From Strange Interlude to Strange Snow: A Study of the Absent Character in Drama

Article excerpt

Ever since Oedipus Rex, absent characters have played an important part in dramatic construction. Many dramas are built around the quest for such an absent character. For example, the dead fathers in Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, and Ghosts are all driving forces of dramatic action. The absent character, however, needn't be dead. The father in Miss Julie, like the elusive Mr. Godot, never appears, but his implied presence acts as a dramatic catalyst. An absent character is a character who does not appear in the play, but who is the focus of attention for the other characters and is central to the play's plot. The absent character does not appear in the play's plot, the action that unfolds before the audience, but is part of the play's story, the overall narrative of actions that take place before the plotted action or in between the scenes. Objects and people associated with the character recreate the character's presence, a presence which influences the play's action.

The absent character takes on many forms and one form which appears in three modern American dramas is that of the sacrificial victim. In Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude, Arthur Miller's All My Sons, and Steve Metcalfe's Strange Snow, the absent character is a dead war hero. None of these plays can be considered the pinnacle of a playwright's dramatic achievement nor do they rank high in the canon of American drama; yet all are significant. Even though O'Neill had previously established himself as a playwright, strange Interlude brought him into association with the Theatre Guild and gave him a larger audience appeal. Despite its length, Strange Interlude was a success. It spawned several road productions and sold well as a published script. All My Sons was Arthur Miller's first Broadway success. It earned him a Drama Critics Circle Award and helped establish him as a noted playwright. Stephen Metcalfe's Strange Snow received an off-Broadway production and was later made into the motion picture Jacknife, which received critical acclaim.

These plays open up a need to investigate the relationship between the absent character, the concept of mourning, and the conflictual nature of war. According to Susan Cole, "Mourning ritual, like tragedy, is a performance of ambivalence on behalf of an absent presence" (1). There is a clear conncetion between tragic drama, the absent one, and mourning. Tragic drama, notably Oedipus Rex, focuses on "the will to supplement or displace a dominant presence even in its absence" (McDonald 155), a need to replace an absent father with a present son. For William Ridgeway, tragic drama originated in the funeral dances before the tomb of a dead hero (61). Tragic dramas often focus on mourning rituals and on the reappearance of the dead. Such is the case in the three dramas in this study. The dramas themselves take on a funereal tone; they depict a world in mourning.

But in these dramas, as in the cases of Oedipus Rex and Hamlet, mourning is connected with a crime and a guilty secret. In each of the plays, there has been an actual or implied crime committed against the hero, either directly or indirectly, by a father figure. War itself is attached to violence and impurity. Also, it is primarily a sacrifice of the sons by their fathers although other Characters also feel the guilt and partake of the crime. This guilt intensifies the mourning process. These dramas follow the same pattern as Oedipus Rex and Hamlet. Both plays follow a paradigmatic pattern in which "mourning is brought about by an initial crime" (Lacan 41). The notion that the ghosts of those murdered must have their sorrows remembered is an ancient concept at the heart of dramatic ritual (Ridgeway 37). The search for a criminal action or a guilty secret determines the dramatic structure of many mourning plays. And such searches take the form of some combination of the detective story and the tragic drama (Auden 16). …