The shortest play in the world is probably by Samuel Beckett. ‘Breath’ is a 1969 work that was specially written for the theatrical revue Oh! Calcutta! The revue was organised by theatre critic Kenneth Tynan (who was famously the first person to say the word ‘fuck’ on British television, in 1965) and brought together a host of famous people, including John Lennon and Sam Shepard. The Licensing Act had just been abolished, in 1968 (for the last 230 years, all works for the theatre had been subject to censorship by the Lord Chamberlain), and Oh! Calcultta! reflects the new-found freedom, even in its punningly naughty title (Oh! Calcutta! sounds like the French ‘O quel cul t’as’, which translates as ‘Oh, what an arse you have!’). However, Beckett’s play was never actually used in the revue.
‘Breath’ lasts no longer than a minute in total, contains no dialogue, and features no characters as such. All we get is a stage filled with rubbish – random detritus, horizontally scattered across the stage – and then the sound of a birth-cry, followed by somebody breathing in and breathing out, and then one final cry (the death-cry). As such, ‘Breath’ could be interpreted as a play about the brevity of life, its pointlessness (modern life is literally rubbish?), and the unimportance of us as players in the great game (or play) that is life (the breather is heard, but never seen). The play has been filmed by Damien Hirst (with ‘vocals’ by Keith Allen, father of Lily), among others, and can be viewed here.
If that’s not got you down, it gets worse: possibly the shortest short story in the world is Ernest Hemingway’s similarly dolorous six-word effort: ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn.’ Within those six words is a whole tragic back-story that is never spoken, but is implied by that concise notice. (Hemingway wrote the story as a bet, after somebody challenged him to write a story in just six words. In some accounts he scrawled it on a bar napkin.) In similarly lugubrious fashion, T. S. Eliot summed up life in three words: ‘Birth, copulation and death.’
As for the shortest poem, some say that is the anonymous couplet, ‘Fleas’: ‘Adam / Had ’em’. However, we quite like the following effort from T. E. Hulme (1883-1917) for a poem that outdoes the haiku for poetic brevity: ‘Old houses were scaffolding once / and workmen whistling.’ Quite.
Correction: We’ve since discovered that Hemingway probably didn’t write the six-word ‘story’ quoted above. See this Slate article for more on this issue, detailing some painstaking research undertaken by the excellent Quote Investigator. Click here for more information about Samuel Beckett’s life.