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Theatre Journal 56.2 (2004) 326-327
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Peter Sellars, the subject of Volume 22 of the Voies de la Création Théâtrale series, published by the French government think-tank CNRS (Centre National des Recherches Scientifiques) and edited by Frédéric Maurin, has been a source of fascination and exasperation to his supporters, audiences, and critics throughout his career. Dubbed at various times a wunderkind, iconoclast, genius, and trickster, his professional ambitions have seemed elusive, as he attached and detached himself from various institutions worldwide. Given opportunities and sometimes carte blanche to build, develop, and lead permanent theatrical organizations, Sellars arrived with imaginative ideas and enthusiasm only to leave his employers in the lurch shortly thereafter, as he did with the Boston Shakespeare Company, the American National Theatre at the Kennedy Center, and the Adelaide Festival of Arts in Australia. He appears to have willingly contributed to his reputation as an eccentric.
His aesthetic direction has been clearer, however. Early on he developed his guiding convictions, summed up in the following assertions: "The theatre is as much a social act as an aesthetic," "[t]he most avant-garde work is in reality popular" (161), and "to do what has not yet been done" (261). The first statement, opines the books editor, has often been ignored by scholars and critics. Maurin's contention is that Sellars's sociopolitical commitment has been neglected or ignored in favor of his cleverness, boldness, humor, and technological wizardry. One of the book's objectives is to correct that oversight. Sellars emerges from the study a complex and engaged artist who believes in the power of theatrical art to effect change.
Although not chronological in form, the book traces Sellars's life in the theatre from his early childhood studies and experimentation with puppetry through 2001, a presumably mid-career point, since he was then forty-four. It provides descriptions and analyses of his numerous productions, some in extensive detail. The methodology consists of archival research, interviews, and attendance at rehearsals and performances. Its scholarship is admirable. As is customary in this series, Peter Sellars is the result of collaboration, here nineteen contributors. The book is divided into four main sections, three of which treat the principal "ways" (a reference to the series title, which means the ways of theatrical creation) Sellars has taken in his professional life; the fourth is composed of interviews with his colleagues. All the essays offer valuable information and insights into his work, although because of the book's structure, many cover similar ground, albeit from differing perspectives. The production descriptions are enhanced by 167 illustrations, of which twenty-four are large color plates. I wished for more of the latter, since the color photos are very helpful tools in bringing Sellars's ideas to life. Space limitations prevent me from offering more than a summary of this useful work.
Section one, "L'aimant lyrique" (The Lyric Magnetizer) deals with Sellars's opera experience. For Sellars, who frequently bemoans the state of contemporary theatre, opera, the heir to Greek tragedy, is the ultimate form of total theatre: "[t]he only form capable of evoking and representing the simultaneity of events, their confusion, their juxtaposition, the bitter tragedy of the world—in brief, all the chaos that constitutes the framework of contemporary history" (16). He argues that opera serves as a political metaphor in part because of its large themes—the fall of cities, the destruction of peoples, the struggle of good against evil. When the great operas were written, they dealt with pertinent political issues of the period, which for Sellars still reverberate today. [End Page 326]
Handel and Mozart are the composers with whom Sellars is most associated; however, in 1992, he turned his attention to contemporary opera when he staged Olivier Messaien's difficult opera Saint-François d'Assise at the Salzburg Festival. This was the first of a series of five operas directed...