Experiencing Theatre

 SLSA conference, Houston, November 2015


“Adieu, adieu, adieu! Remember me.”   Exit.    Ghost of Hamlet’s father.[1]

 “In the name of justice … it is necessary to speak of the ghost, indeed to the ghost and with it.”    Jacques Derrida[2]


In my interrupted and somewhat reluctant sojourn in the academy I have at certain times (including just recently) written plays. An activity not regarded highly by my fellow academics. Most academics, in my observation, don’t like theatre. They certainly don’t go to theatre. It is of interest to wonder why.



“For me” – says Helene Cixous – “the Theatre is by definition the stage where the living meet and confront the dead, the forgotten and the forgetters, the buried and the ghosts, the present, the passing … . There is nothing more Theatre than a great City of the Dead. It is a stage through which all the characters of a story make their appearance, from the most ancient, the most distant in the centuries down to the most contemporary … The dead are not always as dead as we think nor the living as living as they think.”[3]

The inhabitants of a great City of the Dead are of course ghosts. So what are ghosts? Are they real? Do they exist?

A lady once asked me whether I believed in ghosts and apparitions. I answered with truth and simplicity: No madam! I have seen too many myself. Samuel Taylor Coleridge. [4]

In the mid 1980s, Jacques Derrida saw himself as a ghost. In a 1984 experimental film, Ghost Dance, about himself, he’s questioned by a soft-spoken young Parisian woman: Do you believe in ghosts? “You’re asking a ghost whether he believes in ghosts”, he replies. Then, after proclaiming “Ici, le fantome c’est moi”, he announces “The future belongs to ghosts. The cinema is the art of ghosts, a battle of phantoms. Modern image technology, cinema, telecommunications, and so on, are only increasing the power of ghosts.”[5] Ten years later, Derrida published Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, with the result that on the strength of Derrida’s prestige and philosophical clout ghosts — specters, phantoms, apparitions, revenants — entered the academy. And so far have not left.

Academic reception of Specters of Marx was mixed. The Marx part — its treatment of Marxism and Marx’s specters as well as claims relating deconstruction to Marxism — was met with responses ranging from critical to almost derisive. On the other hand, the Specters half, his elaboration of a discourse of ghosts and haunting, suffered no such fate: on the contrary, it inspired a stream of ghost-oriented academic approaches and texts about things specular, including subsequent hauntological works by Derrida himself most notably Archive Fever.

In 2013 Maria del Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren published The Spectral Reader: Ghosts and Haunting in Contemporary Cultural Theory sampling the rich, heterogeneous post-Specters literature and addressing the claim that it amounted to a specular ‘turn’ in the humanities. Naturally a piece by Derrida is included: the text of the dialogue of a 1993 filmed interview, Spectographies, a kind of trailer for Specters. In this Derrida exclaims

“A specter is both visible and invisible, both phenomenal and nonphenomenal: a trace that marks the present with its absence in advance.”

 Spectrality as Derrida theorizes is not concerned with belief, with the conventional question of ontology — the question: do ghosts exist? Rather, the spectral is a summons, a hauntological injunction: seek out, engage with ghosts. An injunction (as his subtitle makes clear) that is ultimately a promise, an ethical obligation to what “is no longer living or living yet, to what is not simply present”[6] in the name of justice. Moreover: The spectral logic is de facto a deconstructive logic. It is in the element of haunting that deconstruction finds the place most hospitable to it: at the heart of the living present.[7]

And, one can add, at the heart of the physical world. For Karen Barad hauntology, irrespective of any ethical summons, is a discursive/critical tool, allowing one to think ‘with dis/continuity, dis/orientation, and dis/jointedness’ – the principal effects wrought by the presence of ghosts — in relation to the spectral, dis/continuous time of quantum physics.[8] But to be sure, interest in ghosts and hauntings existed and exists in and out of the academy quite independently of Derrida’s analytic, as Jeffrey Weinstock makes clear in his introduction to Spectral America and Phantoms of the National Imagination.[9] In fact, as Allen Meek observes, the phenomenon, as an effect/affect, emerges from certain margins, gaps and discontinuities to be found throughout the cultural field: “The Ghost-effect, takes place at the seam between two texts, in the overlay of different discourses, the encounter between different modes of representation, or at the interface of different media.”[10]

We might say simply: A ghost is the presence of an absence, something undone, missing, suppressed, repressed, or unnoticed – a ‘thing’ from the past – that enters the visible, audible now of the sensible present. Experiencing this un-thing – whether as an apparition, a feeling of recognition, a sense of unease, something uncanny, a loss of being, an alien presence, or otherwise — is what it means to be haunted. Ghosts exist: people are haunted. ‘Ghost’ signifies the presence, the experience, the affective factuality of a haunting. Ghosts are objective, observable affects, determinate sociological events. Such is the frame of Avery Gordon’s Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (An aside from Amazon: Customers who bought Specters of Marx also bought Ghostly Matters.) Good for them.

