The history of the short play can be traced back to the very origins of the Theatre. In ancient Greece, dramatists traditionally included a short satyr play with their trilogy of tragedies presented at the dramatic competitions. A short burlesque treatment of the classic myths, satyr plays generally poked fun at the gods or heroes in their mythical adventures and allowed for a bit of light fun after the heavy tragedies. Pratinus is usually credited with having invented the genre sometime before 501 B.C. However, some historians argue that the satyr plays were, in fact, the very first form of drama to develop and that tragedy and comedy actually emerged from these simple burlesques. The only satyr play to survive in its entirety is Euripides’ Cyclops which tells the tale of Odysseus and his crew being captured and eaten by the one-eyed monster. A large fragment of Sophocles’ The Trackers, which details Apollo’s quest to locate a herd of cattle stolen by Hermes, is also extant.
When drama reemerged in the middle ages, it was in the form of short liturgical plays that were gradually incorporated into church services and festivals. The Easter trope, for example, also known as Quem Quaeritis, originally consisted merely of the short exchange between the three Marys and the angel when they visit Christ’s tomb. These short biblical reenactments were so popular, however, that they were gradually elaborated on to the delight of the masses. Additional dialogue, characters, and scenarios were added until these short dramatic pieces eventually grew into much longer Mystery and Miracle plays. Similar plays were developed for the birth of Christ and other popular biblical events.
As the biblical drama continued to flourish, short secular pieces also began to emergefarces such as The Boy and the Blind Man and morality plays such as Everyman. By Shakespeare’s time, dramatic literature had developed to the point that it could challenge Greek drama in sophistication and power. Full-length plays made up the vast majority of dramatic offerings, but short plays still retained a place in popular culturenotably, for instance, the court masques of Ben Jonson, including such works as The Hue and Cry after Cupid.
Many of the greatest dramatists to follow would try their hand at the short dramatic form, some of them producing works that rival their longer masterpieces in power and popularity. Some notable short plays produced over the last five hundred years include Molière’s The Pretentious Young Ladies, Anton Chekhov’s The Boor, Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, Eugene O’Neill’s Thirst, Maurice Maeterlinck’s The Intruder, Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, Kobo Abe’s The Man Who Turned into a Stick, Beth Henley’s Am I Blue, Tennessee Williams’ 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, Christopher Durang’s The Actor’s Nightmare, and Harold Pinter’s Mountain Language.
In 1977, the Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival of New American Plays took the short play a step further when it founded a brand new genrethe 10-minute play. This new format was an immediate and explosive hit with audiences, allowing them to enjoy an entire buffet of theatre in one sitting. Since that time, the 10-minute play has solidified its place in the canon of dramatic literature, and many theatres now include an evening of 10-minute plays in their production season.