From Strange Interlude to Strange Snow: A Study of the Absent Character in Drama
Rosefeldt, Paul, Journal of Evolutionary Psychology
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). For August Strindberg, drama is based on "a secret made known to the audience either at the beginning or toward the end" (183). All of these factors--mourning, hidden crimes, guilty secrets--are based on a need to reveal or bring into presence that which is absent. In this way the drama of the absent hero brings together some of the deepest forces that underlie the workings of serious drama. This study will investigate these and other forces which lie at the heart of dramatic presentation.
All three dramas are basically realistic. Miller strove to make All My Sons "untheatrical" (17). Although it has been accused of being melodramatic, the play not only contains a linear plot based on a tightly-knit causal sequence but also has numerous references to a realistic milieu. Strange Interlude is more circular than linear. O'Neill experiments with interior monologues and focuses on archetypal images, but the play is still a piece of psychological realism. "What is mystical and abstract in the work is obscured by the implication of purely psychological exploration" (Bogard 315). Despite the fact that Strange Snow was produced in the post-modern era of the 1980's, it is a simple realistic drama about coming to terms with one's past. All three plays avoid expressionaistic techniques. Past events are narrated, not enacted. The appearance of the dead hero comes in the form of a dream. Hallucinations occur only offstage and can be explained purely in psychological terms. Though some of the events border on the uncanny, none can be considered fantastic.
In all three plays, the absent character is a war hero whose sacrificial death has rendered him the focus of attention. Although the plays deal indirectly with the effects of war on the main characters, they are not anti-war plays. Strange Interlude takes place after World War I, All My Sons after World War II, and Strange Snow after the Vietnam War. The hero's death, however, focuses on the sacrificial nature of war. In strange Interlude, Gordon Shaw, a promising college graduate engaged to be married to Nina, is killed in a plane crash two days before the Armistice. Larry Keller's death in All My Sons is even more sacrificial. He crashed flying a suicide mission in order to atone for his father's crime of selling defective engines to the government and indirectly causing the deaths of twenty-one pilots. Both Gordon and Larry are pilots who died in November in the autumn season which encompasses the death of nature and demise of the tragic god of fertility. Gordon died on November 9 and Larry on November 25. Like Gordon, Larry has his life interrupted by war and leaves behind a bereaved fiancee, Anne. In Strange Snow, Bobby is blown to bits in an attempt to rescue his two buddies Dave and Megs. No mention is made of Bobby's romantic life, but he is a young sports enthusiast who seems to have everything to live for. Significantly, all three heroes leave no physical remains. Gordon is "charred" and burned to death. Joe, Larry's father, cannot convince Kate, Larry's mother that Larry is dead because there is no "body" and no "grave." Bobby was "opened up" before Meg's eyes. The corpse of the hero is absent. War often leaves the survivors no visible signs of death to come to terms with. In such cases, the mourning process continues to be stunted and produces a need to recapture the absent one. Grief is projected in other forms. In none of the plays is there mention of a funeral or memorial service; thus the play itself takes on a funereal tone, and the world is cast into an on-going state of mourning.
In all three dramas, members of the community strive to keep the absent present. The hero is an embodiment of community's ideals and his sacrifice is a holy one. The dead person in such cases is often seen as "an object that has attained an existence that is all the more absolute because it no longer corresponds to anything in reality" (Lacan 37). In all three plays the dynamics of the drama focus on this constant need to reaffirm the presence of the dead warrior. He is idealized and deified as a representative of a lost age of innocence. The dramas attempt to bring into light the secret guilt surrounding his death, especially in his role as a sacrificial victim. Thus, the hero becomes a longed for, but haunting presence. His sacrificial death diminishes the lives of his survivors. The world which is left in mourning becomes a wasteland. Just as in ancient ritual, death associated with crime brings barrenness Ridgeway 37). In the wasteland, the spiritual center of existence has departed, thrusting the world into a series of substitutions that bring about a diminished presence. The characters live in a death-like state of perpetual mourning. "The most perfect mourning would be suicide ... short of this the mourner may suspend his life" (Redfield 180). The mourners try to recapture a spiritual aura by holding onto nostalgic memories of a child-like Eden before the sacrifice of the hero, by reincarnating the hero, or by reenacting his life or his wishes. In the end, they must accept the hero, who has been haunting them.
