Spectral Characters: Genre and Materiality on The Modern Stage by Sarah Balkin
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 imaginary lost brother). But at the end he is revealed as a real person with a preexisting identity and history. While personality is comic in Wilde’s drama, it is not in his fiction, as Balkin shows through a reading of “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.” and a glance at The Picture of Dorian Gray. She attributes this difference to Wilde’s embrace of theatre’s capacity to visibly construct character out of stage materials.
Theatre also has the distinctive capacity to concretize fiction’s formal movement among narrator, author, and character. Chapter 3, “Language and Materiality: Strindberg’s Vampiric Narrators,” juxtaposes readings of Strindberg’s novels The Red Room and Black Banners with his plays The Dance of Death and Ghost Sonata. In all four, Balkin shows, narrators are menacing figures who seem to affectively drain—or vampirize—authors and characters or telepathically merge with them. But onstage, she shows, “narrator characters” (73) inflict corporeal and material change on hapless author-figures and [End Page 117] other characters in a more visual and visceral way, as when the former’s storytelling seems to actually cause particular actions and movements in the latter. The study of Strindberg continues in chapter 4, “Old New Materialisms: Monist Dramaturgy in Strindberg’s The Black Glove,” which also further elaborates the book’s central intervention by examining Ernst Haeckel’s monism as an “inverse predecessor” of today’s new materialist concerns (101). Haeckel was a popular and polarizing German thinker who drew on Darwin to theorize the unity of mind and matter. His ideas influenced Strindberg’s use of de-materialization, atmosphere, and animated props in The Black Glove as well as the alchemical investigations in his post-Inferno playwriting period. Strindberg’s plays, Balkin argues, are therefore exemplars of an old materialism that can supplement our consideration of the new.
Balkin concludes with an account of ghosting and spectrality in Genet, Kopit, and Beckett that challenges the aforementioned critical assumptions of reflexivity, meaninglessness, and emptiness, which, she notes, have dominated critical accounts of late modernist plays ever since Esslin’s Theatre of the Absurd. Chapter 5, “Modernist Afterlives: Genet, Kopit, Beckett,” argues that these three playwrights owe a debt to those she has just discussed, since they make explicit the association of characters with settings (Genet’s The Maids), props (Kopit’s Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad), and ghosts (Beckett’s Ohio Impromptu). The point, she argues, is to illustrate not meaninglessness as such, but rather the limits of language. Spectral Characters then concludes by calling for critics and scholars to approach modern drama through the lens of new (and old) materialisms in order to understand its absent, haunted, and strangely dead characters in new and newly material ways.
Spectral Characters aims to challenge what the introduction describes as the “cultural impasses of postmodernism” (4), by which Balkin generally means the questions of representation that have been the focus of much theoretically informed theatre criticism since the 1980s. She seeks to ask not what spectral and ghostlike characters “represent,” but “what they are made of” (ibid). But the question remains whether it is possible to bypass a consideration of representation—which is to say of loss, absence, and the negative—when considering theatre. Defined as it is by space and time, theatrical performance puts representation and thing, positive and negative, presence and absence, into play, without resolving them. As critics, moreover, we must tarry with the negative, since we can only re-narrate theatrical performance without access to the thing itself—which was in any case never fully “there” to begin with. One drawback of Spectral Characters is that it does not address these paradoxes of theatricality as such, although they affected Ibsen and Strindberg profoundly and were important inspirations for Wilde, Genet, and Beckett. But the book does a wonderful service in telling the strange and surprising story of how dramatists usually thought of as realist at the turn of the twentieth century in fact emphasized the continual traffic between objects and people in performance. It is a narrative that, unlike Nora’s to Torvald, revitalizes and enlivens its readers.