Gordon explains: “If haunting describes how that which is not there … a seething presence, acted on and often meddling with taken-for-granted realities, the ghost is just a sign, or the empirical evidence … that tells you a haunting is taking place.”[11]

There is nothing, Gordon emphasizes, out of the way, dubious, illusory, deranged or mysteriously supernatural about ghost-effects: “Haunting is a constituent element of contemporary life. It is neither pre-modern superstition nor individual psychosis; it is a generalizable social phenomenon of great importance.[12]

And nowhere more important – to get back to my topic – than in the theatre. “There is no great merit” — Samuel Johnson complains — in telling how many plays have ghosts in them, and how this ghost is better than that. You must show how terror is impressed on the human heart.”[13]

Dr Johnson’s demand to be shown how theatrical ghosts do their work refers to the gothic stage phantoms of his day, but it is part of a long story. Ghosts have been alive and kicking inside Western theatre, impressing terror and other forms of affect on human hearts from its beginning, since Aeschylus. And, as Alice Raynor tells it, for good reason:

“Theatre is the specific site where appearance and disappearance reproduce the relations between the living and the dead.”[14] Theatre reproduces these relations not, she insists, as a “form of representation”, though of course it employs representation, it stages it, but as a “form of consciousness”; a consciousness, recalling Cixous, of the relations between the Cities of the Living and those of the Dead; a making present of unbeing that engages with multiple pasts and yet unrealized futures.

Like the most famous ghost of all, that of King Hamlet, theatre ghosts tend to be revenants, spirits – in some shape or other — returned from the afterlife, demanding from the living justice, retribution, revenge, the righting of wrongs, or simply (though it is never simple) to be remembered. Modern theatre is filled with ghosts: from Henrik Ibsen’s plays Ghosts and When We Dead Awaken, August Strindberg’s chamber play Ghost Sonata, to the spectral presences inhabiting Samuel Beckett’ s plays, and the all-too-lively dead in the plays of Caryl Churchill, Sam Shepherd, Arthur Miller, and many other contemporary playwrights.

In Ibsen’s Ghosts, for example the young Oswald is haunted by his doomed future. His mother, Mrs Alving, confronted with a repeat of the long-gone event behind Oswald’s future, is undone by a profusion of ghosts.

MRS. ALVING. “Ghosts! When I heard Regina and Oswald in there, it was as though ghosts rose up before me. But I almost think we are all of us ghosts, Pastor Manders. It is not only what we have inherited from our father and mother that ‘walks’ in us. It is all sorts of dead ideas, and lifeless old beliefs, and so forth. They have no vitality, but they cling to us all the same, and we cannot shake them off. Whenever I take up a newspaper, I seem to see ghosts gliding between the lines. There must be ghosts all the country over, as thick as the sands of the sea.”[15]

According to Marvin Carlson in the Haunted Stage: Theatre as Memory Machine, “the practice of theatre has been in all periods and cultures particularly obsessed with memory and ghosting.”[16]. He charts how theatre performances are intrinsically ghosted; haunted by the individual and collective memories they let loose; fragments of the past that cling to the props and inhabit the spaces where theatre has been performed; haunted by the shadow of other productions and by echoes of prior performances by the actors.

More directly corporeal, Joseph Roach in his Cities of the Dead describes a kind of genealogy of the performing body: “[With its] expressive movements as mnemonic reserves, including patterned movements made and remembered by bodies, residual movements retained implicitly in images or words (or in the silences between then), and imaginary movements dreamed in minds, not prior to language but constitutive of it, a psychic rehearsal for physical actions drawn from a repertoire that culture provides.”[17]

The performing body operates – that is affects, thinks with and conveys by means of what Roach calls ‘kinesthetic imagination’, a way of “thinking through movements—at once remembered and reinvented—the otherwise unthinkable … a way of expressing the unspeakable”[18] A task only accomplishable through the a-linguistic resources of gesture.

