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Play Length

 

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.0467  Thursday, 22 November 2012

 

[1] From:        Justin Alexander < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

     Date:         November 20, 2012 9:57:24 PM EST

     Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Play Length 

 

[2] From:        William Proctor Williams < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

     Date:         November 21, 2012 9:53:46 AM EST

     Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Play Length 

 

[3] From:        Steve Roth < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

     Date:         November 21, 2012 11:04:41 AM EST

     Subject:     Re: Play Length 

 

[4] From:        David Frydrychowski < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

     Date:         November 21, 2012 12:02:48 PM EST

     Subject:     Re: Play Length 

 

[5] From:        Scott Shepherd < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

     Date:         November 21, 2012 1:02:35 PM EST

     Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Play Length

 

[6] From:        Bob Grumman < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

     Date:         November 21, 2012 4:45:17 PM EST

     Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Play Length 

 

 

[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------

From:        Justin Alexander < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         November 20, 2012 9:57:24 PM EST

Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Play Length

 

Mr. Urkowitz wrote:

 

>As for the “two hours” mentioned in various places. I finally did a 

>count in one of Alfred Hart’s essays. He lists about a dozen over 

>a fifty-plus year period, almost all in prologues and epilogues.  

 

Couple of random anecdotes:

 

First, a couple of years ago I did a staged reading of a completely uncut version of Romeo & Juliet. (The actors held scripts in their hands, but all the action—including the swordfights and dances and so forth—was physically performed out.) Total run-time? Two and a half hours. If I had to choose between “two hours traffic” or “three hours traffic” to describe that show, I’d go with the former.

 

(And if we were to assume that Shakespeare’s actors could speak their lines just 10% faster—due to greater familiarity with the text and an audience better acquainted with the idioms of the age—then it becomes a slam dunk at two and a quarter hours.)

 

So I tend to agree with Mr. Urkowitz that the lurching, pause-ridden, stately-paced, and over-produced modern productions of these plays tend to give us a rather false impression of just how “interminable” they would have been with actual Elizabethan production practices.

 

Second, I recently appeared in a restaging of a play that had originally been written for the Minnesota Fringe Festival and had later been expanded for a stand-alone production. At the beginning of this play there was a bit of fourth-wall-breaking irony in which the characters referred to their deaths arriving in “about an hour” (because the Fringe Festival production would have taken place in a one hour time slot). The line went unrevised even though the new play had a running time closer to two hours.

 

One of the reasons it survived was because the playwright simply hadn’t given it a second thought in the process of revising his play. In similar circumstance, one could easily imagine Shakespeare writing, “two hours traffic” on the first page of his script and then not bothering to revise it when the actual script turned out to be a bit longer than that. Or one could imagine that Shakespeare wrote a bunch of extra material, edited it down for production, but then included the cut bits in the published version. (Possibly by default if he handed over the original draft to the printers while the theater kept their cut production script.)

 

My point? I don’t really have one beyond the idea that it is relatively easy to read anything you like into a particular fragment of text if you’re willing to start hypothesizing about stuff that doesn’t appear on the page.

 

Mr. Saliani wrote:

 

>Steve dismisses Alfred Hart’s listing of a dozen mentions of “two 

>hours” as “fictive apology” but I fear that such an opinion would 

>have elicited the following from any self-respecting Amazon: 

 

If someone asked me, “How long is a feature film?” My answer would probably be, “Two hours.”

 

It does not, however, follow that the 216-minute version of Lawrence of Arabia or the 150-minute version of Spielberg’s Lincoln was never shown in public theaters.

 

>a four to five hour all-talk (21 lines per minute) marathon with a

> melancholy Dane

 

I’m not following your math. Even with an upper estimate of 4,100 lines, a Hamlet read at 21 lines per minute would be 195 minutes. That’s less than three and a half hours, not 4-5 hours.

 

When we did a staged reading of Hamlet it clocked in at 230 minutes. It played briskly, was excellently paced, and kept the audience engaged from one end to the other. I doubt it would have worked in that format for the average school tour group. But, of course, Shakespeare wasn’t writing for 21st century pre-teens, either.

 

Justin Alexander

American Shakespeare Repertory

 

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------

From:        William Proctor Williams < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         November 21, 2012 9:53:46 AM EST

Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Play Length

 

We all seem to have wandered from the point, as we usually do.  We now say things such as, “just a minute” when we do not really mean 60 seconds but something much closer (at least for me) to 300 seconds.  Also heard today is “I’ll be there in just a minute” which usually means 300 seconds or sometimes a good deal more.  I submit that Alfred Hart’s listing of a dozen mentions of “two hours” describes no more than the Early Modern English equivalent where “two hours” did not mean 120 minutes but maybe 150, or 180, or maybe even 210 minutes.  The movie Lincoln is 150 minutes long and Remains of the Day is 134 minutes long and Gnomeo and Juliet is 84 minutes long but we all still think of a movie taking about a couple of hours out of our lives.  Hart’s mentions are no more than that, and we must be careful of having “some craven scruple / Of thinking too precisely on the event.”

 

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------

From:        Steve Roth < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         November 21, 2012 11:04:41 AM EST

Subject:     Re: Play Length

 

Thanks to Don Saliani for cutting (back) to the quick:

 

“Shakespeare wanted his works to be read and not just seen.”

