- Muse, Microdramas: Crucibles for Theater and Time by John H. Muse
It seems appropriate in our current moment that as we scroll through Instagram or watch brief videos on Snapchat, a theatre scholar would seek meaning and profundity in short plays. After all, people's attention spans are reportedly growing shorter and shorter, and syllabi are increasingly assigning one-act plays as a way to keep students interested in the material. But John H. Muse argues that "shortness" has felt modern since at least the late nineteenth century, that increasingly brief time spans have long seemed, both for artists and audiences alike, to reflect the pace of modern life. Microdramas has a simple thesis: short plays, despite their brevity, or perhaps even because of it, deserve close attention.
The book begins with an exploration of the modernist interest in short theatrical events, surveying how practitioners in the Naturalist, Symbolist, and Futurist movements all, for various reasons, turned their attention to shortened dramas. [End Page 141] Although these modernist movements are often understood in opposition to one another, Muse argues that their use of the short play for their experiments produced pieces with strikingly similar dramaturgies and characters. One of the key insights of Microdramas is that the very medium of theatre gives weight to what it represents; as Muse puts it, "theatrical attention makes matter matter." Accordingly, the Naturalist focus on the everyday asks audiences to find deep meanings within the seemingly unimportant while the Symbolists advocated a focus on the tragedy of everyday life.
According to Muse, microdramas are deceptive in size and scope and ask audiences to approach time in new ways. Some involve stage directions that specify, for example, a silence that lasts for an unspecified length of time; some "short" plays instruct actors to continue doing something forever. The strange temporality of the short play invites questions about the audience's relationship to time outside of the theatre, often working as a kind of Verfremdungseffekt, making time seem strange. This theme is particularly well-developed in the book's central chapter, which focuses on the use of time in Beckett's late plays. Muse argues that Beckett's microdramas are relentlessly focused on the present: his short plays repeat and repeat again, or they begin and end in the middle of something that seems like it has been going on forever. "They are excerpts from eternity," and although they exist in a fictional time created by the playwright, they reveal time itself as a fiction, constructed by us in order to make life more manageable. Examining Footfalls, That Time, Play, Breath, and Not I among others, Muse brings together the threads of the previous chapters on theatrical modernism to examine Beckett's own modernism, arguing that his later plays are distillations, radical syntheses of theatre and time akin to the Futurists's sintesi.
The book further argues that the modernist investment in essences—in that which is essential to theatre—is reflected in the way that many modernist playwrights attempted to eliminate what is extraneous to the form by shortening their plays. He finds this to be true in recent works by Caryl Churchill and Suzan-Lori Parks, the final two playwrights he considers. In short, the short form is always about the theatre. Even when the dramas are not consciously metatheatrical, their brevity asks the question: is this (even) theatre? What must a play possess in order to be a play? Muse uses the tiny dramas in Parks's 365 Days/365 Plays and Churchill's Love and Information to explore these questions as well as how these texts—some with no dialogue at all, some impossible to perform, some possessing only titles—repeatedly press on the limits of what is traditionally considered theatre.
Microdramas is beautifully written, and if its focus is on small pieces, it is a book that deals in large questions, asking us to think deeply about the relationship [End Page 142] between theatre, time, and ourselves. The plays in Microdramas reflect the frenetic pace of...