The Rollicking History of the World in Just 75 Minutes

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

“Long Story Short”
Helen Hayes Theater
240 W. 44th St.
New York, N.Y.

Actor Colin Quinn walked out on to the stage of “Long Story Short,” the one-man play about the history of the world, and stood amid rows of what appeared to be large stone seats from an ancient Greek amphitheater.  He looked solemnly at the audience and told them that what happened long ago was no different from what happens today.

“The Old Testament now is the New York Post,” he said and the crowd roared.

Quinn, an alumnus of Saturday Night Live, cracked a thin smile.  He should have.  The actor was off and running on his splendid seventy-five-minute journey.  Quinn never did tell the whole history of the world—that might take a good ninety minutes—but he recounted most of it in a rollicking style, bringing on waves of laughter throughout the theater as his humor tumbled through the centuries.

“Long Story Short,” at the Helen Hayes Theater, written by Quinn, is not a play.  It is not even a one-man show.  It is a night club act.  It is a hilarious act that just happens to be about history.  The play, directed by comic icon Jerry Seinfeld, pokes gentle fun at everybody in every major country in the world—over 4,500 years.

Quinn, a strapping, sandy-haired comic blessed with frenetic energy, says that the world has always been broken down into “smart” people and “tough” people.  The planet’s inhabitants have never been able to get along very well.  “Hey,” he said, “today people can’t get along in an elevator; so how could they get along in the world?”

He starts his laugh filled trip in ancient Greece and reminds the audience that the Greeks invented theater and that, as soon as they did, parents complained that all their kids did all day was watch plays.

The play deals with history in a general way. He gets into wars in the ancient world, the battles between the British and French and talks about conflict between the Middle Eastern countries and the nations in Africa.  He accused Greek laborers in 500 B.C. of conducting work slowdowns, joked that Julius Caesar was the first mob boss, that James Monroe was a tyrant with his Monroe Doctrine and that Afghan women are sexy because they show people their eyes.  He accused the always-proper British of running their empire with utter contempt for everyone in it, said the huge ancient Mayan pyramids were the world’s biggest stoops and that philosopher Socrates died telling his friends that his theories were all nonsense.

He did not spend much time on American history (with his wit, that’s a relief for us), although he had a merry time talking about the Declaration of Independence.  He castigated Thomas Jefferson for writing that American sought “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  “We needed to be happy?” he said.  “The Declaration of Independence gave us Dr. Phil.”

History purists who see the play might cringe that he was too casual and did not get into enough real history or make it as complicated as it was (who could in 75 minutes?).  They might feel that as an actor and a comedian rather than an historian he did not interpret history correctly.  Quinn glides over many important events and people.  There is no mention of Napoleon Bonaparte, Joe Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Queen Victoria, Abraham Lincoln, Katherine the Great, Attila the Hun, Martin Luther King Jr. or the Emperor Hirohito.  Little is said about seismic events such as the plague, the smallpox epidemics of the eighteenth century, the world’s economic depressions or cultural triumphs.

Real history buffs might wince that Jerry Seinfeld directed the show (so where was the Soup Nazi?).  Even so, the most critical historian would have to laugh at this fast-moving and humor-filled play. Those who are not history experts, but enjoy studying it, will howl with delight at Quinn’s antics.

The secret to this play about the history of the world is that the marvelously talented Quinn always brings back the people of the past to the people of today to make his historical bridges and remind the audience that no matter what the year, people are still the same.  His jokes on how and why families today badmouth each other on their way to family reunions (and spend their time at the reunions collecting new ammunition) were right on target and hilarious.

He uses broad strokes in his historical analysis, but hangs his story on famous people and well-known clashes.  You don’t have to be an historical expert to know who won the American Revolution or that the British and French have detested each other for hundreds of years.  People in the audience don’t have to recall anything; they just have to sit back and enjoy the show.

While his humor can be brutal, his demeanor is always gentle, so no matter what country you are from, you can laugh at yourself.  He is critical but takes no hard stand; the seemingly unwinnable war in Afghanistan was turned into just a smile, a shrug and a joke about the Russians failure to win there, either.

History, with all of its trials and tribulations, might not be very humorous, but “Long Story Short” certainly is. History lovers should make sure they drop in for seventy-five minutes of thoughtful entertainment—and sheer fun.

 PRODUCERS: Eva Price, Richard Martini, others. Set: David Gallo, Lighting: Howell Binkley, Sound: Christopher Bond, Stage Manager: Daniel Kells. Directed by Jerry Seinfeld.

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