Theater as Art vs. Entertainment

by Vijay S.
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This essay contains the following sections:

What this essay is about

In this essay, I am going to talk about how practicing theater as an art form and approaching theater as a medium of entertainment are essentially different from each other, yielding different results as a consequence.

I also intend to argue, through the essay, why approaching theater as an art form will likely position the practitioner in a place of relatively greater self-determination.

What is theater, and the focus of this essay

With all due respect to great theories and sophisticated explanations, I suggest that, at a fundamental level, theater is widely understood as a form of human expression and a medium of performance.

To that extent, theater, by itself, is content- and purpose-agnostic and is, hence, not intrinsically or exclusively either art or entertainment, per se.

This is to say that, very broadly speaking, any narrative performed live1, to audiences and spectators2, audio-visually and physically in a three-dimensional space3 amounts to theater, regardless of the content of the narrative or the reasons and motives that underpin the performance itself.

Therefore, a practitioner is, of course, at total liberty to approach theater as either art or entertainment, both, or neither, and may select any content for his or her purposes, providing it with any kind of treatment that he or she deems fit.

[Indeed there have been mentions of words such as form, content, and medium in the preceding paragraphs; enough has already been said and written about each of these aspects individually, not directly related to the current topic of discussion, such as “form follows function,” “content is king,” or “the medium is the message.” The larger point—related specifically to theater, as it were, in the current context—that I intend to make through this essay, however, is not restricted to the specialized meanings of these words in their own contexts and, hence, cannot be adequately articulated merely by arranging a set of pithy quotations and axioms to buttress my position and argument. Therefore, a slightly elaborate explanation is in order.]

Because theater, by itself, is intrinsically neutral and identified mostly by what meets the eye (as has been conceded right at the beginning and the subsequent paragraphs), the focal point of this essay is not whether theater is an art form or a medium of entertainment. It may be one or the other, both, or neither.

The focus of this essay is, rather, on how a theater practitioner’s view of, approach to, and relationship with theater—that is, practicing theater as an art form vs. approaching theater as a medium of entertainment—can define, inform, and greatly influence, in fundamental ways, his or her practice for years to come.

Art vs. artistic: a linguistic consideration

I do acknowledge that art can be entertaining in its own ways, and entertainment can be artistic, too. I also acknowledge that there exist swathes of overlap, vast gray areas, and blurred lines. Why, no single definition of art has ever enjoyed universal appeal or unanimous acceptance!

That, however, need not stop us from attempting to explore and analyze further. A linguistic analysis of some of these words might provide us with clear boundaries of meaning, for study purposes.

Let me start with an example: Take a phrase such as criminal lawyer. Is a criminal lawyer a criminal or a lawyer? It is common sense that a criminal lawyer is essentially a lawyer, and more specifically a lawyer who deals with criminal cases.

Editors, grammarians, and English teachers will tell us that in that phrase, lawyer is the noun whereas criminal is the adjective that qualifies, modifies, or describes the noun in some way. And this is significant: It is the noun—not the adjective—that determines the essential identity of the entity being spoken about, in such constructs.

While you hold that example in mind, may I request that you consider the following phrases and subject them to a similar linguistic analysis:

  • artistic entertainment
  • entertaining art


In the first of those phrases, although the word artistic plays a part as an adjective, the essential identity of the entity being spoken about, the noun, is entertainment. Similarly, in the second phrase, the essential identity of the entity being spoken about, the noun, is art, with the word entertaining merely describing the kind of art it is.

In other words, that something is art-istic does not automatically make it art, and that something is entertain-ing does not automatically make it entertain-ment.

For the purpose of this essay, we need to keep that distinction clear in mind, along with the understanding that it is the two nouns, art and entertainment, that we are considering, so the corresponding adjectival forms, artistic and entertaining, are irrelevant to, and hence must be left outside, the precincts of this discussion.

With all due respect to formal definitions of art and entertainment, and allowances made for gaps and overlaps in meaning, for purposes of study and practical understanding, this essay considers the words art and entertainment from a place of simple, everyday reference and attempts to take the assumptions that underlie such an understanding to their logical conclusions.

If theater is approached as entertainment

If a theater practitioner approaches theater primarily as a medium of entertainment, by virtue of that approach, the practitioner himself or herself becomes “the entertainer.” Naturally.

And, what does it then mean to be an entertainer? Let’s analyze it in terms of what an entertainer does, by definition. An entertainer, it is quite straightforward, entertains. That statement, quite naturally, evokes the question, “Entertains whom?”

That is because the word entertain is a verb that is used transitively most frequently. (A transitive verb is a kind of verb that requires an object to receive the action that is indicated by the verb.)

Therefore, even by definition, to entertain necessitates the presence of someone to be entertained.

Dictionary definitions of the word (and its related forms) imply that the entertainer is expected to amuse, please, or extend hospitality to the entertained.

That, by itself, might not sound like a very bad thing; in fact, it might even sound like a reasonably nice thing to do.

However, the problem lies in the fact that this equation shifts most, if not all, sense of ownership of selection and treatment of content away from the performer and puts it squarely in the hands of the audience, an audience that primarily expects—it follows logically and by definition—to be entertained, over and above anything else.

Also, by own choice to be an entertainer, the performer is now positioned in a place where his or her act will be evaluated on the basis of whether and how much the audiences felt entertained (amused, pleased, and so on).

The performer could have something very relevant, important, or beautiful to convey through the performance, but if the audience did not feel entertained (even if that were due to the audience’s own inadequacies), the performer inevitably fails as an entertainer.

