No More Enemies
By Babak Ebrahimian
Theater and Film: A Comparative Anthology
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
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, gray territory.
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
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 the sequel.