All three plays open on some sign of the absent hero. In strange Interlude, the play opens in the library of Professor Leeds, a classicist. He is complaining to Charlie Marsden, his daughter Nina's childhood friend, about Nina's prolonged mourning of her dead fiancee, Gordon Shaw. Charlie conjures up the image of Gordon's "charred bones in a cage of twisted steel" (487). The conversation becomes so absorbed with Gordon, the professor thinks to himself "Gordon ... always Gordon everyone" (491). The professor is concerned about his daughter's obsession with Gordon: "Nina can't live with a corpse forever" (491). Yet Nina's obsession with Gordon goes on for twenty-five years and absorbs the focus of all the major characters, even unto the second generation. The opening scene takes place in the professor's sanctuary, which is later referred to as a "tomb." Thus, the play opens before a tomb substitute.
In All My Sons, the play opens early on with a mention of Larry's tree, which has been broken by the wind. The tree is a focal image. Jim, the next door neighbor, knocks his pipe against it. The young boy who visits Joe Keller runs around the tree. Kate, Larry's mother gets up in the middle of the night to watch it fall. Chris cuts it down. Joe, Larry's father, notes that the war has left him with one son and a tree. When Kate remembers Larry, his brother Chris and George, their neighbor, playing as scouts, she notes that she has only a tree left. The tree is talked about as a substitute for the once living Larry. It is a memorial, a symbolic tomb before which the ceremonial drama of guilt and sin surrounding Larry's death is played out.
In strange Snow, the play opens with Megs, Dave's old war buddy, coming over to take Dave fishing. Through the entire opening scene no mention is made of the dead hero. Only later is it revealed that Megs is acting out the wish of Bobby who wanted the three to go fishing on opening day. Bobby and Bobby's lucky hat are present through Megs.
In all three plays, the absent hero becomes present through metonymic substitutions. Objects or people who were associated with the hero become substitutions for his presence. These substitutions are a form of diminished presence, but characters cling to that presence. In Strange Interlude, Nina goes to work for Ned, a doctor who was Gordon's friend. She gives herself to maimed soldiers who were in the same war as Gordon. She marries Sam, a man who idolizes Gordon and wishes he were like him. She spends time writing Gordon's biography. Nina's whole life is devoted to reincarnating Gordon, a subject that will be treated later on.
In All My Sons, the play opens in August, the month of Larry's birthday. "Larry's girl," Anne, is staying in Larry's room." Since Kate refuses to believe that Larry is dead, the room is full of Larry's clothes" and Larry shoes, which are still shined. Unintentionally, the house has become Larry's shrine. Kate even notices Larry's baseball glove, Anne pulls out Larry's last letter before he died. Larry's diminished presence is everywhere. In Strange Snow, Bobby is present in his Red Sox baseball cap, which Megs wears for good luck. The cap is the only reminder of Bobby, but it is omnipresent, continually being transformed and ultimately being worn by each of the play's three major characters.
The absent character also appears in dreams, psychic insights, and hallucinations. Nina dreams of "Gordon diving down out of the sky in flames." She can see his "sad burning eyes" (527). For Nina, Gordon's eyes become a recurring image. She can see them in the maimed soldiers she makes love to and in her son whom she eventually loses. Gordon's eyes seem to be watching the drama unfold. Kate's dream is remarkably similar to Nina's. She sees Larry's "face in the cockpit" (72). As his plane is falling, he cries out: "Mom, Mom." Kate hears "his voice" and notes, "If I could touch him, I knew I could stop him" (72). Even though Kate is unaware of what happened to Larry, the dream has a prophetic quality, for Larry deliberately crashed his plane and Kate might have saved him. Larry's voice, like Gordon's eyes, becomes a significant aspect of the drama. Larry's voice, present in his last letter to Anne, pronounces a grim sentence at the end of the play. Thus, the absent character can become a spiritual witness of a ceremonial drama or an oracular voice directing the action of the play. Kate also has psychic experiences. On the day Larry was declared missing, she could not get her head off her pillow. Megs has more than dreams of Bobby. He sees Bobby on the road, hitchhiking. He even picks Bobby up: "Bobby sat next to me from Pittsburgh, PA, all the way to Hartford, Connecticut" (59). Megs is obviously fantasizing or even hallucinating. In Meg's case, however, the experience is not anxiety-provoking. Susan Cole connects tragic drama to the process of mourning by noting that tragedies contain "the presence of the uncanny associated with the dead or the realm of the dead (e.g. ghosts, symbolic dreams, hallucinations, waking visions)" (2). The use of the uncanny in drama goes beyond tragedy. It becomes the stock and trade of both psychological and gothic melodrama. In realistic drama, it appears in subdued forms. Note that the hallucinations take place offstage, and the dreams are anxiety dreams rather than overtly prophetic ones. Nevertheless, they are seen as a encroachment of the dead onto the world of the living, of an absent dimension onto a present reality.
