- Empty Houses: Theatrical Failure and the Novel by David Kurnick
"Acting is slow and poor to what we go through within": Mirah's comment in George Eliot's Daniel Deronda could encapsulate the antitheatrical stance of the realist novel in its allegiance to psychological interiority (606). This vision of the novel tradition is one that David Kurnick's Empty Houses seeks less to destabilize than to frame with a social horizon: to perceive the collective "we" as an aspiration of the singular "within." Kurnick's radiant and rigorous book argues that the theatrical disappointments of William Makepeace Thackeray, Eliot, Henry James, James Joyce, and James Baldwin shaped their contributions to the "novel of interiority," inflecting their texts with a longing for the publicity of performance. This disposition to collective embodiment and social dynamism is indexed by a theatricality that Kurnick unlocks in two ways: "demetaphorizing" theater by examining these authors' concrete dramatic failures; and "dethematizing" theater by recognizing its formal manifestations within novelistic space. By restoring the theatricality, so defined, inherent in novelistic topoi ("vanity fair," "inward drama," the "scenic principle," "epiphany"), Kurnick identifies formal enigmas created by the blurring of narrative and dramatic codes (6). In what he envisions as a generic catachresis, theatrical and novelistic modes inflect one another indefinitely. The "novel intends the theater" but never coincides with it (119). This deferral summons a counterfactual imagination that Kurnick endorses as the literary's indispensable orientation.
The introduction commissions an array of methodological materials, making as careful use of theater theory and history as of novel criticism and narrative theory, although many of these positions are the targets of bracing critical housekeeping. Kurnick draws on a range of texts in social theory—notably Jacques Rancière's theater-inflected politics—and on the resources of queer theory, radicalizing his defense of the novel while modulating his more utopian claims. His method works in the wings, as it were, reading unfamiliar texts to re-evaluate canonical ones; attending to peripheral details with a suppleness that virtually establishes new analytical categories; and working at the verge of realism's concerns to bring theater to the novelistic foreground. The argument is intricately nested and wrought in vivacious and exhilarating prose.
The opening chapter reconciles Thackeray's distaste for "sham" with his passion for theatrical culture. Kurnick argues that theater in Thackeray works as an emblem of historical change, specifically the nineteenth-century recontouring of public space around private domesticity replicated, in dramatic circles, in the Theatres Act (1843). The melancholy jester narrating Vanity Fair (1847-8) registers a despondent protest at this diminution of "social promiscuity," a resistance on the part of theater to novelistic and domestic confinement (30). The device Kurnick terms "acoustics"—the evocation of an auditorium for, and shaped by narrative voice—guides magnificent readings of narratorial tone, alongside other representational strategies that trace the minituarizing [End Page 1217] of fairground into puppet theater, public world into nursery, history into the domestic everyday. The corollary of this domestication—psychological interiority—is given shape in Lovel the Widower (1860), Thackeray's novelistic reprise of an unstaged play. Imagining this novel's interior monologue as a soliloquy to an empty house, Kurnick fashions a social genealogy for a voice poignantly aware of its marginality. Psychological realism, in this rotated view, "emerges as a container for an unaccommodated theatricality" (32). Interiority becomes a "narrative memorial" to "social obsolescence," omniscience a surrogate for "social placelessness," reading a solitary act acutely distant from social participation (66, 65). Taking Thackeray as broadly representative of realism, Kurnick thus identifies, at the heart of the Victorian novel, a performative desire that contains theater's social energies while reserving them for future activation.
This desire is given more idiosyncratic shape in a bravura examination of Eliot, focusing on her narrative experiments of the 1860s. Kurnick's aim is to analyze Eliot's later work against the formal and ideological challenges posed by The Spanish Gypsy (1868), a generically uncertain text begun as a drama after Romola (1863), then abandoned and reworked in blank verse after Felix Holt (1866...