- Ghosts: Death’s Double and the Phenomena of Theatre by Alice Rayner, and: Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain by Mark Pizzato
The figure of the ghost has haunted theatre and performance theory almost as much as it has moonlit graveyards and abandoned houses. As figures that shimmer in our peripheral vision, between the alive and the dead, the past and the present, the real and the imagined, ghosts trouble some of the most pervasive cultural boundaries. In Ghosts: Death’s Double and the Phenomena of Theatre, Alice Rayner defines the theatrical, in a broad sense, as anything that takes place whenever such dualistic thought or oppositions are invoked and broken down (xii). This allows her to include largely 20th-century play texts and performances, as well as public memorials, installation art, and film in her meditation on theatre as a ghostly practice.
Rayner locates herself in a long line of ghost studies, from those by Margery Garber (1987) and Jacques Derrida (1994) to Joseph Roach (1996) and Marvin Carlson (2001). Similar to Carlson in The Haunted Stage: The Theatre as Memory Machine, Rayner structures her chapters around the undertheorized material aspects of the theatre. Whereas Carlson’s macro-historical project deals with the operations of repetition and memory in the text, the actors’ bodies, production elements, and the performance space itself, Rayner provides more intimate and [End Page 178] experiential analyses of the 8:00 pm show time, stage props, chairs, and the curtain. Rayner hesitates to explain away the ghosts in theatre and instead opts for an approach that seeks to preserve the mystery of the possible, yet rarely recognized, ghostly experience that theatre promises.
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In a densely articulated opening chapter, Rayner situates this promise of the theatrical encounter in the space between audience and actor. By showing up for the 8:00 pm curtain, the audience agrees to participate in a dream of sorts that is not altogether separate from their own daily lives. Rayner draws upon the work of Freud, Lacan, Garber, and Ricoeur. Although Derrida is not explicitly cited, his notion of the multiple temporalities of the specter seems influential. Theatre, as a space of repetitions (with a difference) invites the doubling and blurring of a single given present. The piercing bell in Beckett’s Happy Days (1961), Rayner suggests, functions like the mutual appointment of the theatrical encounter in this double sense, to waken both Winnie and the audience:
An attentive audience that is attuned by grief to the losses in/of time may wake up from within the dream/representation to the sound of a different bell that is the same; it may wake up along with Winnie to its own repetitious habits that get us through a conventional day while, bit by bit, grain upon grain, we are buried by the present.(20)
Rayner’s work gains momentum in her central chapters dedicated to theatrical objects, including props and, specifically, chairs: “[S]tage props clearly participate in the signifying, narrative, and stylistic fictions of the drama as well as the culture, and they also supply the material, aesthetic, and tangible reality of things in themselves” (74). She succinctly describes the prop table as “a tangible archive with a variable narrative” (84). Here, the relationship between historiography and theatre (one of her primary concerns) begins to emerge more clearly in a lucid interpretation of how the use of objects in Suzan-Lori Parks’s The America Play (1995) succeeds, as only theatre can, in recontextualizing, usurping, playing with, referring to, and disrupting history. Unlike historical writing, which can only lay claim to a version of the real, replete with absences, omissions, and blind spots, theatre has the capacity to overcome and exceed this: “Historical writing tends to tame its ghosts. History as a collection of written documents banishes ghosts from three-dimensional space and regulates...