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Reviewed by:
  • Spectral Characters: Genre and Materiality on the Modern Stage by Sarah Balkin
  • Elizabeth M. Phillips
sarah balkin. Spectral Characters: Genre and Materiality on the Modern Stage. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2019. Pp. viii + 190, illustrated. $65.00 (Hb).

What constitutes a character on the modern stage? Sarah Balkin’s Spectral Characters: Genre and Materiality on the Modern Stage expands the concept of character, tracing a lively history of texts in which authors materialize their [End Page 113] metaphors, manifest the imaginary, and extend vibrancy beyond the living. Balkin’s definition of “spectral” spans the supernatural (ghosts, vampires, tele-paths) as well as the dubiously material (invisible objects, animated props) and the socially constructed (collaged hearsay, fictional friends). She suggests that these inclusions were useful to dramatists such as Henrik Ibsen, Oscar Wilde, and August Strindberg in bringing about modern drama and that they ought to be useful to theatre scholars because “[r]econceiving character in turn-of-the-century theater as made up of other people, objects, and genres helps us sidestep the impasses of reflexivity, meaninglessness, and emptiness that traditionally cap narratives about modern drama” (124).

The volume resists a limited definition of “modernism” as conditioned by depersonalization, stating instead that, in the development of the modern stage, characterization actually becomes increasingly capacious; that humans are amalgamations and can be easily transformed; and that “the human body is not a stable given” (2). Balkin consistently underlines the innovative nature of the dramaturgical strategies she discusses by describing contemporary productions. Two crucial forms of spectrality to which Balkin returns throughout the book, and which she argues can comprise a self-standing character, are forms that are imaginary – created through characters’ thoughts or suspended in the imagination of the audience) – and forms that exhibit deadness, defined not through literal death or dissolution but through transformation or reconfiguration. Though this broad definition of the spectral initially feels diffuse, the book persuasively expands the temporal and generic boundaries of modern characters, as well as helpfully adding to the discourse on spectrality set down in, for instance, Andrew Sofer’s Dark Matter (2013), Marvin Carlson’s The Haunted Stage (2001), and the collection Theatre and Ghosts (2014), edited by Mary Luckhurst and Emilie Morin.

The introduction emphasizes the dramaturgical proximity of Gothic melodrama and realism by showing the former’s investments in staging psychic phenomena. This section pioneers the useful term “material occult,” a play on Peter Brooks’s “moral occult” and Charles Lamb’s “material sublime,” as “a concept that emphasizes the materiality of supernatural and imaginary forces on the modern stage” (16). Balkin tracks the invention of spectral characters via nineteenth-century stage technologies such as Pepper’s ghost, vampire traps, and Corsican traps, which drew characters and audiences toward concrete visualizations of occult phenomena.

Chapter one investigates Ibsen’s realism, suggesting that scholarly focus on causality and motive neglects to acknowledge the many supernatural, ghostly, and networked phenomena that influence affect and plot alike in his works. In case studies on Ghosts (1881), Rosmersholm (1887), A Doll’s House [End Page 114] (1879), and The Master Builder (1893), as well as in a productive investigation of acting methods, Balkin shows how interiority and psychological complexity are revealed through the dead and non-human. Ibsen’s characters also are spectral, in part due to his “retrospective method, in which most of the story occurs prior to the play,” a recurring fidelity to the ghost stories anteceding each plot (33). Although the move away from motive is persuasive, certain definitions of spectrality appear unspecific. For instance, Balkin writes that, at the end of A Doll’s House, without becoming dead or a ghost, Nora becomes spectral because she is provocatively absent and ripe for sequel, living on in the spectator’s imagination, or she extends beyond the boundaries of a singular, material character because her conscience is shared rather than personal. To this I ask: in what instance are characters not subject to iteration, interpretation, or sequel? And in what instances can conscience, affect, or feeling ever be described as exclusively personal rather than shared and dependent on an admixture of perspectives?

The next chapter explores collectively constructed characters...