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 story time and discourse time 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.

As with narrative, one can look at the duration of presented events in drama (see Duration in Prose).

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:

[Enter Beatrice. A clock strikes one.]

BEATRICE  One struck, and yet she lies by’t – oh my fears!
                      This strumpet serves her own ends, ‘tis apparent now,
                      Devours the pleasure with a greedy appetite
                      And never minds my honour or my peace,
                      Makes havoc of my right; but she pays dearly for’t:
                      No trusting of her life with such a secret,
                      That cannot rule her blood to keep her promise.
                      Beside, I have some suspicion of her faith to me
                      Because I was suspected of my lord,
                      And it must come from her. – Hark by my horrors!
                      Another clock strikes two.

[Strikes two.]

(Middleton/Rowley, The Changeling, V, 1: 1-12)

A 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 Peter Shaffer’s Equus. The psychologist Dysart in a way steps out of the storyworld of the play and addresses the audience:

Now he’s gone off to rest, leaving me alone with Equus. I can hear the creature’s voice. It’s calling me out of the black cave of the Psyche. I shove in my dim little torch, and there he stands – waiting for me. He raises his matted head. He opens his great square teeth, and says – [Mocking.] ‘Why? ... Why Me? … Why – ultimately – Me? … Do you really imagine you can account for Me? … Poor Doctor Dysart!’
[He enters the square.]
Of course I’ve stared at such images before. Or been stared at by them, whichever way you look at it. And weirdly often now with me the feeling is that they are staring at us – that in some quite palpable way they precede us. Meaningless but unsettling … In either case, this one is alarming yet. It asks questions I’ve avoided all my professional life. [Pause.] A child is born into a world of phenomena all equal in their power to enslave. It sniffs – it sucks – it strokes its eyes over the whole uncomfortable range. Suddenly one strikes. Why? Moments snap together like magnets, forging a chain of shackles. Why? I can trace them. I can even, with time, pull them apart again. But why at the start they were ever magnetized at all – just those particular moments of experience and no others – I don’t know. And nor does anyone else. Yet if I don’t know – if I can never know that – then what am I doing here? I don’t mean clinically doing or socially doing – I mean fundamentally! These questions, these Whys, are fundamental – yet they have no place in a consulting room. So then, do I? …This is the feeling more and more with me – No Place. Displacement … ‘Account for me,’ says staring Equus. ‘First account for Me! …’ I fancy this is more than menopause.
(Shaffer, Equus, II, 22)

One 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.).


played time

playing time


speed-up /   summary