Second Reel

A Chorus' Lines

Stage vs. Screen: Henry V in the Park


Several months prior to writing this essay I saw for the first time a stage production of Henry V. It was a "Shakespeare in the park" type of thing, which was also new to me. I wondered prior to going if the outdoor production would be able to hold my attention, since I was much more accustomed to watching movies or an occasional indoor stage production where the atmosphere was almost cinematic — lights dimmed, audience siting in a darkened space away from the illuminated stage, the actors "in character" throughout, not acknowledging the audience in any way until curtain call. I wondered if the vast and less focused outdoor setting of this daytime production would be a distraction from the action on stage, and what it would be like to watch actual people — not the projected images of people — perform live a play which repeatedly addresses its audience, pointing out its own supposed weaknesses through the Chorus.

At that point, I had read Shakespeare's play once or twice, and had been re-reading it and working with it quite a bit to generate ideas for A Chorus' Lines. The only performances of Henry V that I had seen were the film adaptations by Olivier and Branagh. Watching Olivier's film had in many ways been to me like watching a stage production — I admit to having a more difficult time being drawn into it than into Branagh's version, and much of that, I think, has to do with Olivier's stage-like presentation (see Olivier's Lesson).

This "stage-like" presentation had been the focus of much of my initial thoughts for A Chorus' Lines, which I had been formulating slowly in the several years since college, where I had my first exposure to Henry V and the two film adaptations in question. College was also my first exposure to psychoanalytic film theory and its notion of "suture," a complex phenomenon whose applicability depends (as does the applicability of all psychoanalytic theory) on how much credence you give to the psychology of Freud and Lacan (I have another essay which touches on this that I will post eventually). Briefly, "suture" is the process by which a film "sucks in" its spectators, envelops them within the world of the film and makes them believe that what they are seeing is, if not real, exactly what they would want to see. Every film, it would therefore seem, has the power to make itself desirable to everybody. This isn't in fact the case, however, and this discrepancy contributes to the debate over suture and psychoanalytic film theory in general. In any event, while I am undecided on some of the more detailed particulars of the suture theory, I do believe that film has a unique ability to connect with its audience in ways that the stage can not, and for me that connection has always been more profound than any with the stage.

I also believe in a saying told to me by one of my professors, though I forget to whom it was originally attributed — "Theater is the real attempting to become the unreal, while film is the unreal realized." That is, theater, while it depicts something imaginary, is still presented by physical beings who are subject to the same reality as their audience. Film, on the other hand, is pure fantasy: there are no physical performers — no physical anything — present in the same space as the audience. All that exists within the projected beam of light is the unreal, the new imagined reality the film is presenting.


When we watch a play, we are constantly aware, to varying degrees, that we are in fact watching actual people in the same room pretending to be things they are not. Their shared goal is to present the make-believe, to defy reality and show us something that does not exist, but always they are anchored to the reality of the stage. Regardless of how profoundly the players' communication makes us believe in the idea of the fantasy, it can not free itself from the physical world that we and the players both inhabit at the same time in the same place.

For example, while watching a play I have a constant anxiety (which varies in intensity each time and from moment to moment during the play, sometimes remaining a very subtle underlying feeling and sometimes becoming a more palpable sense of discomfort) that one of the actors may flub a line, fall off the stage, be heckled, or somehow suffer an intrusion of physical reality which calls attention to the fact that s/he is not Henry V, Willie Lohman, or Eliza Doolittle, but merely another person in the room who has taken on certain affectations not just for our mild amusement, but to fulfill our collective wish to be taken somewhere else, to deny reality and accept what is not true.

Always while watching a play there is the potential for awkwardness or embarrassment. If an actor makes a mistake, we can empathize with that actor's possible embarrassment, and we can also feel awkward that we have all been exposed — exposed as spectators who now have more to deny. We have been denying reality up until the mistake by accepting the idea that this actor is something other than just another person in the room. Now we must deny it again, deny it further as we try to overlook the mistake which calls attention to the entire charade.

