In defense of theater


In any language, you have to dig way into the past to get a clear idea of the word’s groove. A word’s history—its etymology—is like a poem: it reveals hidden, maybe archaic nuances to give you clues to a meaning beyond utility. The modern English word benefactor comes from the Latin phrase bene facere, “to do well.” Nuance! (For artificial languages, it simply helps to be on the same drugs its inventors took. I prefer Quaaludes for Klingon, opiates for Esperanto, horse tranquilizers for Volapük, and so on.)

Like a large chunk of our vocabulary, theater was stolen from the French. Back in the late 14th century when theater first entered the scene, the word was used exclusively to describe the building in which plays were performed. By 1668, the word had come to mean not just the building, but also the craft itself, that is, “the theater” everyone talks about in a reverent hush and rounded, projected vowels.

The earliest form of theater can be traced back to the ancient Greek theatron, which straightforwardly meant “a place for viewing.” Back when theater was a neologism, it was a fusion of the Greek theasthai, “to behold,” and the suffix -tron, “a place in which you do stuff.” Theatron itself is akin to thauma, which very long ago was Greek for “wonderous thing” or “miracle.” How’s that for transformative outreach to communities at risk? Stick it in a grant!

Verily we come to theater in 21st century America. There are two camps among performing arts followers: They who spell theater correctly, and they who spell theater incorrectly and come up with a myriad of lame excuses for it.

Myth No. 1: Theatre is the older spelling. As with many American spellings, theater likely isn’t a modification of the British theatre. Both spellings were more or less used from 1374, the year the word entered the language, until the English got around to spelling standardization in the 1700s and abandoned theater for the rival theatre. Both spellings are equally old and if you equate age with legitimacy, legitimate.

Myth No. 2: Theater is used for movies and theatre for plays. Or, theater is the building, theatre is the art form. I defy you to bring me any English-language dictionary published anywhere in the world that makes either distinction. Just as Sir Ian McKellen isn’t an actor on stage and an “actre” on film, audiences always see him in theaters. The only people who maintain the words are homophones are American theater-with-an-R-E evangelists. (Capital and capitol don’t provide a parallel here; they have only vaguely related etymologies, hence the difference for “chief town” and “legislative building.”)

Myth No. 3: I want to use the original English. Theater is a loanword. So if you want to get all strictly Anglo-Saxon, try the compound “playhouse.” Play and house are truly English words with Germanic roots dating back perhaps millennia. However not even “play” took up a theatrical meaning until 1325 or so. On a side note, purifying the English language to be more true to its “original” roots has led to coinages like ungothroughsome, meant to destroy the French (and foreign) impenetrable. Doubleplusungood.

Myth No. 4: It just looks better. This is a matter of aesthetics and though I won’t judge your taste, I will happily judge your consistency. If Britsy spellings are such gorgeous little beasts, why use theatre and behaviour but completely miss cheque, programme, defence, and all those lovely Æs and Œs in enclyclopædia and subpœna? The differences between the two main varieties of English go deep, so don’t write any orthographic checks your ass can’t cash.

Myth No. 5: The British just know what they’re doing. Uh-huh. Don’t tell that to sub-Saharan Africa. I've never understood the American longing to be English, especially the kind of English that begins sentences with “Well, you Americans always...” Shut it, Pip.

The only real legit excuse Americans have to use theatre? You want to. Maybe it makes you feel special and you get a weird little chill when you see the misplaced R on the side of a building. I don’t know. Maybe it makes you feel cosmopolitan. Could be. Maybe it gives you a sense that you’re connected to some sort of ancient continuum of art. If so, that’s fantastic. But that’s your reason for using one spelling over another, not anything linguistically justifiable.

And that’s fine. If you want to spell it R-E, go right ahead. There’s no shortage of people in this world who inject their speech and writing with words that comfort or challenge or differentiate or prove some esoteric thing. As much as language is used to unify people, it remains that every group creates its own internal rules of usage to Keep Others Out. Theatre sends a signal that theater does not.

Ask the boy with a talent for ballet: Performing artists must be vigilant on defense and forceful on offense. We launch volleys of self-justification because our talents—and therefore our selves—are often viewed as elitist and pretentious and also unprofitable (which seems incongruent with the normal activities of the elite, until you realize our critics really mean “without value” and not just “unsaleable”) and prissy and weird and something that probably shouldn’t be done by Midwesterners, or at least not the heterosexual ones, and even then, tread carefully since only people in New York will totally get you and your abnormal fixation on Jesus Christ Superstar or whatever.

So we whip out theatre as shorthand for, “I know you think what I do is worthless and silly, but it’s better than your stupid sports or fishing or Bible study, so shut up.”

Theatre is the proper way to spell that mortification you’ll feel in the pit of your stomach today around the Thanksgiving table when politics or Celine Dion come up.

Theatre is the correct spelling for the hot flames of moral outrage that consume you when you think about how all the hacks on reality television are getting more money and sex and attention and applause than you ever will.

And that’s where I draw the line for myself. Theatre is too desperate to prove its own pride and self-worth. Theatre commemorates itself. Theatre’s attitude is a little juvenile and certainly lazy and not at all confident. After many years of the indignity of self-justification, I’ve come to believe that what I do—plain, old, motherfucking T-H-E-A-T-E-R—has a place in America and the marketplace that’s just as real and salt-of-the-Earth as guns and the prosperity gospel and Ann Coulter and tax evasion and massive subsidies for sports stadiums and “American Idol” and whatever else we inexplicably don’t need to justify into existence, but what we’ve been browbeaten to view as wholesome and authentic.

I don’t need to justify myself, much to less people who will never buy my tickets. I don’t need to pretend I’m English to have a good time, or to have talent, or to understand dry jokes. I’m not an outsider, I’m not apart, and I don’t like crumpets.

I’m just a theater artist. 


Well, aren't we defensive!

I've been reading a bunch of essays on this subject, and yours is the best yet, Matthew. It is, as I would expect from you, sharply written with superb etymological research.

However, I must say that I have yet to read an essay by a person who uses the the spelling "theatre" defending his/her predilection. They all seem to be essays by people who are morally or politically offended by and want to STAMP OUT the variant spelling --- or at least make people who use it feel really bad. You say "I don't need to justify myself," yet that's what the whole article is about: proving that the way you spell the word is RIGHT.

But there really isn't any right or wrong. Me, I am a "theatre" speller because I was taught to spell it that way and am too old (and lazy?) to change. But I'm not going to get in a high dudgeon if you spell it differently. As they said when I was in college, "If it feels good, do it."

Daniel Pinkerton, playwright


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