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Essay

Backstory: Stage Time

"Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? -- every, every minute?"
--Emily Webb, in Thornton Wilder's Our Town

Our permanently unresolved relationship to time is and always has been at the center of the human experience. Wilder reminds us in the masterful third act of Our Town that this relationship is at the center of any play as well, and that theater as a medium has the unique capability of wrestling with it. When we see a play, a room full of people (audience and artists) closely experience the phenomenon of human choice and action in shared time. It follows that among the most important features of a play is how time operates within it, and playwrights are fond of experimenting with speed, direction and duration to gain or provide new perspective.

The classic climactic tragedy (e.g., Oedipus, 429 BCE) focuses on the crucial few hours during which a lifetime of backstory leads to an inevitable, in-the-moment, life-altering reversal of fortune. In contrast, the episodic form (e.g. Romeo and Juliet, ca. 1590's) first popularized by the Elizabethans widens the scope of the action to days, months or years. The emphasis is taken off the exposition (all we need to know is that the Montagues hate the Capulets) and placed on the life choices made before our eyes. By expanding the timeline, the characters appear more in control of their destinies. When Romeo declares himself "fortune's fool," it resonates ironically -- we just saw him become this. 

But a play's relationship to time doesn't only invite speculation about its characters' free will. In Kaufman and Hart's Merrily We Roll Along (1934, adapted by Sondheim in 1981), the story starts in the present and moves backwards into the past, its reverse chronology allowing characters' optimism at the end of the play (the beginning of the story) to resonate ominously with the disappointment we know is in store. In contrast, in Harold Pinter's Betrayal (1978), which also moves backwards in time, our complete knowledge from the beginning of who did what to whom shifts the play's focus from that 'what' to the 'how' and the 'why.'

Tom Stoppard's Arcadia (1993) is one of many contemporary plays that alternates between two complementary but separate narratives, in this case one in the 19th century and one in the 20th. The accumulation of props from these alternating scenes across the central table-top appears random, seeming to confirm the 19th century hypothesis that the universe's natural state is entropy. But as audience members we see these props accumulate, granting us witness to the odd resonances between the present and the past, finding order in the apparent chaos.

Throwing rational chronology out the window in favor of a more Expressionist sensibility, John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation (1990) not only popularized its titular sense that the world is getting smaller, but employed a kind of time-logic that feels similarly compressed, slightly elliptical and characterized by surprising coincidences and juxtapositions in space and time, reflecting the compressed, heightened pace of life in the contemporary, smaller-seeming world.

Like Guare, and many other contemporary playwrights, Dan LeFranc is in search of how to harness time on stage, to reflect the way we feel it moving in the fast pace of modern life. But, like Wilder's work, The Big Meal manages to call attention to its quickness, inviting us to slow down and to do the seemingly impossible—to see it as it carries us along.

- Alec Strum, Associate Literary Manager