- Microdramas: Crucibles for Theater and Time by John H. Muse
In Microdramas, John H. Muse examines very short plays written between 1880 and the early twenty-first century to consider how playwrights have used brevity to experiment with theatre’s potential and, ultimately, to expose “temporal conventions that inform any theatrical performance” (2). Although Muse analyzes texts, with their length enabling him to reproduce several complete plays, he is primarily interested in what their performance reveals about the “temporal rhetoric of theater” (8). Consequently, “microdrama” is a historically contingent term defined as a play that is shorter than its audience anticipates based upon its “likely horizon of temporal expectation” (2). Shortness is always linked to how we measure time and, from the late nineteenth to early twenty-first centuries, rapid technological innovation has repeatedly reshaped experiences and understandings of time; microdramas are both responses to and manifestations of those transformations. But, as Muse demonstrates, the short play also functions as “a laboratory, a controlled space where time and action could be isolated and subjected to manipulation,” thereby exposing assumptions about dramatic form and spectatorship (5). Accordingly, this exceedingly readable book is valuable to theatre historians and makes a compelling contribution to the expanding body of scholarship on performance and temporality.
In the introductory first chapter, Muse outlines his methodology, subjects, and—drawing upon recent theories of temporality and theatrical time—four concepts that will run throughout the book: “theatre’s spatialization of time, the heterogeneity of brief time, the riddle of uneventfulness, and the pace of absorption” (8). The rest of the book is organized chronologically, with each chapter focused on a specific movement or group of playwrights. Chapter 2 examines the birth of the modernist microdrama by analyzing theatrical faits-divers, a subset of the naturalist quart d’heure genre, alongside the symbolist one-act. While often situated as contrasting movements, this analysis of naturalism and symbolism’s use of brevity reveals paradoxes within these movements that expose their similarities. Muse argues that, when expressed in short form, naturalism’s concentrated verisimilitude does not foreground material specificity as much as encourage “spectators to imagine the stage as a space apart charged with symbolic meaning” (35). Likewise, a symbolist play like Maurice Maeterlinck’s Interior reveals how characters are subject to external material forces. In this respect, both genres “tend to create hollow characters overshadowed by their allegorical significance” (43). Moreover, by employing brevity the fait-divers and symbolist one-act both question what kind of experience qualifies as an event and, thus, as a play. This chapter effectively illustrates Muse’s larger project—to use microdramas as a lens to explore theatre’s core values and elements, and to show how temporal experimentation has been key to defining and challenging these. [End Page 130]
Futurist short plays—sintesi, or syntheses—are the focus of chapter 3. Acknowledging the wide range of work that falls under this umbrella term, Muse sees them all sharing the characteristic of brevity. Rather than take at face value the impact of this theatrical tactic, Muse interrogates three futurist assumptions about brevity: “that it reflects modern speed and simultaneity, that it intensifies experience, and that it dismantles convention” (57). He argues that instead of a radical rejection of tradition, syntheses reveal “a set of practices far more entangled with tradition than their authors claimed” (57). This engaging, deeply researched account combines script analysis with evidence from treatises and art works to illuminate contradictions within futurist dramaturgy and “expose the movement’s conflicted relationship with theater” (89).
Muse next turns to the dramaticules, or tiny dramas, by Samuel Beckett. Exploring Beckett’s “epistemology of limitation” (107), Muse shows how the playwright used extreme brevity to explore questions of narrative, language, memory, and representation, and, ultimately, to expose structures of time as mere fictions. In this way, Beckett uses theatrical reduction to ask how much time is necessary to create an event, a life, or a play. Muse ends this chapter with a discussion of duration...