Stage-Theatre and Movies

January 13, 2021

‘The big question is whether there is an unbridgeable division, even opposition, between the two arts. Is there something genuinely "theatrical," different in kind from what is genuinely "cinematic"?

Almost all opinion holds that there is. A commonplace of discussion has it that theatre and film are distinct and even antithetical arts, each giving rise to its own standards of judgement and canons of form.’ (Sontag, p.24)

“ Movies derive less from the theatre, from a performance art, an art that already moves, than they do from works of art which are stationary.” (Sontag p.27)

Film and Theatre

Susan Sontag

The Tulane Drama Review

Vol. 11, No. 1 (Autumn, 1966), pp. 24-37 (14 pages)

These citations from critic, Susan Sontag, state a challenge which might be resolved by answering a question something like this one:

“What theoretical view of stage theatre, and of movies, as art forms, would justify and validate a claim that they interact and feed back and forth into one another, so intimately that to call them ‘unbridgeable’ art forms is not reasonably feasible?”

Just as the direct traffic between emotion and expression, which is allowed to actors by Stanislavsky, and which axiom was inherited from him by the big US practitioners, is founded on a belief that mind and body are one unified item, there has to be shown in answering this question that something which is similarly unifying exists, and which allows a parallel direct conduit, by which innovations and prototypes might be tested and perfected on the stage in the theatre, so that they are thereby enabled to ‘travel over’ for adoption, development, adaptation, and use, in the art world of movies. But in the first place let us look at the paper by Sontag and consider her views.

Sontag wrote the paper from which I have cited in 1966 :

In the first place, and so as to make sense of any attempt here to counter the arguments Sontag is laying out, which are stating that stage theatre and movies are arts apart and antithetical, one needs to have for one’s use a basic agreed terminology, one which is specific to and self-consistent with the task in hand. In her article Sontag can be seen to be using terms quite loosely, and so, as a result of her loose terminology, sometimes her arguments become clouded by a impreciseness generated in this way.

(This journal article of hers seems to be little more than a review of opinion on the issue at hand, and she seems deliberately to come to its end and be expressing no firmly-stated conclusion on either side of the main question. She appears to be in the role of enfant terrible or *devil’s advocate, *as we shall see, perhaps, as I try to show how her manner of writing is, I think deliberately, a procrastination(Sontag p.37))

In her early paragraphs she tells us of Erwin Panofsky (p.24) who is a ‘celebrated’ movie arts theorist and she quotes his hostile understanding that ‘the impurities of theatricality’ are one of the criteria by which to judge a movie. Absence of these impurities in a movie is thought by him commendable. Sontag then summarises this with a generalisation:

“Those who think prescriptively about the nature of live drama, less confident in the future of their art than the cinephiles in theirs, rarely take a comparably exclusivist line.”

By saying this Sontag is setting up an Aunt Sally, a figure at which to throw tomatoes, by her making a false coupling, and an opposition of, entities and concepts. This is seen in the fact that there is no logical *reason why advocates of stage theatre should align together behind a belief in a close relationship between stage theatre and movies as art forms. There is no *logical reason why critics who favour movies should line up behind a claim for a distinct separation between the two art forms of stage and screen. It might be the case in fact that this polarisation has happened, but as a basis for making a theoretical argument on, or for making a review of, the issues of difference between, or else the close identity of, these art forms, it is not a valid starting point. This act of false twinning the issues into polarised opposing camps colours the article throughout.

In fact Sontag’s opening statement, as I have cited it above here, is broad, and it appears to be, when analysed, little more than an unwarranted inference. This is because it implies that those who want to claim a relationship between the two art forms, stage drama and movies, do so because they are a little desperate about the future for stage drama, which is their preferred art form. The drift of this claim then is that persons on the side of ‘sisterhood’ for the two art forms, have ulterior motives for taking their stance. The inference is that the stage-theatre aficionados are hanging their espoused art form stage drama onto the hook of movies, so as to try to help save stage-drama from a decline that they fear otherwise might happen or become worse. One might contrariwise, and with equal force, and direction, and validity, state something like, ‘Those who think prescriptively about the nature of movies, being more confident in the future of their art form than the stage drama aficionados in theirs, often take a[n] [comparably] exclusivist line.’ -my brackets. This the ‘pointing at’ and any derogatory inferences carried by Sontag’s sentence are all reciprocally reversed So Sontag is not off to a good, an even-handed, start.

Sontag is also happy to be using often and in a fairly indiscriminate way the terms ‘cinema’, ‘cinematic’, ‘film’, and ‘movies’; and similarly she is using the terms ‘theatre’,‘theatrical’, ‘theatricality’, ‘theatricalism’, and, at times, ‘live drama’ equally loosely and often. (Read through her article and see particularly how she plays with the family of words ‘theatrical’, ‘theatricality’ ‘theatricalism’, which are here and there at one time used pejoratively, and here and there at another time they are being used in ways which seem to call for them being meant without tarnish. And then again, in certain contexts, this family of words based on the word ‘theatrical’ having previously been tarnished by a frequent pejorative usage, have now gathered so many overtones and so much innuendo in the course of the progress of her article, that the words from this family have become for close readers difficult to interpret clearly their psychic and attitudinal values. For example, take a look at this instance of this uncertain messaging to us:

‘The history of cinema is often treated as the history of its emancipation from theatrical models. First of all from theatrical "frontality" (the unmoving camera reproducing the situation of the spectator of a play fixed in his seat), then from theatrical acting (gestures needlessly stylizedexaggerated-needlessly, because now the actor could be seen "close up"), then from theatrical *furnishings (unnecessary "distancing" of the audience's emotions, *disregarding the opportunity to immerse the audience in reality). Movies are regarded as advancing from theatrical stasis to cinematic fluidity, from theatrical artificiality *to cinematic naturalness and immediacy. *But this view is far too simple.’ (p.24) My italics

By the time a reader has gotten to the words ‘theatrical artificiality’ a general taint has been created and placed almost carte blanche and prejudicially upon the cluster of words that make up this family.

