Cinema and Media Studies Theater and Film
Kin-Yan Szeto
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 September 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0112


Historically, theater and film have been closely intertwined in many respects. Indeed, theatrical genres and aesthetics have had a significant influence on film. Nineteenth-century theatrical genres such as melodrama and vaudeville had an impact on many popular American film genres, for example. Since the early years of cinema, collaborations between filmmakers and theater personnel show not only how two art forms have influenced each other, but also that the flows between theater and film are bidirectional. Directors, writers, actors, and personnel working across these two media demonstrate that much interconnection of stage and screen exists. D. W. Griffith was a stage actor and playwright before he became a movie director, and Sergei Eisenstein directed plays and designed scenery before he started making films. Many film stars, as early as Buster Keaton and as contemporary as Jackie Chan, were trained in popular theater forms and traditions and have incorporated such techniques into their screen performance. From early modern drama to the musical theater of the 20th century, stage plays have frequently been realized on film. Less often, films have been adapted to create pieces of theater. Meanwhile, film had a profound effect on 20th-century theater. Early in the 20th century, theater directors and playwrights integrated film and visual images in theater. For most of the 20th century, theater practitioners and theorists felt pressured by the growing popularity of film among the general public. As a result, amid the anxiety regarding film, the relationship between theater and film is largely viewed as antagonistic. Scholars and critics argue that film’s close affinity with theater impedes film from becoming a unique art form. Therefore, advocating film’s autonomy from theater can become a passionate concern. Today, in a technology-driven world, cinema and media greatly influence directors, writers, actors, artists, practitioners, audiences, and critics alike. In addition, the perpetuation of the theater and film dichotomy obstructs the reciprocal exchange and mobility between cinematic and dramatic means of expressions. Indeed, many discussions have focused on interdisciplinarity, because artistic practices can be intermedial, intercultural, and international. Finally, the topics of acting, film adaptation of Shakespeare, and musicals are excluded from annotation here, as they have already received a fair amount of scholarly attention by other contributors to Oxford Bibliographies. These topics are listed under the Bibliographies section in this article, for readers’ reference.

General Overviews

The overview presented here provides an outline of the theoretical discussions of the historical, cultural, and aesthetic relationships between theater and film. For some, the alliance between theater and film is seen as an impediment to the evolution of any unique cinematic art. Waller 1983 traces the historical debates regarding stage and screen, which are dominated by the argument that cinematic art and theater should remain separate, a position maintained by Münsterberg 1916 and Nicoll 1936. Both Münsterberg and Nicoll ask for the basic elements in theater and in cinema to be defined as separate and independent paths of development. Vardac 1949 gives an account of some of the important issues that define the transition from theater to film in the 19th century, arguing that the need for realistic aesthetics in melodrama and spectacle in theater prepared audiences for the invention of film. Brewster and Jacobs 1997 problematizes Vardac and his proposition that film is the natural descendant of the theatrical tradition of realism. Exploring the connections between theater and early film history, Brewster and Jacobs evaluate the history of early cinema as being deeply influenced by melodrama, and by a striving to be theatrical by assimilating pictorialism, a unique theatrical tradition. Unlike Brewster and Jacobs, Bazin 1967 emphasizes cinema’s close relation to reality and the differences between cinematic and theatrical mise-en-scène. However, Bazin is open to the possibilities of décor to offer dramatic ambiguity and natural realism at the same time. While Bazin focuses on cinema’s ability to represent reality, Sontag 1966 problematizes the privilege of realism in film and questions how such privilege is subject to social, economic, political, and aesthetic complications. Sontag interrogates the essence of theater and film by rejecting any single model for either art form. In comparing and contrasting film and theater, she points out that films “age (being objects) as no theatre-event does (being always new).” Highlighting theater’s currency as a performative event, she anticipates the later discussions in Ghosh 2010 (cited under Theater on Screen) and Page 2011 (cited under Theater in Film), which question the general assumptions about how film as a new medium revitalizes theater when the reverse happens to be the case. In a different vein, from a perspective of semiotics, Esslin 1987 focuses on two central themes: dramatic art should include both live and mediated performance, and the critical study of dramatic sign systems provides conceptual tools for understanding film and theater.

  • Bazin, Andre. “Theatre and Cinema.” In What is Cinema? Vol. 1. By Andre Bazin, 76–124. Translated by Hugh Gray. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

    Bazin questions the aesthetic theory and problems in approaching the commonalities and differences between stage and screen. He notes the extent of the audience’s identification with characters in film, whereas in theater such identification is kept to a minimum because of the presence of the actor. Therefore, cinema, even fictional cinema, is documentary, and the language of cinema correlates to reality.

  • Brewster, Ben, and Lea Jacobs. Theatre to Cinema: Stage Pictorialism and the Early Feature Film. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

    The book investigates the influence of the pictorial tradition in staged and cinematic visuals as part of the narrative structure, and explicates the relationships among theatrical acting, gestural acting, and early cinema. The authors trace the influence of the pictorial tradition in staged and cinematic scenes.

  • Esslin, Martin. The Field of Drama: How the Signs of Drama Create Meaning on Stage and Screen. London: Methuen, 1987.

    By applying the basic concepts of semiotics, Esslin discusses each element of dramatic sign systems—actor, setting, text, music—and makes cross-references to stage and screen. He points out the essential and fundamental aspects that film and theater have in common, and proclaims that the two arts forms are much more closely related than most critics have suggested.

  • Münsterberg, Hugo. The Photoplay: A Psychological Study. New York: D. Appleton, 1916.

    Münsterberg notes that film’s historical development is defined by the emancipation of the photoplay away from theater and toward the purely cinematic. He asserts that film creates a harmony that reflects the psychological movement of the mind through cross-cuts and flashback. Such perception of the mind has furnished film with a means that transcends power of any theater stage.

  • Nicoll, Allardyce. Film and Theatre. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1936.

    Nicoll compares and contrasts cinema and the staged drama of Elizabethan times, as well as the modern stage and moving picture. By using examples from screen and stage, he presents their differences, including the audience’s association with characters, sympathy, illusion of reality, and time and space. He proposes that the two media have to progress separately by distinctly different paths.

  • Sontag, Susan. “Film and Theatre.” Tulane Drama Review 11.1 (Fall 1966): 24–37.

    DOI: 10.2307/1125262

    Sontag interrogates the general arguments that consider film and theater as either separate or interconnected. She questions the assumptions about the cinematic and the theatrical maintained by dominant critical practice and suggests that new ideas are needed to consider the theory and history of the two media.

  • Vardac, A. Nicholas. Stage to Screen: Theatrical Method from Garrick to Griffith. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1949.

    Vardac looks at how film fits into the historical evolution of theater and the need for pictorial realism, and focuses on the transition from melodrama and romanticism of the 19th century to the emergence of film. He describes melodrama as proto-cinematic, striving for spectacular effects without film’s technological means, and discusses the similarities and differences between the two media. Reprinted as Stage to Screen: Theatrical Origin of Early Film: David Garrick to D. W. Griffith (New York and London: Benjamin Blom, 1968; New York: Da Capo, 1987).

  • Waller, Gregory Albert. The Stage/Screen Debate: A Study in Popular Aesthetics. New York and London: Garland, 1983.

    Waller summarizes the historical debates between stage and screen. He notes that the clearly defined and mutually exclusive approaches to the debates had been drawn out as early as the invention of cinema. Theater and film are subjected to a separate but equal theory, provided that each knows its limits and remains true to itself.

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