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Theatre: Theater? Wherein lies the difference?

By Robert W. Bethune
ART TIMES online July 2013

There are a variety of standard answers, and one curmudgeonly one.

“Theatre” is from the French, “Theater” from the German. At one time, there was a split between people who thought neoclassical, pure, poetic, art-for-art’s-sake “theatre” (think Racine) was the cat’s pajamas and those who thought engaged, political, more or less realistic, socially engaged “theater” (think Lessing) was the other leg of the cat’s pajamas. Nobody remembers that now except theater history buffs, since it got really bollixed up when Zola came along and refused to be properly, purely, esthetically and aristocratically French. What can you expect? He was half Italian, even if he was born in Paris.

The curmudgeon holds that people whose weak personalities require external bolstering of their self-esteem use “theatre” because it looks elite, cultured, artistic and classy, whereas people who have their feet on the ground and their brains in their heads and are mostly concerned with getting on with it and getting it done use “theater” because they’ve always had a gut-level attitude that says, “To hell with the French!”

I personally always write “theater” because French gives my mouth a nasty taste of stale bon-bons. Besides, I can’t stand phony elitism and “theatre” reeks of it.

“Theatre” supposedly refers to the art form, “theater” to the building in which the art form takes place. That’s what most theater people today would probably say. There is no basis for this in etymology or lexicography; per the OED, “theatre” is nothing but “a variant spelling” of “theater.” It may be that actual usage is headed in this direction. In that case, Mr. Curmudgeon, stand up in the stirrups and shoot all your arrows; it’s a good day to die.

Bethune website:

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