Screening the Past: Special Issue: 21: Cinema/Theatre: Beyond Adaptation

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In his Notes sur le cinématographe (1975), Robert Bresson refers to ‘la terrible habitude du théâtre’. This note is not an absolute renunciation of relations between cinema and theatre. At this moment, Bresson is reminding himself of how cinema is always betrayed whenever the filmmaker succumbs to reproducing theatre on screen, a spectacle that in being neither one thing nor the other can amount to very little. When cinema and theatre do merge productively, however, it is never because the former has adapted a scenario and characters from the latter: it is because the skill and sensibility of the filmmaker has made something original through the lens of le cinématographe. The cinema exists because of what it creates, not what it adapts.

The relationship between cinema and theatre is therefore complementary rather than antagonistic. They are kindred, not conflicting, art forms. The first manifestations of a cinematic apparatus did not herald the death of theatre, anymore than the tragedies of Aeschylus marked the end of epic poetry. Cinema does not suppress theatre, trumping the ancient art of stagecraft with the modernity of montage. On the contrary, cinema creates a different range of expressive methods and visual situations for movement, gesture, speech, and interaction. The mise en scène of cinema may be derived from the theatrical formulation of mise-en-scène but their shared formal properties are more coincidental than convergent.

The articles selected for inclusion in this issue of Screening the Past address various aspects of this complex kinship. In particular, the editors wanted to publish critical writing that is moving – albeit tentatively – beyond the adaptational paradigm. That is to say, they selected essays principally concerned with relations between mise en scène and specific theatrical forms and traditions. In reconsidering the cinema/theatre issue, what interested them was not the filmic rendering of a given theatrical performance, or the ‘translation’ of a dramatic (literary) text from one medium or culture to another, or the sociology of audiences, and so forth. Rather, we wanted to support writing that offers insights into the processes, problems, and possibilities that good filmmakers recognise whenever they attempt to transform the aesthetic resources of theatre into something distinctly cinematic.

Charles Leary, for example, discusses Love Streams (1984) in terms of how Cassavetes develops filmic situations by dissolving distinctions between realism and performance. Here – as elsewhere in Cassavetes’s œuvre – the presence of the performing performer is important not simply to the style and meaning of the film, but also to an appreciation of how his best work exists between cinema and theatre. Sam Rohdie’s essay on Va savoir (2001) invokes associative notions of influence and adaptation: the ‘Rivettian Method’ embraces spontaneity and openness: freedom. ‘Theatricality’ in Rivette is as much a philosophy of being as a homage to the directorial intelligence of Jean Renoir, Roberto Rossellini, and Bresson: ‘The task of Rivette is not to force things, direct things in a definite manner, but to watch and to listen to the way the film is going and the way dialogue and acting and story are proceeding, to be attentive to it and to accidents and associations and to then guide things, bring them to fruition and maturity and seize opportunities as they arise … This gives his films their concreteness, their play, their charm and their magic and generosity’. Des O’Rawe’s treatment of Dolls (2002) also speculates on the creative influence of theatre on cinematic method. In emphasizing the ‘attachments’ between the cinema of Kitano Takeshi and the aesthetic practices and philosophical outlook of the Bunraku puppet theatre the question of adaptation becomes doubly complex, involving the simultaneous ‘adaptation’ of various Japanese theatrical and cinematic traditions, rather than a specific text or performance from that repertoire. Richard Rushton offers a critical assessment of Sirk’s Hollywood melodramas in terms of ‘their ability to bring audiences face-to-face with false worlds, such that audiences can reflexively and intelligently judge those false worlds for what they are’. In focussing on Imitation of Life (1959), Rushton’s analysis challenges traditional Brechtian approaches to this question, as well as more contemporary formalist strategies.

Finally, Sean Redmond’s and Matthew Wagner’s discussion of Beckett’s ‘filmic’ phenomenology of perception, and Donna Peberdy’s article on Mamet’s Oleanna (1994), approach the issue ‘creative adaptation’ largely from the perspective of the playwright. For both Beckett and Mamet, writing and directing for theatre also involves developing a sensitivity to the particularity of cinematic techniques and structures of meaning. Mamet’s experiments with the performance (and politics) of the voice, for example, are themselves part of a very productive disagreement between theatre and cinema. How does a film based on a play that is largely comprised of, and concerned with, ‘dialogue’ escape ‘la terrible habitude du théâtre’?
Original languageEnglish
JournalScreening the Past
Publication statusPublished - 11 Jul 2007

Bibliographical note

ISBN: ISSN 1328-9756


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