 

Steve Urkowitz has addressed many evidentiary issues here, but he hasn’t addressed this. I’m not clear what his thoughts are on the subject; I would like to hear them.

 

I don’t know if Shakespeare wanted that (though the evidence Don and I and others point to strongly suggests it), but I do know that he knew that his works were being purchased and read, and that they were being purchased, read, discussed, quoted, and commonplaced by his most lucrative, highest-status, best-educated, and most perspicacious customers (and riffed off of by his cohort/competitor playwrights).

 

Which means (to me) that despite any potshot holes one might shoot in Erne’s necessarily incomplete evidence (and Saliani’s, and mine, and many others’), his conclusions ring resoundingly true. 

 

Shakespeare wasn’t just writing ephemeral Hollywood scripts that (he knew) nobody would ever read. 

 

He was also composing literature. And he knew it.

 

As I said in the opening line of my review of Erne’s book, “One of the greater ironies of Shakespeare scholarship over the last century is the ongoing effort by Shakespeare scholars—most of whom spend dozens of hours a week enjoining, cajoling, and browbeating their students into addressing Shakespeare’s plays as literature—to deny that those plays are literature.”

 

What thinks Urkowitz? Are his arguments here and in his recent paper intended to contribute to that effort?

 

I’d also like to ask: is Steve suggesting, does he think, that Shakespeare’s plays were always played uncut? Sometimes? Often? Occasionally? Did these proportions vary by venue and audience? That was the other crux of my previous post that he hasn’t addressed.

 

Steve

http://princehamlet.com

 

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------

From:        David Frydrychowski < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         November 21, 2012 12:02:48 PM EST

Subject:     Re: Play Length

 

One assumption of the discussion has been that every member of the audience attempted to hear the play from the beginning to the end.  Is there evidence for this?  Stanislavsky famously criticized operagoers who arrived late and spent the whole time talking, only drawing near to the stage to hear the soprano’s aria in the final scene.  Perhaps the history plays with recognizable characters allowed such non-linear audience experiences.  Not to mention the habit of minor characters (e.g. Lenox) to reiterate the plot of the play to that point.

 

Admittedly, it’s a thin chance, but if you accept the idea that the proprietors of the outdoor venues had a vested interest in long plays that kept the theatre noisy through the afternoon, and the idea that the indoor venues, especially Court, favored audiences who experienced the play in a more formal and linear manner (e.g. play-within-a-play in Hamlet, MND & Shrew Induction, for all of which the audience seems to show up on time), there’s an argument for the shorter form being the more ‘literary,’ and the uncut being a bit Barnum.

 

Again, quite possibly incorrect.  But I’d be interested in knowing the evidence to the contrary.  Many thanks.

 

David Frydrychowski

 

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------

From:        Scott Shepherd < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         November 21, 2012 1:02:35 PM EST

Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Play Length

 

It would be nice if these arguments about the unendurability of long performances were presented with stronger evidence than “to me it seems rather obvious, self evident and redundantly intuitive.” We who live in an age where numberless well-packaged entertainments are so conveniently available, and for whom a performance of Shakespeare (or in fact any theater performance) is an archaic and somewhat academic proposition; we whose attention spans have been systematically shortened by Hollywood, television, the music industry, Twitter and YouTube—our intuitions may not be the ones to trust when it comes to the endurance of the Elizabethan playhouse audience. In fact it’s telling that we’re talking about their endurance rather than their enthusiasm.

 

Nowadays the announcement of a new production of Romeo and Juliet is as likely to arouse our skepticism as our excitement, but what if it were the latest offering from the famous top practitioners of the number one sexy social entertainment of your time, accompanied by the word-of-mouth buzz that must have surrounded the first few performances of that play? Instead of projecting backward the obligatory spirit with which we drag ourselves to the theater these days, shouldn’t we be using for contemporary comparison the enthusiasm of people who stand through a 4-hour rock concert and go home wishing it had lasted longer, or who stand in line for hours to see the new Harry Potter movie on its opening weekend, knowing perfectly well that next week there will be no line to wait in?

 

For that matter, the reconstructed Shakespeare’s Globe regularly sells out the groundling area at £5 a pop. Those performances are generally 3 hours, sometimes more. And these might be justifiably ranked among the nerdiest most anachronistic offerings in a dazzling variety of seductive entertainments available in modern London.

 

[6]-------------------------------------------------------------

From:        Bob Grumman < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         November 21, 2012 4:45:17 PM EST

Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Play Length

 

I had to jump into the discussion of PLAY LENGTH with one small thought: that none of Shakespeare’s plays is all sermon-level discourse.  It seems to me he weaves his materials, giving both groundlings and people like Gabriel Harvey what they like—in between each other without lasting so long as to lose one group or the other, or with one inside the other so those without deeper concerns hear something at their level and the Harveys hear that and something more to their taste.

 

Would how he does this, if he does, make a good scholarly paper or book?  Has it, already, as I suspect?

 

My own not-very-reflected-on view is that Shakespeare’s plays were often cut, but sometimes, especially privately, were presented whole.  I suspect Shakespeare wrote for an ideal audience that would appreciate all he had to say for hours, knowing his actors, with him supervising, would edit versions that would work best with their normal audiences.

 

Fun topic, with interesting input from all involved! 

 

©2011 Hardy Cook. All rights reserved.