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Film, the Rival of Theatre

A report from the International Drama Conference in Edinburgh

As a sequel to 1962’s International Writers’ Conference, one of many events that collectively are known as the Edinburgh festival, a six-day talkathon called the International Drama Conference was held in 1963. Meeting in Edinburgh’s huge, bleak McEwan Hall, the Conference devoted one session to the theme of “Theatre and Its Rivals.” Prominent among theatre’s “rivals,” of course, is film.

British film and stage director Peter Brook, in his role of chairman, got the rivalry off to a fast start: theatre, he said, is “often pompous, ceremonial, and off-putting”; cinema, on the other hand, is “more direct, more concrete, more democratic” and could go far beyond the theatre in “stirring.”

Alain Robbe-Grillet, engineer turned novelist (Le Voyeur), screenwriter Last Year at Marienbad and film director L’Immortelle, jolted the audience to attention by disagreeing completely: “Film for me,” said Robbe-Grillet, “is a particularly artificial medium. Everything is false and unreal—dust.”

One could actually hear interest rising in the hall: earphones being adjusted, English translation clicked in. If nothing else, the public sensed it was about to escape from the dreariness of well-phrased, intellectualized platitudes.

Robbe-Grillet defended his theory by pointing out the extraordinary ceremony, not of theatre, but of film making. While stage actors may become caught up in a role, actually believe it, this is impossible for film actors with whom everything is shot in bits and pieces: Rather than feeling cinema was ideal for objective realism, he suggested that film was especially valid when we must discover what is going on in our own minds. He objected to the idea that there are two kinds of reality—objective and subjective: “One is continually meeting the other in an exchange between the outer and inner world.”

“Commitment,” he continued, “assumes theatre and cinema are media for expression.” Not at all: they are media for “discovery.” An artist doesn’t know a priori what he has to ’ say; he writes to find out why he wants to write. He has no political, psychological, or any other kind of message. He devotes himself to “discovery, search, invention.” In the end, his discoveries will make sense-maybe even political sense. We have true “theatre of the absurd” if it doesn’t know what it’s about to discover.

Peter Brook appeared disturbed by all this. He accused the French intellectuals of making films that stand up in theory but lack what the English have: “a dash of common sense.”

Robbe-Grillet replied to the “common sense” argument somewhat condescendingly: “Everybody thinks he has a full share of common sense.” It was evident, he said, that we all have it, and referred to his own experience in “official common sense” as a scientist and engineer.

Brook continued to snipe at “the conspicuously artificial images into which no shreds of simple recognizable life come.” They were, he said, too far from the reach of “people.”

At this point critic Kenneth Tynan spoke up, irritated by Robbe-Grillet’s mystical insistence on man’s inability to distinguish the real from the unreal: “I can distinguish between reality and fantasy in my everyday life.”

Robbe-Grillet who, several days earlier, had introduced his film, L’Immortelle, with a statement suggesting that this was clearly impossible, looked dubious.


John Arden, one of England’s most discussed younger playwrights, warned against professional clowning. Then suddenly he began to sing in a raucous, quavering voice. The audience responded to his off-key ditty with rapt attention. “That, in a rough incompetent way, is theatre,” he announced. Films are “cold reality”; there can be no shared experience, no two-way communication with the audience as there had been just now. Referring to MARIENBAD, he stated that he “admired” it, didn’t “like” it. He felt held at a distance; there was no way to communicate back to the film maker. By way of contrast, in a live theatre, any failure of communication is uncomfortable and becomes known. Each night a play is different, “unique … The theatre has permanent value” he maintained; “it will always last. The cinema is continually beholden to the stage … we feed the cinema.”

Brook snapped up Arden’s defense of theatre by citing The Connection: “The play was real; the film was brilliant but not real.”

At this juncture, playwright Jack Gelber spoke for himself. He said that his play had been written as a spectacle: you could “look anywhere you want and pick up anybody’s story.” In film, there had to be a choice. He worried until he found out that his own “fantasy” coincided with the director’s. Concluding, he re-phrased an idea heard many times at the Conference: “One is alone in a movie house in a strange dream, but with someone in the theatre.”

American director Jack Garfein, man of both media, defended film: “No theatre version of Joan of Arc came close to the Dreyer film in pure image.”

