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Offstage Space, Narrative, and the Theatre of Imagination (review)
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As William Gruber puts it in "Sights Unseen," his introduction, "my concern ultimately is to show how a deliberate turning away from scenic enactment sometimes forms a critical part of theatrical art" (14). Offstage Space, Narrative, and the Theatre of Imagination examines instances of described absences—moments in a play in which a messenger or narrator describes actions that have taken place offstage—throughout a wide variety of plays and theatre traditions. To this end, Gruber includes three chapters, each organized around a specific strategy of absence. The first is "Showing vs. Telling," the second is "Against Mimesis," and the third is "Theatres of Absence." This is followed by a thorough index. Gruber's overall approach is very thoughtful, as he surveys relevant theory as well as numerous plays and playwrights.

In "Sights Unseen," Gruber introduces his theme with a compelling example—the scene in A Winter's Tale near the end when three gentlemen describe the reunion of Leontes with both Perdita and Polixenes. Gruber then surveys the usual criticism of the scene, which tends to question Shakespeare's decision to not depict the reunion itself on stage. However, assuming that this scene (and others like it) represents a dramaturgical choice, Gruber instead ponders what is gained over what is lost. The subsequent three chapters take on an analysis of the theatrical implications of such choices.

"Showing vs. Telling" focuses primarily on the use of narrative speech to describe offstage events, as in the example above, and other instances of messengers in classical drama. These include primarily examples of violence or sexuality, such as Medea's murder of her children or the offstage sexual encounter between Miss Julie and her father's valet, Jean. Gruber also includes examples from other types of plays, including modern plays with similar descriptive narratives.

The next chapter, "Against Mimesis," focuses upon plays and playwrights that intentionally eschew showing onstage action in favor of narrative as a strategy to undermine mimesis. A significant element in his theoretical approach is to rehabilitate Plato from the usually assumed hostility towards theater. Instead, Gruber depicts a Plato who is disdainful of highly mimetic art, "a more desirable kind of performance, however, would be simply diegesis, or telling" (81). Gruber then shows the similarity between Plato and other respected theatre thinkers, such as Bertolt Brecht, W. B. Yeats, and Gordon Craig.

The final chapter, "Theatres of Absence," examines plays that intentionally leave significant characters as offstage presences in order to create mythic, or other, dramaturgical effects. A nice example that Gruber details is Terence's The Woman from Andros, the title character of which is oft discussed and central to the play's plot, but who never herself appears onstage as a character in the play. Other examples include work by Susan Glaspell, Samuel Beckett, and Austrian playwright Thomas Bernhard.

In general, the book succeeds in presenting Gruber's thesis in a compelling and varied way, and is very thought provoking. It is one sign of the book's success that while reading it one finds oneself thinking of more examples and more plays. On the other hand, I also at times found myself wondering about other examples that might challenge Gruber's thesis. While discussing Brecht, my mind often wandered to Augusto Boal, Forum Theatre, and Playback Theatre. Also, while considering the use of messengers in Greek tragedy, this reader wondered how Gruber would accommodate the traditional device of the ekkyklêma, the so-called roll-out machine traditionally thought to be used expressly to show dead bodies without narration, thus in effect being the opposite trope of Gruber's thesis. I would have enjoyed discovering Gruber's thoughts on how the two devices intermingled, creating perhaps one overall theatrical device. Offstage Space, Narrative, and the Theatre of Imagination might prove useful to any director interested in such plays, characters, scenes, etc. Scholars interested in dramaturgy or theatre history, as well as the theoretical implications of conceptualized space, will find this book stimulating. While teachers may find it too dense for an undergraduate class, it might serve a graduate class very well, especially one in directing, dramaturgy, or theatre history.

Copyright © 2012 by the Author
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