Avant-garde director Peter Sellars is the subject of a new book for Arden Shakespeare’s “Shakespeare in the Theatre” series. Written by George Washington University professor Ayanna Thompson, Shakespeare in the Theatre: Peter Sellars is an in-depth look at the American director’s stage work: his approach, process, and technique; his casting decisions; the tension between innovation and accessibility; and the context of his art.
The excerpt below explores Sellars’s “uniquely American take on William Shakespeare” and a 1980 production of King Lear that addressed “the dysfunctional ways Americans addressed race and class at that time.”
“Yet Sellars has a uniquely American take on William Shakespeare – an American take that renders William Shakespeare as a uniquely American playwright. This is an idea that Sellars has espoused throughout his career. For example, in a 1998 interview, Sellars explains his belief in pragmatic terms – Shakespeare has always been popular in the United States so, therefore, he should be understood and approached as an American author. ‘Shakespeare is still the most produced playwright in America, so I consider him an American author, because clearly there’s something there that America responds to very deeply, and always did – in the 19th century these touring companies were doing Shakespeare in the mining camps’ (quoted in Bates, ‘Directing a National Consciousness’, 87). In fact, Sellars’s most recent opera, Girls of the Golden West (music by John Adams with a libretto by Peter Sellars), which is set in the 1850s Gold Rush in California, contains a scene with a touring Shakespeare company in a mining camp (San Francisco Opera, ‘Press Release’). The American fascination with Shakespeare extends back to its colonial days, and Sellars uses this long history to bolster his argument that Shakespeare is American.
As Lawrence Levine argued, Americans approached Shakespeare as a form of popular, even low-brow, culture until the middle of the nineteenth century, and this argument has influenced Sellars’s thinking about and approach to Shakespeare significantly (Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow, 13–81). In many ways, one could interpret Sellars’s approach to Shakespeare as a type of reclamation of that popular/populist past. He has made this stance explicit not only in his rhetoric about the playwright and the plays, but also in the ways he directs Shakespeare. For instance, as we have seen, he told Bill Moyers that ‘our audience has been taught that Shakespeare is not theirs. Our audience has been taught that Shakespeare belongs to the British and to the Royal Shakespeare Company’, and Sellars interprets that lesson as both misleading and dangerous (quoted in Moyers, ‘Peter Sellars’). Sellars has also said, ‘the Royal Shakespeare Company is not exactly what I need when I get up in the morning’ (quoted in Michaelson, ‘Director Sellars’). This stance comes from the fact that he is ‘not interested very much by something that’s“official culture”’ (quoted in Michaelson, ‘Director Sellars’). Thus, his desire to reclaim William Shakespeare as an American author stems from a belief that Shakespeare’s populism was always based in opposition to the authority and ‘official’ status of British Shakespearean interpretations and productions. Understanding this, one can see why Sellars was so adamant about making Shakespeare a centrally positioned author within the American National Theater that he led in Washington, DC. In the ANT materials the verbs that Sellars used to describe why Shakespeare would be included in a national American theatre are revealing: he was going to ‘reread’, ‘reclaim’, and ‘reestablish’ Shakespeare as ‘an American playwright’ in the ‘American experience’ (ANT,‘The Future’; ANT,‘Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I’; ANT, ‘ANT’s First Year’). For Sellars, this reclamation is a political stance that sets itself up in opposition to ‘official culture’.
Peter Sellars’s 1980 production of King Lear on the Mainstage at the Loeb Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for instance, exemplifies his approach to theatre and to Shakespeare. When Sellars arrived at Harvard University in 1976, the Boston area was in the grips of all-out crisis, which frequently erupted into violent street riots, over the court-ordered desegregation of the Boston public schools. Just a few months before Sellars began studying at Harvard, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph by Stanley Forman, ‘The Soiling of Old Glory’, was featured first on the cover of the Boston Herald American and then ran in several national newspapers the following day. The image shows the white teenager Joseph Rakes attempting to impale a black man in a three-piece suit, the civil rights lawyer Ted Landsmark, with the American flag on a full-length flagpole. Forman’s image from the street riot in Boston on 5 April 1976 came to emblematize the city’s racial tensions in the 1970s and 1980s (Masur, The Soiling of Old Glory). The image visually captured the sense that white Bostonians could not see black Bostonians as Americans; to white Bostonians, theirs was a flag to bludgeon out difference.
Sellars lived in and among these tensions during his four years at Harvard University, and he wanted to find a way to explore and process the dysfunctional ways Americans addressed race and class at that time. King Lear may not seem like the most obvious choice, but Sellars’s production forced the audience to face a scale of empire that was smaller and uniquely American. King Lear, who (according to Sellars’s original plan) was to be performed by the black street- performer Brother Blue, entered the stage in a Lincoln Continental, an American car that symbolized the desire for upward mobility and the largesse of American luxury, wearing a full-length fur coat and sunglasses. While Lear’s ‘court’ looked like a type of Wall Street coterie at the beginning of the production, Lear’s world shrank as the production went on so that he was left with only his car. Sellars’s idea was that the audience would have to rethink the myriad black homeless men they encountered on their way to the theatre; some of those men might have stories similar to Lear’s; some of those men’s lives might be as tragic as Lear’s; and some of those men’s stories might be as universal and epic as Lear’s. In fact, Sellars’s production invited the audience to wonder what would have happened to the black lawyer in the photograph ‘The Soiling of Old Glory’ if his white assailant had succeeded in impaling him with the American flag. Might his life have spiralled in ways that end with him living in a Lincoln Continental on the streets of Boston? Why do we not instinctively see black homeless men as King Lears? Sellars’s drive to direct, then, always stems from a political impulse. Sellars does not begin by choosing a play; instead, he begins by asking a question and then searching for a play that allows that question to be explored in interesting and complex ways.
Excerpted from Shakespeare in the Theatre: Peter Sellars. Copyright © 2018 Ayanna Thompson. Used with permission of The Arden Shakespeare.
Hear more from Ayanna Thompson and Peter Sellars in our joint interview with them on our podcast Shakespeare Unlimited.