While In Public is going into its final performances (get your tickets!), I'm struck by one of the compliments I've heard a few times about it. It's certainly not backhanded, in fact, this compliment struck me as sincere...
"It's not too long."
In the midst of talking informally about any given play running in New York City, lack of length is often considered high praise. (Not to overstate, I'm sure this often means "We can all drink earlier.") In my self-conscious way, though, I think about The Death of King Arthur and The Most Wonderful Love, both of which run at around 2 and a half hours, and wonder how often that was viewed as a failing of the work.
We're in an era when we can receive more, faster, and with less effort. For everyone Coast of Utopia (three parts and hours long) , there are many more Wrecks (75 minute monologues for one actor.) Somewhere in between is the typical, songless play, which is now, I fear, expected to fall more within the length of the latter than the former.
This trend towards shorter works strikes me as a concession to the ease by which we consume other media. (It may be that people don't mind something longer if they see uniform excellence.) It may simply also be that the shorter works are those that have the least fat on them, and therefore, are direct and elegant in a way that flabbier works are not.
Sometimes, though, there is power in some weight and length, and stories need to develop in a way that is firmly edited. Imagine trying to turn Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? into a more compact, sixty-five minute evening. How much of the play could be lost in order to get across the major ideas? Plenty? How much of the exhaustion and bullishness would be lost in a trimmer version... all of it.
I'm also concerned that we're teaching new playwrights to push an elephant through the eye of a needle: that their thoughts should be bite-sized to be tolerated, and that if they write a play that is five-hours long, it is hubris, as opposed to ambition.
This is not to say, of course, that a compact play is not capable of large and complex thoughts (far from it.) In fact, some of the best works of the modern theatre have been shorter works by Beckett or Pinter or Albee. (In Public certainly doesn't trade in light-fare.) It's simply an observation...or more accurately a reservation.
- Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.