Another important distinction needs to be made when analysing time in drama, namely between fictive story time or played time and real playing time (see also for narrative). While the played time or the time of the story in Osborne’s Look Back in Anger encompasses several months, the play’s actual playing time (time it takes to stage the play) is approximately two hours. The playing time of a piece of drama of course always depends on the speed with which actors perform individual scenes and can thus vary significantly from one performance to another.
The fact that story time elapses from one scene to the next and from act to act is indicated by the fall of the curtain in Osborne’s play. Thus, quick curtains are used between scenes, while longer curtain pauses occur between acts. Significantly, the length of curtain time is correlated with the length of time that has been left out in the story: A quick curtain suggests a short time span while normal breaks cover longer time spans of the played time.
Ellipsis and Speed-up/Summary
A gap in the played time of a piece of drama is called ellipsis, i.e., one leaves out bits of the story and thus speeds up the plot. Considering that scenes usually present actions directly, one can assume that played time and playing time usually coincide in drama. In other words: If characters are presented talking to one another for, say, twenty minutes, then it will normally take about twenty minutes for actors to perform this ‘conversation’. Discrepancies between the duration of played time and playing time mostly concur with scenic breaks because it is difficult to present them convincingly in the middle of an interaction. However, an example of a speed-up or summary, i.e., a situation where the actual playing time is shorter than the time span presented in the played interaction, can be found for instance in John Middleton’s and William Rowley’s The Changeling. Beatrice, who fears that her lack of sexual innocence could be discovered by her husband during their wedding night, has arranged for her maid to take her place in the wedding bed and anxiously awaits the maid’s return:
few lines further down, after a brief dialogue with De Flores, Beatrice
mentions the clock again: “List, oh my terrors! / Three struck
by Saint Sebastian’s!” (ibid, 66/67). Although the time
it takes for Beatrice to appear on stage and to wait for her maid can
hardly be longer than ten minutes in actual performance, the time that
elapses in the story is two hours. The lapse of time is indicated in
Beatrice’s speech as well as by the sound of a clock offstage
but this seems very artificial because Beatrice appears before the audience
for a much shorter time. The discrepancy between played time and playing
time is particularly conspicuous at the very beginning of this scene,
where Beatrice announces the striking of the next hour after only a
couple of minutes on stage. This scene clearly does not put an emphasis
on a realistic rendition of time but the focus is on Beatrice’s
reaction to the maid’s late arrival and her anxiousness lest her
trick should be discovered.
Slow-down/Stretch and Pause
Since drama employs other media than narrative texts and is performed in real time, not all usages of time in narrative are possible in plays. Nevertheless, postmodernist plays in particular sometimes experiment with different presentations of time. Techniques which can only be adopted in modified form in drama are slow-down or stretch, where the playing time is longer than the played time, and pause, where the play continues while the story stops. One might argue that soliloquies where characters discuss and reveal their inner psychological state or emotions are similar to pauses since no real ‘action’ is observable and the development of the story is put on hold, so to speak. However, if one considers that the character’s talking to the audience or perhaps to himself is in a way also a form of action that can be relevant for further actions, this argument does not really hold. Consider the following example from ’s Equus. The psychologist Dysart in a way steps out of the storyworld of the play and addresses the audience:
could argue that, while Dysart reflects on his feelings about his work,
the story as such stops. However, if one considers Dysart’s inner
development as a psychiatrist another vital part of the plot and treats
this address to the audience as an integral element of the play’s
communication system, then the playing time of Dysart’s speech
still coincides with its played time. In other words: Even where narrative
elements are used in plays and thus potentially facilitate narrative
techniques of time presentation, the overall scenic structure almost
always counters that. A stretch or slow-down could be realised if characters
were to act in slow-motion, e.g., in a pantomime or dumb show, similar
to slow-motion techniques in films. This, however, is not feasible for
an entire play. Manfred Pfister mentions in his book Das Drama
(2001: 363) J.B.
Priestley’s play Time and the Conways, where the
entire second act is used to present Kay’s daydream, which, according
to time references in the play, only lasts for a few minutes. This slow-down
is of course only recognisable through overt hints in the surrounding
plot, whereas the time of the actions presented within the daydream
perfectly corresponds with the time it takes to perform them on stage.
So, again, a real slow-down cannot actually be achieved through the
way the performance is acted out since actors cannot really ‘slow
down’ their acting, (unless they play in slow motion) but it can
only be suggested by means of linguistic cues or stage props indicating
time (clocks, etc.).