- Great Strengths of Great Lengths
Early in 2013, the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma presented Life and Times: Episodes 1–4, a devised performance based upon the life of company member Kristin Worrall, at the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival. Audiences were invited to attend either individual episodes or an eleven-hour “marathon” of all four. The work is yet unfinished; in the end it may extend to twenty-four hours in duration. Despite this length, the show was a popular and critical success, and several critics, such as Time Out New York’s David Cote, recommended that the show would be best experienced as a marathon: “You have to see it all in one day: It’s a life (or part of a life), and you can make startling associations across its vast, varied terrain,” he wrote.
The use of duration in time to create an immersive aesthetic experience is not exclusive to theatre. Just a few years before the London opening of Nicholas Nickleby in 1979 (the first of the eight productions discussed by Jonathan Kalb in Great Lengths: Seven Works of Marathon Theater), films by Chantal Akerman and Hans-Jürgen Syberberg were providing filmgoers with presentations of three hours and twenty minutes and seven hours, respectively. In 1985, Morton Feldman would complete his six-hour String Quartet No. 2. In the plastic arts, the Rothko Chapel was opened, in 1971, to create a uniquely immersive aesthetic experience in space. The same attention to duration and the human form has become a dimension of cross-disciplinary genres as well. Kalb cites “endurance performers” such as Marina Abramović, Vito Acconci, and Teching Hsieh who, he says, “are all deeply and riskily concerned with the experience of the body in time and space,” whether spending entire days sitting in the galleries of the Museum of Modern Art, in Abramović’s case, or an entire year on the streets of New York in Hsieh’s.
But theatrical form, Kalb argues, provides an additional dimension. The fact of the performers’ presence during the theatrical event establishes “a fascinating tension between some awe-inspiring central vision and underlying awareness [End Page 102] of its provisional, hypothetical, or interrogative nature,” he writes. The form also provides the basis for a sense of voluntary community among the theatregoers themselves, a sense lacking in a world increasingly characterized by cultural division and interpersonal alienation.
Life and Times is not particularly unique. It joins a growing body of theatrical work created over the past twenty years in both Europe and America that exploits duration as a central quality of theatrical experience. Kalb, whose previous book-length monographs explored the careers of Samuel Beckett and Heiner Müller, was moved to write Great Lengths after experiencing several theatrical presentations that, as he writes, “earned their length artistically, that clearly needed it to accomplish extraordinarily ambitious aims, and that needed the theatre.” Obviously, duration and time were also central preoccupations of both Beckett and Müller, but in their theatres time and duration were treated metaphorically, through repetition, distillation, and fragmentation. In the works presented in Great Lengths, duration is treated literally: lengthy duration is presented as such, rather than suggested through metaphorical device.
What is old, Kalb suggests, is only seemingly new. In his introduction Kalb traces the conception of lengthy theatrical performance through both Eastern and Western traditions — Noh theatre and ancient Greek theatre, both of which presented performances that could last an entire day. The rhythms, forms, and structures described by Zeami and Aristotle (as well as more contemporary observations about form from writers like Umberto Eco) provide a series of critical ideas against which both contemporary and day-long performances can be measured. Kalb then turns to seven recent productions — the RSC’s Nicholas Nickleby, Peter Brook’s The Mahabharata, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Robert Wilson and Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, Forced Entertainment’s Quizoola! and Speak Bitterness, and Peter Stein’s Faust — to trace how these ancient conceptions of theatrical duration affect contemporary practice.
The Greek tragedians...