Four hours in a theatre is one of our Editor’s not-so-secret pleasures. But is this becoming an impossible ask for many?
Last month British playwright Alan Ayckbourn informed an audience at the Oxford Literary Festival that fast-paced modern TV is destroying our ability to concentrate. “A stage play asks a live audience to sit still in excess of two hours, which nowadays is a marathon,” he said. Or, to paraphrase Homer Simpson, our attention spans are… Oh look, a bird!
The knock-on effect, Ayckbourn claims, is that playwrights are being pressured to write shorter works. And it’s not just in theatre. Opera and classical concerts also cop their share of flack. At this year’s Brisbane Baroque, some baulked at Handel’s gripping Agrippina weighing in at four hours. Last year there was the odd critical grumble that Andrew Upton’s richly rewarding The Present (now Broadway bound) was too long at two-and-a-half hours. Chekhov’s original would have run for five!
It’s a concern for arts media. Writers complain that readers are being perceived as having attention span issues, and that there’s a reduction in long-form articles in favour of punchier (read shorter) more ‘sound bite’ oriented fare. Limelight tries to resist. This month we have six beefy features, ranging from a profile of a great Maestro to a think piece on Shakespeare’s women. We are confident you’ll let us know if the meat in our sandwich begins to look or taste like wafer-thin ham.
Perhaps the greatest threat to our attentions is the smartphone – the nagging urge to check the latest Twitter update or Instagram post. This is not just a malaise of the young. At a recent ACO concert I sat behind a woman of mature years who was distractingly texting for much of the first half. It was a great gig, but I guess the allure of new technology was too strong as she wasn’t back after interval.
Personally I regard three or four hours in a theatre or concert hall as a not-so-secret pleasure. Immersing myself in a Baroque opera, or grappling with three hours of adapted Chekhov is a rare luxury and a welcome escape from the brain-dulling world of social media. We can only hope that the days when producers are persuaded to fillet the Ring Cycle or serve up Hamlet-lite are still some way off.