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American Drama in the Age of Film

Written by Zander Brietzke

Publication Year: 2007

Is theater really dead? Does the theater, as its champions insist, really provide a more intimate experience than film? If so, how have changes in cinematic techniques and technologies altered the relationship between stage and film? What are the inherent limitations of representing three-dimensional spaces in a two-dimensional one, and vice versa?
 
American Drama in the Age of Film examines the strengths and weaknesses of both the dramatic and cinematic arts to confront the standard arguments in the film-versus-theater debate. Using widely known adaptations of ten major plays, Brietzke seeks to highlight the inherent powers of each medium and draw conclusions not just about how they differ, but how they ought to differ as well. He contrasts both stage and film productions of, among other works, David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, Sam Shepard’s True West, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Margaret Edson’s Wit, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. In reading the dual productions of these works, Brietzke finds that cinema has indeed stolen much of theater’s former thunder, by making drama more intimate, and visceral than most live events.
 
But theater is still vital and matters greatly, Brietzke argues, though for reasons that run counter to many of the virtues traditionally attributed to it as an art form, such as intimacy and spontaneity. Brietzke seeks to revitalize perceptions of theater by challenging those common pieties and offering a new critical paradigm, one that champions spectacle and simultaneity as the most, not least, important elements of drama.

Published by: The University of Alabama Press

Contents

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pp. vii-

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Acknowledgments

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pp. ix-x

The solitude of writing fosters an illusion that you’re on your own with whatever little or big ideas. You know that’s not exactly true, but it feels true as you slog through drafts, endlessly rewrite, refine, attempt to cut all the precious darlings that once seemed fresh and so very interesting, search for a publisher, secure a contract, then repeat the cycle. Only...

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Introduction: Beyond the Box

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pp. xi-xix

Actor Franchot Tone left New York for Hollywood in the 1930s. Among all the stories of similar passage in The Fervent Years, Harold Clurman’s chronicle of the Group Theatre, this one reads as the most biblical tale of temptation in paradise. The theater offered meaningful work, artistic growth and experimentation, communal living, and a hand-to-mouth...

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1. Revaluations of Virtues

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pp. 1-17

Ask folks to say what makes theater special and they will likely start by spouting something about the differences between stage and screen. Theater is live; film is in the can! But while the earliest films of the last century often did merely record theatrical performances by adopting the same point of view as the spectator in an auditorium, modern cinema discovered...

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2. Dramatic Projections

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pp. 18-34

Projecting one’s voice as an actor, modulating volume and articulation such that people far away hear clearly yet those close by are not blown away, is a tricky task, but acclaimed British voice coach and author Patsy Rodenburg attacks the problem with refreshing candor and simplicity. She adopts “breathing the space” as a phrase to emphasize the naturalness of the...

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3. A Vicious Cycle at Sea

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pp. 35-50

Eugene O’Neill didn’t like the theater very much, but he liked the cinema even less. Ironically, among all the screen adaptations of his work, he truly loved John Ford’s The Long Voyage Home. First of all, the movie derived from four humble one-acts written very early in the playwright’s career, not from such later splashy successes as Strange Interlude, The Great God Brown, or...

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4. There’s Something about Mary

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pp. 51-63

Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour (1934) combines a highly melodramatic plot, fueled by the malicious lies of an evil child, with sensational (for its time) subject matter concerning an alleged lesbian relationship between two teachers at a private boarding school for girls. The playwright’s biographer, Richard Moody, registered no doubts about the root...

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5. Bedroom Ballet in the Delta

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pp. 64-77

Lillian Hellman charges the action in The Children’s Hour by setting the scene in a public space (a living room, a schoolroom) and stirring the imagination of the audience about what goes on in private parts unseen. The desire to see what cannot be seen concludes with Martha’s despairing self-analysis regarding her latent attraction to Karen. The visibility of the...

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6. Jungled Dreams

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pp. 78-90

Would Death of a Salesman be regarded as a great play today if Arthur Miller had stuck with the original title of The Inside of His Head? Imagine not designer Jo Mielziner’s skeletal frame of the Loman house dwarfed by a menacing urban landscape, but the playwright’s initial visualization of the play: “an image of an enormous face the height of the proscenium...

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7. Getting the Guests

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pp. 91-102

Midway through the first act of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf ? (1962), winding up the first round of “Humiliate the Host,” Martha describes boxing George into a huckleberry bush. In Mike Nichols’s 1966 film version of the play, George exits during Martha’s story and the camera follows him “offstage” into the back hall. While Martha continues to speak in the living...

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8. Lamebrains across Texas

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pp. 103-116

The Broadway revival of True West in 2000 sparked renewed critical praise for Sam Shepard’s 1980 play. Jack Kroll heralded the show as a pinnacle of theatrical form by saying that “you are forcibly reminded of the ineffable power of theatre, despite all the noise made by the unlive arts— movies, TV, cyberia” (“Wild Wild West”). These words offer powerful...

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9. Cadillacs Are for Closers

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pp. 117-131

David Mamet has parlayed his success as a dramatist into a lucrative and vibrant career as a Hollywood screenwriter and film director. One of the best film versions of any of his plays, Glengarry Glen Ross, directed by James Foley with a screenplay by the playwright, resulted in a collaborative effort quite independent of the stage play that engendered it. Among...

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10. Making Oneself Big

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pp. 132-143

The Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson (1995) represents a much more typical television adaptation of a play than either of the taped performances of True West, which took place before live audiences in theatrical settings. Hardly fi lms at all, the Shepard productions footnote stage performances. Unlike the televised productions of...

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11. Cancer and the Classroom

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pp. 144-155

Ernest Lehman, the producer of the film adaptation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf ? also took credit for the screenplay of Albee’s play, although the playwright contended that the script was all his and that Lehman added only one line!1 Similarly, the HBO Films production of Wit (2001) gives director Mike Nichols and his star, Emma Thompson, a screenplay...

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12. Stairway to Heaven

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pp. 156-169

The most cinematic moments of HBO’s Angels in America happen in the opening credits before the film actually begins. Timed to Thomas Newman’s haunting musical score, the viewer swoops and swerves through the clouds on a winged flight across America, dipping below them intermittently to check out monuments of manifest destiny along the way: the Golden Gate Bridge...

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Conclusion: Revivals Versus Remakes

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pp. 170-171

Subsequent performances “revive” old plays, but directors “remake” films, a distinction that underscores the human element of the former mode and the technological/ mechanical basis of the latter. I began this book by questioning the valorization of theater as a “live” event over film and television, but notions of revival begin to reintroduce sneakily the significance of...

Notes

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pp. 173-180

Works Cited

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pp. 181-190

Index

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pp. 191-201


E-ISBN-13: 9780817380823
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817315719

Publication Year: 2007

Research Areas

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Subject Headings

  • American drama -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • Theater -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • American drama -- 20th century -- Film and video adaptations.
  • Motion pictures and literature -- United States.
  • Theater and society -- United States.
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