Why I Hate Theatre

I majored in it, and in another phase of my career I probably saw over 100 plays a year. So what’s my problem?

Honestly, it’s not theater that’s got my goat. It’s theatre. Part of it is that as an arts writer, despite (last I checked) living in the U.S. of A.,  I constantly have to double-check which company or arts group is a “theater” and which is a “theatre.”

Yeah, yeah, people will tell you there’s a method to the madness. A “theater” is a venue while “theatre” is the art form. Or a theater shows “The Fast and the Furious” while “A Raisin in the Sun” takes place in a theatre.

But trust me, there’s really only one thing you need to know.  Currently, American English prefers “theater” while British English fancies “theatre.” I can understand US residents coming from realms of British-ish usage (like Canada or South Africa) holding onto their theatre. But if you’re a US native, would it kill you to use proper American English?

Having to look up the “er/re” preference of every performing arts group I write about isn’t my real beef—confirming the right names and facts is my job. I just hate the apparent lack of any logical underpinning in the choice. I’m convinced that some artistic directors spend one too many semesters in London, graduate college, get a teense pretentious (as artists sometimes do), and then decide they and their underpaid nighttime minions make theatre, not theater.

But I say a pox on imitating British-isms because we think they sound more prestigious or erudite. Some people claim that Americans are singlehandedly destroying the Brits’ noble tongue, as if somehow British usage, by virtue of preceding American usage, is better. But that’s like saying deli sandwiches everywhere are ruined because fusion restaurants have sriracha mayonnaise and naan bread.

People who think using the “re” spelling gives their organization a little extra glamor (and glamour) have really missed the linguistic boat. The truth is that language is in flux all the time, and whether one nation’s usage is “better” than another’s is in the ear of the beholder. Or listener. Whatever.

Patricia T. O’Conner’s Origins of the Specious is a great book to read on this topic. Among the wealth of little-known language trivia she shares, you’ll learn that the way most U.S. residents speak today actually resembles the way the British spoke when they first colonized our continent. Modern British pronunciation is a post-Revolution development.

That’s right. Americans today sound more like the Brits did then than modern Brits do now. So while Brits lambast us for spoiling their speech, it turns out Americans have actually preserved many of the older pronunciations and usages that the Brits discarded over the last two hundred years or so.

So, Americans, consider that permission to stop writing “theatre” because you think it makes theater—or you—sound more important. Don’t major in theatre because somewhere along the way, someone made you feel like American English is sub-par.

But if that’s not enough of an incentive for you to embrace theater if you’re an American, why not just go the whole hog? If you decide that you’re a theatregoer in Philadelphia, why not visit some of the fine old venues in centre city? They haven’t lost their lustre; you’re in for quite a colourful evening. And afterwards, I give you licence to get a two-litre Slurpee like a real American.

See what I mean?

Yes, language is and always has been in flux. Languages rise, meld, mix and die every year. I’ve had English teachers rail against the strange new vocabularies that are supposedly marking the decline of our language. Good thing they weren’t at the Globe at the turn of the 17th century.

That being said, the rules of language are there to help us express ourselves as well as we can, so there’s value in playing along. I’m not saying it’s a total clustref*ck when our usage wanders between different standards in a global world, but branding yourself or your company requires special consideration and, in most cases, words that are spelled correctly by the standards of your home nation. Our linguistic choices can reveal as much about us as the content of what we say.

So I don’t hate “theatre” in itself. I just have a sinking suspicion that we’re not really thinking about the words we choose. And that’s the real scourge—especially for theater artists, who owe so much to the text.

Look, I’m willing to chalk this theatre thing up to an incorrigible pet peeve. Every writer and editor has one. But if you’re on my side of the pond and you founded a theatre company instead of a theater company, I’d love to hear why.

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15 Comments

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  1. I love your exploration of English – British and American.

  2. Ain’t this just cheeky. Thanks for the posting. I agree. Speak the language and the dialect first of your area of birth. Evolve and grow in communicating as you must or choose. I’ve always stuck with English American style, being a native of NYC, as best I can or learned. At some point, I’m sure, I’ve done the ‘t word either or ither way. Guess that’s being correct both ways.

    • Nice! I realize not everyone is as interested in language as I am, but I do think it’s important to think about. I just don’t like the grass-is-greener mentality of language that makes you think what the other guys have got is better. It’s not, it’s just different and that’s ok. Choose what you like and stick with it, and be proud of where you come from.

  3. Interesting to read this perspective. I’m a Brit myself and I love language and language used correctly (for the most part) but I used to have debates with my American best friend over our differing pronunciations and who’s sounded the silliest… I studied at the University of Texas for my year abroad at Uni and remember being marked down for one essay due to my British spelling! So there’s definitely someone out there who’s on your wavelength!

    • Ah, the Brit/American debate! Hope you had fun in Texas. My philosophy is be proud of who you are, so embrace the British spellings if you’re a Brit, and honor US usage if you’re American. Neither is better than the other; they’re just different. Thanks for reading.

      • Nearly 20 years ago now Alaina! I do favour British spelling obv. 🙂

      • Well you’re allowed I guess. I doubt I could switch completely to another standard if I moved. I did write for a UK-magazine in the past and it was funny for me to see how it came out in print, with my prose all British-ized.

      • British-ised surely! 😉 Seriously though it was interesting to get your perspective on the way the languages basically took a fork in the road when America became a nation apart – why should we assume that our version is better or more authentic?

      • You can be “ised” on your own blog.

        If you’re interested in this topic, I do really recommend that Origins of the Specious book. I agree it’s time to put Americans’ linguistic inferiority complex to bed.

  4. I’m a theatre person and I’m American. In college we’re taught to use the re spelling as the correct spelling for the art. Theater is a cinema. Theatre is a play. Some people also say that the er is the building and the re is the artform. And don’t call it drama, that’s my pet peeve. It’s only drama in highschool classes.

    • I learned that same re/er distinction in college as well, but since it’s not wielded with any consistency in the real world (or at least in my home city), I decided it doesn’t hold water. We should definitely build up a little more drama around this controversy. Thanks for stopping by and for your comment!

  5. David Stein, Toronto May 6, 2015 — 7:12 pm

    There is no such thing as proper American English.

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