Mar 162010

Posted 16 March 2010 to

Even as the literary world laments the erosion of attention spans in the digitized world (see previous post), it seems that the theatre world is demanding epic new levels of concentration from its audiences, as underscored most recently in this New York Times article describing a 12-hour-long, single-showing adaptation of Fyodor Doestoyevsky’s novel The Demons as part of a summer theatre festival in the Big Apple.

This kind of marathon theatre (not a bad genre tag…you read it here first!) is not necessarily new, in that multi-part sagas like Angels in America and The Kentucky Cycle have been demanding hefty commitments of both time and money from audiences since the ’80s. If you count Shakespeare’s history cycle (Richard II through Henry VIII), the trend is an old one indeed.

But ye olde Bard certainly didn’t intend his grubby fans to sit, or stand, for more than a few hours in the presence of his work (even seeing the three Henry VIs back to back, which I did once upon a time over two days, requires Herculean stamina). The new Doestoyevsky play, while offering meal and potty breaks, is a one-shot deal: no coming back tomorrow, no ducking in and out. Enjoy the show…all of it at once, or none of it at all. There will be a mere two performances, meaning that for those so inclined (and there will be many) it is already a hot and surely expensive ticket.

I missed the last theatrical epic of this sort to plow through London, Robert le Page and Ex Machina’s nine-hour Lipsynch. Friends who did see it gave it mixed reviews, in some cases because…well, it takes an awful lot of patience and energy to take in nine hours of anything in one fell swoop. Apparently, even the great le Page  couldn’t pull off that kind of focus for everyone. But Lipsynch could be experienced in pieces, with no requirement to down it in one draught.

One wonders, then, what the producers of The Demons are hoping to prove, let alone achieve. Doestoyevsky is not light fare in the best of circumstances, and the producers admit that The Demons is even denser than many of the novelist’s works. It begs the question, are the producers doing the book justice? Only time and the show itself will tell, but it does seem a strange thing that while I can’t think of anyone who’d try to consume a Doestoyevsky novel in a single sitting, there are audiences who will be scrambling to do exactly that come this summer in New York.

Given the dense, time-consuming nature of reading a Doestoyevsky novel, maybe this production of The Demons represents an exercise in foreshortened attention spans after all. What’s next, a 24-hour-long War and Peace?

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