The hero who pays the supreme sacrifice often becomes a superhero. In primitive warrior cultures, the dead warrior takes on a sacred aura. At this juncture, the line between hero and the divinity begins to blur. In these three plays the dead hero becomes something more than human. Gordon Shaw fits the American model of the male hero. He is not only a superb athlete with physical prowess, but he is an excellent student who has made high marks in school. Above all, he is a man of honor. In the he was "an Ace" pilot who "fought just as cleanly as he played football. Even the Huns respected him" (512). In a nightmarish war that brought to light the horrors of technological destruction, Gordon remained a chivalric warrior. Gordon is frozen in time, a product of the collegiate world where he excelled. He is part of the lost age of innocence that was swept away with the First World War. The other men in Nina's world can't compete with Gordon. Charlie was not physically fit for battle, so he spent the war as a reporter, spewing out propaganda. Sam tried to get into Gordon's flying unit, but he could not pass the physical. He never saw much action in the war. Ned realizes that he can't compete with the "Gordon myth." Eventually, Gordon takes on a god-like quality. Nina pictures him as a "demi-god" (557). In an earlier version of the play, Charlie calls him a "Greek god" (qtd. in Floyd 337). In the final version, Charlie does refer to him as the product of an "Immaculate Conception" (557). One critic even links Gordon to the pattern of the myth of the hero (Higgs 461).
Larry's biography is somewhat scant. The one item from his past which his mother focuses on is his baseball glove. This may indicate that he excelled in sports. Certainly, in his next play, Death of a Salesman, Miller treats the myth of the sports hero. Larry's heroism is connected with his status as a war hero. When Charlie describes the men in his company, he is describing Larry: "They didn't die, they killed themselves for each other" (85). Chris sees Larry as part of a brotherhood of men who developed "a kind of responsibility" (85). They gave their lives out of love. Nothing for Chris could be more heroic. In a god-like manner, Larry and the other soldiers who died in the war "bring unto the earth" "a monument" (85), a new age of brotherly love. Frank, the man who dodged the draft by missing the age limit, is a sort of comic character who reads horoscopes. When George was fighting fascism, Frank was in bed with his girl. George remarks ironically, "Frank won the war" (107).
Bobby is also an extraordinary hero. Bobby could excel at something without practice. "He could just look at it once and do it right off" (39). Bobby is also "the heart" (39) of his fellow soldiers. He could turn Vietnam into Hawaii and make a group of war-ravaged soldiers feel like "boy scouts sitting around a fire" (59). Bobby had a god-like quality. To Megs, he was "a regular waterwalker" (39). Dave and Megs couldn't match Bobby. Megs says "Ol Bobby was worth him and me rolled together" (39). The deification of the hero links him to the primitive ritual of the dying and rising god. According to James Frazer, fertility rituals were linked to the annual death and resurrection of a vegetation god. The ritual mourning of the absence of this god was essential to many religious practices (314). The origin of drama is often traced back to such rituals,! especially to the rituals performed to the god Dionysus, "a vegetation god ... who represents the cyclic death and rebirth of the Earth" (Murray 343). These plays focus on the death of a deified hero and his return to the living, another structural pattern based upon the need to make the absent present.
