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Theatre to Cinema : Stage Pictorialism and the Early Feature FilmIn the Collection

As the title implies, Theatre to Cinema deals with the ways the live stage influenced films, particularly in the period after 1910 when films first became long enough to tell stories of comparable complexity to those audiences at the time were familiar with in the theatre. However, our aim is not primarily to trace the development from one medium to the other. Rather, we are attempting to understand the cinema of the 1910s by considering it in terms of the theatre of the previous century. To appreciate the acting in films of a Lyda Borelli, or the very different acting of a Victor Sjöström for that matter, we believe it is necessary to understand the acting in the theatre in which they were trained, and which their original film audiences knew.

Significantly, this is to go against the grain of almost all history of film written since the cinema first found historians in the 1920s. That history's fundamental concern has always been to differentiate film from the other arts, and most especially from the theatre, since the two media might seem obviously so close. This has led to an emphasis on the study of development of film editing, since editing seems most clearly to distinguish film from theatre. It has also made the American cinema the center of attention in the first quarter of the twentieth century, since editing developed more rapidly in the U.S. than in other countries with strong film-making traditions. As a result, there have been very few attempts to investigate the influence of the theatre on filmmaking, and even fewer that see that influence as in any way benign.

Our book is attempt to redress this balance through the analysis of aspects of mise en scene in the early feature film—acting, staging, and the cinematic equivalents of the nineteenth century tableau or "stage picture." The pictorial vocation of nineteenth-century theatre encompassed an approach to acting which emphasized the assumption of expressive and graceful attitudes or poses, often learned through the study of painting and sculpture and sometimes canonized in performance tradition. It also encompassed an approach to staging which sought to maximize the spectacular arrangement of decor and the acting ensemble—to create striking pictures at key dramatic junctures. With the rise of naturalism in the 1880s, the pictorial tendency was increasingly frowned upon in serious dramatic circles. Stanislavsky, for example, criticized his actors for posing and increasingly in the twentieth century the training of actors focused on promoting interior identification with the depicted character rather than close attention to the actor's posture on the stage. Similarly, approaches to staging such as the Meiningers' sought to evoke the quasi-randomized movement of actual crowds, as well as the replication of everyday tasks and attitudes. In addition, the increasing value placed on fidelity to the text in the staging of Shakespeare and other canonical works, as well as the investment in language and ideas most evident in the plays of Ibsen, Shaw and other naturalists and post-naturalists further increased intellectual suspicion of the spectacular and frankly presentational handling of mise-en-scène that we have identified as "pictorial." Nonetheless, the pictorial traditions of acting and staging survived in many different contexts—the productions of Shakespeare mounted by English provincial touring companies, revivals of nineteenth-century melodramas such as Uncle Tom's Cabin as well as early twentieth century productions in the same mode, and the deliberately archaic and stylized acting employed in some symbolist works. The feature film of the 1910s provided another fertile terrain for the survival of the pictorialist theatrical tradition. Filmmakers turned to this tradition as they sought to tell longer and more complex narratives without the benefit of spoken language, and as the requirements of staging for the camera provided a whole raft of new opportunities for generating striking arrangements of mise-en-scène. We argue that an understanding of the influence of pictorial theatre is particularly important for an appreciation of the relatively slow-cut feature films of Europe as opposed to the editing-based cinema of the Americans and especially of D.W. Griffith, certainly the filmmaker with the fastest cutting in the world in the 1910s, and too often taken as indicative of the period as a whole.

We hope that the ready access to images and clips made possible by this online edition of Theatre to Cinema will make it easier to document and study the pictorial tradition that we invoke and seek to explore.