Never mind the play, just feel the trilogy

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THIS column operates, among other things, as a sort of cultural detection agency, shuffling down dark alleys behind artistic trends, trying to see where they are heading. But sometimes the gumshoe is left with a clutch of apparently unrelated clues that only eventually lead to the discovery of the bodies. Such was this week's investigation.

The clues were these. First, a collection of theatre tickets in a wallet, the stub for each show resting beside a pair of Tube tickets showing that, on that day, the theatre-goer had taken the first early morning train from his home and the last late-night one back to it. Second, discovered on a bedside table, Vikram Seth's 1,200-page book A Suitable Boy. Third, found in the television room, video cassettes containing copies of the first episode of Channel 4's adaptation of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City and of Yorkshire TV's thriller shown last Saturday night, Circle of Deceit. Finally, scattered around the lounge, was a complete set of this week's Sunday papers.

Unfortunately, the pleasant but rather slow-witted sidekick who sometimes does the legwork for this column failed to make anything of this and it was only while staring moodily out of the window on Sunday night that I suddenly struck my forehead with the flat of my hand.

'Of course] I've got it]'

'What, boss?'

'Why would a person attending a number of plays be absent from their house all day on each occasion?'

'Because they were going somewhere else first?'

'That's what we thought. But there are no other receipts or tickets. No, look at this . . .'

I threw guides to current theatre productions in London and New York across the desk. I pointed out that the National was staging two trilogies (by David Hare and Ken Campbell), with Tony Kushner's two- part epic Angels in America about to open. The Kushner was also on Broadway, along with the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Kentucky Cycles, a chronicle of American history in two long plays, performed on the same day.

'The point is,' I told my sidekick, 'that going to the theatre at the moment takes all day. Now, what is the most striking thing about the Vikram Seth novel?'

'That it has the scope of a 19th cent . . .'

'No. The most striking thing . . .'

'That it is 1,200 pages in length . . .'

'Exactly. And what do the two taped television dramas have in common . . .?' 'Each is two hours long.'

'Precisely. Now what occurs to you about these Sunday papers . . .?'

'That each of them seems to have more sections every week . . .'

'And what do we conclude from these clues taken together . . .?'

'I don't know, boss.'

'That,' I informed my sidekick with a flourish, 'we may finally declare the death of an old nemesis of this agency]'

I explained to him that when I first came into the cultural detection business a few years ago, the arts were under threat from something called the Three-Minute Culture. It was believed that television advertising and the general distracting business of modern life had shortened attention spans. As a result, artistic miniaturism would be the wave of the future. Life might be long, but art would be short, to adapt the old platitude.

The three-minuters were given courage by another set of contemporary ideologues, who preached the creed of 'information anxiety', the belief that the sheer weight of data available in the modern world would lead consumers towards sources that ruthlessly did the editing for them. Hence novels, if they were to survive, would evolve into novellas. Television programmes, even on the BBC, would become as brisk and quick as advertisements. Newspapers would be reduced to brief summary sheets.

I began to think something was going wrong when Kevin Costner won Oscars for a movie, Dances With Wolves, which was so long that audiences were required to book their annual leave to see it. And at the same time Harold Pinter, who, with commendable sensitivity to the new Zeitgeist, had started writing plays that actually were around three minutes long, was being pilloried by critics and audiences who emerged from premieres staring stroppily at their stopwatches. The absolute confirmation that the theory was flawed was when Michael Ignatieff, invited to promote the ideas of the three-minuters in a BBC 2 series, spread his brief over six half- hour programmes.

But the theatrical trilogies, long novels, and two-hour television episodes of 1993 finally cook the goose - or, perhaps more accurately, hard-boil the egg - of the three-minuters. As for information anxiety and the theory that editorial sifting would be the key to circulation success, tell that to last Sunday's paper boys. Naturally, my sidekick wondered how the three-minuters could have got it so wrong. I conceded, charitably, that they had been right about one thing. Modern narrative grammar clearly had become briefer and speedier. Newspapers now do far more visually to hold the eye of their readers. The average scene in a play or film is much shorter than it would have been 20 years ago. The same might even apply to chapters of books: novelists now routinely cross-cut, in a parody of film editing, while Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy accumulates in relatively frisky chapters. The difficulty for the three-

minuters is that these brief scenes are usually contained in such expensive wrappings.

The explanation of why the Three-Minute Culture and information anxiety have been replaced by something more like the Three- Hour Culture and data mania is an intriguing illustration of the relationship between art and economics.

The mid-Eighties idea of cultural consumers as people restlessly hopping between alternatives, was, in retrospect, rooted in a time when people were perceived to be rich and busy. But one result of recession is that what people most demand from an artistic or media product is value for money, a sense of event in return for their expenditure of cash or time. A theatrical trilogy or a 1,200-page novel offer both.

So the three-minuters were not the artistic nihilists they were sometimes taken to be, but rather social idealists. They thought that the consumers of the early Nineties would have money to burn and time to hoard. It turned out the other way round. And that, as I told my sidekick, was the message of the tickets, the novel, the video cassettes and the Sunday papers.