As in fertility, rituals, the hero is connected with ritual sacrifice. All the absent heroes make the supreme sacrifice for their fellow humans. Gordon, knowing he might die, did not marry Nina or give her a child. He sacrificed his own happiness for Nina's sake. Gordon died in battle two days before the Armistice. Larry deliberately flew a suicide mission to atone for his father's guilt and to sacrifice his life for the twenty pilots who died. Bobby risked his life to help Dave, then lost his life trying to save Megs, even though Dave warned him not to go back. Megs says, "Wasn't in him to leave me anymore'n it was to leave you" (60).
Also, the death of the hero must be meaningful. Gordon's death must be kept alive through his biography and through Nina's son Gordon, who becomes another Gordon. Chris tells his parents: "you can be better. Once and for all you can know there is a universe of people outside and you're responsible to it and unless you know that, you threw away your son because that's why he died" (127). Megs devotes his life to Bobby's memory. He says, "For some reason we lost old Bobby. And it was up to me to make that reason a good one. Cause Ol Bobby, he deserved that" (40). The absent hero must not only be mourned but his absence must be justified. The dead hero must not only be remembered, but he must also be venerated. According to Joseph Campbell, the archetypal hero undertakes a journey in which he is separated from the community and later returns (35), another motif of absence moving towards presence. For Campbell, the hero usually brings back a boon which restores the community (246). In each of the three plays the reemergence of the hero brings about an enlightenment that may or may not be accepted by the community.
In each play, the death of the hero is connected with a crime. War itself may be honorable. But human carnage is a form of unholy violence. Ritual guilt in these plays is deflected onto an act of individual guilt. Since war is a sacrifice of the sons by the fathers, the guilt falls upon a father figure. In Strange Interlude, Nina's father wants to protect and possess Nina. He does not approve of Gordon, and convinces Gordon not to marry Nina. Nina's father also unconsciously hopes for Gordon's death; thus indirectly he is guilty of Gordon's murder. He finally admits to Nina, "I did my best to prevent your marriage. I was glad when he died" (503). Joe Keller sold defective engine to the government to save his business for his sons. Ironically, in doing so, he winds up killing one son and alientating the other. Joe has shifted his guilt onto his partner Steve, who remains in jail. This injustice to Steve doesn't seem to bother Joe or his wife Kate. However, Joe must be kept away from the responsibility for Larry's death. He keeps insisting that Larry never flew a P-40 (40). Kate, also must keep Larry alive forever, for she feels that somehow Larry's death might have been caused by Joe's crime. She proclaims, "God does not let a son be killed by his father" (114). Like Oedipus, Joe unwittingly becomes responsible for the death of a family member (Boggs 155) and is responsible for blood guilt, the most powerful form of taboo. Blood guilt is directly responsible for the haunting presence of Larry throughout the play. Since Dave's father is responsible for Dave'e enlistment in the war, he is indirectly involved in Dave's role in Bobby's death. Dave was a coward who should never have enlisted. The fathers attempt to possess their children in order to control time. Nina's father wants to arrest time and maintain stasis. Joe wants to gain immortality by having his son carry on his business. Dave's dad wants his son to repeat past heroics.
All three fathers are representative of a world guided by the traditional laws of society. They are the bulwarks of a past age. Nina's father has insulated himself in his glass-encased library. He lives in "a sanctuary where, secure with the culture of the past at his back, a fugitive from reality can view the present safely from a distance" (485). Joe lives in a world that is clearly defined. People either become doctors, lawyers, or work in a factory. He is threatened by the college kids who work for him. For him, the world has a "forty foot front that ends at the building line" (121) of the family home. Dave's father lived in the past world of heroic patriotism, a world of "gung ho vet shit" (26).
The fathers are held responsible and must pay for their crimes. Nina wishes her father dead. He retreats to his house, wills his own death, and sees "Nina in black" (505). In other words, he commits suicide. Larry's letter resounds like a voice from the grave: "If I had him there now I could kill him" (126). Joe shoots himself. Dave's father dies right before he gets home, but Dave still holds his father responsible for his war experience. He says, "The first thing I was going to do was deck the son-of-a-bitch. I felt cheated" (26).
