It's Sunday morning. You open the arts section of your newspaper, and a peculiar vision of a face in a globe, held up by an ant, swims into view. "Drink from a poisoned chalice," exhorts this advertisement, which is headlined, "Re-invent the World."
When Peter Sellars said he wanted to "change the status of theater in America" in starting the American National Theater at the Kennedy Center, no one knew he meant to change the advertising. But with this full-page debut yesterday, it is apparent that he is determined to do things differently.
Sellars, along with associates Joanne Green, Stewart Thompson, Davies King and Diane Malecki, wrote the ad, which was designed by local free-lancer James Hellmuth. (Sellars, it is said, has been interested in these things ever since he lived over a type foundry during college.)
Analyzing the ad could become the most intellectual parlor game since the "Sgt. Pepper" album cover came out. For those who would like a little help, we offer the following clues, courtesy of literary manager King, who first met Sellars when they were students at Andover.
The notion of reinventing the world refers to the world of theater. "There's a kind of theological metaphor," King said. "God put the heavens and the Earth in this great void; in a sense this is the opportunity of the theater, a great empty space in which we can see an entire world." The curtain rises, the play goes on, and then there is an ending -- reflecting the "scope of history" in a theological sense, if you consider the Day of Judgment as the day in which the curtain comes down on the world.
That connects to the use of a globe, which also connects to theatrical history because, as the ad says, "Shakespeare had the Globe." The logo of the Globe Theater in those days was a picture of Atlas holding up a globe. The acronym of the American National Theater is ANT; thus the choice of the industrious bug to crawl across the ad and hold up the globe.
"The ant is a very small creature that has extraordinary power in proportion to its size," King said. "If you translate what it can carry into human terms, it would be something like a piano. A small thing can make a big difference."
The section that begins "Drink from a poisoned chalice" contains a series of mostly literary theatrical allusions. For example:
* The poisoned chalice is a familiar drink in Jacobean plays.
* "Leap off a high rock" refers to the lines in King Lear when he speaks of leaping off the cliffs of Dover.
* To "read someone else's mail" is a stock melodramatic device, as in Ibsen's "A Doll House" (the title King prefers), when the audience is conscious of the disaster that could ensue if the letter in the mailbox is read by the wrong person.
* "Break the pickle dish" -- can anybody guess? Clue: Edith Wharton. Idea: "Where a very small action leads to big consequences."
* The last line, which is repeated elsewhere in the ad, is "And no one dies." Sellars, King and Co. believe this harkens back to the essential excitement of the theater as an art form. "That's something unique about the theater," King said. "That all these dangerous things can happen, and they get up off the floor and do it again the next night . . . You've had this incredible experience, been changed by it, yet no dies up there."
Not unless, that is, you've got a real bomb on your hands.