To the question, “How long should a man’s legs be?,” President Abraham Lincoln is credited with responding, “Long enough to reach the ground.” The quote may or may not be accurately ascribed to Lincoln, but it has been on my mind a lot of late, although not in regard to physical stature.
If you are a regular theatergoer, you are undoubtedly in the habit of ascertaining, before you see a production, what the running time will be. Your motivation may be practical: notifying the babysitter, figuring out what train to catch, making post-theatre dining reservations. But undoubtedly you have found yourself cheered, more than once, when your inquiry results in the answer, “90 minute, no intermission.”
It is the cheerfulness which concerns me. I am not entirely certain when the tide turned towards the single-act play (and in some cases musicals), but they seem much more prevalent of late. Perhaps this is simply evolutionary, as we’ve watched theatre go from five acts to three acts to two, and the standard is turning once again. But unlike other devolutions in theatrical scope, which have been economically driven (playwrights say they can’t get large cast plays produced, and therefore write more “practically,” to name one troublesome example), the “full-length” one-act play is actually counter to theatrical economics, as it wreaks havoc on intermission concessions sales, to the dismay of many managers and producers.
Years ago, in my press agent days in Hartford, I would regularly get a call from the major local critic, on a Wednesday or Thursday, asking about the length of the production that would open on a Friday night. His query was practical; he would leave the theatre immediately at the end of the production and go back to the paper to write for the next day’s edition, a schedule that even the New York papers had abandoned (and because we had only five previews, we were loathe to invite him sooner). As we came to know each other better, I would try to call him preemptively, and if I forgot, and received a Thursday call, I would pick up my phone and announce the number of acts and running time before I even said hello. After we had presented a few shows that were single act, intermissionless plays, for which the critic voiced his enthusiasm, I brashly asked, “Look, if all our plays were one act without an intermission, would we be assured of better reviews?” I was met with the only half-joking response, “It wouldn’t hurt.”
In recent weeks, I have noted an articulate and enthusiastic theatre tweeter lobbying for exactly that – that all plays should be unbroken and brief. We have debated the issue as effectively as one can do in 140-character snippets, but his advocacy of this position, and my prior experience with such opinions, moved me to say more on the topic.
Yes, I will confess that on occasion, I am heartened to know that I can make it home with enough time to brush my teeth and settle into bed before the start of “The Daily Show” at 11 pm. But it has never occurred to me to hope that playwrights would simply write shorter, which is in fact code for “less.” I am, however, an enthusiastic advocate of 7 o’clock or 7:30 p.m. weeknight curtains, which we had instituted in 1986 at Hartford Stage when audience surveys revealed a 2 to 1 preference in the audience for earlier start times – among an audience that snapped up tickets for the decidedly wordy works of Shakespeare and Ibsen. I like getting home early, but not at the expense of theatrical complexity.
I want to say to playwrights, already hobbled by the number of sets and number of actors they can utilize, please don’t restrict yourself by word or page count. Write the stories you want to tell, and take the time you need to tell them. As a notoriously discursive essayist myself, I also urge you not to be afraid of digressions if they illuminate your story, your characters, your themes. We cannot afford to have you put in a position where you must sacrifice texture and subtext in favor of train schedules or simple impatience. I am not naïve, and marathon events like Angels in America andThe Norman Conquests have their economic and logistical challenges, but they are in fact the exception, not the rule (yet often all the more recognized precisely because of that fact).
The issue of play length is perhaps most on my mind because of two plays I’ve seen in the past fortnight: Caryl Churchill’s A Number and Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz. The former I saw recently in London, having been enthralled by its New York premiere several years back. The latter I saw for the first time less than 24 hours ago, after reading about it for years. Both (even the second viewing of A Number, in a wholly new production), were profoundly memorable events for me. The former, with only two actors, four characters and a chair, manages to encompass a vast array of themes: familial love and loss, the nature of identity, the ethics of cloning, the slipperiness of truth. The latter transcends the dingy office in which it’s set and lifts the act of reading a classic book into rarified realms while illuminating an extremely familiar (to me), brilliant text, in a way that made me examine it as if new. Both experiences could only take place live, in a theatre; they would make no sense and lose their impact on film, radio or television. The former runs perhaps 50 minutes and says all that needs to be said, the latter requires some eight hours altogether, including a dinner break, and its very completeness is part of its impact.
I will never seek to silence anyone’s opinion about theatre, but I will ask those who advocate or agitate for more compact works to, similarly, try not to direct the playwright’s voice. Let’s not create a producing and theatergoing environment in which only the brief can survive. We need plays of every shape, size, subject and length if the theatre is to remain alive and vital.
And so I return to my opening epigram, but only to transform it. How long should a play be? Long enough to reach its audience.
This post originally appeared on the American Theatre Wing website.
October 18th, 2010 § 0 comments