Book Review:

Spectral Characters: Genre and Materiality on the Modern Stage, by Sarah Balkin

Reviewed by Heather Kelley

University of Colorado Boulder

Review of Sarah Balkin’s Spectral Characters: Genre and Materiality on the Modern Stage, University of Michigan Press, 2019. 190 pp. Hardcover (ISBN: 978-0-472-13148-8).

In Spectral Characters: Genre and Materiality on the Modern Stage, Sarah Balkin “take[s] up the apparent deadness of characters whose selves are made of other people, whose thoughts become exteriorized communication technologies, and whose bodies merge with walls and furniture,” positing that “[t]he half dead (or undead) qualities of these characters mark a new relationship between the material and the imaginary in modern theater” (3). Defining modern drama as a “Western” theater form that spanned 1880-1960 and encompassed realism as well as modernism, Balkin’s work incorporates textual analysis and relevant production history, situating the plays that she discusses in the playwrights’ larger bodies of work. She argues persuasively that nineteenth-century melodrama—specifically, Gothic melodrama—should be viewed as modern drama’s antecedent rather than antithesis, illuminating the ways theatrical character (whether of the living or the dead) is both constructed and revealed through means beyond the human body.

Structured into six discrete sections, the book opens with a robust introduction, and then each subsequent chapter focuses on a specific dramatist, including Henrik Ibsen, Oscar Wilde, August Strindberg (who receives two chapters), Jean Genet, Arthur Kopit, and Samuel Beckett (these last three writers share the fifth and final chapter). This order reflects not only the chronology of the writers’ lives and work but also Balkin’s vision of the evolution of melodrama’s influence and of the transformation of the concept of character more generally.

In her introduction, Balkin notes the ghostly quality of theater itself and invites the reader to examine her assumptions about what constitutes a ghost onstage. She suggests not only that ghosts may take the form of something other than recognizably deceased characters, but that they may be dramatically communicated and (dis)embodied in a variety of ways. Indeed, Balkin writes that “[r]ather than asking what ghosts represent, assuming that they are metaphors for something else, I ask what they are made of—sometimes actors and stage technologies, sometimes props and language—and what their dramaturgical effects are” (4). Identifying the traditional dichotomy between spectrality and materiality as a false binary, Balkin notes that the portrayal of supernatural phenomena on European stages in the late eighteenth through mid-nineteenth centuries combined both human (perceived by the audience as corporeal) and technological (interpreted as nonmaterial) effects. She argues convincingly—and entertainingly—that design and technology innovations such as the vampire trap (a door hidden in the floor or a wall) and scrim (a translucent backdrop that can be lit to obscure and then reveal other scenic elements) not only dematerialized physical bodies and objects onstage but ultimately led to modern drama’s embrace of less fixed ideas of character.

In her first chapter, Balkin examines the work of Ibsen, famously credited with shepherding psychological realism into modern drama and equating character with motive. While none of the plays Balkin scrutinizes—A Doll’s House (1879), Rosmersholm (1886), and The Master Builder (1892)—features a ghost in the traditional sense of the word, all three dramas deal with living characters haunted by the specters of people and possibilities located offstage. Balkin notes the paradox of characters “who attempt to realize their individuality [only to] find that they are actually versions of other people, living and dead” (32), as well as the “physiological” and “psychological” impacts even “rhetorical” supernatural entities (the “devils” and “troll” Solness identifies in himself in The Master Builder) can have on other living characters (44).

In Chapter 2, Balkin maps the nineteenth century’s shifting definition (and comprehension) of personality, as represented in Wilde’s essay “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.” (1889), novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), and arguably most celebrated play, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). The ghosts of these stories—which Balkin more accurately deems “imaginary characters”—are created and enacted by living characters, with “objects contribut[ing] to the transformation ... from disembodied ideal into corporeal and communally endorsed personality” (68). Balkin’s inclusion of the contemporaneous couturier Lucille’s interpretation of personality provides striking historical context. For both Lucille and Wilde, personality “entails an individuality that is not about private subjectivity so much as an assisted performance of genre” (55).

Balkin’s third and fourth chapters chart Strindberg’s “transition from naturalist to expressionist dramaturgy” as “a move toward exteriorization.” Narrators who know more than they should (either by means of omniscience or telepathy) and living characters who take more than they should, Balkin variously terms parasites or vampires (24). Balkin considers the novels The Red Room (1879) and Black Banners (1907) and plays The Ghost Sonata (1907), The Dance of Death (1900), and The Black Glove (1909), asserting that “inhabit[ing] and activat[ing] deadness is Strindberg’s best answer to the question he poses repeatedly… Is there a way out of the banality of domestic and social life and their attendant scripts?” (75)

Balkin’s concluding chapter examines three playwrights who have been associated with the theatre of the absurd and plays that revolve around the breakdown of language. Focusing on Genet’s The Maids (1947), Kopit’s Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad (1962), and Beckett’s Ohio Impromptu (1981), Balkin challenges “the assumption that communication is the point of language” and that failed communication results in only “meaninglessness or absurdity” (126). Asserting that emptiness assumes many “different shapes and styles and genres,” Balkin proposes that the “‘empty subjects’” of later modernist drama might better be described “as ghostly, residual, or iterative” (127). It is in her final paragraph that Balkin delineates “the lessons of modern drama’s spectral characters” that she has not only set out to impart over the course of the book, but which she has ensured will undoubtedly superimpose themselves—much like an apparition—over any future performance the reader attends: “that things severed from their usual functions have effects; that empty things are empty in particular ways; that aporias are invitations; that characters are more and less than human” (148).

-2 Dec. 2020