Empty Houses: Theatrical Failure and the Novel

I need to write an in-depth summary of David Kurnick’s argument in this book, but I find it relatively complex, so to start out, I’m going to write a summary in play form.

NANCY ARMSTRONG: (in chorus, with an entire tradition of theorists of the novel) The rise of the novel corresponds with the rise of privacy and interiority. Thus, we can see in 19th-century novels an intense focus on the individual and on the individual’s interior landscape. The novel is about interiority! Look at George Eliot! Henry James! And wow, check out James Joyce!

DAVID KURNICK: You’re forgetting that all of these famous novelists you’re talking about were failed playwrights.

NANCY ARMSTRONG, ET. AL: So what? Interiority doesn’t play well on the stage. Of course they failed as playwrights. It’s the reason they became so good at novel-writing.

DAVID KURNICK: Actually, the very form of theater is about collectivity. No matter how much interiority you want to project on stage, you have to realize that theater is a collaborative enterprise. It takes lots of actors working together, and an entire audience to come watch the play. This is the medium these novelists first chose as their preferred representational form. They wanted to escape interiority, and it shows in their subsequent novels.

EMILY ALLEN: (in chorus, with an emerging tradition of scholars who look at theatrical metaphors in novels) We understand you, David Kurnick. Nineteenth-century novels are all about the theater. Look at all the theater metaphors all over the place. They’re everywhere! Let’s all write entire books on theater metaphors in nineteenth-century novels!! Also, look how many duplicitous characters there are–it’s like they’re all playing a role. Meta-theatricality! Theatrical themes are everywhere! Yay!!

DAVID KURNICK: Sure…. Those are all awesome books you folks wrote. But I have a couple of problems. Why are we always equating duplicitous characters with some kind of theatricality? Why does duplicity = theatricality? That’s not really what I’m going for here. Theatricality, for me, = collectivity. The theatrical space is a collective, collaborative space.

EMILY ALLEN, ET. AL: Okay, great. But however you choose to characterize the novel’s themes of theatricality, they’re ALL. OVER. THE. PLACE, amirite?

DAVID KURNICK: Totally. All over the place. But that’s still not what I’m going to do with this book. I think that we’re doing a little too much of this “theater-as-metaphor” thing. Why is the theater *just* a metaphor for something bigger? Because we marginalize it, that’s why. But guess who didn’t marginalize it? George Eliot, Henry James, William Thackeray, and James Joyce. They all wanted to be playwrights. And it’s not just that their novels use the theater as “metaphors” for something–their novels literally marginalize the sense of interiority and individuality that novel-reading implies and gesture toward a collective theatrical space. Repeatedly. Seriously. Read my book. Therefore, I’m de-thematizing theater and reading these metafictional moments as authorial references to the plays that might have been. They are gestures toward the collective, not *just* metaphors.

ALL: Wow, that’s fascinating.

DAVID KURNICK: Thank you.

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