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  • Microdramas: Crucibles for Theatre and Time by John H. Muse
  • Erica O'Neill
Muse, John H. Microdramas: Crucibles for Theatre and Time. University of Michigan Press, 2017. 246 pp.

John H. Muse's Microdramas: Crucibles for Theatre and Time examines the production of short plays across the history of Western theatre practice, from the late-nineteenth century to contemporary performance. Categorizing plays shorter than twenty minutes as microdramas, Muse does not insist on a new term for a theatrical subgenre, but provides an ideal working title for the study of brief theatre: a study which, until now, has been largely overlooked in literary theoretical analyses on theatre. Muse shows us how the study of plays by playwrights who consciously choose brevity as a form, provides a platform for examining the evolution of theatre's structural practices. Identifying how short plays expose traditional structures evident in longer-form plays on a microcosmic level, Microdramas provides test samples from slices of theatre's history within which to analyze dramatic form and the experience of theatre viewing. Rather than being relegated as: useful tools for acting students; amusing anecdotes in the history of modernist and avant-garde theatre practice; or as entr'actes interspersed within long-form theatre plays–because character development, plot and dialogue are abridged–microdramas limit the requirements of dramatic convention to its most basic elements, returning the stage to its position as a laboratory, a place of experimentation and observation. Muse challenges assumptions about abrupt or minimal theatrical and artistic experiences by observing how short plays challenge viewers to interact with the theatrical experience in a different manner. Muse's book enquires into what the experience of witnessing microdramas reveals about theatre and time, providing a comprehensive insight into the intricacies of temporal experience in both theatre and in general. Muse observes how certain playwrights manipulate the experience of time by putting pressure on an audience's cognitive processes. Muse argues that specific microdramas isolate the distinctive workings of theatre time and lived time, revealing the complexities of both, and exposing the temporal customs to which all theatrical performance is subject. [End Page 126]

Muse's book is divided into four distinct historical periods that correspond to related concepts of temporality, and the changing reception of theatrical events, contextualized within their cultural milieu. Muse notes that while diminutive plays have been performed since theatre's beginnings, the late-nineteenth century witnessed a rise in the number of playwrights who undermined the boundaries of dramatic form by insisting that short plays achieve equal or greater efficacy than long plays. Beginning with the emergence of the microdrama in late-nineteenth-century France, Muse then analyzes avant-garde theatre's beginnings in Italian futurist shorts, to the height of modernist theatre practice with Samuel Beckett's late, and often misunderstood brief plays, and concludes with two examples of contemporary playwrights who have inherited the framework of the short play and have taken it to its nth degree. The playwrights in this final chapter produce long anthologies of short plays that Muse calls microthons. Muse focuses on the play texts–on the page and on the stage. Each case study corresponds with the following related concepts: theatre's spatialization of time; the heterogeneity of brief time; the riddle of eventfulness; and the pace of absorption. Muse structures his book around how these concepts and their related historical case studies designate microdramas as working laboratories for theatre and time. Exploring compressed theatre across more than a century–examining each case uniquely–Muse highlights brevity as a subjective and historically contingent concept.

Muse specifically concentrates on a historical period in which our experience of time was dramatically affected due to numerous temporal alterations in industrial modernity: technological advancement; the introduction of standardized Greenwich Mean Time; the working day and factory time; organized public transport and train schedules; electronic communication advancements from telegraph to telephone, and later, email; television broadcast and the Internet. Muse demonstrates how theatre practice–which at its most basic is communication between performer and audience–responded to the growing rapidity of communication and information reception. These situations, coupled with advancements in theatre technology, and audience fatigue over traditional theatrical forms...


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pp. 126-130
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