROOKS was a writer of total integrity. Honesty was his lodestar through all his work, whether in his novels, his adaptations for the stage or his literary criticism (he reviewed fiction regularly for the Independent). On one memorable occasion he fired off a letter to the Independent complaining of a change made to a book review. Not only, he wrote, had the editor altered a word in a well-considered piece of prose, but the word substituted was one the author would never have used. This was not a writer's ego. It was simply that he believed writing was an art to be respected.
Brooks was born in Southampton but for much of his life North Wales was his place of inspiration. It is here that he died, in a remote cottage he shared with his wife, Eleanor, and where, in the earlier part of their life together, they had brought up four children After the Second World War, during which he had served in the Navy, and some time scene painting in south London, he settled to writing, supported by the usual part-time jobs, including serving as a waiter. In the early '60s he produced two best sellers, Jampot Smith and Smith, As Hero, but in those innocent days, money did not follow even best-selling success. In 1962 Peter Hall had just launched a rejuvenated Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford and Brooks was a natural for the post of literary manager.
Turning his energy to the theatre, he was responsible for a memorable series of adaptations of Russian plays, then largely unknown in Britain. In particular, he was drawn to the work of Maxim Gorky. Plays that are now well known - The Lower Depths, Summerfolk, Enemies - we owe to Brooks' perfectionism. While Brooks may have devoted time to dead writers, he embraced the living and there are many playwrights working today who owe him a particular debt. He always fought their corner against a management at the RSC frequently unappreciative of the new and the difficult. And though he may not always have won the argument, he never ceased to encourage.
Perhaps it was this sense of never having achieved quite enough for new writers that led Brooks towards a group of radical playwrights in the mid-Seventies and the formation of the Theatre Writers Union, whose members included David Edgar, Edward Bond, John Arden and Margaretta D'Arcy. His presence in the midst of such an argumentative, often exasperating bunch of Britain's best-known dramatists was a blessing. For, while he was a radical, he was also pragmatic and knew the ways of theatre management. He would listen for just so long to the fundamentalist demands of "no passaran", before erupting into a magnificent display of reasonableness, born of a know1edge of just how far it was possible to go.
Brooks lived as he wrote: lyrically, generously, with enormous passion, occasionally reckless. A welcoming friend, he would always look at a manuscript or sit up for hours to listen politely to a barmy argument. His comments were often so acute you wondered at his patience. It may well be that he devoted too much time to other writers and too little to his own work. Still, there are four novels, a volume of short stories (Doing The Voices, 1985), a clutch of classic adaptations, three original stage plays, three films and countless poems, short stories, television and radio plays. It was a life spent in pursuit of the best.
The two preceding tributes to Jeremy are part of a more extended memorial, including a detailed bibiliography of his work and one of his poems. All of this material appeared in the online publication Alibi Books, and you may view it in its entirety by clicking here.
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