David Ball, in his Backwards and Forwards, says that a good measure of a play's success is the degree to which it keeps audience members from remembering that they have bladders that need emptying. I've always liked this carnal reminder of the art form's limits – no fruity aesthetics but a recognition of actual forms in actual gravities.
But many theatres now seem to take this notion of the bodily clock for plays as an upper limit on production possibilities rather than a call to keep the form invitational and elastic.
Many of the shows I've seen lately don't have intermissions – 90 minutes with good luck, and often less, as with the new Caryl Churchill piece on fungible genetics, A Number, which clocks in at about 75 minutes. (Note: the per minute-price of tickets hasn't dropped, though.)
I've also noticed earlier starts – often 7:30, more frequently now at 7 PM – which means that one can go see a show without it much interrupting the flow of an evening – time enough afterwards for dinner and still have the head chock-a-block on the pillow by the vaunted "decent hour."
Theatre as a nosh, not a meal.
Why? I wonder. Lots of bulletable reasons: the perpetual dietary economics of theatre (shorter shows, shorter costs); the general flattening of attention spans for anything; the overworked schedules of overworked Americans; an aging tribe of early-tire ticket-buyers (whose senescent bladders, no matter the strength of the theatre-goers' wills, cannot be forgotten); the seepage of the ersatz 10-minute-play mindset into production goals; the general minimal place that theatre occupies as art in our culture. Und so weiter.
Does this matter? I guess. Even I, who consider sitting in a theatre the same as sitting in sacred space, find myself getting itchy when a play feels "too long," even if the production sings and draws me completely in. (And why do I feel that? Has the foreshortening virus mutated to infect past the inoculation of education and the amulet of love?)
Here is where I have landed in thinking about this: as an art form, theatre is more "soft" than "loud." People like Emma Goldman and Ibsen wanted to freight theatre with the power to vaccinate people with grand ideas stuffed into their eyes and ears – but I believe more and more that theatre cannot hold that weight, that it owns a more modest skeleton, more like a good short story than some machinery cranked up to re-gear the world. As Poe pointed out, a good short story earns its "goodness" if the reader can read it in a single gulp without feeling the need to interrupt the flow (say, for bladders) – and for Poe, that "gulp" had an upper limit of about an hour and a half to two hours, or one "sitting." About the length of a well-told and well-staged dramatic piece.
So the "problem," if one exists, does not come out of length but out of content -- how well the story cocoons up the attendee for potential re-formation. My disappointment with a lot of theatre I see comes less from mechanics (acting skills, etc.) than from a story not-well-told, either because it simply borrows unthinkingly from the standard-issue shelf a peck of standard-issue ingredients or does not really explore all it could explore about the human thresholds laid down.
New mental real estate – that's what theatre needs – more fractals, fewer comfortable geometries. Like a hook in our cheek that drags us up to the light.