Whose side is time on, anyway?

Plays are getting shorter. Are we looking at time the wrong way?


This column lasts approximately two minutes (without an interval). If I tell you this in advance, as some online publications have worryingly begun to do, you may find it easier to fit your reading into the demands of a hectic schedule. I know you’re busy.

That is pretty much the rationale behind announcing the duration of a piece of theatre, which has become a nuggets of information more anxiously sought than any plot detail. And the evidence suggests that this concern is making plays much shorter.

It used to be that calculating the running time for a show was a notoriously inexact science. The prologue to Romeo and Juliet summarises the plot swiftly while forecasting “the two hours’ traffic of our stage”. As most productions sail past the three-hour mark, modern audiences may wonder about the inadequacy of Shakespeare’s timekeeping, or, perhaps, the brisk motion of Elizabethan traffic.

But the charm of live performance is that it shouldn’t run like clockwork, something repeated precisely and mechanically. That sluggish four-hour opening night of a Eugene O’Neill play could be a sprightly three hours 50 minutes by the next performance and audience laughter or dramatic pauses may draw things out for another 10. In other words, a show takes as long as it takes.

Tell that to an audience with plans for a pre-theatre meal and post-play drinks. Responding to the demands of the market and the hectic pace of life, theatres have become suspiciously exact: 3h20m, 1h25m, 55m.

You might suspect that this caters towards shrinking attention spans, as though people experience separation anxiety if they’re detained too long from their Twitter accounts. But it’s really about engagement. The running times of this summer’s big shows, the Gate’s A Streetcar Named Desire (3hrs 20m) and the Abbey’s Major Barbara (above, 3hrs) are only off-putting if they aren’t known in advance. Otherwise you adjust your rhythms, expectations and stamina accordingly, without stressing over the final cost of a parking ticket.

Stopwatch syndrome becomes more acute at festival time, which makes performances resemble easily consumable commodities, stacked neatly on top of each other. When, a few years ago, the critic Mark Shenton wrote that there were no better words than, “90 minutes no interval”, it was easy to understand the breezy attraction, but the trend had worrying implications. (Another critic, Michael Billington, dismissed the phenomenon as a “fashionable tyranny” that precluded big ideas.) Now, to judge from the programmes of the Dublin Fringe Festival and the Dublin Theatre Festival, the average length of a performance is getting even shorter: 62 minutes at the DFF and 84 at the DTF.

Does this mean that we’re getting to the point much quicker? Or has time become such a liability that it has to fly?

It is still possible to say plenty within strict limits – Samuel Beckett’s Breath lasts precisely 35 seconds while suggesting the span of a lifetime. Yet this trend downwards suggests we’re looking at time the wrong way: as something that only ever seems to be running out, rather than the accumulation of a lifetime. “That passed the time,” says Vladimir in Waiting for Godot. Estragon knows it would have passed anyway. “Yes,” Vladimir replies, “but not as rapidly.”

No more than life, maybe theatre would be better if we made more time for it.

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