- Offstage Space, Narrative, and the Theatre of the Imagination
William Gruber’s Offstage Space, Narrative, and the Theatre of the Imagination opens with an anecdote about Samuel Johnson’s criticism of The Winter’s Tale. Rather than show the joyous reunion of Leontes with his daughter Perdita onstage, Shakespeare narrates the action through the characters of three nameless “gentlemen.” Johnson is quoted: “It was, I suppose, only to spare his own labour that the poet put this whole scene into narrative” (1). Gruber’s book probes this infrequently questioned supposition—that onstage narration is only a matter of haste or inadequacy, or alternatively, a matter of “taste” or the impossibility of adequate representation. How does the playwright choose which events to dramatize and which to express by recitation, and how can a productive relationship between the two modes—the diegetic and the mimetic—be upheld in theatre? Gruber appropriately situates his argument in terms of “different kinds of aesthetic responsiveness” (3), considering how the relative immediacy of perception affects our mental image-making during the viewing of a performance. For Gruber, the role of imagination, especially as stimulated by the evocative power of words, is central to the theatrical experience.
The introduction succinctly traces a classical theoretical history of narration in relation to drama through Plato, Aristotle, and Horace (in whose writings a bias against onstage narration takes root), and Gruber’s text includes substantive examples from plays of many periods. The book’s primary focus, however, especially in the final chapters, is on the “widespread ascendancy of narration, or telling, as an alternative strategy to enactment or showing in twentieth-century drama” (13). More generally, Gruber’s concern is not with characters’ passing remarks about offstage events added to enhance a play’s reality effect, but those instances in which scenic enactment is bypassed. One might worry that Gruber’s focus on third-person accounts of offstage action overemphasizes the role of narrative within a dramatic framework. As he points out, however, “[n]arrative incursions are the rule, if anything, rather than the exception” (89), and the book’s persistent regard for the tension between mimesis and diegesis reveals important insights into the subtle complexities of drama as a genre.
Gruber begins by tracking simple substitutions of narration for enactment and proceeds to more complex negotiations between telling and showing in plays where narration destabilizes stage action. Chapter 1, “Showing vs. Telling,” discusses the replacement of mimesis with narration by focusing on the messenger speech in classical drama and its equivalent on the modern stage. Gruber injects characteristic energy into this section (and sets up later chapters) by pointing to contemporary films that feature the retrospective narrative moment. An excerpted monologue from Jaws, for instance, proves that language can enhance the sensory effect that is typically provided by image and music in film. As Gruber argues, the details of a shark attack recounted by an eyewitness—of the shark’s “black eyes, like a doll’s eye,” and a victim who “[b]obbed up and down in the water, just like a kinda top”—“aid spectators in constructing what might be called the felt experience of seeing a shark attack” (21). Gruber moves beyond the paradox that staged violence (as “enactment”) is less real and shows why narration is more useful in activating the “mechanisms of visual perception and the visual imagination” (25). As he points out, by engaging the audience’s imagination, narration provides a more participatory experience of the scene of theatrical violence.
The real innovation of Gruber’s book lies in its application of current neurophysiological theories of visual and cognitive processes of representation to the audience’s theatrical experience in order to account for how narration helps the audience imaginatively reconstruct the play’s narrated events. He suggests that the imagination works as effortlessly as the reflex of processing language; when audiences hear the messenger’s speech during a play, they decipher that language by drawing upon tropes and images found in both the fictional world of the play and the...