The Most Useless Argument in Theatrical History

March 15th, 2012 § 4 comments

I know, I know, sometimes they’re just kidding around. The people doing it on Twitter yesterday probably were (though on that platform, without emoticons, it’s sometimes hard to tell). But for every playful exchange, there’s a pedantic discussion about origins, venues, style books, nationalities and so on…and on and on.  I refer, of course, to the ongoing “re” versus “er” contretemps over the spelling of the art form in which I have made my career, which, for the purpose of this essay, I will avoid naming, lest I be seen as a partisan.

One can only marvel at the evergreen nature of this tedious discussion. There are those who wish to make it an “American” versus “British” skirmish, entirely avoiding the fact that we a) both speak English, and b) the “re” spelling would seemingly have its roots in France in any event. People argue passionately that the “correct” usage is “er” when referring to a venue but “re” when discussing the making of the art itself (or is it the other way around?). Some helpless folk like myself have worked for companies that each spell it differently, and therefore have to assimilate to another “house style” every few years; as a result, I cannot manage any individual consistency, consequently abandoning any personal position on the matter. The all-powerful Google will often field search results in differing orders depending upon which spelling you opt for.

If you happen to be part of the profession in New York, the question is sometimes decided for you. The New York Times — which acquiesces to the wish of a rock band that opts to name itself “Fun.” with the period as part of the name (which just stumped my spell-check) to the horror, I’m sure, of the puncuationalist academy; which freely refers to “Lady” Gaga when her honorific is self-imposed rather than a birthright or a legal name, as it did years before for the comedian Lord Buckley — is quite clear on the “er”/”re” divide. The only accepted spelling at the Times is “er,” even if you happen to be a company whose very name has chosen the “re” option. At that paper, and perhaps others, this is non-negotiatble.

I grow weary of this petty debate, if only because, be it on blogs (and I can’t believe I’m wasting time on it) or tiny tweets, it just keeps going and going like some bizarre Energizer bunny in an etymologist’s recurring nightmare. There are so many more pressing issues: are dramatic companies still producing work of relevance? Will we ever conquer the racial and gender inequality that pervades our business? How will we insure a passion for the form in future generations when it is out of reach economically for so many and removed from school curriculums? Can the rising costs of production and adnministration be contained in a way that insures access while providing a living for those who choose to toil in this field? Aren’t these topics what are worth even our brief time instead of the round-robin minutiae of what order two letters should appear in?

Some time back, I jokingly suggested on Twitter that perhaps we adopt a different solution, and start referring to it all as “teatro,” but I realize that this will only spark further nationalistic and provincial dissension on this so-far-from-pressing-it’s-ridiculous topic.  But now I believe I have stumbled upon the ideal solution.


It can be used in all English speaking countries, is pronounced the same as the words we already use (since only spelling is at issue),  and maybe even the countries that use the romance languages can twist their tongues around it without sacrificing their indigenous patois.  At a time when we need unity on the dramatic form and the work that underpins it, perhaps this can be our rallying point, our common principle. If we can shorten “web log” to “blog” and crown unwanted e-mails as “spam” even when they are not a processed meat food, we can – much as “Mrs.” transformed or birthed “Ms.” some 40 years ago to dispatch a paternalistic strain in our culture – eliminate a ponderous and seemingly intractable debate simply by discarding a spare vowel.

I have made the first step. Whether I am innovator or crank, at least I offer you a passage out of inane rivalry and dispute. Do with it what you will.

In the meantime, whatever your decision, I look forward to seeing you at the theatr.

P.S. [Smiley face]



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  • Austin Tichenor

    As always, Howard, your suggestion is soundly reasoned and persuasively argued. But I will insist on calling it “plays n shit” and “that building where they put on the plays n shit.” Join me, won’t you?

  • David

    A modest proposal: let’s just do some and call it “that thing we do”.

    • Jamie

       Only if Tom Hanks can be involved.

  • And if we call it theatr, then we can also be timely and “hip” for the new media community (don’t we need some of those new millionaires on our Boards?), as every new social website created in the last five years has adopted this spelling convention. See: tumblr, flickr, trackbackr, talkbackr (created for our industry), weekendr, socializr, and more…

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