Guilt, however, is not only on the father but on the children. Nina did not give herself sexually to Gordon because she was afraid of what her father would say. She spends her life atoning for this crime. When Gordon died, all men died" (509). Chris feels guilt toward his war buddies. For Chris, not only Larry, but all the war dead are his brothers. Chris commanded a company of men and he lost them. He feels the guilt of the survivor. His wealth makes him uneasy unless he can find some way to redeem the deaths of his brothers. Otherwise, everything he has is "loot and there's blood on it" (85). Thus, "If Joe expiates his crimes through acceptance of a just punishment, then Chris will be relieved of his burden of guilt" (Wells 8). Dave blames Megs and himself for Bobby's death. He does not want to confront Bobby's death. For him, the war never existed, and he wants the ghost of Bobby to leave him alone. Gripped in the pangs of guilt, he cries out, "Bobby, you should have stayed put" (60).
Along side the pattern of ritual guilt and atonement, there exists the motif of the wasteland. The barrenness of the land may be the direct result of an unjust murder (Ridge-way 37), or it may be brought about by the death and absence of a fertility god. In some medieval legends it is the result of war (Weston 21). The wasteland is the site of extreme mourning. It is characterized by dead matter (empty materialism), the living death, and diminished substitutions. Materialism can be linked to mourning. According to Norman Brown, primitives associate money with excrement or magic dirt. "hence, rituals of scatography and that close homologue of scatography, necrophagy and the more constant association of dirt with funeral ceremonies ... Primitive tribes smear themselves as a sign of mourning. We wear black" (300).
The rational materialist world characterized by an absent god is described by Lucien Goldman:
On the human level, it destroys the idea of community and replaces it with ... responsible individuals who are all equal and interchangeable. [The physical world is reduced to] an infinite space which has neither limits nor individual qualities and whose parts are both absolutely identical and completely interchangeable. (31)
For Goldman, "the tragic vision is intensely aware of the inadequacy of such a world" (31). Yet such a fallen world exists in each of these three plays.
In Strange Interlude, Sam Evans represents the new order of materialists. Sam is a part of the new breed of businessman, "inheriting the earth, hoggin it, cramming down their tasteless gullets" (594). In such a world view the "new God has his price" (558). Charlie has the potential to become a novelist, but he avoids writing serious works. He substitutes fantasy for life and becomes "an old maid who seduces himself in his novels" (558). Ned could have become a brilliant medical researcher, but now he pursues biology as a hobby. He lives through his assistant who represents what Ned "might have been" (647). Preston is even a "compensating substitute" (647) for the son he can't claim. Both Charlie and Ned have become investors in Sam's advertising business. They've become so wealthy they abandon their vocations "to take up hobbies" (621). Ned tells Charlie, "Yes, we're two bad pennies ... counterfeits--fakes--Sam's silent partners" (625). The presence of death haunts the play. People speak "dead words" and teach "Dead Languages" (497). In the aftermath of war, Charlie describes the Europeans as "millions sitting up with the corps" (489). Charlie wears black at the death of Nina's father, the death of his mother, the death of his sister, and the death of Sam. Nina says, "we're always desiring death for ourselves and others" (651). As Nina points out, when "Gordon died, all men died" (509).
In All My Sons, the world has been reduced to matter. Old dictionaries are sold, not used. The characters are absorbed with broken toasters and malted milk machines. Chris has become part of "the rat race" where people are absorbed with "the bank book" "the new cars," the new refrigerators" (85). Joe's factory doesn't even produce a singular product. It manufactures pressure cookers, washing machines, "a little bit of everything" (109). The people in this world are lost. George could have married Lydia, but the war allowed Frank to have her. Now Frank and Lydia have three children and a house paid up. Chris is not inspired by his work, so he needs a family. Jim could have been a respected doctor, but now he lives "in the usual darkness" (118), catering to his crazy patients who pay him well. The only noble doctors are in the movies getting paid a "Warner brothers salary" (61). In such a world, criminals like Joe are given "credit for being smart" (94). When injustice prevails, "there doesn't seem to be much of a law" (100). Everyone has to be "practical" and so compromise his ideals. Chris must watch "his star go out" (118). The honor of the hero is gone. "We used to shoot a man who acted like a dog, but honor was real there ... But here? This is the land of the great big dogs, you don't love a man here, you eat him" (124). This world is a world of living death. As for the real heroes, "only the dead ones were not" (123) practical.
