Spectral Characters

Genre and Materiality on the Modern Stage
Sarah Balkin
Reimagines modern drama by shining light on the ghostly presences within it


Theater’s materiality and reliance on human actors has traditionally put it at odds with modernist principles of aesthetic autonomy and depersonalization. Spectral Characters argues that modern dramatists in fact emphasized the extent to which humans are fictional, made and changed by costumes, settings, props, and spoken dialogue. Examining work by Ibsen, Wilde, Strindberg, Genet, Kopit, and Beckett, the book takes 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. The ghostly, vampiric, and telepathic qualities of these characters, Sarah Balkin argues, mark a new relationship between the material and the imaginary in modern theater. By considering characters whose bodies respond to language, whose attempts to realize their individuality collapse into inanimacy, and who sometimes don’t appear at all, the book posits a new genealogy of modernist drama that emphasizes its continuities with nineteenth-century melodrama and realism.
“Aimed at scholars of theater and of comparative literature, Spectral Characters convincingly argues that the modern stage, through its roots in nineteenth-century melodrama, inherited a number of features related to the supernatural that deeply influenced the making of character in this period.”
—Giuliano D’Amico, Centre for Ibsen Studies, University of Oslo
Spectral Characters offers a fresh way to think about realism and modernism, about literary and dramatic character, and about the relationship between narration and performance. It both situates those aesthetic concerns within the ideas of the authors’ day and relates them to present-day theories that are shaping scholarship across the humanities and social sciences.”
—Sharon Marcus, Columbia University

Sarah Balkin is Lecturer in English and Theatre Studies, University of Melbourne.

Praise / Awards

  • "Sarah Balkin’s Spectral Characters: Genre and Materiality on the Modern Stage is a noteworthy addition to works emphasizing ghostliness, material presence, and genre connections between nineteenth-century melodrama and the modern dra- matic repertory."
    -- Theatre Survey
  • "It is illuminating to witness Balkin conjure stark demarcations and then run them through with a stake: the delineations between realist and modernist dramaturgy, epic and dramatic form, and dead and living characters are all summoned and slayed... Spectral Characters, too, reanimates dead dualisms and summons vibrant attention."

    -Elizabeth Phillips, Modern Drama
  • "Spectral Characters joins textual analyses of plays to innovative interpretations of theatre history and fascinating historical contextualizations... to offer an important new contribution to the study of character in modern drama."

    -Katherine Biers, Theatre Journal
  • "Such fine-grained attention to elements of staging and design indicates how greatly Balkin's textual analysis is enriched by the methods of theater history."
  • "Throughout Spectral Characters, Balkin offers innovative, theoretically sophisticated analyses of modern plays... an impressive achievement that usefully extends new materialist scholarship and histories of modern theatre with its theoretically rich perspective on character, genre, and materiality." - Studies in Costume and Performance
  • "(Balkin) moves deftly between close reading and charting larger tendencies or trajectories in each writer’s body of work, while also showing how their concerns emerge in conversation with prominent critical discourses of the day... Spectral Characters offers to reanimate our curiosity about the dead “fathers” who still walk, improbably, among us" - Genre

News, Reviews, Interviews

Read: Review in Supernatural Studies | 12/02/2020
Read: Review in Modern Drama | Spring 2021
Read: Review in Theatre Journal | March 2021
Read: Review in The Year's Work in Critical and Cultural Theory | 6/14/2020

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 198pp.
  • 5 illustrations.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Hardcover
  • 2019
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-13148-8

Add to Cart
  • $69.95 U.S.

Related Products