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Exploring the significance of "dark matter" in theater

Last Thursday, the College of Engineering hosted a talk for its Center for the Arts Lecture Series featuring Andrew Sofer, a professor of English at Boston College who also teaches at Harvard’s Mellon School for Theater and Performance Research. The lecture focused on Sofer’s idea of “dark matter” in the theater. In addition to his experience in the theater, Sofer is also the author of the book Dark Matter: Invisibility in Drama, Theater, and Performance.

Sofer’s interest in what he has christened “dark matter” began during his exploration of props and their role in the production of a play. Upon the realization that he “didn’t have the vocabulary” to describe what plays an important role in the production but is not immediately apparent to the naked eye, he sought to investigate this concept further, labeling this phenomena dark matter after the not quite understood force of the universe.

Confessing his nervousness at having to describe a concept of physics to such a technically competent school, Sofer joked that he has it on good authority that “scientists don’t know what dark matter is either.” Having no background in physics, Sofer strove to find a definition that fit his criteria of unseen props in theater and found that dark matter, as coined by physicists, worked very well.

As many at Carnegie Mellon know, dark matter has never been directly observed, yet we know of its definite existence due to its effect on the matter around it. According to Sofer, dramaturgically, his dark matter has a definite impact on the plot, yet is never seen. Some examples of this are characters that never appear onstage, hallucinations, or the narrated past.

To give us an intuitive example of this concept, Sofer brings up two clips of perhaps one of the most iconic Shakespeare scenes — Macbeth’s “Dagger of the Mind.” To emphasize the importance of dark matter, Sofer shares with the audience the rendition of the scene as acted by Sir Patrick Stewart and directed by Rupert Goold as well as an interpretation acted by Jon Finch and directed by Roman Polanski.

In these two scenes, there is a crucial difference for the audience. In Polanski’s version, the iconic dagger is portrayed on screen, while in Goold’s version, it exists only in Macbeth’s head. Having watched the two scenes, Sofer opened up the discussion to the audience, asking for their interpretation of the two scenes, and the impact that showing the physical dagger had on the overall tone of the play.

Overall, the general consensus was that although they were both well-acted, the one that displayed the dagger on screen lent itself to silliness; the dagger, which was made using special effects from 1971, was almost too fake for the naked eye to accept, even as a hallucination. Furthermore, the visible dagger doesn’t allow the audience to choose how they view the dagger. It forces the watcher to accept one version of the events, and leaves nothing to the mind. As one participant of the discussion succinctly put, “It murders the imagination.”

Before transitioning onto his next tangential topic, Sofer emphasized one thing about dark matter: While the audience may not be able to perceive the prop, to the character within the play there is no difference between that which is seen and that which is hidden. To the actor they are the same, whether it is a floating knife or a character we never actually meet or see. The key to props being dark matter is that we can feel their impact on the play by the way they affect the plot, the characters, or the dialogue.
Sofer’s description of his theory next addressed the difference between terror and horror.

The scenes from Macbeth perfectly isolate the difference between these two terms, a difference that, according to Andrew Sofer, is paramount in understanding his theory of dark matter in the theater. According to his definition, terror is when we are afraid of something we cannot see, while horror is when we are afraid of what we see with our eyes. He cites the movie Alien, in which a team is hunted by a mysterious creature that is only revealed at the end. Sofer argues that the scarier parts of the film are when we don’t know what’s going on, before the reveal, rather than when we see the horrifying monster. Much like the alien, our imagination is more powerful than any playwright’s script or director’s decision, and therefore it is often beneficial to have props be dark matter.

Andrew Sofer’s theory of dark matter, as described in his book Dark Matter:Invisibility in Drama, Theater, and Performance, offers a unique perspective on theater. While focusing on an area in which many have expertise, Sofer has delved into a smaller realm that has not yet been fully explored in order to bring a fresh opinion to the world of theater.