In Strange Snow, Megs sees the material world and its absurdity. He drinks "so much instant [coffee] that [his] stomach is freeze dried" (18), always uses powdered creamer, and doesn't recognize food "if it doesn'r come out of a can" (32). His world is not only a world of matter but of substitute matter. Martha, Dave's sister tries to look like "the pieces of fluff in men's magazines" (33). She buys contact lenses and clothing she can't afford in order to become the image society has projected for her. Dave also wonders about the person he could have been. Dave was a high school hero who excelled in sports. He was going to be a member of "the future fucking lawyer's club." He wanted to have "everything"; now his life is nothing but a "bad joke" (26). Dave spends his weekends in a drunken stupor. He is a "presence in the house that eats whatever is put in front of him and grunts when spoken to" (44). When Megs brings him back drunk from a fishing trip, he jokingly says that Dave should be stuffed and have a sign on him saying "This is what we brought back alive" (30). Martha tells him that when he returned from the war, he "might as well have been dead" (53).
In the world of death and waste, the characters seek the lost Eden of childhood, All throughout Strange Interlude, Nina wants Charlie to become her father. Eventually, they will move into her father's house and she will become a little girl. In All My Sons, Anne "never grew up," She focuses on high school memories in her back yard, "dear dead days beyond recall" (75). Even George says about his childhood home. "I never felt at home anywhere but here" (111). Dave says about his mother's house, "every good memory I have is here" (48). Megs and Martha recount their prom night, and Megs visits the high school where Martha teaches. In a world torn by war, death and mourning, the characters seem to want to go back to a purer, more innocent time. The major characters in the three plays, Nina, Chris, and Dave all stay at or return to their parental homes and live with their family or childhood friends.
Another mechanism used to recover from the world of mourning and loss of the absent character is that of reincarnating the dead hero or somehow reenacting his life or his wishes. Nina reincarnates Gordon throughout the play. She sleeps with soldiers who become the ghosts of Gordon. She substitutes Sam for Gordon so she can have Gordon's child. She thinks, "Gordon must have come to me in a dream while I was lying asleep beside Sam" (265). Because of the hereditary insanity in Sam's family, she has to abort the child. She then uses Ned to substitute for Sam, but he too is a substitute for Gordon. Ned says, "I was only a body to you. Your first Gordon used to come back to life" (655). Sam is unaware that little Gordon is Ned's child. He raises little Gordon to be like Gordon Shaw. Gordon Evans grows up to be "a dead ringer for Gordon Shaw" (635). Nina does not want to lose her son, but when he flies off with his fiancee, she confuses time schemes. She says to Charlie, "Gordon is dead, Father. I've just had a cable. What I mean is he flew away to another life, my son Gordon" (681). Gordon's reincarnation is played through a chain of substitutions.
Chris tries to take Larry's place by marrying Anne. She also is comfortable with the arrangement. Even though they have not seen each other in five years, they are eager to marry. Chris doesn't want to win Anne away. He asks, "He's gone forever, you're sure?" (84). Chris still kisses Anne like he was "Larry's brother." Chris also say's about Larry, "I'm his brother and he's dead and I'm marrying his girl" (113). Even Sue, the next door neighbor, tells Anne, "It's very unusual to marry the brother of your sweetheart" (92). The relationship is entangled with the presence of Larry. Kate notes that Larry will even haunt them in bed together.
Megs tries to reenact Bobby. He wears Bobby's Red Sox cap. Megs isn't a sportsman. He can't fish, yet he goes fishing on the opening day of the season like Bobby would. He even coaches a little league team that never wins. He wants to go to a Red Sox game just like Bobby wanted him to go. Bobby's lucky cap is helping him.
In these plays, the recreation of the hero becomes almost a command. Nina is trying to recapture the lost love of her youth, the man she never made love to. Joseph Muleski notes "War ... destroyed Gordon Shaw ... externalizing the desire for consummation in an endless succession of surrogates to atone for an initial deferral" (46). Although deferred desire is only tangential in the cases of Anne and Chris, it is still present. If Anne turned down a marriage proposal waiting for Chris to ask her, she must have had a longing to take up her life where the war interrupted it. Thus she struggles desperately to hold on to Chris despite the conflicts involved at the end of the play. She does not want Chris to duplicate Larry, but he is also as close a substitute as she can get.
