- Rooms in Dramatic Realism by Fred Miller Robinson
In Rooms in Dramatic Realism, Fred Miller Robinson attempts to build a new methodology for the analysis of realist plays. According to him, conceptual frameworks for our interpretations of dramatic realism have not changed since the 1960s (x). A realist play is still considered “a drama of social issues reliant on text, with a minimum of theatricality, or even, as time went on, of theatrical interest” (ibid.). Departing from recent perspectives on Ibsen’s legacy centered on the social implications of his opus, Robinson reminds us that Ibsen himself adamantly objected to being perceived as a social critic and political activist, and emphasizes that Ibsen’s crucial contribution to theatre is his reconceptualization of the nineteenth-century box set, since he enabled it to connect “with the text and hence [End Page 490] with the characters” through stage directions and the characters’ utterances (x–xi). Thus Ibsen’s A Doll’s House heralds the advent of a new trend in theatre—one that highlights the characters’ spatial “entrapment” through their heightened awareness of what is beyond their rooms (xi). Robinson’s study contributes to our understanding of the complex interplay between spatial and spiritual, physical and psychological forces on the realist stage, shedding light on the ideological outcomes of such dynamics.
In “Rooms: An Introduction” Robinson uncovers the multilayered meanings of realist interiors, pointing at the ways in which the characters unconsciously interact with them and consciously process such interactions through their utterances, which results in the characters’ and spectators’ perception of these spaces as catalysts for transformation. He observes that in the late 1800s the “architectural doors” installed between different rooms of the box set (1), “middle-class characters” that occupied the rooms (3), and quotidian objects stashed in the rooms (4), provided the grounds for the rise of dramatic realism. Drawing on Walter Benjamin, Robinson notes that residences of “the middle class” were its shelters from a hectic “industrial” society, but he also emphasizes that through occasional outside intrusions, the occupants were simultaneously reminded of what is behind the walls (ibid.). In order to decipher the complex meanings of these rooms, Robinson borrows from Charles Rice, who has pointed out that in the early 1800s the word interior began denoting both the “space” and its “image” (5), and further argues that realist spaces should be perceived as “phenomenal, since their doubleness reflects two levels of a character’s experience of them: the unreflective and the reflective” (12). His invocation of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological analysis of human experience as the “primary experience” of a space, and the experience “of it in words” helps us understand the character’s mental development on the realist stage (ibid.). In order to illuminate the character’s awakening, Robinson refers to Benjamin’s notion of a dialectical reversal, which stems from the moment of a “standstill” in the course of events when “the past becomes present for us” (25). The character’s “dream” about the past, as well as her realization that she has dreamt and that she now fathoms the messages of her “dream” (26), is grounded in her interactions with the realist space, and the shift in her mental development mirrors the birth of a new meaning of the space itself.
“Specimens” helps us understand the effects of isolation on the character’s development by examining the plays with box sets similar to that of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. One of Robinson’s most effective segments in this chapter is on Brian Friel’s Translations (1980). Friel’s drama unfolds in “an Irish ‘hedge-school’” that serves as “a haven from the Anglicization of Ireland” and that is paradoxically located in an ugly “cowshed” (41). After the British declare the opening of “national schools” (41), Principal Hugh scrutinizes the classroom and realizes that the school life has been a dream and that a new chapter in history is about to begin (42). Since the focus is on the interior, the spectators witness the unfolding of history from the insularity of a counter...