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  • Editorial Comment: Theatre and Material Culture
  • Ric Knowles

Theatrical practice has always and inevitably dealt with stuff, in all of its messiness. It engages with the “thingness” of the material world in ways that few other art practices do. As any visit to a scene shop, costume shop, or props department will demonstrate, it also generates things in an abundance that is rare among art practices. And as any visit to a theatre archive will demonstrate, it leaves material traces in its wake that, as Barbara Hodgdon argues in “Material Remains at Play,” have uses and provide pleasures that exceed any effort to reconstruct the performances they document.

Theatre and performance studies, however, have had a more conflicted relationship with things. As Andrew Sofer points out in his essay “Spectral Readings,” most often “performance studies . . . wrestles with translating material presence into discursive terms.” In the Call for Papers for this special issue on Theatre and Material Culture, contributors were invited to consider the complex relationships between theatre and things, and in particular were invited to approach theatre using material-culture methodologies (including Bill Brown’s “thing theory”) that might help to trace how the theatre industry has interacted with objects over history, or to consider the status of the material traces of the theatrical event.

Sofer’s essay opens the issue by providing a quick overview of existing approaches—the semiotic, the phenomenological, and (more extensively) the materialist—and finds in all of them a tendency to shift focus away from an object’s sheer thingness toward its sign qualities, its impact on human consciousness, or its economic, cultural, and ideological enmeshments. In the second half of the essay, however, he ironically turns to the problem of making palpable—making material as thing—an object, such as Macbeth’s dagger, that is not there, that is invisible. He is concerned with the sheer thingness of the absent real. For this, he develops a new approach, “spectral reading,” which he applies to what he calls “dark matter”—offstage spaces and actions, absent characters, the narrated past, hallucination, blindness, obscenity, godhead, and so on—“things” that resist semiotic and materialist analysis because they shed no visible light, but nevertheless exert a “gravitational pull.” Concerning himself with the “not there yet not not there”—the “negative space” of theatre—Sofer develops a mode of analysis that “traces the gravitational effects of invisible forces at work in the world of the performance.”

In his essay “Objects of Realism: Bertolt Brecht, Roland Barthes, and Marsha Norman,” Varun Begley deals with the significantly more visible and tangible world of properties, such as those that Sofer analyzed in his 2003 book The Stage Life of Props. Focusing his analysis on Marsha Norman’s ’night Mother, Begley posits that props—“They’re just things,” as Jessie says to her mother in the play—are the very stuff of theatrical realism, but he questions their reputed ideological fixity. Arguing that “competing realisms entail differing conceptions of material reality,” and that therefore “the discourse of realism can be enlivened by the discourse of material culture,” Begley turns to Brecht and Georg Lukács, to the signifying boots of Miss Julie and Mother Courage, and to Elin Diamond’s “Brechtian Theory/ Feminist Theory,” before hypothesizing “a critical realism that yields social gests through the mimesis of material reality.” He finds in ’night Mother a conflicted “extreme realism” that “masks a covert hostility toward reality”: “the play uses material signs to create a gestic language,” he argues, “one that situates the characters as determined and determining beings.” The essay abounds with insight about Norman’s play, and in particular about its use of food, crafts, gender, and (drawing on Pierre Bourdieu) the sociology of taste, but it also opens up a complex debate about the role of material culture in realist theatre.

Aoife Monks and Hodgdon focus, respectively, on “human remains” and “material remains,” and each in her very different way deals with performing the archive. Monks begins, in “Human Remains: Acting, Objects, and Belief in Performance,” as do many discussions of props, with Yorick’s skull, but with the significant difference that she focuses on a very [End Page 1] different...


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