My favorite quote from the life a theater critic is by Max Beerbohm, who succeeded George Bernard Shaw as the theater critic of London’s Saturday Review and held the post for 12 years (1898-1910). At the start of one piece, after citing the name of the play and the theater, he wrote that during the interval, he went out to stretch his legs and began strolling along the Strand in the pleasant evening air. Before he knew it, he suddenly found himself back at home and “thus unable to write a review of this play.”
This story fills me with envy, and not only because as a physically challenged person I am unable to follow in his footsteps, so to speak. One could leave a play at intermission by scooter too. That is not the reason that I could never conceive of suddenly going missing in action, for I believe that a theater critic must keep his derriere (and his head, too, for that matter ) in his seat for the entire duration of the play. But even if I had wanted to leave at intermission, I couldn’t have done so at the last 25 Israeli productions I’ve seen – because there was no intermission.
Yes, the theater intermission has been done away with by Israeli playwrights, directors and theater managers. A routine theater production here lasts 100-120 minutes tops, and that’s it — then it’s time to go home. The only time I’ve experienced an intermission recently was during Shakespeare productions presented by visiting theater companies from Eastern Europe. The last intermission I experienced in the Israeli theater was at the Habima production of “The Miser,” and that was several months ago or more.
On the one hand, why not forgo intermissions? We’re told that the average attention span of the modern theatergoer is steadily dwindling for digital and other reasons, and that no one has the patience for anything beyond the 15 minutes of fame for himself as a viewer (there’s even a new Hebrew abbreviation for this, standing for “too long, haven’t read it” – and I can only hope you won’t apply it to this article, dear readers). It’s economical, too: The viewer saves money on the babysitter and parking, and the theater needn’t design and build two different sets that can be switched at intermission, so it shells out less to workers and can lower production costs.
Intermission: the beginnings
To understand what we’ve been deprived of by the lack of an intermission, we must first understand how the whole thing originated. It was not a commandment handed down from on high: Aristotle did not write “Make thee an intermission in the middle of the play.” The Greeks apparently didn’t need one, nor did Shakespeare’s audience. The intermission is a result of theater’s development into an institution of bourgeois entertainment and of the rise of the realist genre.
Let us begin from the inside, from within the plays. The plots of some realist plays are spread over a period of years. One reason for the division into acts was to conclude an episode of the plot that unfolds in one period and then to move to another period, and sometimes a different location too. The intermission was needed in order to change the sets, but also – perhaps primarily – to reinforce the illusion of reality about what was happening on stage. For the intelligent viewer knows, obviously, that what he’s seeing on stage isn’t “really” happening, that it’s pretend. Nevertheless, he is tempted to believe in the action, out of a “willing suspension of disbelief,” as Coleridge so aptly put it.
When the action on stage is interrupted by an intermission, and the closed curtain erects the fourth wall, which was seemingly invisible during the course of the play, between tthe audience and the stage, the implication is that the members of the audience are going back to their “real life” (chatting with acquaintances, having a coffee or a drink at the bar, using the bathroom) while the action of the play carries on in their absence, somewhere behind the scenes and in the imagination. The temporary departure from the illusion before returning to it has the result of lending it added force.
So what do you think?
But that’s not all: Unlike other types of performing arts presented to a viewing audience (a concert, a dance show), theater involved not only movement and form and sound but also words, ideas and feelings – the entire human experience. And an important part of this experience is the conversation about it among the audience members who were part of it. Yes, this conversation could take place at the end of the play, when a group of people who just saw the production might go out to eat together and compare impressions, fill in bits of information for each other, and argue about what it all meant. But the theater cannot ensure that such exchanges will in fact take place. For the most part, once the play is over, theatergoers hurry home to free up the babysitter, and anyway it’s late, and they’re tired, and who has the time or energy, and so on. We came, we saw, we left.
The intermission creates the opportunity. You run into someone you know, both of you nursing a drink of some kind, you finish with the “how are you’s” and then the natural topic of conversation is “So how do you like the play? Why didn’t that guy tell her the truth? Why did he get himself into trouble with a stupid lie? Do you really think she’ll poison him? Will they get married? What, you mean you didn’t notice that they were hiding back there and heard everything? I’m not sure I like it I do like it, very much even, although”
This, in essence, is the real life of the theater experience. Just as the reading of a book doesn’t occur solely while our eyes are taking in the printed words, but also while we’re thinking about the story and the characters when we’re not holding the book. Or the way we talk about the events of an episode in a television series we’ve seen, before we and the person we’re talking with have seen the next episode, and so we form expectations together. The theater intermission is something that’s built into the experience, so that we’ll share the experience not just by viewing it together with others, but also through intensive discussion of the play while it is still ongoing.
Then there’s also the more prosaic matter of rest (for the performers and the audience), and releasing tension. In American show business, they have the concept of the “Broadway bladder” — which says that the audience may only go for a little over an hour, and no more, without a bathroom break. And the snack bar needs to make a living somehow too.
But modern life is about getting down to business, and in Israel that seems to be the mantra too. I recently watched a one hour and 45-minute performance of “A Streetcar Named Desire” without intermission (in the original there are 11 scenes occurring over three successive time periods), and “Ghosts” (four acts, with brief intervals of time between them) in just under two hours without an intermission. And with both of these productions, I felt that the audience was deprived of the chance mid-play to ponder and discuss the directors’ innovative and fascinating approaches (Ilan Ronen at Habima and Ido Riklin at the Be’er Sheva Theater).
Not that I would have been able to enjoy it. As a theater critic, I’m always being asked at intermission, “So what did you think?” and I usually try to evade answering by saying something clever like “A judge is not supposed to form an opinion before hearing all sides and weighing all the evidence” (What rubbish! Me, a judge?!) I guess I’m afraid that someone will try to sway the opinion that I myself sometimes have trouble forming. But I recently made up my mind to be more open during intermission, and to chat with anyone who is so inclined. Because, yes, the intermission is an integral part of the theatergoing experience, if not of the play itself.
Alas, there are hardly any intermissions in the Israeli theater anymore. And the same is true to some extent elsewhere as well. But in other places in the world, or so it seems to me, the theater is still a more substantial social-cultural experience, and not just an object of consumption, something we don’t spend too much time on and then go home and promptly forget.
So, if anyone is listening: Stop stopping the intermission. Yes, there’s always the danger that we’ll run off on you and just go home, but if you’re interesting enough, I promise you that enough of us will stay put for the second half and wait until the end of the game to see the score for ourselves. Not between this side and that side, but between us and ourselves. And in order for it to be a good ending, we theatergoers ought to get a decent break.
I think I’ll take an intermission here. For about a week.