Hot Pursuit: Researching Across the Theatre/Film Border

To cross this boundary, to properly apprehend the subjects of popular entertainment, we need to move past the high-low distinction, to “Americanize” the study of American drama. This is not to say that concepts such as class and taste are no longer relevant, but rather to admit that studying cultural aspects of performance need not entail rejection of all aesthetic criteria. Conversely, the study of aesthetics cannot be fully extricated from cultural considerations. Blur this border, and the theatre/film border will become significantly more permeable.

Myth #2: In both theatre and film, the discrete work of art should be the primary object of study

Traditional scholarship in both theatre and film (as well as most other arts) is an object-driven discipline. Or to put it another way, both theatre studies and film studies are tautologically defined by their objects of study. A theatre scholar studies plays and other theatrical events; a film scholar studies films, and perhaps other “screen” media such as television shows or websites. A work that does not fit within the boundaries of the scholar’s genre is considered at best terra incognita, at worst Out Of Bounds.

Such object-driven disciplinary formations echo nineteenth century definitions of the nation-state, which has always existed more as an ideal than as a reality. They hang on a concept of the work of art that all parties recognize to be limited, if not actually false. For it is not simply the genre of study that we regard as a fixed object, but also the site. The theatre scholar routinely speaks of a play or production as if it could be contained within two hours traffic upon the stage. The film scholar speaks or writes of a film as if it were a unitary object, beginning at the opening credits and ending when the lights come back on. Yet our own experiences of both media demonstrate that, in the words of the 1935 stage production, 1959 film, 1983 radio broadcast, 1993 television broadcast, and 2002 live-to-movie theatre telecast opera Porgy and Bess, “It ain’t necessarily so.” A theatrical production changes nightly. A long-running play changes casts, venues, and (frequently) dialogue. Cabaret with Natasha Richardson as Sally Bowles is not the same performance with Michelle Williams in the role (nor is either the same as a production whose performers are not recognizable from film and television). A film is comparatively more stable, but may include multiple cuts for different markets, as well as second-order viewing opportunities on television, DVD, airplanes, computers, and iPads. Moreover, as both disciplines place greater emphasis on cultural (rather than purely aesthetic) considerations, on audience reception, and on the post-performance circulation of meaning, the myth of the discretely bounded unitary artwork becomes increasingly unsustainable.11

This problem multiplies exponentially when, taking a page from performance studies, we begin to look not just at the artistic product but also at the process. What is the ontological status, for example, of a film script, of a rehearsal on a film set, of “deleted scenes?” What can theatre learn from studying auditions, replacement casts, or out of town tryouts? In practice, theatre and film scholars tend to consider process opportunistically. This is to say that we consider it only when a) access to such material is possible, and b) such material is sufficiently provocative as to enhance or illuminate our assessment of the final product. Perhaps it must be this way. Mustn’t all scholars balance the impossibility of knowing everything against the need to know something? And yet, if we expand our definition of the artwork, we might begin to blur the genre boundaries in productive ways. Should a revival of a play, for example, be treated differently from a remake of a film? What conditions determine whether a work of art is considered de novo or as a reiteration of a prior work? Can theories of adaptation applied to studies of what John Tibbetts and James Welsh call “stage plays into film”12 be readily applied to films adapted for the stage? Why has hardly any discipline taken notice of (much less theorized) the phenomenon of live television or movie-theatre broadcasts of stage performances?13 When we can properly articulate such ontological distinctions, we may begin to better understand the challenges ahead.

Myth #3: Theatre is a Writer’s Medium. Film is a Director’s Medium.

Among the consequences of our focus on the discrete artistic product is the attempt to attribute authorship of that product to the playwright (in theatre) or the director (in film). The assertion that the primary creator of a theatrical work is the playwright is not simply a convenient fiction nor a reflection of professional norms. Rather, we attribute authorship to the playwright because it is primarily as texts that theatrical creations circulate through time and space. Productions of, say, Oedipus separated by hundreds or thousands of years and/or hundreds or thousands of miles are nevertheless recognized as The Same Play on the basis of a shared written text. This despite the fact that the text may have been translated, emended, or otherwise transformed in the journey. We validate the playtext through its attribution to its “original creator,” the playwright. This is the Jew that Shakespeare drew. Yet the logic is circular, because the playwright is defined by the creation of the text. I believe that the plays attributed to William Shakespeare are actually the work of another Englishman, coincidentally also named William Shakespeare. This emphasis on the text/playwright dyad persists despite the fact that biographical criticism (the so-called “intentional fallacy”) has been deeply destabilized by New Criticism, poststructuralism, and reader-response theory. Driven perhaps by an imperative to “represent,” we routinely talk about our scholarship, our syllabi, and our production seasons as if the text were the play, and the playwright its only creator. The instability of the text, like the multiplicity of creative partners (actors, designers, stage managers, directors) and other vagaries of the artistic process, is treated as an occasionally illuminating curiosity. In other words, even though we know that the playscript is not the end product of the theatrical enterprise, we often behave as if it were.

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