I will not refer in this post to the film adaptation of stage plays, though if you’re curious, you may start by checking the IMDB list I opened last February with my students in the MA ‘Theatre Studies’ (UAB). Here it is: I mean, rather, the poorly understood transition from the 19th century technologies of spectacle to the beginnings of cinema, both in France and in the United States. This is a story I learned years ago in the course of studying for a tenured position I failed to secure. I ended up transforming the report I wrote then into an online document, Teatro y Teatro Inglés: Una Breve Introducción (2000),, if you care to take a look.

I had always distrusted the many introductions to English Literature which claim that there is nothing of interest in Romantic and Victorian theatre, except for the plays of Oscar Wilde. And I was right to do so, for there may have been few 19th century plays worth printing for posterity, but the history of theatre in those years is a very exciting tale about how the many technological advances and the new urban mass audiences, both created by the Industrial Revolution in England, resulted in an relentless, thrilling stage revolution.

I had told no students the complete story because, although I teach Victorian Literature, this is focused on the novel (yes, we used to teach Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest but it felt odd, out of place). This is why I was very happy to finally get a chance within my seminar on ‘Shakespeare and the Cinema’ for the MA subject ‘Stage Arts and Other Arts’ (the MA itself is called ‘Theatre Arts’, Using Shakespeare as my excuse, I tried to make sense for the benefit of my students of how cinema was born as a parasitical theatrical art to become eventually a separate, fully autonomous art. Just recall that in the USA cinemas are still called ‘theatres’. At the time of preparing my seminar I did not know about the existence of Pablo Iglesias Simón’s monograph De las tablas al celuloide: Trasvases discursivos del teatro al cine primitivo y al cine clásico de Hollywood (2007, Fundamentos), based on his doctoral dissertation, a book that I have read with great enjoyment. It is an excellent account of this little known but crucial process.

I’ll begin here by recycling my own PowerPoint presentation to mention a number of facts that may be surprising for the Shakespeare aficionado:

*Up to the 1720s, there was no serious attempt to preserve Shakespeare’s ‘original’ plays (‘original’ because he never bothered to edit them and what has survived is by no means reliable)

*David Garrick, who wanted to turned his Drury Lane theatre into the literary competitor of the spectacle-oriented Covent Garden, organized the first Shakespeare Jubilee (1769). Despite this, he himself used Restoration re-writings of Shakespeare by John Dryden and Colley Cibber, as was then the common practice.

*Throughout the 19th century Shakespeare became the object of increasingly spectacular productions aimed at a general audience.

*At the beginning of the 20th century William Poel changed this trend by foregrounding the text and using a simple pseudo-Elizabethan production design (by Edward Gordon Craig, son of stage star Ellen Terry). This was the beginning of the end for the view of Shakespeare as a popular author.

*Today, yes, Shakespeare has been adapted for the screen (cinema or TV) more than 1,000 times (see his IMDB entry, yet although he is fundamental to understand how stage and scene connect, the real roots of this connection are to be found in 19th century popular theatre.

Now for theatre itself:
* From the early 19th century onwards Drury Lane (remember Garrick?) and Covent Garden, the only two ‘legitimate’ theatres licensed by the authorities, started competing with each other, enlarging their buildings and offering increasingly more expensive productions that required bigger audiences (even above 3,000…). These were secured by turning melodrama, imported from France in 1802 with Thomas Holcroft’s version of a play by the originator Guilbert de Pixérécourt, into the main attraction.

*As the actors’ star system grows (there no director really until the early 20th century…), the upper and middle-classes abandon the theatre for the novel (excepting opera and ballet).

*This lasted until mid-century when the Haymarket Theatre, re-decorated as an exclusive middle-class playhouse, starts offering text-based plays in a naturalist style avoiding the excesses of melodrama but still derived from it (these are the plays which Wilde later parodies and that Ibsen crumbles down).

*Melodrama thrives for as long as gaslight dominates (1803-1881), yet stage illusion and special effects need to be reconsidered with the advent of the much harsher electric light: London’s Savoy Theatre is the first in the world to be illuminated by electricity in 1881 (Boston’s Bijou follows in 1882). By 1890s most theatres have abandoned gaslight (Savoy recently pioneered the introduction of integral LED lighting).

*Cinema, which appears in the 1890s, soon starts borrowing plots and actors from melodrama, also from vaudeville (and/or music hall). Most importantly, early cinema tries to reproduce the experience of being in a theatre, using the spectator’s point of view, showing actors in their natural size and using static filming.
*Mèlies in France and Edison in the USA, however, soon see that this is not the way to go, and they start generating new film effects in the first cinema studios in the world, Montreuil (1896) and Black Maria (1896), respectively.

*Cinema’s real independence from theatre comes with the work of David Griffith, who invents what we know today as edition, wisely mixing with the series of diverse shots he and others developed (famously the close-up).

I think that what best explains the transition from spectacular stage melodrama to the cinema of spectacle is Ben-Hur. This was originally a novel by General Lew Wallace (1880), very successfully adapted for the stage in 1899. This adaptation inspired in its turn the short film Ben-Hur (1907, black and white), the long feature film Ben-Hur (1925, black and white, the third highest-grossing silent film), and finally the Technicolor blockbuster we all know, Ben-Hur (1959) with Charlton Heston. My students would not believe me when I explained that the stage adaptation included the famous chariot race, until I showed them the original poster.

To sum up, then, Victorian theatre on both sides of the Atlantic ended up offering amazing pre-electricity spectacle of a kind we can hardly imagine today. Cinema appeared precisely when electricity started complicating the continuity of the old gaslight-style of stage spectacle; initially borrowing basic techniques from theatre, cinema ended up eventually developing its own spectacular technology. Sadly, we tend to believe that this is exclusive to cinema because our current theatre (with the exception of musicals) tends to be visually quite limited. David Griffith already foretold it would be so.

About vaudeville… I was immensely pleased when I found a photo of the very popular vaudeville stars The Gumm Sisters in their first film (the short The Big Review, 1929). The youngest, Judy Garland…, was just 7. Early cinema certainly knew where to find big talent…

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