It is fair to say that by this very free play of hers with this family of ‘theatrical’ words, (which I have italicised), Sontag has in fact been playing with a reader’s perceptions, because she has been almost wilfully and arbitrarily abusing the non-pejorative and standard meanings of those words. The end result is that a reader is being put into doubt about what way to read her statements, and about the judgement values these words are meant to convey as they are being used here.

Please note the final sentence of Sontag’s clause: But this view is far too simple. Sontag has a way of introducing, usually pejorative value-judgements, and normally, as here, she does so by claiming them to be her interpretations, or her paraphrases, or else as being citations, usually attributable to other commentators on the topic, and then immediately she modifies their impacts, softening them most times, as with her coda of ‘But this is far too simple’. Time and again a reader is left hanging, waiting for what does not follow; which by the logic of the arguments she makes, ought to be her considered and more sophisticated version of events. And this kind of hanging hiatus is not uncommonly found in this article.

Her choices of words are also often bordering on pejorative. Take her use of the word ‘emancipation’ and its connotations with the liberation in the 19th century of the plantation slaves, and then there is the word ‘artificiality’ which bears a negative, not-genuine ambience. ‘Emancipation’ as used by her here above implies some kind of bondage into which cinema had been placed, or else had found itself, formerly under the influences of, or in its relations to and with, stage-theatre. The usage she makes of the word ‘artificiality’, used here to describe the state from which cinema arts have ‘advanced’ in the course of their ‘emancipation’ from the theatrical arts, grammatically in the sentence has made it the direct antithesis to the word ‘naturalness’. Little greater manipulation of words and feelings, and so of audiences, is made by the world of advertising, which is the world of words in the service of commerce and money making.

Her word-order placements of words such as ‘unnecessary’ and ‘needlessly’ act to colour deeply her juxtapositions of attributes and qualities upon the relative vires of stage theatre and movie cinema. This she does even though the effects on a reader these juxtapositions create are usually modified further into a sentence. The overall effect of this type of modification acts like when a man is accused, but cleared, of rape, and ‘the mud’ alleged tends to stick regardless. We are in the world of The Book of Job but in a secular context:

“The Lord giveth and The Lord taketh away”

Throughout the article the statements Sontag makes for the most part are in no way justified as generalities about theatre stage performance vis-a-vis cinematic presentations. See above in the citation where she uses the adjective ‘theatrical’ to condition the nouns ‘models’ and ‘gestures’.

In the earlier usage of ‘theatrical’ where it is attached by Sontag to the word ‘models’, an understanding fairly neutral of value judgement is set up; whereas when the same adjective ‘theatrical’ is used to modify the noun ‘gestures’, because these gestures are called by Sontag “needlessly stylized, exaggerated-needlessly” the ambience of the word ‘theatrical’ here reverberates all of a sudden with a distorted conditioning which pushes it towards meaning something more like ‘histrionic’ than it did in its earlier placement where it is a merely neutral value.

Sontag places these flourishes of hers, which play with words and so with her reading audience, very provocatively, and they result too often in almost-disguised modifications to, and reallocations of, evaluation of meaning. This article of Sontag’s looks like an attempt on her part at conditioning a reader, by it aiming at raising surreptitiously an attitude of bias and of side-taking, particularly against stage theatre. By use of association, applied by way of embedding extraneous, covert, value judgements in what appear on the surface to be words which in normal speech bear almost neutral value-judgement, she is writing propaganda so as to encourage those people on the side of and who opt for, a separation of art forms. She does so without offering adequate reasonable cause, or argument, to anyone looking dispassionately, for one to accept the validity of either of the two contested positions.

This habit of style which Sontag is using here is capable of throwing off balance a casual or an uncritical reader’s judgement and understanding. Any such reader coming to the end of the article has been offered very little actual clear sound argument. These habits of procrastination of Sontag’s are not defensible by offering a simple statement that the topic in hand is complex and so difficult. Her approach seems to be a studied obfuscation. The topic really is able to be discussed more adequately and more clearly, there are a number of foundational principles of theory from which to start a reasoned and adequate discussion. Her provocative handling of terminology and of argument looks to be an intellectual legerdemain. Substantively, again and again, what is offered with one hand is smartly stolen away by the other, in a flourish of a follow up clause, or in a remedial sentence.

Much of the opinion which she attributes to others and which she includes, and also the actual citations she makes taken from other commentators, are not measured statements or assessments of the case, point, or topic to which they address themselves. Nor are many of them sober, considered judgements, but often they are obviously heated and hyperbolic, and thereby partial. And nearly all of them are factional and take the side of movies, not just as claiming movies for a separate art form but as being also an art form a cut above stage drama. As such these wayward commentators are easy enough for her to temper, and by her doing so she hopes to allow herself to appear to be a cooler-headed moderating persona. Nonetheless the arguments as she unpacks them in her fickle manner, lean all heavily one way, and pro-movies – advocating, and usually based on vitriol and heat, a distinct separation for the two art forms. On the other hand, the critical positions she offers which support stage drama and advocate close relations between stage drama and movies, are underexposed, not given so much room or emphasis, and so one side of this debate is under-represented by her.

This criticism of mine of Sontag’s style and approach is sufficiently close and true as to be able to cast serious doubt on the strong statements which head up her paper, and which almost a priori via assertion alone propose that most and correct opinion affirms an unbridgeable gulf separating the art form of movies from that of stage drama.