- Dark Matter: Invisibility in Drama, Theater, and Performance by Andrew Sofer
In Andrew Sofer’s Dark Matter: Invisibility in Drama, Theater, and Performance we have a fascinating, if mysterious, study. The second adjective is not a complaint. In his earlier study The Stage Life of Props, Sofer began by theorizing props and then examining specific props in different eras of theatrical performance; in this study, he follows the same structure, but instead of considering material objects, he examines absence. The Eucharistic wafer that he used as the prop to illuminate medieval drama is now replaced by Christ’s body that is gone from the tomb in the Quem Queritis trope. That dramatic moment in medieval drama opens this study and as Sofer suggests in the introduction, “the real presence of Christ is paradoxically guaranteed by his felt absence—an absence designed to move the crowd from theatrical wonder to reaffirmed faith” (2). This study is more than a collection of case studies, however, as Sofer juggles both problems in performance theory and an extended analogy between science and theater. Quantum physics and performatives mix with tomography and phenomenology.
The case studies, as Sofer calls them, include the absent/present demons in Christopher Marlowe’s Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, Bottom’s offstage amusements in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the faces behind the masks in Aphra Behn’s The Rover, the dead Sebastian Venable in Tessessee Williams’s Suddenly Last Summer, the listening device in Arthur [End Page 228] Miller’s The Archbishop’s Ceiling, and trauma in a series of plays written in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The chapters conclude with Sofer’s remark that
scripted or not, performance is always spectral. The paradox of dark matter is that something hidden is disclosed even as it eludes our sight. Whether hallucinated demons, offstage sex, masked women, self-consuming protagonists, invisible surveillance, or contemporary trauma, theatre conjures the unseen in the service of its imaginative poetics.(144–45)
Whether a reader agrees with Sofer’s insistence that J. L. Austen is wrong to exclude speech on stage from the examination of speech-act theory, his critique of Judith Butler’s ideas about performatives, or his investigation of key concepts from such theorists as Marvin Carlson, Richard Schechner, Stanley Fish, or Joseph Roach, that reader should enjoy the way that Sofer investigates such ideas. He writes with grace, and his passion for ideas comes across clearly. While I liked this aspect of the book very much, I was less engaged by the accounts of scientific theories, which ranged from a comparison of Einstein’s physics with those of Neils Bohr to an explanation of dark matter and its effect on gravitational lensing and an account of psychology’s current ideas about trauma. But that response is a personal one—I was trained in a critical world that deeply mistrusted analogy— and other readers will find his observations satisfying and generative.
The book has its own dark matter, and surely this present absence is no accident. The very questions that the book raises about the nature of theater seemed linked to absences within the works studied. Consider, for example, the convention of offstage action in Greek tragedy. Repeatedly, the chorus (and audience) hear a messenger describe horrific offstage mutilations and deaths. Many contemporary playwrights have turned to re-visioning classical Greek plays and these contemporary works deal with those moments in various ways: compare Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love with its enacted acts of sex and violence to Ellen McLaughlin’s Iphigenia and Other Daughters, which uses an enigmatic absence of action to create dramatic tension. Given what Sofer has to say about the masked women’s bodily presence and absence in The Rover or the intense consideration he gives to trauma plays, such a convention would seem to form a part of his discussion, but that part must take place extra-textually. Aside from a brief mention of the Greek messenger on 107 and...