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TDR: The Drama Review 45.1 (2001) 68-76

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Olfactory Performances

Sally Banes

The smells of Western culture attenuated for much of the 20th century; modern sanitation reduced "bad" odors in daily life, while changing values diminished the rich use of scents for special occasions, such as religious rituals and theatrical events (see Classen, et al. 1994). The beginnings of Western theatre in ancient Greek festivals like the Eleusinian mysteries (in modern times considered the prototype of the modern gesamtkunstwerk) were suffused with intense aromas of all kinds--including fruit, floral, grain, and animal offerings; blood and burning animal flesh; wine, honey, and oil libations; and the burning of incense and other materials in sacred fires (see Burkert 1985). In our times, the use of incense in Catholic churches constitutes a diminished survival of the ritual use of smell in religious performances. Scented theatre programs and perfume fountains were only two of the 19th-century olfactory devices in Western theatres (see Haill 1987), but during most of the 20th century, the "fourth wall" conventions of realism generally divided the spectator from the mainstream stage and permitted only sight and sound to cross its divide. 1

Historically, the cultural uses of aromas in the West diminished with the hygiene campaigns of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, since the spread of disease was linked to foul odors. Perhaps the deodorization of the theatre was in some ways connected to the scientific ambitions of naturalism, to an idea of the theatre as a sanitized laboratory (whereas odor could be precisely described in the pages of a naturalistic novel, safely distanced from the body of the reader). 2 The deodorization of the modern theatre may also be one facet of a conscious move away from--even an antagonism toward--religious ritual. In that context, it's not surprising that the Symbolists, hostile to naturalism and fascinated by religious mysteries, restored aroma to performance in the late 19th century.

Over the course of the 20th century, various artists (both mainstream and avantgarde) repeatedly attempted to renew the sense of smell as part of the theatrical experience (including plays, dances, operas, and performance art)--using aroma both to challenge and to expand the realist aesthetic. In the 1990s, olfactory effects in performance became particularly pronounced. And yet, the use of aroma onstage has received surprisingly little critical or scholarly attention; there is no published history of olfactory performances, nor have most theatre semioticians included smells in their analyses of theatrical signs. Thus there exists a largely unexplored rhetoric of what I will call the "olfactory effect" in theatrical events--that is, the deliberate use of "aroma design" to create meaning in performance. 3 Perhaps this is because so often the use of smell seems merely iconic and illustrative, a weak link in a chain of redundancy across sensory [End Page 68] channels that does nothing more than repeat what is already available visually and aurally. However, I contend that smell has been used and may be used in a wide variety of ways; that on closer analysis even the seemingly elementary use of smell as illustration proves more complex than at first glance; and that it is useful to the history and criticism of both theatre and aroma to anatomize these distinctions. (Although throughout the history of Western performance there have been all sorts of accidental and/or unintended smells in the theatre, from the food spectators eat to the odor emanating from urine troughs, in this article I am concerned only with olfactory effects through aroma design.)

Jim Drobnick has noted the "ambiguous semiological status" of smell--the way it is situated, as Alfred Gell puts it, "somewhere in between the stimulus and the sign" (in Drobnick 1998:14). Perhaps this ambiguity (and also the technical difficulty of controlling scent in the theatre) has served as a deterrent to the elaboration of aroma design. Yet despite its low aesthetic status, 4 aroma is not simply part of nature, but does carry cultural meaning, and certainly the conscious use of aroma design in the theatre--a place characterized, as Roland...


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