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  • The Provocation of the Senses in Contemporary Theatre
  • Deirdre O’Leary
The Provocation of the Senses in Contemporary Theatre. By Stephen Di Benedetto. New York: Routledge, 2010. Cloth $110.00. xii, 238 pages.

In the final chapter of his book, The Provocation of the Senses in Contemporary Theatre, author Stephen Di Benedetto admits that he has “little desire to sit through yet another national tour of Death of a Salesman” (167). Yet he concedes that he learned what good theatre was by attending such shows. Di Benedetto’s experience is not unique. As theatre scholars, we initially developed our critical apparatuses largely through years of study and attendance at “traditional” theatrical performances. While this does not make us unable to critically engage with performances that fall outside the conventional parameters and definitions of theatre, might there be ways that we can enhance and enrich our understanding of these events? For Di Benedetto, the answer lies in cognitive science and phenomenology.

The Provocation of the Senses has as its central conceit that cognitive neuroscience can provide a new framework for better understanding theatrical expression. Di Benedetto maintains that being aware of how our senses are engaged in performance enriches our ability to interpret the form and function of the theatrical event. Additionally, theatre and performance artists can better understand how to use the sentient bodies of audience members, referred to as attendants throughout the book, to create more conscious involvement in the theatrical present.

The book is divided into six chapters with an introduction, four chapters addressing the five senses (smell and taste are included in one chapter), and a conclusion that looks to future trends in performance and considers the implications of sentient performances. “Our Sensing Bodies,” the first chapter, is primarily concerned with explaining how the brain and body receive stimuli, and introduces the compelling argument that mimesis can stimulate the brain to remodel its neural pathways. Each of the “sense” chapters begins with a general, though detailed, summary of how each sense functions in relation to cognitive science and physiology, followed by descriptions of performances that engage each sense.

“Scintillating Visions and Visual Perception,” the second chapter, examines the role of light and movement in attendant awareness. Di Benedetto asks how theatre artists and practitioners have consciously employed light to keep audiences stimulated and interested in what is happening on stage. Robert Wilson’s work is discussed in detail, with particular emphasis on his use of color as an expressive element. Di Benedetto concedes that while we will never see how the mixing of photons produces specific colors, to be more aware of how light affects our perception allows us to be more conscious interpreters of a theatrical event. Quite simply, we become more aware of the act of seeing.

The third chapter, “Attendant to Touch,” considers performances where touch is directly employed to disrupt attendant awareness of the spatial distinctions [End Page 232] between performer and audience. Examples are drawn from Dionysus in 69, Karen Finley’s Return of the Chocolate Smeared Woman, and the work of Ulay and Marina Abramović, among others. However, the most vivid description is given to an amusement park Star Trek simulation experience. As touch is described as the most social of the senses, Di Benedetto argues that theatre performances that specifically challenge the attendant’s understanding of touch create new ways of learning about the world without risk.

“Noses, Tongues, and Other Surprising Possibilities” looks at the ways in which smell and taste are used in order to connect the participant’s memory of lived experiences to the present theatrical moment. Di Benedetto is careful to note that efforts to incorporate smell into performance are hardly exclusive to contemporary theatre, and gives extensive descriptive space to the experiments of the Symbolists. His contemporary examples, however, are largely confined to film and television, with multiple examples of Scratch-and-Sniff and Smell-O-Vision projects in aroma technology.

In “Aural Landscapes,” Di Benedetto focuses on the ways in which sound is used in performance, beyond the obvious use of language in theatre. He documents “how sound triggers visceral sensations, which in turn evoke mood in the context of performance” (125...


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pp. 232-234
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