University of Chicago scholar John Muse recently received the prestigious 2017–2018 George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism for his book Microdramas: Crucibles for Theater and Time (University of Michigan Press, 2017).
Microdramas, the first book-length study of brevity in modern drama, asks what plays ranging in length from twenty minutes to a few seconds can teach us about theatrical performance and the experience of time. In it, Muse illustrates the outsized impact of very short plays from the late nineteenth through early twenty-first centuries by focusing on six playwrights devoted to brevity as a structural principle: August Strindberg, Maurice Maeterlinck, F. T. Marinetti, Samuel Beckett, Caryl Churchill, and Susan-Lori Parks.
“In Microdramas, John presents compelling and original arguments about the significance of short plays on the theatrical tradition, changing audience expectations, and time,” said Anne Walters Robertson, Dean of the Division of the Humanities.
Since the late nineteenth century, many accomplished playwrights have embraced brevity and compression. “These playwrights test the limits of what theater can be,” said Muse, assistant professor of English and Director of Graduate Studies in Theater and Performance Studies. “In the process, they often reveal brief moments to be richer and more complex than we expect.” For instance, Muse finds that audiences often have to pay more attention to short plays than they do to longer ones.
When Muse decided to write his first book about microdramas, his colleagues in the Department of English Language and Literature and the Committee on Theater and Performance Studies encouraged him to think of the book not only as a study of short plays but also as a study of theater and time. “I’ve been consistently impressed by the incisive and empathetic feedback my colleagues have given my work,” said Muse.
According to the Nathan Award Committee, Muse succeeds in deploying his wit and intelligence to elucidate how shorter plays influence the theatrical experience for audiences. The Committee particularly commends his final chapter as “a fitting climax to Muse’s compelling and original project, with much value to offer on, for example, Suzan-Lori Parks’s 365 Days/365 Plays and Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information.”
His inspiration comes from many sources. Muse is a fan of those rare academic books whose elegance enriches their arguments. He particularly admires Marc Robinson’s The Other American Drama and The American Play: 1787–2000, the latter of which received the Nathan Award; Shonni Enelow’s Method Acting and Its Discontents, also a Nathan Award winner; and R. Darren Gobert’s The Mind-Body Stage: Passion and Interaction in Cartesian Theater.
For his next scholarly project, Muse is exploring theater and virtual worlds, focusing on the surprising affinities between live performance and digital or otherwise virtual theaters. Examples include social media and online performances as well as transmedia and mixed-reality performances. “I’m paying attention to the ways in which theater is always a virtual experience and to the ways online performance is a theatrical experience,” he said. “Both imagined and digital theaters are deeply indebted to established theatrical forms.”
The George Jean Nathan Award honors the American who has written the best piece of dramatic criticism during the previous year. Muse shares this year’s Award with arts journalist Helen Shaw. Past recipients include The New Yorker theater critics John Lahr and Hilton Als, New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley, and literary critic and novelist Elizabeth Hardwick. The Award Committee comprises the chairs of English Departments and drama specialists from Cornell, Princeton, and Yale Universities.