Hard to Swallow: How Long Is Too Long in the Avant-Garde?

In his introduction to Great Lengths: Seven Works of Marathon Theater, a highly personal analysis of dramatic pieces of five-plus hours, critic and Hunter College theatre professor Jonathan Kalb writes:

I am concerned, as I hope is obvious, solely with works that earned their length artistically, that clearly needed it to accomplish extraordinary ambitious aims, and that needed the theater. We are all painfully aware of the ubiquity of unbearable long theater—productions merely prolonged due to egomania, ineptitude, indiscipline, or other such failings. (Emphasis in original)

Aristotle in the Poetics maintained that the length of a play should be determined by (a) what is an appropriate amount of time needed to convey the story and (b) how much an audience can realistically be expected to take in during a single viewing. This observation would become calcified during the late Renaissance as the “unity of time” and turned into the 24-hour rule—one which maintained that the events of a dramatic work should ideally take place over the course of a single day.

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But what about theatre that rejects the whole notion of Aristotelian dramatic structure? That does away with sequential plot or unified characters? That fractures the very notion of time in its presentation of events or images on the stage? What about the avant-garde? How much is too much when creating nonlinear art that is durational in nature?

My attendance at two recent downtown productions prompts this question. GENET PORNO, produced by Yvan Greenberg’s company Laboratory Theater at HERE Arts Center (now closed), and Elevator Repair Service’s Fondly, Collette Richland by Sybil Kempson, now playing through Oct. 24 at New York Theatre Workshop, share a grounding in surrealist dream imagery and absurdist theatre, but the commonalities end there.

Fondly, Collette Richland

This is the part where Fondly, Collette Richland makes fun of NYTW’s rich donors. Photo: Joan Marcus

Greenberg’s 80-minute theatre piece mashes up Jean Genet’s 1943 masterpiece of literary queer pornography Our Lady of the Flowers with a contemporary gay porn star’s video blog. Kempson’s two-hour-and-forty-minute play, on the other hand, helmed by ERS Artistic Director John Collins, is more a mash-up of Wes Anderson and Richard Foreman, two great tastes that when tasted together add up to a lot of white privilege topped by one hell of a schlag of whimsy. Only artists very secure in the sense of their own entitlement would expect an audience to sit through two very long acts of what is essentially nonsense—brilliant nonsense at times, admittedly, but nonsense none the less.

While both pieces refuse to play by the temporal rules of the contemporary commercial theatre, where a fast-paced, hyperrealistic 75-minutes is the new ideal unity of time, I found myself much more receptive (no pun intended) to the demands that the excruciatingly long simulated sex scenes made on me in the basement of Here than I did to the often merely excruciating experience I had sitting in the far more posh environs of NYTW.

Why was that?

Gee, I dunno, maybe it’s because Greenberg’s piece is half the time commitment of the Kempson/Collins effort? Speaking for myself, I can only handle non-narrative anything for about that long. At which point, without a coherent story or characters I’m invested in, I just lose interest. Certainly Richard Foreman, arguably the greatest American avant-garde playwright ever, understood this—almost all of his plays are exactly 75 minutes. Indy rock songs with impenetrable lyrics last three to five minutes and ideally feature some catchy hooks. Even when Robert Wilson, Philip Glass and Lucinda Childs staged the US premiere of the five-hour, highly abstract Einstein on the Beach at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1976, audience members were encouraged to enter and leave the theatre at will.

But this raises another question: Who’s granted the privilege of being tedious onstage and to what end? Greenberg’s choreographic re-creations of same-sex recreation test the limits of the audience’s comfort and patience. The “narrative” structure of male/male porn is mostly rigid (so to speak): fellatio, analingus, penetration, ejaculation. And in the short-form Internet videos that currently dominate porn production, the roles of bottom and top are usually established in the first few seconds and not upended. For avid consumers of male-on-male porn, the mind-numbing repetition and predictability are a large part of its appeal.

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While these sequences were at times a challenge to sit through, Greenberg used the very limitations of the online stroke flick to great advantage in them. The seemingly inexhaustible, instantaneous and ever-more-portable access to sexually explicit (yet banal) moving images that contemporary technology enables was juxtaposed against Genet’s painstakingly crafted erotica. Handwritten in jail on sheets of brown paper that had been distributed to prisoners for fashioning into paper bags, his first draft was confiscated and burned by prison authorities for unauthorized use of such materials.

Joe Joseph and Oleg Dubson lose themselves in orgasmic Absurdist ecstasy. Photo: Paula Court

Joe Joseph and Oleg Dubson lose themselves in orgasmic Absurdist ecstasy in GENET PORNO. Photo: Paula Court

Undaunted, Genet rewrote his entire cinematic wet dream from scratch. Greenberg’s in-your-face, obsessive representations of the very sex acts Genet was partially in prison for served as a big F.U. to the audience. The erect prosthetic phalluses popping out all over the place became accusatory middle fingers pointed at the mainstream gay community’s complacency and willingness to be mere passive consumers of copious volumes of prefabricated fantasies rather than active imaginers of a better world.

A colleague of mine felt that ERS also was extending a middle finger to its audience by dint of the show’s length, impenetrability, and mise-en-scѐne (an aspect of the production that he loved), although what an institutionally supported, critically lauded artist has to be pissed off about eludes me. Having resisted the urge to flee at intermission, I actually found there to be a potentially extraordinary 90-minute piece buried under an avalanche of unnecessarily twee stage business. Kempson seems to be aiming for a meditation on the necessity of contemporary women to reconnect with the power of the mythic feminine as a way to escape the monotheistic Madonna/whore binary. Too bad the white guy in the rehearsal room seemed to feel the need to prove that size matters more than meaning.

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  • RLewis

    Well said! I love me some non-narrative performance, but if one is going to jettison suspense, foreshadowing, intrigue, catharsis, and other tools innate to storytelling, then they must be replaced with something(s) even better, or I’m just bored… again. Smart writer.