Matt Freeman asks about the incredibly shrinking play epidemic that is going on:
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.
The point about ideas was the focus of a Michael Billington column back in 2005. Billington was wary of the potential for dramatists to start getting slack on the way they attack ideas. Or, worse, choose smaller ideas that can be managed in a short piece. Billington, like Matt Freeman, understands that Beckett and others have mastered the "crystallisation of an idea." However, there is something lost on this way to bite-sized dramas:
But what I miss is the polyphonic richness of which drama is capable, or the complexities of character revealed by an unfolding narrative. One reason why people are flocking to Don Carlos is that it provides exactly the kind of stimulus so much modern drama lacks: exploration of ideas through character, examination of the manifold selves that make up individuals, the thrilling collision of private and public worlds.
August Wilson is always brought in these discussions, with good reason. Wilson's plays generally run two and half to three-plus hours, but, as Freeman points out in his example of Virginia Woolf, you can't really conceive of them being much shorther.
Of course, there really aren't many people, including Wilson enthusiasts, who could say that his plays couldn't deal with a little judicious cutting here and there. But could you cut... say... 45 minutes from Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and end up with the same play?