In Theatre and Ghosts, a collection published last year on theatrical specularity, edited by Mary Luckhurst + Emilie Morin , Luckhurst writes of the actor’s body as “[a] haunted house”, observing how spectral metaphors — “incarnation, resurrection, possession, exorcism, colonization, mask, and the raiding of others’ souls”[19] recur in actors’ accounts when they attempt to articulate their experience of taking on – of becoming, assuming one says — a character.

Beyond impersonation and the staging of characters, beyond that is what is represented on the stage, theatre is the site of an affective force that, as Alice Rayner indicates is “more than just an emotional effect or attribute of the work. And echoing Roach, she emphasizes that “it constitutes a form of thought.”[20]

A form of thinking, a consciousness and shared subjectivity which is collectively produced and experienced and as such irreducible to any of its parts: “[Theatre is] a mode of consciousness that includes performer and audience without distinction … performance aware of itself as performance … neither within the individual selves of performers or spectators nor within the staged matter alone, but through and because all of them. In this sense, the ghost is not a metaphor for something else but an aspect of theatrical practice.”[21]

This last follows from the fact that: “The work of theatre is the working of the double. The imaginary and the material are one double thing, which is no thing but a work, an event, an occurrence through which the double is revealed as a constituent condition of perception and thought.”[22]

Rayner suggests this doubleness out of which theatre’s ghosts emerge, or better, the non-oppositional seemingly paradoxical logic governing it, the logic of both-and rather than either-or, might account for the uncertain regard the academy has for theatre: “Little wonder that theatre holds such a tenuous place in academic scholarship at large. For in practice the work of theatre requires the failure of sharp distinctions between the real and the unreal, living and non-living … being and non-being.” One that ruptures familiar reality: “Theatre makes a demand that the ordinary material world take on the strangeness of itself in order to make itself and all its invisibilities visible. Theatre in some sense not only believes in ghosts, it helps to create them.”[23]

If academics don’t go to the theatre it’s not because they’re uninterested in ghosts. As we’ve seen, they almost can’t get enough of them: there’s hauntological activity across the humanities, all manner of specters wherever you look – haunted data, the hidden afterlives of academic papers, traces of silenced voices, ghosts that accompany media, the multiple ghost-effects of the neoliberal economic present, and so on. Scholars in the humanities, then, are more than happy to write about ghosts (myself included). What they appear averse to do is experience them, to be affected by them in the flesh, their own, the actors’ and that of the audience. Live theatre is a potent affect machine. Its deepest power, as Antonin Artaud knew, arises not from its performance of written texts and the meanings therein, but in the coming together of live bodies, in the affective traffic between them it conjures. One of theatre’s great hauntological lessons, that “The dead are not always as dead as we think nor the living as living as they think”, is disturbing and enlivening. Evidently, academics seem reluctant to be disturbed, averse to willingly subject themselves to terror impressed upon the heart and the consciousness of a haunting, by going to the theatre. Maybe the possibility of encountering ghosts, of feeling their unbidden presence emerge in front of their eyes — all-too-alive — freaks them out.


[1] William Shakespeare “Hamlet”, Act I, scene 5

[2] Jacques Derrida “Specters of Marx”, xix

[3] Helen Cixous “Enter the Theatre”, 28-9

[4] Samuel Taylor Coleridge “The Friend”

[5] Jacques Derrida Transcribed from film “Ghost Dance”

[6] JD Ibid, 123-4

[7] Jacques Derrida “Spectographies”, 39

[8] Karen Barad “Quantum Entanglements and Hauntological Relations of Inheritance”

[9] Weinstock “Spectral America”

[10] Allen Meek “Guides to the Electropolis: Toward a Spectral Critique of the Media”,9

[11] Avery Gordon “Ghostly Matters”, 8

[12] “Ghostly Matters”, 7

[13] Samuel Johnson “Samuel Johnson, volume 6”, edited by Leslie Stephens, 108

[14] Alice Raynor “Ghosts: Death’s Double and the Phenomena of Theatre””, xvi

[15] Henrik Ibsen “Ghosts” Act II

[16] Marvin Carlson “The Haunted Stage: Theatre as Memory Machine ”, 7

[17] Joseph Roach “Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance”, 26

[18] Joseph Roach Ibid, 27

[19] Mary Luckhurst “Theatre and Ghosts: Materiality, Performance and Modernity”, 170

[20] Alice Raynor “Ghosts: Death’s Double and the Phenomena of Theatre”, xvi

[21] AR Ibid, xvii

[22] AR “Rude Mechanicals and the Specters of Marx”, 548

[23] AR Ibid, 547