The Beguiling Language Of Brook’s Conference Of The Birds

BIRDPROMOONEOn Sunday Undermain presents its reading of Peter Brook and Jean-Claude Carriere’s The Conference Of The Birds.

When Brook produced the play over a period of years in the late 1970s, he had the time and opportunity to explore a variety of theatrical forms.  His company toured the text extensively in Africa, often performing it upon a simple rug.  Residencies in Paris and New York allowed for different interpretations and experiments.

Generally, these productions made elaborate use of movement conventions.  The birds themselves were unique hand-puppets controlled and spoken for (in a non-illusionistic method) by visible actors.  The effect of what Brook and his actors created is quite captivating (video excerpts may be found on youtube), and, reading the text, one is forced to imagine a wealth of theatrical solutions to staging the impossible fantasy.

So why select the play for a reading?  A live reading is in many respects the most limiting of forms.  The text is not animated by the physical interplay of a full staging.  Nor is the visual imagination of the audience called into action the way it is by a radio performance.

The reason I originally proposed the piece – one of the reasons it has stuck with me in the years since I first read it – is the beguiling quality of its language.  What Carriere (and Brook) hit upon in adapting their play from the original poem is a style at once simple and poetic, allusive and playable.  I’ve selected a few passages from the text to demonstrate Carriere’s stylistic achievement.

Here, the Hoopoe, the leader of the birds, exhorts the others to join him on his quest to find their King:


This bird only cares for his cage.  That one won’t leave his pond or his mountain.  This one takes himself for an ant.  That one for a king.  This carcass of a world is seething with creatures, all of them saying: “Why give up our peaceful pleasures?”  But what does the heart say?

The diction is distinctive.  One notices at first, perhaps, the most ornate phrase in the line “this carcass of a world is seething with creatures”.  And, yes, it’s an extraordinary image.  It gives force to the attack.  Surrounding it, we find the vocabulary and sentence-construction pleasantly direct.  The sentences are short.  Many of the words are monosyllables, and none exceed two syllables.  The nouns Carriere chooses are precise and deployed in symmetrical positions.  The effect as a whole is poetic (because ordered) and yet far more direct than the ornamental verse in which the epic was originally written.

For comparison, here is a piece of a similar passage from the original poem (translated into English by Edward Fitzgerald):

‘O ye who so long feeding on the Husk
Forgo the Fruit, and doting on the Dusk
Of the false Dawn, are blinded to the True:
That in the Maidan of this World pursue
The Golden Ball which, driven to the Goal,
Wins the World’s Game but loses your own Soul:
Or like to Children after Bubbles run
That still elude your Fingers; or, if won,
Burst in Derision at your Touch; all thin
Glitter without, and empty Wind within.’

And here is another lovely passage from Brook and Carriere’s text – this is the lament of a Dervish who has fallen in love with a Princess:


Is this night everlasting, will I never more know day?  Where is the lamp of Heaven?  O Lord, what is the meaning of this darkness?  It’s as long and as black as her hair.  In this night my love runs wild and devours me.  Where is my life, so that I can offer it up in anguish?  Where is my patience?  Where is my reason?  Where are my stars to draw me to my desire?  Where is my hand to put dust on my head?  Where is my foot to walk to my love?

Here the tone is elevated, befitting the drama of the story-within-the-story, and yet again Carriere is able to work mostly in monosyllables.  Even the choice bits of diction – lamp, wild, devours, anguish, stars, dust – are simple words, nouns for the most part.

Carriere is also very clever in deploying cultural allusions and scattering motifs of the original poem.  In the former passage, the Hoopoe refers to birds taking themselves for ants.  In the original poem, comparisons involving ants are a frequently recurring motif.  In the Dervish’s line, Carriere operates more subtly still.  The “lamp of Heaven” is perhaps culturally non-specific, and yet frames the Dervish’s complaint in a religious context.  It prepares the listener for “where is my hand to put dust on my head” and “where is my foot to walk to my love”, far more explicit references to a Middle Easter penitent.

These references at once bind the adaptation to the source material and provide swift touches of exoticism, enough to add interest but not so much to disrupt (the ant, for example, is a perfectly clear metaphor in English, and yet there is a slight surprise as it is used in Conference Of The Birds — one senses it is not the animal a western writer would reach for first).

One potential criticism of Carriere’s style here is that all the characters finally speak very much alike.  Were it not for the active content, it would be difficult to discern one character’s dialogue from another’s.  In fact, I have a suspicion that my copy of the text contains several misprints in which the Hoopoe’s lines were assigned to the Heron.

It is possible to defend this characteristic on the grounds that Carriere is working from a poem that is similarly undifferentiated.  Mono-vocality may be deliberate in that sense.

But for me it is simplest to embrace this uniformity as an aesthetic feature.  It’s not as if, conveyed through the mouths of a variety of talented actors, all the characters will actually sound the same.  In the naturalistic theatre of the 20th century, finely differentiating individual voices is an important tool and achievement of psychological realism.  Important information is conveyed through how each character makes words and sounds compared to his or her fellow characters.  In Conference Of The Birds, by contrast, that sort of granular realism is simply not a priority.  The similarity of diction across the cast serves instead to unite the players and firm up the architecture of the myth.  The audience buys into the particular register of the play because all the voices are in that register.

The trick Carriere pulls off in Conference Of The Birds would serve him equally well in his adaptation of The Mahabharata, which debuted a few years later.  I hope if you join us this Sunday at the Dallas Museum Of Art you will have a chance to appreciate the elegance of his and Brook’s work.  I leave you with my personal favorite line in the play.  The first half is taken directly from Farid ud-Din Attar’s poem (though from a very different place in the story than where Carriere uses it), the second half appears to be an invention of Carriere’s.


All my life, I’ve measured the wind.  When this life leaves me, bury me where you wish and so, good night.


Stephen Foglia, Literary Manager