One of my favorite plays ever is also one of the shortest.
It’s a charming little yarn from Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, and it goes something like this: The light comes up on a stage scattered with trash. You hear a faint cry followed by a deep inhalation, and the light swells. The light dims, and you hear a deep exhalation followed by a faint cry. The light goes out. That’s it.
me: Yay, do it again!
Beckett: You can’t. No one can.
The play is called “Breath.” It takes about 35 seconds to perform and has no words — just a haunting respiratory metonym for our quick existential dip into the garbage of being. Good stuff! If you have a few minutes to spare (which the play suggests you do not), YouTube hosts a bounty of amateur interpretations.
I admire the play’s honesty — Beckett spares you any impression that he has anything more meaningful (or, ultimately, meaningless) to say. As awkward silences go, it’s refreshingly straightforward.
But what I really appreciate is its brevity. The fleeting hold “Breath” has on your time and attention feels like a favor given the grim glimpse of finity it offers. It’s a play that showcases the time wasted performing it. It’s as close as Beckett ever comes to optimism.
This inclination to forgo the story and get to the point already is something I connect with in a visceral way — Irish blood, Boston impatience. It might be why I’m more of a short-form guy (I’ll always take a poem over a novel). And it might be why most of my favorite new works of theater are on Twitter.
You may have already observed this burgeoning meme-form in the wild, popping up in raw form on Twitter, or as screenshots posted to Instagram, Imgur, or Facebook. They look a lot like the short exchange I imagined up above with Samuel — concise snatches of dialogue styled into tweet-compliant microplays.
Sometimes they squeeze in a stage direction or two; sometimes they come served atop a context clue like an animated GIF or a suggestive JPEG; seldom do they have room for more than four short lines; and more often than not, they capture stunningly accurate portraits (or selfies) of the human experience.
Perhaps the most recognizable recent examples of this strain of meme are the imagined dialogues between President Obama and Vice President Biden, which find “Barack & Joe” approximating a combination of Laurel & Hardy and Calvin & Hobbes.
Most of the memes imagine the Veep scheming all sorts of pre-Trump Oval Office hijinks (“Biden: *whispers* I left a bag of Cheetos in the bathroom. Obama: Why? Biden: in case he needs to powder his nose. Obama: Joe. . .”). Other times, they just feature Biden pitching cockamamie ideas to a burnt-out Barack. Other times, they’re just simple character studies of what can only be called Bidenness.
Another recent sensation on broadband is Evil Kermit. It’s been a busy year online for Kermit the Frog, fresh off another meme hit (the blockbuster “But That’s None of My Business”), and facing a new rival in the form of (formerly racist meme) Pepe the Frog — who I believe has just been tapped for secretary of the interior.
Evil Kermit is based on a still from the 2014 film “Muppets Most Wanted,” in which Kermit faces his evil double, Constantine. Not important. The frame now functions as a stage for an ongoing study of lust, gluttony, avarice, anxiety, vice, and other more minor sins:
*ice accidentally drops in kitchen*
Me to me: kick it under the fridge.
Evil Kermit is all about the self confronting itself — the characters are commonly “me” and “me to me” caught in a battle of wills. But after a while, the picking apart of contradictions (i.e. “me/also me”) emerges as a common them across many of these microplays. It may be why the form is so suited to politics. One sequence of short imagined political dialogues that recently went viral packed a punch by using a combination of tight quarters and broad strokes to critique major inconsistencies:
lgbt person: i would like to exist
white moderates: wow how did this rhetoric get so nasty on both sides
But like anything that thrives on the Internet, sometimes their role is to simply help us process the absurdity around us. and give us something, anything, to laugh at. When Twitter users reimagined the Book of Genesis (i.e. the brilliant meme “How God created animals”), heaven was rendered as a dysfunctional job site staffed by a crew of angelic assistants struggling to realize the vision of their unstable boss:
GOD: Give it 8 super strong arms and hands
ANGEL: uh, we’re out of bones
GOD: 8 weird floppy arms w/ suction cup things
I’m not asking the Nobel people to one-up the Dylan thing and call these literature. Nor am I angling for a handful of teeny tiny Tonys to be handed out. But given what a toxic wasteland the Internet has become lately, these microplays represent instances of concision, introspection, and good humor that are growing rarer by the refresh. I’ll take my glimmers of hope where I can get them.
Beckett, were he alive and clicking today, would likely not be impressed. It was he, after all, who once declared that “every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.”
Also him: “Words are all we have.”