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