- Rooms in Dramatic Realism by Fred Miller Robinson
Realism, asserts Fred Miller Robinson, needs to be revisited as "the revolution that Ibsen wrought onstage"; it needs to be probed for its theoretical and theatrical possibilities, moving the needle away from and beyond the usual "social issues reliant on text" setting on the critical dial (ix). In 106 readable pages comprising fifty-two trenchant, self-contained essays on individual plays—most of them well known—Robinson makes abundant good on the challenge he has issued. His interest is not anything so banal as the recognizable everyday in settings, much less mere environmental determinism. Rather, he looks to intersections of the psychological and the social, telescoped and distilled into high stakes dialectics that include the spatial and somatic.
The book's first section, called simply "Rooms," makes two things clear. First, realist plays, usually set in the rooms of homes, are nearly always about money. Second, they rarely resolve issues. Lest this seem obvious and simplistic, Robinson reminds us via the chapter's (and to some extent the whole book's) touchstone play—A Doll's House—that rooms are "phenomenal … reflect[ing] [End Page 318] two levels of a character's experience of them: the unreflective and the reflective" (12). In this case, Nora "comes to recognize the room as an imaginary of the culture at large" via her "somatic awareness" (13). Rooms are not merely decorative and so-called historically accurate backdrops for discursive arguments. They are agents and, perhaps for the audience at least, messengers. Robinson notes that, even as the scenographic methods of depicting realist rooms morphed, Ibsen's realism, with legatees Shaw, O'Neill, Hansberry, and August Wilson, among others, maintained "the connection between characters and rooms … that keep them from whatever is outside the walls and trap them from whatever is outside that they need" (22).
Chapter 2, "Specimens," focuses on plays with a box set—something that points with a vengeance to what lies outside the room precisely by impeding access to it. Robinson repeatedly returns in this section to the delicate balance (Albee's 1966 play of that name indeed makes an appearance here) between the comforts of "indwelling" (42), a word he uses in his examination of Harold Pinter's 1957 The Room, and the outside powers that surround, underwrite, and threaten the characters' precarious situations. As an example of the suppleness of Robinson's thinking, the tavern in O'Neill's 1948 The Iceman Cometh is a public establishment offering safe haven (home, as it were) to its "inmates" (49), while the putatively private domestic interior of Marsha Norman's 1983 'night, Mother is "too public to be a refuge. The world that is being kept at bay is already inside, making Jessie leave the room when others visit" (58).
In chapter 3, "Variations," individual plays are either wholly set or contain individual scenes set outdoors, yet the experience of the outside does little to assuage "the two-faced phenomenon of comfort and entrapment" (61). Pride of place here goes to Chekhov, and Robinson notes that the aristocratic characters in Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Seagull are not really interested in "the ideals and obsessive pressures of the domestic" (63). Outdoor scenes deflect their immediate attention away from what really troubles them: money. Chekhov's legacy is not monolithic, however; consider Lanford Wilson's 1978 Fifth of July, which Robinson calls a "version of The Cherry Orchard" (70). Here the characters are gathered on the front porch of the family homestead, the porch being "a liminal space between inside and outside" (70). Rather than dreaming of the beyond or of sexual, professional, or political discovery elsewhere, however, the walking wounded of the extended Talley family present the audience with a situation engineered in reverse, as the desire for change—the "whatever they need"—leads to the inside of the house.
The final chapter, "Interventions," considers plays written between 1947 and 1997, two-thirds of these American, that have "elements of the extra-real heard [End Page 319] or brought onstage...