Too Long/Too Brief: The Case of the Vanishing Intermission
- OnStage North Carolina Columnist
During much of the 20th Century, it was common for plays and musicals to have two intermissions. The traditional storytelling structure of beginning, middle and end lent itself to taking breaks between each act. Of course attention spans were longer in the old days, especially before the advent of television. When swells got dolled up for an evening at the theater, they wanted to spend the entire evening. It was a social occasion, not just something to do for a couple of hours. Those days, alas, are long behind us. Sure, there are some of us for whom going to the theater is still an occasion. While we may not get entirely “dolled up,” nor do we wear cutoffs and flip flops (but that’s another column).
When Broadway’s über-landlords, the Nederlanders and Shuberts, joined unlikely forces in 1981 to import The Royal Shakespeare Company epic, “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby,” people thought they’d lost their ever lovin’ minds. “Who wants an eight-and-a-half-hour play?” Presented in two parts, the first ran four hours and employed one intermission; part two ran four and a half hours and afforded two intermissions. One could attend both parts in one day with a dinner break, which is what I did, or on two consecutive evenings. I must say that three intermissions was not overkill for a play of that length. The production, duly riveting, thrilling and everything else you’ve ever heard, became the prestige production of the season ($100 top ticket price!), and, as it had across the pond, proved to be an awards magnet. In short, it was an occasion. Original co-director, John Caird, has opined that he doubts the play would ever get produced today.
Another occasion of a more modest sort arrived with the 1999 revival of O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh,” this time courtesy of London’s Almeida Theatre Company. Starring a spectacular cast headed by Kevin Spacey, Paul Giamatti, Robert Sean Leonard, Tony Danza and Catherine Kellner, the four-act production pulled in at a brisk four hours and fifteen minutes with two intermissions, one short of the traditional three. So compelling it was that I could have sat through the whole thing again immediately following the curtain call. O’Neill’s masterwork, “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” also written in four acts, recently concluded a Tony-winning run on Broadway, having been judiciously trimmed to three hours and forty-five minutes with – ahem – but one intermission.
Somewhere along the way audiences lost their affection for intermissions. Once the province of the well-heeled enjoying social discourse, that now takes place on our phones, not in the lobbies of Broadway theaters. Audiences want to get in, see the show, and get out. Hence the proliferation of plays and musicals that eschew intermissions altogether. “Man of La Mancha” and “A Chorus Line” are the two full-fledged, high profile musicals I can think of that were written to be performed in one act without intermission. During previews of “Grand Hotel,” Tommy Tune solved the problem of people leaving in droves during intermission by simply eliminating it.
Many of the American classics from the last century are written in three acts with two intermissions. When presented nowadays, however, they are often chopped into two acts with one intermission. I am guilty of having so bastardized some plays (it’s not always structurally possible). What I have found is that it’s much easier to hold today’s audience when you feed them the story in two servings. Or, as is the current rage, in one serving. “90-minutes, no intermission” has become the war cry of producers on and off-Broadway and at regional theaters across the country.
Aside from whatever remains of the social aspect, and taking a whiz, intermission provides a needed respite to reflect upon what we’ve seen thus far and to prepare for what’s to come. I cannot imagine sitting through “Angels in America” or “Death of a Salesman” or “Streetcar…” or “Sweeney Todd” or “King Lear” without that downtime to digest what’s happening. Even at a riotous comedy, I welcome the chance to catch my breath between the laughs.
There’s no denying that shows have gotten shorter over the past decade and there’s no reason to believe that this trend will abate. There are currently four productions running on Broadway that don’t have an intermission (there were at least nine during the 2014-15 season) and no Broadway production has more than one. This year’s Tony-winning play, The Humans, has no intermission nor did last year’s Best Musical, Fun Home.
Broadway producer Ken Davenport sited a study released by Common Sense Media that found, “On any given day, teens in the US spend about nine hours using media (social media, movies, video games, music, etc.) for their enjoyment.” That’s more time than they spend sleeping or in school. This multi-tasking generation is able to stay connected to social media and watch TV while doing their homework. They are inundated by so much information from their TVs, laptops, tablets and phones that they find it difficult to focus on just one thing for any serious length of time. Their Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) means that no kid wants to hesitate before responding to a text or an Instagram pic that their friends may have just posted.
And these, folks, are not only our audience of tomorrow but our future playwrights as well. They will write what they know informed by how they consume. Multi-award winning British playwright, Caryl Churchill (Cloud 9, Top Girls) just opened her newest play, Pigs and Dogs, at London’s Royal Court to enthusiastic notices. Running time: 15 minutes, no intermission.