Roughly 30 years ago, The Crimson ran a review on these very pages excoriating an experimental student production of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s “The Bedbug.” The staging wedded the manic spirit of circus with prosaic props drawn from a supermarket—frenzied actors rode around in shopping carts wearing mops on their heads. The show’s exaggerated aesthetic was the brainchild of none other than Peter M. Sellars ’80, now a world-renowned (and still eccentric) director of theater and opera.
In his undergraduate years, however, Sellars was often the scapegoat of vitriolic Crimson reviews. The critique of “The Bedbug” was particularly derisive: “Assaulted by Sellars’ sound and fury, we feel confused, trapped, and embarrassed,” wrote Katherine P. States ’79-’80. “Why does Peter Sellars have so much contempt for his audience that he goes so far out of his way to make things inaccessible?” To this day, Sellars is questioned for his abstruse productions, such as his controversial staging of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni” as a blaxploitation film. Yet if clarity has never been a hallmark of his work, that’s because it’s never been the goal: “My productions are a bit thorny, but I grew up thinking that’s what art is all about,” says Sellars in an interview with Arthur Barton. “Art exists to be chewy.”
This epigram seems innocuous enough, but Sellars’ word choice belies a profoundly important idea: theater is something we should sink our teeth into—something that should actively provoke debates among audiences. Sellars’ idea is certainly a lofty conception of theater’s social function. Oddly enough, the idea of a controversial or provocative production—“chewy” art, in Sellars’ words—is often considered anathema in our current theatrical climate.
To be clear, there are few definitive methods of directing, if any. While the practice of theater dates back more than two millennia, the concept of ‘directing’ as we know it today originated just over 100 years ago. As a result, directors often lack a nuanced vocabulary to discuss the particulars of their craft. But if one directorial imperative has taken hold in the past century, it is to control the audience. Conventional wisdom dictates that a stage director should guide the spectator’s eye and attempt to evoke a particular emotional response. Director Arthur Hopkins crystallized this objective in his 1918 essay “Capturing the Audience”: “The theater is always seeking unanimous reaction.”
This unanimity is what Sellars refers to as the “monolithic response,” and it is exactly what he seeks to surmount with his recondite theatrical aesthetics. “We produce theater that’s based on not letting anyone disagree. The whole objective is to make everyone in the entire audience laugh or cry at the same moment,” he tells Barton. “The notion of a monolithic response is basically undemocratic.” To Sellars, the monolithic response is not just an artistic gaffe—it is fundamentally opposed to the values of open, constructive discourse. He’s a director who believes theater has the power to provoke real thought—and, in turn, advance our entire society.
Furthermore, arguments in favor of the monolithic response often ascribe a reductive simplicity to the theatrical experience. In an interview with Newsweek, film director James Cameron asserts that a unified audience reaction is at the core of the cinematic experience: “It’s the psychology of sitting in a dark room with a bunch of people and reacting to something, and feeling like your reaction is the same as the rest of the group, a way of proof-checking your emotions are normal,” he says. “If you’re the one guy laughing out of 400 people, you’re obviously out of step.”
Cameron’s comments presume a universal pattern of “normal” sentiments—a dubious assumption given the complexity of human emotions. Beyond that, it’s somewhat depressing to imagine that the only function of theater and cinema is “proof-checking” that our emotions are consistent with others’. Cameron’s idea of audience response response seems almost oppressive, mandating that the entire audience react in a uniform manner lest someone fall “out of step.”
The status of the monolithic response is, in my mind, one of the most pressing issues facing the theater today—it warrants the attention of directors, producers, designers, actors, and audience members alike. Directors like Sellars posit that theater can become a locus for serious national discourse, but only by abandoning the monolithic response. To truly address this issue, we need to ask ourselves what we value about theater, how our art should engage with society, and what concrete steps we could take to precipitate such a radical paradigm shift in theater. Of course, these questions are far from answers at the time being—but, as Sellars would say, they’re definitely worth chewing on.
—Columnist Matthew C. Stone can be reached at email@example.com.