Differentiating Theater and Film

Since film came into existence in the late 19th century, it has often been compared to the more traditional art form theater. The connection made between the two media is not without reason; they have similar styles of storytelling and exhibition. In fact, some of the earliest films “were exhibited in theatrical houses and, a short while later, as “acts” within vaudeville bills” (Knopf 1).  Despite the correlations, these two art forms are essentially different.

A film audience does not view the action themselves, as with theater, but through the lens of a camera.

According to Walter Benjamin the crucial variance involves the ‘aura’ of the work.

The aura, as Benjamin defines it, represents the authenticity of a work. An original work of art, such as a painting, is able to possess and aura, while “even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” (Benjamin 220).  When attending a play, the audience experiences something one of a kind. Once it has ended, it is over. The actors will never be able to perform exactly the same way again. A filmgoer, however, can relive their favorite movie time and time again. Any change in experience will be a cause of the viewer not the subject.

If the theory of the ‘aura’ is accepted a legitimate difference between film and theater a question arises: what is the significance of the aura? It could be construed that film’s lack thereof makes it a less legitimate form of art; however, though this is an interesting point, it is not entirely the intention of the division. Mechanical production changes the way art is viewed. It is the way in which audiences perceive film that is fundamentally different than theater. Reproduction removes the possibility of a unique experience, but allows the possibility of a mass experience. While there is an incredibly successful commercial film industry, this widespread distribution is not possible with theater.

Benjamin, Walter, Hannah Arendt, and Harry Zohn. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968. N. pag. Print.
Knopf, Robert. “Introduction.” Theater and Film: A Comparative Anthology. New Haven: Yale UP, 2005. N. pag. Print.
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