- Theater; or, Looking beyond Plays and Places
Alas: some readers, having read nothing but my title, are already annoyed with me. This is because many US theater practitioners, professors, and aficionados have surprisingly strong opinions about how "theater" should be spelled. The subject comes up perennially and persistently in articles, blog posts, and conference panels.1 It seems the spelling debate gained considerable rigor in 1962, when the New York Times quietly changed its editorial policy to use theater instead of theatre—even going so far as to "correct" the names of theaters that called themselves Theatres.2 But the dispute can be traced back to 1789, when Noah Webster advocated for a pronunciation-based approach to US spelling in his Dissertations on the English Language. Observing that the spelling of French words had been retained even though they were pronounced differently in English, Webster complained, "Ought [the Americans] at once to reform these abuses, and introduce order and regularity into the orthography of the AMERICAN TONGUE?"3 He answered his own call in the American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), offering postcolonial alternatives to the spellings of many British (cum French) words. When Chauncey A. Goodrich revised Webster's Dictionary in 1847, he formalized this orthographic philosophy by proclaiming in the preface that the re in centre, metre, and other "words of this class" should be transposed.4 But in contrast to centre and metre, the debate over theatre's ending is far from over. As director and theater historian Francis Hodge once observed, "There is an emotional context that surrounds this word that has made and will continue to make a shift to the-er spelling difficult."5 Further [End Page 411] complicating the matter is the insistence by some that theatre and theater are not merely variant spellings but actually two different words, with the former referring to the art form (and, concomitantly, the body of work it generates) and the latter referring to a place where plays are performed.6
I rehearse this history not because it is interesting but because it is revealing: the theater inspires fervent passion, intense loyalty, even cliquish elitism in those who love and study it. Proponents of the idea to embrace both spellings—theatre as play, theater as place—illustrate this most clearly. As architecture and activity, edifice and event, refuge and recreation, the theater is deeply beloved. However, we need more definitions when looking at the nineteenth century, when "the theater" was also a performance practice, a form of labor, and a community. By attending to these connotations, the chaotic complexities of nineteenth-century US theater culture can be seen more clearly: the eclectic amusements staged in playhouses, the diverse work and workers involved in theatrical enterprises, and the dynamic camaraderie that sustained theater/s. Such nuances expose enduring biases in historiography—among them, a tendency to privilege literary legibility over quotidian praxis; a continuing emphasis on the rich, white, and famous; and a benign neglect of the communal processes that shaped nineteenth-century US cultural production.
The literature most closely associated with theater is the so-called legitimate drama: narrative-based plays that were professionally produced and/or published. Yet records of actual performances, such as promptbooks marked up by actors and stage managers, suggest that scripts served merely as starting points. Promptbooks exhibit a wide range of alterations—scenes rearranged, large swathes of dialogue omitted, or entire characters removed to meet the needs of a company. Managers frequently reduced five-act plays to four, three, two, or even one act, depending on what the evening's bill would accommodate or what the audience would tolerate. Even promptbooks cannot fully capture what happened on stage. Actors added personal flourishes or "points" to impress the audience, and often, they were "imperfect" in their parts due to last-minute casting changes and the limited time they had to memorize lines. Their improvised dialogue is undocumented, except for scattered anecdotes in diaries and autobiographies. Additionally, many scripts have been completely lost, for the simple reason that they were never intended to be kept. Sassy parodies; saccharine patriotic skits; [End Page 412] slapdash dramatizations of...