Critic Charles Marowitz plugged even harder for cinema. He spoke of “the death of the word.” He dismissed the theatre by saying that it “answers no needs,” that of all the art forms it has least kept up with the twentieth century. He referred to the “intensive research” in film, the experimental activity both in New York and Paris. He said he was tremendously impressed with Robbe-Grillet’s film: “It reflects life as lifelike fragmentation, not in eighteenth century wholeness.” Finally, he spoke of “the commitment to aesthetics … To move forward is to be something chemically different.”

Again, a voice from France dissented. In retrospect, France seems to have dominated the conference intellectually on both sides of the “commitment” issue. Arthur Adamov, whose plays have been widely performed abroad for years but who is still strangely unknown and unproduced in New York, came to the microphone to puncture the notion that searching theatre can’t be social. Revolutionary comment is as great a bore as non-revolutionary form with revolutionary content. Whole societies, he declared, are born and die. The only real problems are time and space. On stage, there is a kind of summarizing process, neither realistic nor stupidly conventional. Because the theatre can always re-invent things, because it renders the space-time problem more mysterious, it is therefore more real.

John Mortimer, English stage, screen, and television writer, said that he was horrified by Marowitz’s premature mourning for “the death of the word.” Nevertheless, he found Robbe-Grillet “inspiring” and was not at all sure if Kenneth Tynan could distinguish as easily between dream and reality as he seemed to think: “He himself is many things at once.” Robbe-Grillet’s discoveries, declared Mortimer, “can release us from the sickening bondage to reality.”

Jack Garfein said Shakespeare’s plays did that. What we need are poets.

Marowitz craftily asked if writers feel they have the means capable of expressing what they wish, implying strongly that he himself knew they didn’t.

Austrian translator Erich Fried, a vocal participant at all Conference sessions, maintained that the means at a writer’s disposal are not inadequate because human beings are incapable of being pure aesthetes: “Aestheticism,” he said, “is often only ethics driven to despair.” Applause greeted this well-turned phrase.


Arnold Wesker, whose so-called “kitchen-sink” plays have made him a leading English exponent of what is sometimes labeled “realism,” denied there is any such thing as realistic art: “All art deals with reality. Some artists deal with it realistically, some unrealistically.” Disagreeing with John Arden’s singing illustration of the loss that necessarily occurs when a performer is not in direct contact with his audience, Wesker pointed to the work of Chaplin and Keaton. Cinema, he believed, is simply a different experience “in quality and texture.” He himself wanted to be a film writer, and the pace of his play “Roots” had been influenced by a Japanese movie. In fact, a great deal of his work had been influenced by American, Italian, and Japanese films.

Tynan added more kindling to the argument by reading a statement from an unnamed novelist: “The case for drama is purely historical”; everything is expressed with more grace and art by cinema. The unnamed novelist, however conceded Genet, Pinter, and Beckett to be exception.

Playwright Peter Shaffer gallantly defended the theatre: “To criticize conventions of an art form is to miss the point.” He refused to admit that the “word” was either dead or dying. He also thought the public had become jaded by seeing millions of horses in spectacles like Ben Hur, that the sight of a single horse on stage was much more startling.

Jack Garfein rose to say that Death of a Salesman as a play had been killed by its screen adaptation. His earnest opinions often seemed to take the form of concrete but not-quite-relevant examples. Garfein’s wife, Carroll Baker—every inch a Hollywood movie queen in red fox coat, slinky white dress, pronounced platinum blondeness, and having in all a curiously old-wave impact on this sedate Edinburgh gathering—contributed to the irrelevance by noting that the worst in cinema was worse than the worst on stage. Platform response to these-and certain other remarks made during the Conference—was that most embarrassing of reactions, the courteous non-reaction.

Edward Albee attempted to pinpoint the difference between theatre and film as a difference in “the nature of the experience as apprehended by the audience. Until film,” he said, “can put an audience into itself instead of merely taking it out of itself, it’s only an entertaining medium.” As for the death of the “word” argument: in the theatre, when words are used, we listen; in films, we don’t listen because we don’t believe.

As chairman of the Conference, Peter Brook struggled gallantly. as all chairmen must, to summarize the rivalry of film and theatre at the session’s close: “It is not by chance that some of the most striking plays have left an image you can take away,” an evidence of the “two-way traffic” between the two art-forms.