Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

The Presence of Absence: Catalytic and Omnipresent Offstage Characters in Modern American Drama

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

The Presence of Absence: Catalytic and Omnipresent Offstage Characters in Modern American Drama

Article excerpt

As ... American plays based on the absent center suggest, both onstage characters and the audiences join in a quest for the unseen characters in an attempt to unravel their identities. Despite their absence these unseen characters act as driving forces of the dramatic onstage action. Thus, ignoring the importance of offstage characters would certainly leave their respective plays rather incomplete and dramatically unsound. These absent characters function as a proximate cause for the onstage action, and without them all of the plays discussed would lose their vivacity and their structural integrity would collapse. The absent figures in our individual and collective lives often have similar causative functions.


IN REAL LIFE we exist with unseen forces and voices. We all have to endure suffering as a result of the death of someone dear to us, or a beloved one we have not seen for so many years. Though absent, such people have profound influence on the way we feel and think. The absence of our beloved breaks our hearts and forces us to keep thinking of them and talking about them since "Absence makes the heart grow fonder." It is a human tendency to soften the bad and polish the good past events through recollection. We accept as powerful monitors and guides the influence of philosophies and theologies formulated centuries ago. Noble personages like emperors, kings, world leaders, thinkers, and scientists influence our lives though they died a long time ago. Absence does not mean people, ideas, and decisions do not profoundly affect us personally or collectively.

Yet the presence of an absent character in the theater can be as arresting as it is influential on the outcome. When a playwright includes such a figure who is never observed, but is only referred to by those we can see on stage, it is to motivate or significantly alter them. Absent characters, whether dead, missing, or imaginary, are causal figures. They are not a friend remembered from long ago who exists only as that. Those we do not glimpse on stage are still there, because they motivate the actors to take a certain course of action and advance the plot, but their physical presence is unnecessary. In fact, their absence may make them appear more powerful to us simply because we only know them by inference.

Offstage characters do not represent a new dramatic technique. Characters who are denied a stage presence and are kept in the wings, but nonetheless have a strong backstage presence, have been used by influential playwrights since early theatrical performances. Offstage characters were used in early Greek drama as catalysts for action. Although king Laius in Sophoeles's Oedipus Rex and Jason's bride in Euripides's Medea remain offstage throughout the two plays, such characters contribute a lot to the development of the plot and serve as catalysts for action in the two plays respectively. In Renaissance drama Shakespeare incorporated Rosaline, the offstage figure, into Romeo and Juliet to serve as a foil to Juliet and to stress the predicament of the two lovers. However, it was Strindberg, Ibsen, and Chekhov who excelled in using absence as a theatrical device and weaving it into the fabric of their drama. Influenced by his European counterparts, Byrd (2000) remarks, Eugene O'Neill robustly used the absent character as an established device in the American theatrical scene. Gonder argues that while Freud considers absence as a psychological paradigm, American dramatists like O'Neill and Shepard tend to see it as aspects of character, narrative, and stagecraft.

Other scholars, such as Sarah Morrow have also applied causation theories to the analysis of absence in American dramatic texts. The current study discusses absence as a theatrical device employed by five American dramatists: Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, and Sam Shepard. As literature is supposed to be a mirror of society, causation is thus applicable to absence in real life. …

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