PETER CRAWLEYon the genius of making a long story short
Let’s make this quick. Recently, plays have been getting shorter. Much shorter. This week we may see a new record established for brevity when Tiny Plays for Ireland 2, Fishamble’s second collection of 25 miniature dramas, brings the average national play duration down to the length of time it takes to boil an egg. (Each of the Tiny Plays, restricted to 600 words, amounts to less than four minutes, or, to put it another way, very soft boiled.)
Does it follow, though, that a tiny play is undercooked? That wasn’t the experience of the show’s first iteration, proving that plays, like proverbial pieces of string, don’t come in fixed lengths.
Samuel Beckett’s Breath, for instance, lasts the space of one inhalation and exhalation, but its 25 seconds (give or take) are meant to represent a lifetime. It is bookended by a birth cry and a death howl and seems to make good on the playwright’s legendary economy: “to live the space of a door/that opens and shuts”.
As writers have long demonstrated, it isn’t size that matters, it’s what you do with it. Ernest Hemingway’s favourite work was reportedly a haunting six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Yet neither work is self-sustaining: Breath was performed as part of a revue; the Hemingway story, according to legend, was written on a napkin.
That issue may bedevil the 20-minute plays commissioned by the Abbey, which, for the past six years, has presented them as rehearsed readings. Good as many are, they are so complete at 20s that they seem unlikely to develop into longer works. They probably won’t find much further life in production, and then only with companion pieces.
Then again, look at the short dramas of Beckett and Harold Pinter, currently being staged in multipack revues called Beckett x 3 and Pinter x 4, as though you can make an evening out of the short works of any absurdist playwright by multiplying their names by the appropriate integer. Those shows last barely an hour each, and though Pinter’s cryptic scenes of violent oppression lose power from reiteration, it’s hard to see how else they might be professionally revived.
The more worrying aspect is that, for new writing tiny plays have begun to look like the only game in town. Most new writing is being performed in lunchtime venues such as Bewley’s Café Theatre and Theatre-Upstairs, which automatically limits them to an hour. Most theatres have moved their starting time forward to 7.30pm, so time looks more like a liability, where audiences are subtly primed to think of theatregoing as a modest investment rather than a chunk of their evening.
Does that bring theatre into line with a culture that fits its thoughts into 140 characters. Or does it ask playwrights – and audiences – to shrink their imaginations? Some will say it’s just a sign of the times. Personally, I think theatre is selling itself short.