Embarrassment and awkwardness are not the only "risks" of watching theater — the spectator also risks losing the privileged position of anonymous, detached viewer. The notion of "safe spectatorial distance" is more easily threatened in theater. If an actor were to fall off the stage, some in the audience might react out of real concern and rush to the aid of the fallen actor. Most, though, would be either too far from the stage to provide help or, more importantly and more likely, so overcome by the awkwardness of the situation that they would sit in their chairs and feel the pressure to help but also the desire not to — people just don't experience something like that enough to know what to do with confidence. They don't have enough prior experience to feel comfortable in further interrupting the ritual — in further calling attention to the denial — by getting out of their seats and becoming an attraction. By getting up and helping, they would become part of the ritual, the "show," and would no longer be anonymous spectators.

Many plays deliberately make the audience part of the show, in overt ways (making the space of the audience the space of the extended stage, having actors converse with audience members) and subtle ones (actors pausing to wait for audience applause or laughter to subside before continuing, a Chorus which looks and speaks directly to the audience without soliciting a reply). There is always some degree of interaction between the players and the audience due to the fact that the two inhabit the same space at the same time. This interaction, or perhaps more specifically the physical conditions which make it possible, coupled with the overall physical apparatus of theater — lights, costumes, curtains, sets pieces, etc. — allows for the ever-present possibility that physical reality will intrude upon the fantasy which the play is attempting to make real.


With film, on the other hand, there is no threat of physical intrusion because there is nothing physical upon which to intrude. There are no actors on stage in the same room. The "performers" are all part of the same intangible ray of light. They are shadows incapable of being addressed or disturbed. They won't make mistakes, because they've had countless takes to get everything right and only the "good" takes (those the filmmaker sees fit to include, for whatever reason) make it into the final film. If a blunder were presented on film, we would not feel embarrassment for that performer because s/he is not in the theater. We probably wouldn't even consider it a mistake, but part of the show — our knowledge of how movies are made assures us that this is all premeditated and perfected long before it is displayed to us. This is perhaps why there is more "heckling" in movies — talking during a movie may annoy others in the audience, but it won't cause an awkward moment with any actors or disturb any ritual being performed because it is not an actual interpersonal confrontation. In the movie theater, we are safe to be anonymous — in relation to the presented fantasy — no matter what.

Granted, there are some ways a film spectator can experience awkwardness. I've been in screenings where the focus was off, a general murmur confirmed that the rest of the audience realized this as well, though no one was immediately willing to get up and report the problem to theater personnel. People talking during movies is a distraction to many (myself included), and subsequent confrontation can be very awkward. These moments of awkwardness, however, do not influence the fantasy being projected onscreen. Even if the film strip breaks, the fantasy continues the moment the film is repaired and projection resumes. There may be physical intrusions upon the technology which delay the presentation of the fantasy, but there is nothing which betrays that fantasy.

There is also ritual in movie-going, but again this ritual is more one-sided than that of theater. The ritual of watching a movie involves gathering with others to watch a fantasy. The ritual of theater is gathering with other people to watch a fantasy being enacted by even more people, people who often must adjust their performance according to the reactions of the first group, the audience. There is no such interaction, though, between an audience and a projected film.

Henry V in the Park

The outdoor production of Henry V was presented in an amphitheater-style venue in a downtown park. By the time had I arrived, there was no more seating available on the large marble steps set into the small hillside immediately across from the stage. I had to join the crowd seated on the grass higher up the hill, above the last row of stone steps. Immediately I could tell that this was going to be somewhat uncomfortable. I was worried about my legs falling asleep, and needed to keep shifting my weight to keep them from doing so and to stay as comfortable as possible.

From the height of my "seat," the small stage did not easily command my view. In back of the stage was the rest of the park, a cement and iron "riverwalk" type of thing which I have always found interesting to look at, and beyond that the tall buildings of the city. There were a number of people seated around me, some who had, like myself, come downtown just to watch the play. Others, judging by the way they were sprawled out on the lawn sleeping, appeared to be at the park for other reasons. People were leaving their spots on the grass and returning with carnival-style snacks, which they shared with their friends in a ritual which became for them more entertaining than that offered by the play. The sparsely decorated stage below was but one of many sights competing for my attention.

