Theatre Matters

Contemplations on the dramatic arts from a national perspective


Steven Oxman has contributed to such publications as the Los Angeles Times, American Theatre, Stagebill, and, most frequently, Variety, for which he has written over 300 television and theatre reviews.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

The Answer to the Question

So the winner for best answer to A.C. Douglas's question -- "Why should live theater survive as an art form today when film seems better able to do a play justice?" -- comes from... A.C. Douglas.

In my previous posting, I asked him: "Do you go to see live music, even though the studio can do it 'better'? If so, why?"

He sent me an email with a quick statement and a link to a post of his from last August:

"[N]o, with classical music (the only music I involve myself with) the studio*cannot* 'do it better.' For an explanation why, see: "

The post is long, so let me excerpt the most pertinent parts:

"[R]ecorded performance is a musical experience quite different from the musical experience of a live concert. And by that, I don't mean merely that playing back a recorded performance in a home environment can't equal the acoustic experience of a performance in a concert hall, even given a superbly recorded performance, superb reproduction equipment, and the most elaborately and carefully prepared listening environment. I mean the two experiences are two different musical experiences. One hears music differently in a live performance, and that hearing simply cannot be experienced via a reproduction no matter how good the reproduction may be in both recording and playback....

"I'll not pretend to know why it is that one hears and experiences music differently live versus recorded, or in what, precisely, in physical and psychological terms, the difference consists. I know only that the difference exists, and that it's meaningful musically. And, pace Glenn Gould, it's well to remember that the experience of classical music live, whether in the chamber or the concert hall, is the way all classical music was intended to be heard and experienced by its composers, past and present. From music's very beginnings the live music experience has been sine qua non for the development of refined musical discernment and tastes, and so, I'm convinced, it shall remain."

Seriously, replace the "musical experience" with "theatrical experience," and nobody responding to Mr. Douglas's query has said it better. Now, I suppose he thinks these are fundamentally different, but I really don't see how. Perhaps the answer to the question all along was as simple as his statement to me: Film can't serve a play better than a theatrical production.

ACD took up this subject when George Hunka suggested the parallel to music previously. That ACD post is here, but I'll excerpt the key analogy:

"A film of, say, Beckett's Godot (i.e., made as a film, not a filmed record of the stage play) is potentially, inherently and in itself, capable of producing a more convincing aesthetic product in terms of the play itself than the play presented live on stage...."

This is just not true at all. I consider myself a Beckett aficionado -- he changed the way I see the world. But Beckett's plays are pure "plays," and even the effort to film them -- PBS did a whole series of his works for television -- are distant and ineffectual, the equivalent of a catalogue reproduction of a masterpiece painting as compared to a viewing of the canvas itself -- useful, but not a substitution for experiencing the real thing. In all his plays, Beckett explored the very essence of theatricality, the passage of time itself. Put Beckett's play Play on film, and you are not getting the play. I should note that Beckett did write and direct a film. It was called, of course, Film, and starred Buster Keaton late in his life. Beckett explored his typical obsessions with consciousness, but did so in a different way, since it was written as a film.

To return to the basic premise: Sure, there are plays that make good films, and are even better as films than they were on stage. (And similarly, ACD recognizes that his discussion doesn't necessarily apply beyond classical music-- there could well be music that is "better" recorded than live.) But plays with even an ounce of theatricality are intended to be seen in the theatre; one cannot fully appreciate the artwork (and I'm using ACD's interpretation that the written script is the artwork, a controversial claim in and of itself) without seeing it in its intended medium.

What is theatricality? That's for another day, or year. And just because a play makes a very good film, doesn't mean it wasn't theatrical. Two very recent examples: "Chicago" and "Angels in America." Actually, those who see those shows in the theatre gain not just a greater respect for the plays, but also a greater appreciation for the clever ways they were adapted for the different medium. The artwork was changed to accommodate the filming.

OK, I'll stop. Unless you beg for more!