Duality in Theatre: A Benevolent Kind of Haunting

Written By Malorie Palmer

In Alice Rayner’s article “Double and Doubts,” she grapples with the idea that the theatre provides a haunted experience. “Theatre, in all of its aspects, uniquely insists on the reality of ghosts,” Rayner explains, positing that ghosts are not merely a fictional element in theatre.  Rather, in each of its facets and faces, one can find means to believe that theatre itself is haunted, as the actors work within the constraints of the perceptions and expectations of the audience, the playwright, and even themselves. The actors have a basic format to follow or an expectation to live up to that is based on the knowledge they and their audience already have. To briefly summarize and focus this broad idea, we can take a look at the well-known Shakespearian work, Romeo and Juliet.

In theatre, the actor or actress is never merely one personality; he or she becomes the character, as well. The actor must constantly deal with the struggle between which is actor and which is character and between what the actor believes and what the character says or does. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, the actors portray characters who may be very unlike themselves. The characters are young and foolish, and they live in a very different time period. Within the play, however, actors can recreate the time and place, as well as the emotions and actions of young Romeo and Juliet. Furthermore, by the end of the play, our two main characters are dead, while our actors live on, yet by the next performance, the characters are, in a sense, brought back to life, creating a ghostly experience through its cycle of life and death. Rayner herself describes this perfectly when she says, “the actor embodies and gives life to a nonliving thing and essentially erases the differences between the living and the dead to produce an uncanny spectacle…” (15). In a performance of Romeo and Juliet, the characters themselves are not actual living beings, but the actors who portray them are. They give the appearance that the non-living characters have come to life and are capable of dying, even though no one actually dies during the performance. The characters are merely represented as dying, while the actors live on. This crosses the borders of life and death, blurring that line and allowing us to enter the theatrical world where anything can happen. It allows us to suspend our disbelief and see the cycle of life and death in a mere few hours.

Additionally, the actor echoes the messages of the playwright in performing the work at all. The themes and symbols in much of our literature are constantly debated, but regardless of what these messages may be, it is clear that they come to life within the theatre to reach the audience. The actors are the way to share those messages with the public through art. In recreating the play, the actors become a medium for the messages of the playwright. In Romeo and Juliet, this message could be about the repercussions of a family feud or the effects of young, passionate love, and in performing this famous play, the actors and actresses share Shakespeare’s messages again and again. They pull themes from his work and recreate them, bringing new life to the ideas of a deceased man and allowing a part of that man to live on through his creative works.

The actor is also haunted by the past portrayals of the same character by other actors. There are new opportunities for an actor to play a particular role a different way each time the play is performed; however, all of that opportunity is ever filled with the substance of something other. The character is not new. The actor is not new. Even the experience is not new. This is especially true with such a well-known play like Romeo and Juliet, which has been performed innumerous times. There are opportunities for new representations of old characters, and the previous representations haunt the performance, leaking through to be seen by the audience and clouding the new retelling of the play by enforcing memories of what has already been done. Essentially, the actor himself becomes haunted, reflecting the self, the character, the previous portrayals of the character, and the playwright.

Finally, not only is the play haunted in such a way that it occurs on the stage for display to the audience, but it is haunted in the reverse as well. The audience itself becomes haunted as well, present and absent. The play is performed specifically for the entertainment of the audience, yet the audience is treated as though it is not there and acts as such in accordance with that expectation. Theatre is then haunted ever further by the expectations brought to the table by the members of the audience, such expectations including their own readings of the original work, revised versions, and other viewings of that work performed on a stage.

Ultimately, our understanding of haunting in theatre is not one of fear but intrigue. Conceptualizing these ideas does not invoke feelings of terror but of interest, allowing this art form to reach even further in its effort to impact the lives of those who would appreciate it. We see the haunting of theatre not as a scary experience but as one of great curiosity and opportunity. The ghosts of theatre are not malevolent ones, so we can experience this haunting without fear of harm. Instead, we can delve deeper into our understanding of art forms because of the questions and curiosities this style of haunting illuminates. This type of haunting creates a lasting impression in this visual art that reinforces the impact it may have on its audience, making it more memorable or noticeable, and allowing us to appreciate this art from another angle from which we may see it as we never have before.

Works Cited

Rayner, Alice. Ghosts: Death’s Double And The Phenomena Of Theatre. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. Print.

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One comment on “Duality in Theatre: A Benevolent Kind of Haunting

  1. Johnf279 says:

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