David Finkle ponders the proliferation of short, intermissionless plays in today's theater.
To some extent, the situation is a sign of the times and is perhaps best summed up by the title of James Gleick's book Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything. Increasingly, people want things done at greater speed -- including leisure activities. For some playwrights and their fans, even an hour and a half is too long. Harold Pinter's Ashes to Ashes, mounted by the Roundabout a few years ago, clocked in at around 45 minutes. Caryl Churchill's Far Away is 55 minutes in duration. Apparently feeling somewhat wordier, Churchill allowed her newest work, A Number, to run its course in 65 minutes. The late Sarah Kane is among many other playwrights whose works each take less than an hour to perform.
Anyone checking into the movement will also discover a healthy amount of 10-minute plays and 10-minute play festivals. When the Tribeca Theatre Festival debuted earlier this fall in lower Manhattan, each of the new works introduced under the umbrella title The Downtown Plays were 10-or-so minutes in length -- and they were written by, among others, Jon Robin Baitz, Kenneth Lonergan, David Henry Hwang, and Wendy Wasserstein. They were probably considered five-finger exercises by their contributors. Still, the times they are a-changing, and the day may not be distant when all plays shrink to television-commercial length. This is, after all, the age of the sound bite, so the coming of the sound-bite drama shouldn't be startling. And as people's attention spans have shortened, so have -- to a worrying extent -- some people's inclinations to listen closely, especially to the kinds of complex ideas with which theater has traditionally been engaged. (Let's set aside for the moment the shrinking of opportunities for new plays to be introduced to a moviegoing, television-watching public.)
Daily routines have changed, and theatergoers often want to hasten home after a show rather than paint the town red until the wee hours. If they've come from a long day at their office swivel-chair, a short stay in a theater seat is a boon. For proof, look at the positive reception to the 7pm Tuesday curtain on Broadway. (At London's Royal National Theatre, Harold Pinter's Mountain Language had an unusually early evening starting time when it was first presented in 1988; a patron could see the cryptic play and be home for an 8pm television appointment.) Aging theater enthusiasts, representing a large percentage of subscription audiences, seem happy to be sent on their way sooner rather than later. Indeed, the short play looms as the theatrical equivalent of the early-bird restaurant special that's popular with seniors in retirement communities.
Nor is the short play a bad prospect for producers, especially not if it has a small cast. From one perspective, investors may like the idea of a short play because it smacks of being the currently done thing. Of course, the capital necessary for a 90-minute show may not be significantly less than a two-act or, heaven help us, a three-act piece. (The cost of altering the New York Theatre Workshop auditorium to accommodate set designer Eugene Lee's requirements for A Number can't have been exiguous.) Moreover, the outlay for marketing may be the same. On the other hand, with a short play there aren't likely to be any worries about union overtime.
So the current prevalence of the short play is understandable. More difficult to pinpoint is whether the situation is a a good thing or a bad one. Scoping out the phenomenon in The New York Times only a week or two back, Charles Isherwood concluded that the get-'em-in-and-out-quick play or musical is most welcome. Noting that a short show holds out the opportunity for a refreshing after-theater drink at a favorite watering hole and/or a reasonable-hour post-performance dinner reservation, Isherwood then got to his main supposition: "[A] more general aesthetic argument can also be made for the superiority of the one-act-intermissionless format. It tends to create a purer, more intense theatrical experience."
Isherwood meant to cover himself with the cautious use of the verb "tends," but he's still on questionable ground. Does the relatively short, intermissionless play unquestionably rule? Surely not; judgment ought to be exercised on a play-by-play basis. The Times critic is correct when he singles out Caryl Churchill as a first-rank exponent of the shortened work. I concur wholeheartedly with anyone who rates A Number and Far Away as perfect plays. But it's pertinent to point out that when the Churchill one-acts Heart's Desire and Blue Kettle were staged, they were offered together under the umbrella title Blue Kettle. Here were two intense theatrical experiences for the price of today's one.
Not so long ago, the assumption was that audiences could sit through two one-acts at a time and feel no urge to race away. Case in point: Arthur Miller's first pass at A View From the Bridge was a one-act, and it was paired with Memory of Two Mondays. No one questioned audience endurance. Tennessee Williams, represented at the moment by Manhattan Theatre Club's unsatisfying program Five By Tenn, gave immense satisfaction when he joined Suddenly Last Summer with Something Unspoken as Garden District. That was in 1959, when ticket buyers handed two or more one-acts on a bill wouldn't have thought that their precious time was being wasted but, on the contrary, would have felt cheated if denied a curtain-raiser.
While Caryl Churchill is brilliant at distilling plays to their essence, it doesn't follow that every playwright is. What about the dramatist who feels that he or she needs to write a longer play but recognizes that today's theatergoing preferences discourage it? Take, for example, John Patrick Shanley, who's often kept his pieces short. Looking at his accomplishments this season is easy, since three of his works were available to ticket buyers in one busy month. I believe that Sailor's Song and Danny and the Deep Blue Sea are the right length but I have my doubts about the acclaimed Doubt. No quarrels with the play's being eminently worthwhile but, in my estimation, the character of the priest charged with child abuse calls for further fleshing out. Another dramatist who writes short -- and may be teaching the advantages of doing so in her Brown University playwriting courses -- is Paula Vogel.
In any discussion of the intermissionless play, anomalies have to be included. One of this season's undisputed clicks is the revival of Reginald Rose's Twelve Angry Men, which was actually lengthened from its original form as a CBS Studio One 60-minute drama. And there are plays that seem flaccid even at a mere 90 minutes; one of the season's disappointments is Marsha Norman's 'night, Mother, which many ticket buyers no doubt wish would end sooner than it does.
There are innumerable times over the centuries when two-act, three-act, or five-act plays have been abundant. Though the seminal Greek dramatists said what they had to say economically, the five-act plays of the Elizabethans deserve the time that they take. Okay, not all Shakespeare plays need every line that the Bard composed, but remember that the length of his works was partly dictated by the conventions of the period; the Elizabethans and Jacobeans apparently enjoyed the socializing encouraged by four intervals, in contrast to contemporary theater habitués who are glad to forego the breaks. Edward Hall did a fine job truncating all three Henry VI histories and presenting them as Rose Rage, but he still only edited them down to six hours with two short intermissions and one long one.
In light of the Rose Rage experience, it would seem that many patrons revel in spending more than 90 minutes at a trot in a theater. Submerging oneself in a playwright's world for many hours can be a genuine pleasure. I'll admit that, for example, Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night could stand redaction -- but so what? I want to hear every line of it! For another example, Tony Kushner's Angels in America could be leaner, yet his ambitious overreaching is its own reward. I'm with those who maintain that August Wilson's works could use some editing, but that certainly doesn't include those terrific arias of his. The run-down of plays that support substantial length stretches on for yards and includes Ibsen and Chekhov.
A few years ago, Richard Greenberg composed Take Me Out as a three-act play for good reason: The three acts jibed with the symbolic number three that he'd incorporated into the text. To maximize his structure, Greenberg masterfully contrived a coup de théâtre to end each act. This kind of writing is thrilling and is not dissipated by intermissions; the suspense introduced gives audiences something to talk about during intermission and an urgent reason for returning to their places. In moving the play to Broadway, where it won the Tony, producers were worried about two time-outs, so Greenberg removed one of the intermissions. He maintains that he came to like the two-act structure, but I wonder.