Production Blog

A behind the scenes peek at rehearsals, artistic choices, artist interviews, and the daily business of running a theatre.

What is the sublime?

We have gathered up a few examples of how the sublime has been understood across time and discipline. This blog post is a work in progress. jen [at] (subject: The%20Sublime) (Let us know what the sublime is to you.)

1. "At once tiny and huge: what is this feeling we call sublime?"

"Have you ever felt awe and exhilaration while contemplating a vista of jagged, snow-capped mountains? Or been fascinated but also a bit unsettled while beholding a thunderous waterfall such as Niagara? Or felt existentially insignificant but strangely exalted while gazing up at the clear, starry night sky? If so, then you’ve had an experience of what philosophers from the mid-18th century to the present call the sublime."  - Sandra Shapshay, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Indiana University, Bloomington

Read this fascinating contemporary essay about the paradoxical experience of the sublime.

2. The sublime in webcomic form

This entry into the sublime is from philosophy-themed webcomic creator Corey Mohler. Corey's website is a wonderful dive into appreciating philosophy and the sublime. Also jokes.

3. The sublime in video form

Check out this video exploration of the sublime, produced by The video is a delightful, bite-sized retelling of an episode of BBC broadcaster Melvyn Bragg's podcast series "A History of Ideas".  The piece features the ideas of 18th-century Irish philosopher Edmund Burke, drawing from his 1757 treatise "A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful." 

4. The sublime in art

In 2008, The Tate London produced an exhibition exploring The Art of the Sublime, from the Baroque era to the Contemporary. This large collection of academic articles and artistic works provides a rich jumping-off point into the vast body of scholarship and artwork inspired by the concept and emotion of the sublime. We found the wide range of imagery considered sublime through the ages fascinating. What pieces of art do you think of when you think of the sublime?

Pictured here:

Albert Bierstadt, Among the Sierra Nevada, California. oil on canvas (1868)
Mark Rothko, Untitled. Acrylic on paper (1969)
Andreas Gursky, Shanghai 2000. C-print (2000)

Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California. Painting by Albert Bierstadt, 1868

Untitled. Mark Rothko. Acrylic on paper, 1969  Shanghai 2000. Andreas Gursky. C-print


5. The sublime in NY Times Magazine/ audio form

We propose, for your consideration, the story of the Cloud Appreciation Society

This blog post is a work in progress. jen [at] (subject: The%20Sublime) (Let us know what the sublime is to you.)

A chat with Shyama Nithiananda about the Sublime

Learning about the sublime is unlike learning about anything else – at least for me. In reading academic descriptions of the sublime, I understood all the words people used to define it, but I felt as if I was missing some key basic element. It’s magical, destructive, thrilling, compelling, inspiring… but what is it? Not just in descriptors or adjectives, but in categories: is it a feeling? An action? An experience? When I try to parse through my life experience to figure out whether I’ve had moments of sublime, what should I be searching for?


Through this process, my understanding of the sublime has expanded and deepened, and yet I still haven’t found an answer for that initial desire for categorization. It is a feeling, an action, an experience, and more all in one. But defining it as any one of those things diminishes its massiveness. Can it be an experience without feeling? Can it be a feeling without action? I think not and here’s why: The concept of the sublime itself is one of connectivity. It asks us to submit ourselves to the fullness of nature, others, and our own inner lives in order to experience it.

As we told stories and explored them, I was struck by how limiting my initial desire for categorization seemed. My colleagues brought in stories that I would never have associated with the sublime in my own understanding of it but were sublime all the same. And more than that, it allowed a sense of connection to others that arose from an understanding that an experience analogous to my own emerged for them in situations completely unlike my own.

What sticks out to me most as sublime moments in my own life are those times where the vastness of the world overwhelms me - the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, the span of human existence on a historical timescale, black holes, The Big Bang. Natural phenomena so massive and so seemingly incongruent with my day to day life that to understand them fully would be to surrender to complete awe.

But, the more we work, the more I think that these thoughts are not necessarily consistent with an actual experience of the sublime, or rather, they are an “easy out” for me. This is because they allow me a full range of feeling without the connection to other people. Does the sublime require connection to others? I don’t think so. However, what is it that we all miss so much about a communal experience of theatre or live music?

The conclusion I’ve come to – at least for now – is that the marvel I feel at trying to imagine dinosaurs or stars or galaxies is not limited to those things. In fact, that marvelous complexity exists within each person I meet. And the capacity to feel awe, wonder, and, yes, terror, in the moments when we can recognize the fullness of another person’s existence can be sublime as well.