Megs wanted to do things with Bobby after the war. When Bobby's death frustrated these desires, he decided to recreate Bobby. But the very nature of mourning should not be left out of this ritual process. These dramas are linked to a funeral, a process of coming to terms with the dead hero. According to Mircea Eliade, "the funeral is unique among the ceremonies of the life cycle in that the central figure is no longer there ... the dead survives in the modality of his absence" (40).
Finally, the absent character must be dealt with. Nina tries to escape the need to reproduce Gordon by returning to childhood. Her period of mourning becomes an unreal state, a "strange interlude". Her attitude correlates with the feeling of mourning and estrangement. Charlie tells her there is something "unreal in all the things that have happened since you met Gordon Shaw" (681). For Nina, she can go beyond Gordon by creating life as it was before Gordon. She chooses to go backwards, to return to the womb. Norman O. Brown states, "Mankind's diversion from the actuality of living and dying, which is always in the present, is attained by reactivation in fantasy of the past" (283). As for Joe Keller, he must hear the voice of Larry come back from the grave to condemn him. His death is an atonement for Larry's, As for Chris, who is told to live, no one knows. Will he have to atone for his father's death? In the case of All My Sons, war spawns sacrifice, which leads to reciprocal violence, what Rene Girard calls a sacrificial crisis in which one violent act must atone for another in a total cycle of violence (49). The play leaves no clear answers. Has Joe Keller become the scapegoat who must be sacrificed for the community? Or will Joe's death haunt Chris? Will the absent dead never be appeased?
In Strange Snow, the dead hero is accepted and incorporated into the lives of the mourners. His presence becomes salvific. Megs asks Dave to embrace Bobby. "You and me, we got enough shithole memories to last a lifetime. He ain't one of them. He was our friend. Our heart. Our waterwalker" (60). Dave finally puts on Bobby's hat and goes tosee if he hurt anyone in a fight he had. The absent becomes a reintegrated presence. Guilt has been exorcised and violence curtailed. In the end of all the plays, the absent character is somehow accomodated. He has propelled the actions of the other characters and determined their trajectory. The dramatic scene has embodied his presence, which has become imbued in the physical environment. Even though he is not visible, his presence as well as his absence is always immanent.
All three dramas are essentially realistic, but it is as realism that they are often attacked. All My Sons is often considered melodramatic and preachy (Coen 1139). In explaining Strange Interlude, O'Neill had to defend himself against those who found him rewriting Freud by holding that he was influenced by "the drama of all time--particularly Greek tragedy--and not any books of psychology" (qtd. in Feldman 40). In reviewing Strange Snow, Mel Gussow found the "Vietnam experience ... merely an off-stage echo, a confusing tale that is recounted and not sufficiently explored" (C 12). Edith Oliver calls the scene "foggy and unconvincing." For her, "Only a playwright who served in Vietnam ... can write about it convincingly" (111). In other words, the experience has to be "real." Such critiques have some merit, but they are only concerned with the surface values of drama.
What is important to note is that realism is not merely a reflection of the political milieu of the times and that behind every drama is a timeless pattern which unfolds the inner workings of drama itself. The feeling of loss and the cycle of death and resurrection lie at the foundations of serious drama. Also, drama more than poetry and fiction is an attempt to bring into presence that which is absent. "When theatre fails there has been a refusal, of presence" (Cole, D.x). Essentially, dramatic performance gives "visible body to what is not there" (Blau 84). Moreover, in its ritual form, it is performed for an "absent Other" (Schechner 120). Thus, an examination of the absent character can give one an insight into the nature of drama itself.
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Paul Rosefeldt, Ph.D. Delgado Community college New Orleans, LA 70119…
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Publication information: Article title: From Strange Interlude to Strange Snow: A Study of the Absent Character in Drama. Contributors: Rosefeldt, Paul - Author. Journal title: Journal of Evolutionary Psychology. Publication date: August 2002. Page number: 117+. © 2006 Institute for Evolutionary Psychology. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.