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  • Dark Matter: Invisibility in Drama, Theater, and Performance by Andrew Sofer
  • Ariel Watson
Andrew Sofer. Dark Matter: Invisibility in Drama, Theater, and Performance. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013. Pp. 229, illustrated. $75.00 (Hb); $29.95 (Pb).

Invisibility, Andrew Sofer argues in his complex and compelling Dark Matter, is a structuring principle of theatrical performance. Borrowing his title from the matter that physicists cannot observe directly but only infer through its gravitational effect on other objects, Sofer takes up the implications of the theatrical “dark matter” that binds and bends, structures and alters everything visible to spectators and scholars: the incorporeal, the offstage, the obscured, and the unrepresentable. These are “felt absences” along the lines of what visual artists call negative space, or that which is “materially elusive though phenomenologically inescapable”: “It is not the finger pointing at the moon,” Sofer clarifies, “but the tidal force of gravity that pulls at us unseen” (4).

The theatre, Sofer argues, operates through a double process of synecdoche and excision; or, in his characteristically epigrammatic formulation, it “encourages us to take parts for wholes, but it also encourages us to take holes for parts” (5). The study of such a pervasive phenomenon must also necessarily operate through synecdoche and excision: Sofer has elected to explore the facets of dark matter through a series of evocative case studies, rather than attempt a complete survey or exhaustive taxonomy. His aim, in these case studies, is to develop a method he calls “spectral reading,” which “traces the effects of those invisible forces at work in the world of the performance or play” (5). [End Page 445]

The first chapter, “How to Do Things with Demons,” uses speech-act theory to examine Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, and specifically, the way in which conjuring – that is, the magical or theatrical conjuring of presences in the spectators’ minds, where there is absence onstage – troubles the distinction between performance and performativity in order to “appropriate speech’s performative power on behalf of a glamorous commercial enterprise, the Elizabethan theater itself” (17). Here, as in the chapters that follow, the strength of this volume as a resource for students and non-specialists, as well as for scholars of the theatre, is evident. Although his analyses of the plays themselves are complex and subtle, Sofer begins, in each case, with an unusually lucid primer of the complex theoretical ground (here, Austin, Searle, Derrida, and Butler) on which he bases his readings.

The second chapter, “Quantum Mechanicals,” articulates, more explicitly, the profound influence modern scientific theory has had on Sofer’s conception of spectral reading. To understand the dark matter of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – the desire of Bottom, both as agent and subject – it is necessary to approach the play through the lens of “quantum dramaturgy.” Just as the fairy world exists in a relationship that is simultaneously microcosm, inversion, reflection, contradiction, and magnification of the world of Athens, in the play, so too quantum dramaturgy – “a probabilistic wave function in which an invisible character simply has no precise location or trajectory when unobserved” – exists in a complementary relation to classical dramaturgy, in which the offstage behaviour of a character follows linear and predictable lines (40). Thus, Bottom’s disappearance offstage with Titania becomes – as Schrödinger, Heisenberg, or Bohr might have asserted – an act simultaneously of consummation and evasion: undecidable because incompletely observed, an invisible and unknowable desire.

The next chapter, “Unmasking Women,” shows most clearly the influence of Sofer’s previous work in The Stage Life of Props, focusing on the obscuring power and peril of the vizard in Aphra Behn’s The Rover. The mask, emblem of the palimpsest of desirous power that is the performance and reception of femininity on the Restoration stage, is “a lens that simultaneously focuses our imagination on the hidden face and …distorts the wearer’s semiotic signal” (73). The courtesan Angellica Bianca, in an unusually grim reading of the character under whose sign Behn situates herself in the play’s postscript, thus becomes an emblem for the dangers of excessive identification with the projections and commodifications of the mask. In place of this troubling projection...


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pp. 445-447
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