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  • Spectral Characters: Genre and Materiality on The Modern Stage by Sarah Balkin
  • Katherine Biers
SPECTRAL CHARACTERS: GENRE AND MATERIALITY ON THE MODERN STAGE. By Sarah Balkin. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2019; pp. 198.

The word “character” can describe a person, a room, or an article of clothing. As Sarah Balkin shows in her innovative book, this unsettling uncertainty between persons and things was fertile terrain for late-nineteenth-century European dramatists. Through in-depth chapters on Ibsen, Wilde, and Strindberg, and a coda chapter on Genet, Kopit, and Beckett, Balkin argues for a continuity between these modernist playwrights and the authors of nineteenth-century gothic melodrama, showing how both created characters that fade into their surroundings, appear both alive and dead, and exercise influence from offstage or beyond the grave. Spectral Characters joins textual analyses of plays to innovative interpretations of theatre history and fascinating historical contextualizations—such as the “personality gowns” of Victorian fashion, discussed in chapter 2—to offer an important new contribution to the study of character in modern drama.

Spectral Characters revisits the well-established concepts of the “haunted stage” (Marvin Carlson) and the “death of character” (Elinor Fuchs) in light of the recent “new materialist” turn and its central concepts of agential matter and the decentralization of the human. Balkin sees these concepts as more helpful than post-structuralist notions of reflexivity, meaninglessness, and emptiness for understanding many curious and overlooked moments in the plays she discusses, as when actors and characters seem to merge visually into walls or furniture or the characters’ and actors’ bodies seem strangely dead or passive. Rather than simply applying new materialism to drama, however, Spectral Characters establishes its prehistory—in Wilde’s notion of personality as constructed through props, for instance, or in Lukacs’s claim, quoted by Balkin, that modern man “no longer exist[s]; only air, only the atmosphere” (5). The book’s other main contribution is to challenge conceptualizations of genre in theatre studies, particularly the neat, linear procession of melodrama–realism–modernism as well as the tendency to separate studies of the novel from theatre.

Balkin’s introduction, “Melodrama and the Material Occult,” explores the continuities between the “plastic, animated, or made” characters of melodrama (8), gothic melodrama’s conjuring of ghosts via stage technologies, and the spectral characters in the plays under study. Modern drama’s spectral characters, she shows, also derive from dramatists’ aspirations toward the novel form, which led them to incorporate narrative exposition into melodramatic structure. This phenomenon can be seen in the well-known ending to A Doll’s House. As Torvald listens passively to Nora’s narrative of his failings—before she melodramatically slams the door—he seems drained and strangely dead, while storytelling gives Nora new energy and new life.

In chapter 1, “The Spectral Individual: Ibsen’s Dead Realism,” Balkin challenges the conviction of generations of Ibsen critics (and actors) about the supposedly “realistic” interiority of his characters. In the later plays, she argues, Ibsen’s incorporation of narrative is so extreme that it flattens his characters and transforms their speech from an externalization of psychological motives to an instantiation of quasi-supernatural forms of haunting or influence. Characters ghost the living through backstories (Beata in Rosmersholm) and communicate with each other in quasi-telepathic ways (Hilde and Solness in The Master Builder). They also become associated symbolically with props, like Solness, whose body, in Ibsen’s stage directions, “plung[es] to earth along with planks and bits of wood” at the end of the play (45).

While Ibsen saw this convergence of characters and things as tragic, Oscar Wilde, the subject of chapter 2, “Imaginary Characters: Wilde’s Unrealized Personalities,” embraced its comic potential, moving away from character as a set of fixed attributes and toward an idea of personality as paradoxically both constructed and given. In The Importance of Being Earnest, Ernest is both spectral and real. Throughout the play his ghostly presence is collectively generated by the other characters, through narrative (in Cecily’s and Gwendolyn’s elaborate made-up stories about him) and through acting and performance with particular props (as when Jack appears in mourning dress for his...