Read Time:
2m 20sec


By Michael Gilmore. Columbia Univ. Press. 192 pp. $22.50

Imagine John Wayne under West End lights, and you begin to understand the vast divide between the English stage and the American movie set. Gilmore undertakes far more than a simple compare-and-contrast exercise in Differences in the Dark, his compact exploration of the theater and the movies as symbols of their respective national characters. These forms of entertainment didn’t evolve as they did by accident, he argues. Rather, they reflect and even explain each country’s history and politics.

Developing his case through 30 or so subdivisions bearing such titles as "Abundance and Scarcity," "Climate," and "Jews," Gilmore first establishes the relationships between entertainment and nation. He aligns the movies with Americans’ individualism, hunger to conquer new physical frontiers, and rapture for technological advance. British theater, by contrast, protects community and collective memory from the encroachments of a high-tech (and often Americanized) world.

Beyond these generalizations, well-supported and persuasive as they are, Gilmore plumbs the specific differences between the two media. In one essay, he suggests that despite their love of nature, Americans "wanted their wilderness ‘conquered,’ the frontier ‘tamed,’ and the physical world improved upon." By appearing so realistic, "the cinema imports antinaturalism into mass culture under the cover of nature." The English, by contrast, embrace nature through their love of gardens, grass tennis courts, and live rather than celluloid dramatic performances. While these miniarguments exhibit occasional weaknesses—isn’t the British garden the ultimate symbol of "wilderness conquered"?—most display the author’s insight and creativity.

Gilmore’s larger ambition is to draw movies and drama into political spheres. He explores the influence of Britain’s class hierarchy on its theater and the effects of racial discrimination on American cinema since D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915). And he finds parallels between today’s "American cultural imperialism" and the British theater of the late 19th century. Imperialism, he suggests, requires that the population at large be essentially passive, feeling neither involved in nor responsible for events on the world’s stage. And, Gilmore triumphantly points out, British imperial theaters kept the audience far removed from the actors, a characteristic he finds in modern American cineplexes as well.

Always fair, Gilmore takes pains to point out that the United States, "using trade rather than takeover," built an empire more durable than Britain’s. Without declaring a preference for either theater or movies ("both seem to me both admirable and indefensible"), he gives us a small, rich production that deserves applause from both sides of the Atlantic.

—Dillon Teachout