how to perform the world's shortest play

At a pub quiz recently, I learnt that the world's shortest play was apparently one by Samuel Beckett (right) called 24 Seconds. Below, I've mapped out a few scenarios for shorter (if not necessarily better) works.

In the Blink of an Eye: At rise, we find The Girl standing facing the audience, her face blank, expressionless. Behind her, the stage may be set exactly as the director wishes.

For a moment, she simply stares out into the audience.

Then she blinks. She blinks slowly, taking a second with her eyes closed. During this second there is an enormous shriek of white noise, either generated artificially or, better, by a number of off-stage actors all screaming at the top of their voice. The Girl does not flinch or show any sign of this furore having affected her. She opens her eyes and the screaming abruptly ceases. Curtain.

To enhance the effect of the blink, the lights could be lowered along with the girl's lowering eyelashes, so that when she completely closes her eyes and the scream is heard, the entire stage and auditorium is engulfed in complete darkness.

Length: no more than 12 seconds.

Curtain: The house lights dim. The curtain remains down. The audience waits for the play to begin. It does not. After the curtain has been down just long enough, there is a brief movement. The curtain twitches, as though about to rise, and a couple of disturbances are behind it, which cause it to billow briefly. Then silence again. The play has ended, but there will be no indication to the audience - no house lights or soft music - to tell them that it is now okay to go home.

For this play to work, it is important that the theatre has no policy on kicking patrons out at closing time. They must be allowed to decide for themselves when to go. In order to prevent people treating the theatre as an impromptu hotel for the night, seats should cost a fortune, and come with a suite at the Savoy thrown in.

Length: nebulous, but actual action should last no more than four or five seconds.

Flash: The house lights dim to complete black out. The curtain rises with all characters on stage and in position, though we cannot see them. They begin to perform mundane, repetitive tasks in the dark.

An operative holds a simple photographic flash-gun to the stage and releases it. A flash of light briefly illuminates the action. It is this flash which constitutes the entire play. The presence of the actors on stage either side of the flash is simply preparation and aftermath. The curtain falls. The actors take a bow. At cries of "Author!", "Author!", the flashlight-wielding operative also takes a bow.

Length: a fraction of a second, but residual image on the retina must be taken into account - perhaps three seconds.

24 Seconds of Love: Beckett's play performed as prescribed by the playwright, but on the planet Venus. Venus spins more slowly on its axis than any other planet - once every 24 days, roughly. Hence its seconds last 24 times longer than ours. By Venus's standards, therefore, all plays would be 1/24 as long as ours.

Length: one second.

Schrodinger's Cat: The eponymous physicist speculated that if a cat were in a box, the opening of which would instantly kill the cat, and it was impossible to tell whether the cat were alive without opening the box, it would be impossible to discover whether the cat were alive full stop.

His point related to quantum theory, but it has a theatrical application too. If there may or may not be a play going on behind a curtain, but the raising of the curtain automatically ends the play, then we have the very essence of the short play.

Length: the shortest possible division of time; an instant.


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