- Dark Matter: Invisibility in Drama, Theater, and Performance by Andrew J. Sofer
The power of the unseen is intrinsically provocative in the theatre, that place of seeing. From the savagery of the offstage Bacchae, to the forbidden secrets of the Ghost’s durance in Hamlet, to places (The Three Sisters’ Moscow) and people (Godot) we never see, “invisible phenomena continually structure and focus an audience’s theatrical experience” (4). Following his superb book on The Stage Life of Props, Andrew Sofer turns his attention from the objects that punctuate the syntax of dramatic action to the “dark matter” of drama, “whatever is materially unrepresented onstage but un-ignorable” (ibid.; emphasis in original). Sofer takes up this salient perception with a metaphorical twist, embodied in the physics of dark matter, that invisible mass that both structures the visible cosmos and affects the properties of visibility itself, its gravitational field bending all forms of emanating radiation, including light. Dark matter, then, becomes for Sofer a useful critical metaphor for the pull of all the things we cannot see onstage.
Dark matter comprises over 80 percent of all matter in the universe. For Sofer, the dark matter of the drama is similarly pervasive, “designed to draw our attention to a crucial and universal dimension of performance experience that transcends semiotic analysis alone” (11). The gravitational force of the unseen emerges in a series of vivid, performance-sensitive engagements with plays, a strategy of “spectral reading” that opens “up a phenomenology of the unseen” (6). Although Dark Matter throws the shadow of history—suggestive introductory remarks on the real presence implied by Christ’s disappearance in the English mystery cycles leads to full readings of Doctor Faustus, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Rover, Suddenly Last Summer, The Archbishop’s Ceiling, and what he terms a “contemporary theatre of trauma” (The America Play, Sleep Deprivation Chamber, Far Away, Attempts on Her Life)—each chapter reflects a different form of darkness (in)visible.
Dark matter provides an instrument for illuminating a crucial, sometimes overlooked dimension of dramatic writing, and so articulates a distinctive dimension of theatrical invisibility. Several chapters take a fresh perspective on a familiar nugget of performance history. Edward Alleyn, for instance, is reported to have worn a white surplice and large crucifix in performance, incongruous attire for Faustus of Wittenberg. A brilliant piece of showmanship, Alleyn’s garb provides a kind of costume prophylaxis foregrounding the duplicitous performative force of all theatrical speech; for the costume protects not Faustus, but Alleyn, just in case his feigned summoning of theatrical devils might conjure a few real ones as well. Here, Sofer reads Alleyn’s/Faustus’s performance as paradigmatic of one dimension of the power of the invisible, originally pairing the “hollow” presence animating the soul of theatrical performance with Faustus’s own equivocal performatives. His reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream turns on a different kind of observation, one having to do with the verisimilitude of the dramatic plot: that the scenes between Bottom and Titania occupy an undecidable temporality in relation to the other events of that mad forest. Are the two scenes (3.1 and 4.1) sequenced so that the intervening events represent a lapse of time in which Bottom may have taken his asinine pleasure with the Queen of Fairies? [End Page 495] Or is the second scene temporally continuous with the first, theatrically after though conceptually in the “meanwhile” of the intervening action? For Sofer, not only is this alternative undecidable, it is important not to decide it: Shakespeare’s most familiar play introduces a “quantum dramaturgy” in which two explanations are both needed: “Bottom obeys macroscopic laws in the wood when he is with his fellow mechanicals, but another, dreamier physics explains the strange sense of continuous action between Bottom and Titania’s two love scenes” (55).
Opening with a brief discussion of the invention of the actress in the Restoration theatre and Elizabeth Barry’s challenging career (paradigmatic of the vulnerability of actresses as women in public during...