Theatre and Cinema: Contrasts in Media, 1916-1966 Book review

Author: Robert Cardullo

The first thing I’ll say about this book is don’t be put off by the title.  I’ll admit that it doesn’t sound like much of a page turner, but actually if you’re even remotely interested in either medium this book has a lot going for it. Extensively it’s a focused investigation of the relationship between film and theatre and how the one has impacted on, and changed the other.

Setting the scope of the book between 1916 and 1966 allows Robert Cardullo to compile a series of critical essays which focuses the discussion on the most fundamental period in the history of cinema from an evolutionary point of view. In terms of technological advances, this period saw the advent of the feature-length film and the introduction of both sound and colour but doesn’t touch on more modern digital advancements to film (I’m thinking about cameras and special effects). This allows for a pure comparison of the two art forms on a level playing field. What’s also great about the scope of this book is that from the perspective of the theatre, it covers what I would consider one of the most interesting periods in theatre).

Another interesting thing about the composition of this book is that none of its critical essays were written outside the period which the book focuses on.  By compiling essays from critics and thinkers of the day, Cardullo allows us to have a window on how the establishment dealt with the coming of film and it’s evolution to a mass-market art form.  This lends an immediacy to the concerns of the book, there is no room for hindsight or to analyse how these changes influence culture today. We’re left to draw our own conclusions on that. 

One chapter I was especially drawn to was by Erwin Panofsky, who writes about the essential differences between the mediums.  What’s interesting is that Panofsky appears to be unbiased in his preference for either medium. This caught me slightly off guard as often books of critical theory laud theatre as the nobler and more worthy art form.  Although Panofsky suggests that there is a high-brow/low-brow divide between the two mediums, both are culturally significant and he concedes that by the very broad and mass-market nature of film, it has the greater potential for cultural impact. But and this is key, he doesn’t make a judgement on that. Fascinating.

My one complaint about this book has to be levelled at the printer.  Somehow it has been bound so that the text is upside down and back-to-front.  What I mean by this is that you have to read the right page, then the left page, starting at the back of the book and working towards the front.  I cannot tell you how dizzying and confusing this was to do this.  I found it a real struggle to remember to turn the pages left to right, rather than right to left.  Even trying to explain it now it feels nonsensical.  I cannot believe that this wasn’t noticed before the copies were sent out for review and what vexes me most is that the review copy isn’t even a book proof, so I’m not convinced that if you ordered the book you wouldn’t find it has the same upside-down, back to front binding. 

Overall however, binding aside, this book is a very scholarly and well researched piece and would form an essential part of any postgraduate theatre or film studies student’s library.

Suzanne King

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