The history of the spelling of a word: Theater

I’ve always preferred the spelling of theatre to theater.  I don’t really remember why, I think it’s because I saw English theatre spelled that way, and that meant it was more genuine than the American spelling.

I came across a fascinating article about the history of these two spellings and wanted to share it with you.

“Consider the Astor Place Riot of 1849. This was the deadliest public disturbance in the United States up to that time. The riot pitted immigrants and other working-class people against powerful upper-class New Yorkers who deployed the city’s police and state militia to enforce order. It was the first time government authorities had ever fired live ammunition into a crowd of citizens in this country. As a direct consequence of this incident, the New York City police force, only four years old at the time and armed with wooden clubs, would become the first police force in the nation to be armed with deadly weapons.

The riot grew from a rivalry between actor Edwin Forrest, the first true star of the stage to be born in this country, and Macready (Cushman’s English mentor). The press enjoyed comparing the two, and Forrest encouraged this by touring to cities where Macready was appearing in order to perform in the same Shakespearean roles.

Fans of Macready and Forrest were largely divided along class lines, with the wealthy preferring the refined and aristocratic English actor and working people enthusiastic for the powerful and emotionally explosive American. Macready openly looked down on Americans, viewing them as vulgar, uncultured, and ignorant. Forrest was frustrated by English domination of the American theater…..

The Astor Place Riot is a watershed moment in the history of American culture. The emotion that escalated into that conflict is still discernable in strong opinions about the spelling of the word “theater.” This was an event that furthered a process of class alienation and segregation. Symptomatic of this was a division of American entertainment into categories of “respectable” and “disreputable” that is parallel to attitudes toward the use of “theatre” and “theater” still today.

The militant preference for the British spelling among some theater practitioners in this country actually originates with this elitist impulse. “Disreputable” was code for immigrant or working class. Professional actors gravitated to “respectable,” “legitimate” “theatres.” This is the same impulse that made the impresarios of vaudeville feel justified in imposing racial segregation at their theaters. This is the same elitist impulse that inspired the community leaders of past eras to establish clubs that were “exclusive.”

While the design and very location of the Astor Place Opera House were intentionally chosen to draw a strict dividing line between social classes, now the owners of theaters and other public accommodations found new ways to make specific classes of people understand that they were not welcome. The decision to use the un-phonetic British spelling of “theater” is a subtle example, intended to send a message that connotes cultural superiority, refinement, and exclusivity.”

You can read the entire article here:

You Write “Theatre,” I Write “Theater” by Anthony Chase in ARTVOICE

 Handbill from Astor Place Opera House



3 thoughts on “The history of the spelling of a word: Theater

  1. I remember a friend of mine telling me that “theatre”referred to the art form & “theater” to the building. Nice theory, but just more folk etymology, and like almost all folk etymology, pure hogwash. It’s two variant spellings of the same word. Theatre has cachet because it’s British & it just makes things classier, darn it. But I don’t notice the advocates of “theatre” plumping for “colour” or “centre” or “civilisation.”

  2. I prefer the spelling “theatre” as well when referring to stage productions!

    Of note: In my current play, my character is half-American and half-British… 🙂

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