To avoid failure and improve one’s chances of success as an entertainer, what would the entertainer typically find himself or herself doing, gradually? The entertainer would indeed start selecting, consciously or subconsciously, material that stands a greater chance of amusing, pleasing, or otherwise entertaining a great majority of the audience. This appeasement mindset will also gradually start affecting the treatment of the selected material, as well, at which point, the entertainer will be willing to do only whatever entertains the audience, never once having the gumption to stray too far away from the average, and forever surrendering his or her sense of selfhood, sovereignty, and autonomy at the altar of the average.

Audiences come in all flavors. Moreover, mass human behavior keeps changing and some of its aspects are unpredictable, leaving no possibility of anything constant or consistent with respect to what constitutes entertainment, consigning the entertainer to the vagaries, quirks, idiosyncrasies, and lowest common denominators of mass human behavior and taste.

This means that audiences can eventually even start demanding to be tickled and titillated to be entertained. And then the entertainer cannot complain but has to deliver. The entertainer signed up exactly for this. An entertainer is expected to do whatever entertains the one who is to be entertained.

That does not sound like a position of self-determination, does it?

If theater is approached as art

Now, let’s consider, through a similar method, what it might mean to approach and practice theater as an art form.

If a practitioner approaches theater as an art form, then, by definition, he or she becomes an artist, by virtue of practicing it. (For the moment, let’s not digress into the topic of philosophical and aesthetic value judgments regarding what qualifies one to be deemed an artist—as independently important as that topic itself might be—but rather confine ourselves to a straightforward, linguistic interpretation, for the purpose of this exercise.)

Unlike in the case of the entertainer—which presupposes the entertained, the recipients who not only consume but also demand, determine, and validate the entertainment provided—you will notice that the word artist stands alone and by its own strength—like an artist should!—not looking to be validated by an external locus of authority other than the art itself. This is why approaching and practicing theater as an art form clearly positions the practitioner in a place of relatively greater self-determination.

For the artist, as well, audiences are important, but only insofar as they come in right earnest and good faith to listen to what he or she has to say to them—not to listen to what they want to hear. Frequently, the artist might say things that disturb the audience deeply. In this paradigm, the artist is a free individual, a free thinker, a sensitive observer, a teacher, and a conscience keeper to society, one who is free to explore heights and depths and carry the willing audience along; he or she goes to the plane that the audience inhabits only to carry the audience from there to planes normally not accessible to or accessed by them. Here, too, the artist converses with the average, but with a view to raising the awareness of the average—not to surrender to the average. The artist surrenders to the art whereas the entertainer surrenders to the ones that he or she has to entertain, and has to dance to their tunes, sometimes literally.

None of what was just mentioned, however, implies that the artist is, hence, infallible, a demigod—No!—or that the audience shall never dare disagree! It is entirely possible, and even quite probable, that the artist could take missteps, and the audience could provide an intellectual rebuttal that ranges from mild criticism to total rejection of the work, but the audience still does respect the artist for his or her courage to step into the unknown realms of thought, emotion, and consciousness, strength to survive the journey and return to the known, and the love that makes the artist want to share the experiences and the discoveries made during his or her sojourns in a parallel world with the larger humanity.

A historical perspective of patronage

Monarchy and the feudal system may have given way to parliamentary democracy and modernism, but the average human mind still continues to carry the vestiges of a medieval worldview.

In the medieval worldview, the artist was primarily—and sometimes, only—an entertainer; in the modern worldview, the artist can be a thought leader, a teacher, and a conscience keeper to society. But the common human mind is yet to adapt to this transition and, hence, keeps trying to consign and confine the artist to the slot that it has assigned for him or her, that of a subservient entertainer, who must consider it a privilege to serve and please and appease the rich and the mighty. And hence it is that the modern artist’s responsibility is to resist this attempt (at being misrepresented as an entertainer) while at the same time trying to educate the society about, and persuade it to accept, the modern worldview.

During times of monarchy, in India, the king was indeed the natural patron to one and all, and poets, artists, and intellectuals of varying rank and merit visited the king’s court in hopes of enjoying the king’s patronage in exchange for what they could offer the king—wise counsel, pleasant entertainment, blatant praise, and the like.

During feudal, zamindari times, it was likely common that any artist was seen mostly as an unproductive daydreamer, whose only use value to the society could come in the form of entertainment. Although both under monarchy and under the zamindari system there have been upright artists who risked defying the king’s command to sing his praise or dance to his tunes, or the zamindar’s request to do his bidding, there have also been painful accounts of how artists were often reduced to the plight of having to wait on and entertain the zamindar, such as by preparing betel leaves for him or smearing sandalwood paste on his person, in exchange for his continued patronage!

In the modern world of consumerism, where it is said that the customer is king, it is no surprise that the entertainer is still obliged to continue to put on a motley show and, if required, even bend over backward, in order to entertain the customer-king and earn his patronage.

Thankfully, though, the modern-day artist is not, by default, an entertainer, and can choose to be upright, autonomous, and truthful. An educated, modern society would be one in which the audience pays, respects, and celebrates the artist precisely for this truthfulness.


1 – Theater is performed, that is, happens, unlike, say, painting or sculpture (which are static, finished works), and theater happens live, that is, in real time, unlike, say, cinema (in which the entire happening is a finished work, with only impressions of those happenings from the past being reproduced—not performed—in real time).

2 – Traditionally, “theater” was a “seeing place,” so the idea of performing for someone to watch goes with the very basic notion of theater, almost by convention.

3 – Understanding theater as a physical rather than an audio-visual medium might be more appropriate in terms of distinguishing it from cinema, which is also an audio-visual medium but one that happens on a virtual, two-dimensional screen. Even 3D films are non-physical and non-material, at the end of the day.