But there are some uses of “the” in which it is no longer a minor piece of a noun puzzle. It is as powerful any mighty adjective. And when this occurs, it is usually one of two possible meanings.
First, there are some elements of society, geography, or nature that are so unique, so dominant, and so apparently set apart from all other elements of that sort, that they obtain a “the” which is to say “the one” or “the incomparable”. As an example, when I lived in New Jersey, people would often refer to “the city.” In every context in which this occurred, it was apparent to all exactly which city was indicated. Because New York City surpassed all others in size, cultural opportunities, diversity, and economics. Only one city could be “the city”, at least in that area. I'm not saying that NYC's “the-ness” is a global phenomenon. I would imagine that in France “le ville” indicates Paris far more than New York, in England “the city” would likely be London, and in Lichtenstein saying “the city” would just be pretentious.
Second, we can use “the” to indicate not one specific shining example, but something more widespread. It has great breadth, not height. It touches on many, many lives, but cannot be isolated. An example: “the man”. You have probably heard people say they must stand up to “the man” or earn their pay by working for “the man” or complain about being held back by “the man.”
Side story: Once, when my wife and I were going into “the city” as mentioned above with another couple, it was agreed that we should see a movie that was not made by “the man.” My friend suggested “The Man Who Wasn't There” because with that kind of title, how it could it fail to satisfy a prohibition on “the man?” But his wife declined that suggestion. We ended up seeing Amélie (which was a new movie then, so you get an idea of when this occurred) which I loved but my three companions all found unpalatable.
Back to my point. When we use “the” in this context, we aren't talking about one specific man, nor one exemplary man. We are talking about a pervasive and, in this case, nefarious element of society. Though nefariousness or nefariosity is not required. What is required is that broadness, that being present at multiple levels of existence.
I now wish to use “the” to fuse both of those meanings together at once. I want to talk about “the theater.”
“The theater” is normally a usage implying pervasiveness without specificity. It refers to an art form that is thousands of years old. It refers to a community of actors, writers, directors, technicians, designers, producers, crew, and generally innovative people who keep this ever dying art form alive. I am proud to be a part of “the theater” in several of those roles. It is a powerful form of communication that benefits from being live, from connecting audiences to words, actions, and stories.
But a few days ago, I, along with my family, went to “the theater.” And here, I mean “the theater” as one specific, overarching, incomparable, paragon to which all that comes after is trying to match theater. We visited “the theater” of Dionysus, or the Dionysia.
No longer are shows being produced here. It is not a bigger theater than all others, nor would I imagine its stone seats surpass other theaters in levels of comfort. (Though I have been in a few theaters in my time that convince me that these stone seats provide more comfort than some.) It doesn't have stage machinery to dazzle one's senses. It doesn't even have lights. But it is “the theater.”
Because here, in Athens, is where this infant art form thrived and blossomed at least through its toddler and school years. Comedy and tragedy came about as part of an annual tradition/competition called The Lenaia. This festival was a worship of Dionysus Lenaios, God of Wine. Though in its earliest days it probably took place in another location, by around 450 BCE already its performances had moved to The Dionysia.
Being there inspired awe. Western culture as we know it spawned in Athens. This place, this festival, this was primordial, and our television shows, movies, plays, ballets, operas, musicals, and popular songs are all children of The Lenaia.
While I sat, thinking that my butt might be on a marble slab that Aristophanes' butt once graced, I felt connected to a sweeping movement. We are so shaped by stories we hear. We are so influenced by art we consume. And we can trace so much of it back to this one place.
I don't want to overgeneralize. There are many stories from other cultures that did not come from the Dionysia. I do not mean to dismiss any of these either. But without “the theater,” that movement that began in this particular “the theater” I wonder what our society's art would look like today. It would be fun to write a story about such a world, but how could I do so without being influenced in my telling of it by Dionysus and story telling that spawned in his theater and that I have been fed all my life?
Though if I ever find a way to write that tale, I will be sure to write it as a play. Because this is a type of story that belongs in “the theater.”