By Babak Ebrahimian
Theater and Film: A Comparative
Edited by Robert Knopf
Yale University Press
Creating an anthology isn't easy. Where
do you begin, where do you end, and what selections do you include?
An anthology can be used as a reference book for both theorists
and practitioners, as an introductory text or as a specialized
resource for experts. It is a challenge for any anthology to meet
the expectations of all its audiences.
Containing thirty selections and close
to 400 pages, Theater and Film: A Comparative Anthology,
edited by Robert Knopf, compiles a series of essays, statements,
"conversations" and interviews with and by theater and
film historians, critics, theoreticians, and practitioners. Contributors
include influential and iconic figures in both theater and film,
such as Andre Bazin, Susan Sontag, Stanley Kauffmann, D.W. Griffith,
Antonin Artaud, Ingmar Bergman, Bertolt Brecht, Sergei Eisenstein,
Milos Forman, Elia Kazan, and Orson Welles. The book has been
categorized into five sections: "Historical Influences," "Comparisons
and Contrasts," "Writing," "Directing," and "Acting." A "Prelude"
by Vsevolod Meyerhold starts the book, which also includes three
"Interludes," an "Entr'act," and an "Afterword" by Artaud.
Knopf's anthology--the first of its kind--is
ambitious and deserves much applause. It covers significant ground
in all its five areas. The list of areas, however, leaves out
several other important categories. Where, for instance, is the
section on design? Or on theater architecture and space? Or on
the audience? An essay on a film like Metropolis, or
an interview with a designer like Ming Cho Lee, could have served
as a good starting point for a design section. A segment from
Marvin Carlson's Places of Performance might have anchored
an "Architecture and Spaces" section. And some writings on the
audience by Richard Schechner or Herbert Blau could have formed
the foundation of an "Audience" section.
Given the book's title, the main question
is how a "comparative" anthology ought to be conceived and catalogued.
In an essay in the third section, Peter Handke addresses this
point, writing: "Pascal said, approximately: all misery comes
from man's constantly believing that he must compare himself with
the infinite. And another misery--Pascal did not say this--comes
from man's believing that he must, in general, compare." How,
then, can two forms of art--so close, yet so far apart--be discussed
and compared? What is there to compare, exactly? Method? Forms?
Theories? Genesis? Ideas? Warnings? The present? The past? The
future? The hows? The whys? Is the writer who directs, and the
auteur who creates, a writer, or a director, or both? Then what
happens when he or she acts? Where does such a versatile figure
fit into the five sections? The strict division and categorization,
I feel, is a weakness of the anthology. Orson Welles cannot be
squeezed into one category: he embodies them all. The same is
true of other giants such as Chaplin, who gets far too little
attention in this book.
The truth is, the two art forms have so
much in common that beyond the first, nominal separation--theater/film--all
categories rapidly become fuzzy. Roger Blin is in the "Writing"
section but he could easily be in "Acting" or "Directing." The
same is true of Kazan, who is under "Acting" but could have very
well been in "Directing." In his autobiography Kurosawa writes:
"Cinema resembles so many other arts. If cinema has very literary
characteristics, it also has theatrical qualities, a philosophical
side, attributes of painting and sculpture and musical elements.
But cinema is, in the final analysis, cinema." Yes, theater is
theater and film is film. But where they intersect is a vast,
A second issue is the anthology's selections.
The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, which arguably
covers a smaller field than theater and cinema combined, is well
over 1400 pages. Knopf's selections are limited to one piece per
writer and many important innovators are left out all together:
directors such as Kurosawa and Mnouchkine, for instance, and crossover
actors such as Bruno Ganz and Kenneth Branagh. Further, while
all those selected are significant, not all of the essays are
a good representation of the writer's work or its potential contribution
to the theater/film comparison. Brecht's essay, "The Playwright
as Film Critic," for example, is not the best piece by Brecht
on theater/cinema (though Knopf's supplementary notes to the piece
make its inclusion worthwhile).
The most glaring gap in the anthology is
that it never examines the importance of space. The theater and
cinema are two modes of storytelling, and their immediate differences
are both temporal and spatial. The theater has the stage
and three-dimensional space whereas the cinema has the screen
and is to that extent two-dimensional, but regardless of 2-D or
3-D both forms utilize scenic design and décor. It is
impossible to talk about the two theoretical notions that Eisenstein
refers to in his essay--mise-en-scene (set, blocking,
props, costumes, lights onstage) and mise-en-cadre (the
pictorial composition of a film shot)--without talking about space,
architecture, and design. Every production, no matter how minimal
(Beckett) or complex (The Wooster Group), involves a visual sculpting
of its space, where the narrative can be represented, enacted,
and inhabited. Reading carefully within the anthology's interviews
with directors, one can find discussion of their visual approaches,
but the subject is always occasional or peripheral. Welles, for
example, in discussing his adaptation of Kafka's The Trial,
explains that he wanted to make the film with no set but was forced
to shoot it in an abandoned railroad station.
Despite the unnecessary and confusing chapter
divisions, Knopf's anthology does offer a first round of basic
and quintessential texts necessary for any comparative study in
theater and cinema. Among these are: Meyerhold's "The Director
as the Superstar"; Tom Gunning's "The Cinema of Attractions: Early
Film, its Spectator, and the Avant-Garde"; Robert Knopf's "Buster
Keaton in the Context of Stage Vaudeville and Silent Film Comedy";
Griffith's " The Filmmaker as Creator"; Eric Bentley's "Realism
and the Cinema"; Bazin's "Theater and Cinema"; Sontag's "Film
and Theatre"; Kauffmann's "Notes on Theater-and-Film"; Bergman's
"The Screenwriter as Auteur"; Eisenstein's "Through Theater to
Cinema," a conversation with Wole Soyinka, and interviews with
Blin, Welles, and Kazan. The critical essays in part two ("Comparisons
and Contrasts") are well selected; Bazin's, Sontag's and Kauffmann's
are classics, and the interviews and conversations are all very
enlightening and entertaining.
At the very heart of the anthology lies
a rare gem--a transcribed conversation with Peter Brook, Sir Peter
Hall, Richard Loncraine, Baz Luhrmann, Trevor Nunn, Oliver Parker,
Roman Polanski, and Franco Zeffirelli entitled "Shakespeare in
the Cinema: A Film Director's Symposium." This piece is a source
of great wisdom, knowledge and insight, brilliantly capturing
the ideas and opinions of some of the greatest theatre and film
directors on acting, adapting, and cutting Shakespeare. These
directors speak their thoughts with surprising honestly, offering
many remarks that reach to the heart of the theater/film comparison.
Hall: "The best Shakespeare films to me--such as Kurosawa's Throne
of Blood and Ran and the Solzhenitsyn Hamlet--are
those that take his themes and characters and ignore his text."
Loncraine: "We can communicate with pictures an awful lot of what
Shakespeare expressed with words." Luhrmann: "if the intention
behind the word is clear then the meaning will be too." Zeffirelli:
"I cannot think of one novel or play that has been transposed
entirely--apart from an exception like Branagh's Hamlet--because
otherwise your film would last five hours. Adaptation is therefore
inevitable, a necessity that no one can escape." Brook: "Too much
information clogs the brain. Too rich food creates indigestion.
Simplicity is not a style, nor virtue--simply a necessity."
Over all, Knopf has done a remarkable job.
It was about time for someone to break the ice and proclaim that
theater and film are not enemies--they have much in common, despite
their obvious differences. I wish this book had more pages, more
photos, and more pieces, but it is a fine first step. Now we need