- Great Lengths: Seven Works of Marathon Theater by Jonathan Kalb
Being a theatre critic is hard work: you are tasked with cultivating an idiom robust enough to offer sustained critical contemplation, yet lively (even sparkling) enough to mediate the complex lived experience of watching, setting something of a monument in the face of theatrical evanescence and striking “a few blows against its ephemerality” (192). When the proverbial “two hours traffic” of the stage expand to eight, to ten, to days even, the task becomes daunting, and tests even the best critic’s powers. Fortunately, Jonathan Kalb is a very good critic. His book is that rare thing in theatre scholarship: a text as insightful as it is pleasurable; eloquent, sometimes elegant, and driven by the author’s enthusiasm for his subject (and enjoyment of his own enthusiastic subjectivity). No tour de force of theory, but rather an astute and genial tour d’horizon of seven “marathon productions,” Great Lengths goes to such lengths itself to justify assembling works as disparate as Angels in America and Faust I and II in a single volume dedicated to describing how “we screen-obsessed secularists might reconceive the monumental” (18). As a member of that secret fraternity of endurance spectators, I understand full well what Kalb means when he associates witnessing such prodigious productions with the “mayfly effect: the illusion of living a lifetime within the span of a single day” (49).
Kalb allows that using length as a criterion of difference is idiosyncratic, but he makes no fetish of it. Sustained occasions of performance, as he points out in his introduction, were customary at the Athenian Dionysia and in medieval Japan and Europe; they became rare only after the Renaissance set stringent temporal limits, as play-going itself had to fit into the pinched schedules and commercial constraints of a rising bourgeoisie. But proliferating theatre festivals (Wagner was a precursor), an avant-garde penchant for durational art, and an appetite for “events” in the twentieth century have rehabilitated the theatrical marathon. Moreover, many of the productions discussed here became “scandal magnets” (20), their sheer scope and ambition attracting outsized scrutiny, and Kalb examines the way in which these sometimes pitched battles have raised still-pressing questions about art and commerce, cultural appropriation, theatrical politics, and the act of theatregoing itself.
His first analysis situates the popular and lucrative RSC extravaganza Nicholas Nickleby (1980), adapted by David Edgar from Dickens and directed by Trevor Nunn, within the ascendancy of the conservative social movement of Thatcher and Reagan. Although Kalb concedes that an event so “celebratory of group creation” (25) might be seen as currying to a sentimental vision of society that served the larger political agenda, he is almost rapturous about Nickleby as a work of joyful popular art that practiced “theatricalism as a worldview” (37).
Peter Brook’s monumental realization of the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata (1987) came under fire almost immediately as a piecemeal Westernized fantasia of Indian Otherness, and while I agree with Kalb that in retrospect the claims of cultural appropriation launched against the work were unnecessarily overheated, this next chapter has a difficult time balancing its apologia of Brook with its appreciation of his achievement, which, in Kalb’s words, was “an impassioned theatrical investment in exoticism” (69). I suspect that in spite of his patient labor to examine and counter the critical objections, this chapter will do little to move the battle lines over Brook, the Mahabharata, and theatrical interculturalism. In chapter 4, Kalb’s delight over Tony Kushner’s “cheeky, whip-smart, and devastatingly perceptive” (72) two-part Angels in America (1993) stems not only from the fact that it pulled off a kind of messy miracle in which personal drama, the subjects and attitudes of queer culture, and grand ideas about history all somehow coalesced, but that he managed the unprecedented dramaturgical feat of getting Americans to watch seven hours of post-Brechtian political theatre with “dumbfounding” (87) V-effects. As such, it stands as a monumental “enjoyable political immersion experience” (95).