A fascinating study by theater critic and scholar Jonathan Kalb ’81, Great Lengths: Seven Works of Marathon Theater (University of Michigan Press), considers large-scale theater productions that often run five hours or more and present special challenges to the artists involved as well as the audience. He takes a close look at seven internationally prominent theater productions, including Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Nicholas Nickleby, Peter Brooks’s The Mahabharata, and the “durational works” of the British experimental company Forced Entertainment. Diverse and savvy viewers who may otherwise be distracted by film, television and other media nevertheless continue to seek out the increasingly rare experiences of awe, transcendence, and sustained immersion provided by monumental theater works.
The book’s diverse examples range from adapted novels and epics, to dramatic chronicles with macrohistorical and macropolitical implications, to stagings of super-size classic plays, to “postdramatic” works that negotiate the border between life and art. Kalb reconstructs each of the works, re-creating the experience of seeing it while at the same time explaining how it maintained attention and interest over so many hours, and then expanding the scope to embrace a wider view and ask broader questions. The discussion of Nicholas Nickleby, for example, considers melodrama as a basic tool of theatrical communication, and the section on Peter Brooks explores the ethical problems surrounding theatrical exoticism.
The book is aimed at general readers as well as theater specialists. It places the chosen productions in various historical and critical contexts and engages with the many lively scholarly debates surrounding them.
Kalb is a theater critic and scholar whose work has appeared in The Village Voice and New York Press. He is a professor in the Department of Theatre at Hunter College, City University of New York.