The Theatre Is the Only True Actor’s Medium (1935)

The Theatre Is the Only True Actor’s Medium

by Leslie Howard

           When one is asked as one so frequently is, which is the better medium for acting–the stage or the screen, one’s first emotion is that of amazement–or was, before the emotion faded from repetition. Amazement that the screen could be seriously regarded as an actor’s medium. For surely the first requirement of any craftsman in relation to this medium is that he have control of it. And surely no one can seriously contend that the actor has any control over the medium of the motion picture.

          Do not misunderstand me, I do not mean physical control. Granting him all manner of authority over the writing, the direction, the photography, and the cutting (an inconceivable state of affairs under the present system), he still, as an actor, is practically in chains during the only period which counts for him–the period of actual performance. Nor can he ever be otherwise. He is fundamentally at the mercy of a dozen mechanical hindrances, of a constantly interrupted continuity, and, most important, he is deprived of that other vital element of drama, the audience.

          On the stage, however, the actor is manifestly supreme. At the really crucial moment, the moment of raising the curtain, all the other contributors to the show have departed: the playwright, the director, the scene designer, costumer, lighting expert–everybody but the actor. He is left in solitary glory, in supreme command, with nothing between him and his living audience, to command and control as he thinks fit. Then commences that extraordinary partnership between actor and spectator which is the very essence of theatre. Here, to my mind, exists the only possible control over the art of acting.

         But if the theatre is the only true actor’s medium, the screen is incomparably the superior for the director. For the ideal motion picture director should be also a writer, or a collaborator to a writer. He must be a natural storyteller, for it is he who tells the story. And what a great medium for storytelling the screen is. And to have at one’s disposal the innumerable devices for this purpose which the modern motion picture offers is indeed a millennium for the spinner of yarns the good director is.

           Does this answer the question’ Probably not. Except — very definitely– for me.

(The Screen Guild’s Magazine, December 1935, p. 8; republished in Celebrity Articles from the Screen Guild Magazine, edited by Anna Kate Sterling. Metuchen, N.J. & London, The Scarecrow Press, 1987, p. 97-99)