Go On, Get Cultured: Big-T Theatre vs. little-T (movie) theatre

I once went with a friend to see a production of Proof at my university’s theatre. I was a student there and worked both in the shop and on the production crew for productions. Like any theatre geek, I had read and seen many plays both for study and entertainment purposes. My friend, however, rarely went to the theatre, opera, or concert hall; she consumed many movies and TV shows and listened to music on her iPod. Yet she expressed a desire to accompany me to the theatre.

After the play, which is a highly intellectual and emotional drama, she emerged not with comments on the philosophical themes of the play but with the simple statement: “I loved it! I feel cultured now.”

Before you walk away thinking my friend was not too bright, let’s consider the importance of the play in her mind: as a “cultural” experience that was somehow distinctive from all the rest of the cultural products she absorbed. She referred to the movies, TV shows, and music as part of her “lifestyle” or for the purpose of “relaxing.” It is odd to consider that theatre was once such an escapist medium, and moreover a social opportunity. While there was a certain social hierarchy in the Globe that was expressed in the seating, it was simple entertainment for all audience members. And prior to that theatre had a religious purpose or was laced with philosophical themes…and prior to that it was alternately “smart” entertainment, soapy drama, or frothy comic goodness.

What had happened to theatre, then, that it is now, to some people, a specific and limited opportunity for “culture”? My friend, despite her massive consumption of popular culture, did not consider herself as “cultured” before seeing the play as after. Yet she did not say she felt “more” cultured. This suggests that she felt “cultured” as a direct effect of seeing a play…a relatively exotic medium to her.

As both a theatre geek and a film buff, I have seen duplicated over and over certain snobbery or ignorance on both sides. To some playgoers, theatre remains the one true dramatic art; to some filmgoers, the theatre is archaic and limited. And to some, the experience of the two is conflated, and the differences misunderstood: I am not entirely convinced that no one assumes that stage actors cannot hear or see their audience, hence their lack of decorum.

Yet one can speak of a certain intimacy and authenticity to the theatre experience. Indeed, Walter Benjamin, in a chapter of his Illuminations entitled “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” observes that a stage actor more directly imparts the “aura” (his word for the original yet transient essence of an idea, character, or artifact) to the viewer than a film actor, who does so through the processes of filming and subsequent cutting and printing. This makes theatre a more authentic art…and while many filmmakers, scholars, and fans today might disagree with any suggestion that film is inauthentic, the different social constructions of playgoing versus moviegoing suggest something.

I propose that the difference stems from film’s capacity for duplication, dissemination, and destruction. A movie we’ve seen, we may purchase a copy, recommend to a friend, or simply forget if we don’t care for it. Indeed, I would venture that most movies are forgotten, not even included in the “canon” built by film critics and scholars, but retained simply as a product by their distributors. Their eternity is belied by their phosphorescence. Plays, on the other hand, stem from texts and are then wholly reproduced again and again; they are long-lived despite any given iteration being seen only once by most of their viewers. Their eternity is bought by their transience.

Or, in simpler terms, people can easily take a movie and make it their own; they can view in any room, in any state, with anyone. They have not submitted to a communal experience with strangers, nor been immersed in a fake world. It’s easier to forget you’re not in 19th-century France, for example, when you can see only a representation of that world, than if you’re able to see the edges of the giant screen showing you a series of controlled images with popcorn in your hand.

So in the end, I couldn’t fault my friend for finding the theatre exotic. It’s honestly the reason I return to it year after year. Sometimes you grow weary of the iPod, the Netflix, the Hulu, and the Kindle, or even of your comfy chair or couch and your big-screen TV. In those times, you may retreat to the theatre, the opera house, or the concert hall and soak in the authentic arts, just to get a little “culture” in you.

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