As any 9th-grade English teacher will tell you, a proper play has five acts—one each for Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution. The thing is, plays haven’t been written like that for ages. The five-act standard gave way to three and four acts in the 19th century and then further diminished, with longwinded exceptions, to two acts by the end of the 20th.
We’re holding steady there at most major theaters, though one-act plays of 90 minutes with no intermission are increasingly common. In the Chicago area at the moment, you can see a show with a running time of less than two hours at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Writers Theatre, Strawdog Theatre Company, American Theatre Company, and Victory Gardens Theater, to name a few.
This all jibes with conventional assumptions about our shrinking attention spans. Bombarded at all times by information and colorful stimuli from the screens we’ve surrounded ourselves with, we’ve trained our brains to grow impatient after about as much time as it takes to read a 140-character tweet. We can barely be bothered to watch a YouTube video that goes on longer than three minutes, much less sit through Hamlet.
But while most shows are sticking to the roughly two hour timetable, some are going in the complete opposite direction. Take All Our Tragic, the Hypocrites’ 12-hour adaptation of all 32 surviving Greek tragedies, stitched together by writer-director Sean Graney to form one sprawling, multigenerational, mock-heroic epic. The production, which ran last fall, was one of the best-reviewed shows of 2014 and a big enough hit with audiences to inspire a remount, scheduled for this summer.
Meanwhile, the House Theatre—another ambitious, pop-savvy troupe—is staging its own day-long behemoth, a three-part Tolkien-esque fantasy saga called The Hammer Trinity by Nathan Allen (who also directs) and Chris Matthews. After presenting the first and second installments in 2012 and 2013, the House is now doing the whole enchilada, both in repertory and a marathon lasting (if you factor in intermissions and a dinner break) a grand total of nine hours.
Can it be that the eulogies for audiences’ attention spans were premature? Graney, for one, thinks not. “To say that I overcame the short attention span is not accurate at all,” he told me when I tried to suggest otherwise. “I embraced it. I made a silent deal with the audience where I was like, If you just agree to this 12-hour ride, I’ll do my best to keep you engaged at every moment. You won’t have to work too hard.” To that end, the show was divided into easily digestible chapters of no longer than 80 minutes apiece, with frequent breaks for complimentary snacks, meals, and trips to the bar—an experience replicated by the House for The Hammer Trinity (though at this marathon, the food isn’t free).
Half-jokingly, Graney compares getting through All Our Tragic to binge-watching a TV show. “If people rolled their eyes at the idea of watching anything for 12 hours,” he says, “I’d be like, ‘Well, you just sat in your house all weekend and watched Breaking Bad.’ ”
The comparison is apt, and not just when it comes to length. Just like a prestige cable drama such as Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, both All Our Tragic and The Hammer Trinity shamelessly exploit the addictive qualities of serialized storytelling, employing twists, cliffhangers, sudden reversals, surprise reunions, and lots of whiz-bang action.
The themes may be complex, but the storytelling methods take advantage of our basic, almost childlike need to know what happens next. It’s the same drive that kept Charles Dickens’s readers clamoring for the next installment of David Copperfield and that renders me incapable of rising from my couch every time Netflix releases a new season of Orange Is the New Black.
The crucial difference is the communal nature of theater. Instead of consuming a long narrative in the relative seclusion of your living room, you watch All Our Tragic with 200 strangers. “By the end of the day,” as Graney puts it, “you’ve watched stories with them, you’ve shared food with them, you got sprayed with blood with them—you’ve made a community for one day.” And not just with your fellow audience members, but also with the cast, who are going through the same ordeal, and in real time.
Lord knows there have been long plays before—just take a look at the works of Eugene O’Neill. But in its combination of length and brevity, its use of prestige TV’s addictive storytelling methods (serious themes wrapped in twists and turns), and its reliance on the secular communion that can develop among audiences and performers, the Graney model of durational theater feels in many ways like a new, uniquely contemporary contribution to dramatic art.
The Hammer Trinity runs through May 3 at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division. For more information, go to thehousetheatre.com.
All Our Tragic runs June 20–August 9 at Den Theatre, 1329 N. Milwaukee. For more information, go to the-hypocrites.com.