Eventually the actor portraying the Chorus appeared on stage and began the Prologue. He was hardly audible. At this point, I really thought about leaving. I could barely hear what the actor was saying, and I knew there were over two hours left to go on the uncomfortable lawn, straining to hear. Eventually a few people began shouting that they couldn't hear, and the actor, once he realized what they were shouting, left the stage. When he returned, he had a new lapel microphone which he tested by ad-libbing, "Technological problems, even in the 16th century!", which was met with applause and laughter. Such recoveries often are, because the audience feels a sort of relief when the inadvertent causes of its secret anxiety — the actors pretending to be something else, pretending not even to see the audience — reveal themselves as human, admit to the charade, admit that they know they are not these characters, and that they know we all know they — and we — are pretending.

He continued, "As I was saying, 'O for a muse of fire'," and rushed through the few lines he had spoken prior to replacing his microphone and began with an earnest delivery once he had caught up to the unsaid lines. Now I could hear, though the actors' voices would fade and grow louder mid-line if they turned their heads during delivery. The microphones picked up the noise of sporadic gusts of wind, so occasionaly an actor's lines were stifled even if s/he were talking right into the mic. The PA system was loud and often distorted the actors' voices. At times, the actors walked through the audience, not interacting with us but certainly being mindful that we were there so they wouldn't step on us, and delivered their lines to actors on stage. Our space became part of the play. The safe spectatorial distance had been violated.

(Olivier depicts these kinds of distractions in the opening scenes of his film. He shows us the physical apparatus by taking us backstage to see the actors' preparations. Then he shows us what can go wrong with that apparatus as the Archbishop of Canterbury's entrance in 1.2 is delayed not only by Shakespeare, but by the commotion backstage which prevents the actor's timely appearance. Later, the actors portraying Canterbury and Ely [not the film actors, but the actors they portray] have problems with their props during the explanation of Salic law. In 1.1, Ely is heckled after he says "We are blessed in the change," and rain begins to fall in the theater during Act 2.)

This was a process very different from that of film, though while I was always aware of my physical surroundings, sometimes distracted by them, and while I was not experiencing the same "suturing" effect that, say, Branagh's film adaptation has on me, I was still interested in how the performance was unfolding, and I was genuinely enjoying the experience. The "ritual-ness" of theater became very apparent. I was not concerned with being "transported" somewhere else, or with believing in the fantasy, in the "unreal." My enjoyment derived from witnessing the enactment of a text with which I was already familiar, and from seeing how this particular company would perform each familiar scene.

It also occurred to me, however, that had I not been so immediately familiar with the text of this enactment it may not have been as enjoyable. My wife, who was with me at the park and who had not read Henry V since college, was distracted by the surroundings and did not have the same enjoyable experience. (She recently reminded me of two other distractions I had since forgotten — a wedding party posing for photos nearby and the seemingly constant air traffic overhead.) This is also a somewhat extreme example — not all theater is presented in this manner. Had this been an indoor presentation our response would no doubt be different. This is not to say that indoor productions are not ritualistic, but due to the physical nature of theater the experience will change as the physical environment of the play changes.

Final Thoughts

Henry V is a particularly interesting case because on stage or screen its Chorus addresses the audience directly, though in each situation the effect is different. Being in a darkened movie theater watching Derek Jacobi speak the Chorus' lines, even with him looking right into the camera, right "at us," is an entirely different thing than having a stage actor in the same room speaking the same lines. The stage actor, though s/he is reciting a pre-written script, is still addressing us directly, talking to us, acknowledging us as spectators to the ritual. The projected image of the film actor looking right into the camera is still just an image, not an actual person before us. It is not a cognizant entity capable of making the distinction between screen and spectator, so we are free to remain protected anonymous observers.