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Theatre and Film in Evolutionary Perspective Bruce McConachie I The attitudes of American theatre artists and scholars toward film have ranged from disdain and paranoia to curiosity and collaboration during the last 110 years. In the first decade of the last century, when the movies emerged as a viable amusement, theatre artists dismissed film as cheap thrills for immigrants and workers. Only a decade later, after pioneers like D. W. Griffith had demonstrated film’s artistic worth and middle-class Americans began flocking to the new movie houses, theatre artists and showbiz moguls wondered if live entertainment would ever again compete for the money of the masses. The “talkies” and the Depression conclusively settled that discussion, and since then the theatrical argument against film shifted to higher, more theoretical ground. Although he defended the mass appeal of film, Walter Benjamin in the 1930s worried that the flickering illusion of actors on a movie screen could never match the “aura” of live performers appearing before audiences. East Coast authors and playwrights, many of them more in love with the written word than with the power of acting, took up Benjamin’s concern and turned it against the Hollywood system, even as they also sought fame and fortune by “selling out” to Tinseltown. Despite the fact that Orson Welles, Elia Kazan, and several other directors had proven that theatre and film had a lot to learn from each other, most theatre scholars from midcentury through the mid-1980s, locked into modernist assumptions about the purity of what they believed to be wholly separable media, simply turned their backs on the movies. These assumptions led to separate disciplines in the academy, despite 130 B R U C E M C C o N A C H i E the obvious commonalities among all forms of live and mediated dramas . Like many academics, we at the University of Pittsburgh have chopped dramatic entertainment into three separate pieces: the Department of Communication does television and video studies, English has film, and Theatre Arts studies and stages plays. In the 1990s, a few scholars (such as Peggy Phelan) continued to pile bricks on these disciplinary walls, while others (like Phil Auslander) questioned the very “liveness” that seemed to distinguish theatre from film and TV. At the same time, several playwrights, including Tony Kushner, were adapting filmic content and techniques for the stage, while directors and designers were immersing spectators in environments that mixed film-derived media, such as video clips and surround-sound, with embodied performance. The discussions and innovations begun in the final decades of the last century continued into the first decade of this one. If this quick summary proves anything, it may be that envy and paranoia last longer among academics than artists. Most theatre people settled their differences with the movies many years ago. I think it’s time for us to do the same. Rather than dwelling on the past hundred years or so—a mere blink in evolutionary time—I’d like us to step much further back and consider theatre and film through the perspective of those affective and cognitive abilities that enable our species to enjoy both media. Certainly there are differences between theatre and film, but how important are they? Most theorists today suppose that ontological divisions separate these media, but I will disagree. The logic of evolution suggests that there is no need to invent new ontological categories to explain human phenomena that are continuous with all of human development and history . Most of the mental operations that Homo sapiens deploys to make sense of live performances are also used to understand filmic ones. As I will discuss, human minds reached their present cognitive capabilities about 50,000 years ago; although evolution continues, our major cognitive operations for experiencing the world—performances included— have not changed since then. While there are important historical differences among live and mediated modes of communication, they share a common evolutionary and cognitive foundation. For evidence, I will draw primarily on evolutionary and developmental psychology. I recognize that understanding my summaries of this kind of evidence will be difficult for most theatre and performance scholars ; despite the relevance of many areas...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2166-9937
Print ISSN
1065-4917
Pages
pp. 129-147
Launched on MUSE
2012-07-11
Open Access
No
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