Styles—in art, theater, fashion, anything—can change without our being aware of it; it is only when we look back over a gap of years that we are astounded by how creakily old-fashioned the standards of our youth have become. Here’s a photo from parents’ day, 1972, for instance: Was that really me in the maxi-skirt and peasant blouse? And what was my middle-aged father doing sporting sideburns and a psychedelic tie? The same is true of dramatic fashion. Looking back at successful plays from three or four decades ago, it is astounding to see how commercial, middlebrow drama has been streamlined in the intervening years. It was still very usual, in those days, for straight plays to have three acts and last for two-and-a-half to three hours. Today’s audiences have no patience for such length, preferring to be tucked into bed watching Charlie Rose by eleven o’clock. It’s easy enough to put this down to reduced...


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