Andrew Sofer. Dark Matter: Invisibility in Drama, Theater, and Performance

By Teague, Fran | Comparative Drama, Summer 2015 | Go to article overview

Andrew Sofer. Dark Matter: Invisibility in Drama, Theater, and Performance


Teague, Fran, Comparative Drama


Andrew Sofer. Dark Matter: Invisibility in Drama, Theater, and Performance. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013. Pp. 229 + 2 b/w illus. $29.95.

In Andrew Sofer's Dark Matter: Invisibility in Drama, Theater, and Performance we have a fascinating, if mysterious, study. The second adjective is not a complaint. In his earlier study The Stage Life of Props, Sofer began by theorizing props and then examining specific props in different eras of theatrical performance; in this study, he follows the same structure, but instead of considering material objects, he examines absence. The Eucharistic wafer that he used as the prop to illuminate medieval drama is now replaced by Christs body that is gone from the tomb in the Quem Queritis trope. That dramatic moment in medieval drama opens this study and as Sofer suggests in the introduction, "the real presence of Christ is paradoxically guaranteed by his felt absence--an absence designed to move the crowd from theatrical wonder to reaffirmed faith" (2). This study is more than a collection of case studies, however, as Sofer juggles both problems in performance theory and an extended analogy between science and theater. Quantum physics and performatives mix with tomography and phenomenology.

The case studies, as Sofer calls them, include the absent/present demons in Christopher Marlowe's Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, Bottoms offstage amusements in William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, the faces behind the masks in Aphra Behn's The Rover, the dead Sebastian Venable in Tessessee Williams's Suddenly Last Summer, the listening device in Arthur Miller's The Archbishops Ceiling, and trauma in a series of plays written in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The chapters conclude with Sofer's remark that

   scripted or not, performance is always spectral. The paradox of
   dark matter is that something hidden is disclosed even as it eludes
   our sight. Whether hallucinated demons, offstage sex, masked women,
   self-consuming protagonists, invisible surveillance, or
   contemporary trauma, theatre conjures the unseen in the service of
   its imaginative poetics. (144-45)

Whether a reader agrees with Sofer's insistence that J. L. Austen is wrong to exclude speech on stage from the examination of speech-act theory, his critique of Judith Butlers ideas about performatives, or his investigation of key concepts from such theorists as Marvin Carlson, Richard Schechner, Stanley Fish, or Joseph Roach, that reader should enjoy the way that Sofer investigates such ideas. He writes with grace, and his passion for ideas comes across clearly. While I liked this aspect of the book very much, I was less engaged by the accounts of scientific theories, which ranged from a comparison of Einstein's physics with those of Neils Bohr to an explanation of dark matter and its effect on gravitational lensing and an account of psychology's current ideas about trauma. But that response is a personal one--I was trained in a critical world that deeply mistrusted analogy--and other readers will find his observations satisfying and generative.

The book has its own dark matter, and surely this present absence is no accident. The very questions that the book raises about the nature of theater seemed linked to absences within the works studied. …

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