In today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column I speak out in support of shorter theatrical performances—and cutting the classics. Here’s an excerpt.
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The Metropolitan Opera will be broadcasting its much-discussed new production of Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” in movie theaters on Oct. 8. Not being a Wagner buff, I won’t be there, but even if I did care to see it, I’d likely find it daunting that the official running time of the telecast is five hours and 15 minutes. Even with popcorn, that’s a long, long slog. Most popular operas, of course, are considerably shorter: The Met’s production of Puccini’s “La Bohème” runs for a hair under three hours, counting two half-hour intermissions. But given the fact that today’s audiences have more claims on their time and attention than ever before, it’s hard not to suspect that grand opera—like the performing arts in general—is swimming upstream against a rising tide of impatience….
My own taste for terseness has been shaped by the fact that I attend some 100 plays each year in my capacity as The Wall Street Journal’s drama critic, which often leads me to utter what I call the Drama Critic’s Prayer: “Dear God, if it can’t be good, let it be short.” You don’t have to be a critic to feel that way. Terence Rattigan, England’s master of the well-made play, predicted back in the ‘50s that younger playgoers conditioned by movies and TV would eventually start to chafe at the three-hour-two-intermission running time that was then the theatrical norm. According to Michael Darlow, his biographer, Rattigan “forecast the development of generally shorter plays…with running times of 60 to 80 minutes.” Sure enough, it’s now common for straight plays to run for an hour and a half with no intermission….
It’s worth keeping in mind, incidentally, that Shakespeare’s longer plays are normally staged in abridged versions. To see an uncut four-and-a-half-hour “Hamlet” is an extreme rarity. Now that the plays of such notoriously long-winded writers as Eugene O’Neill and George Bernard Shaw are going out of copyright, it’s becoming increasingly common for them to also be presented in shortened versions, a development of which I wholeheartedly approve. I’ve seen Shaw’s “Heartbreak House” and O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” done both ways, and I think they work far better with cuts.
So why not abridge longer operas as well? In fact, it used to be customary for opera houses to do so, and the practice continues to this day in many houses….
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Read the whole thing here.