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An unseen character or (in radio) silent character is a fictional character referred to but not directly observed by the audience, but who advances the action of the plot in a significant way, and whose absence enhances their effect on the plot.
Unseen characters have been used since the beginning of theatre with the ancient Greek tragedians, such as Laius in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and Jason's bride in Euripides' Medea, and continued into Elizabethan theatre with examples such as Rosaline in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. However, it was the early twentieth-century European playwrights Strindberg, Ibsen and Chekhov who fully developed the dramatic potential of the unseen character. Eugene O'Neill was influenced by his European contemporaries and established the absent character as an aspect of character, narrative, and stagecraft in American theatre.
Purpose and characteristics
Unseen characters are causal figures included in dramatic works to motivate the onstage characters to a certain course of action and advance the plot, but their presence is unnecessary. Indeed, their absence makes them appear more powerful because they are only known by inference. The use of an unseen character "take[s] advantage of one of the simplest but most powerful theatrical devices: the manner in which verbal references can make an offstage character extraordinarily real [...] to an audience," exploiting the audience's tendency to create visual images of imaginary characters in their mind.
In a study of 18th-century French comedy, F. C. Green suggests that an "invisible character" can be defined as one who, though not seen, "influences the action of the play". This definition, according to Green, would rule out a character like Laurent (Lawrence), Tartuffe's unseen valet, whose sole function is merely to give the playwright an opportunity to introduce Tartuffe.
Unseen characters can develop organically even when their creators initially did not expect to keep them as unseen, especially in episodic works like television series. For instance, the producers of Cheers and Frasier initially did not want to make the character Niles Crane's wife Maris an unseen character because they did not want to draw parallels to Vera, Norm Peterson's wife on Cheers. They originally intended that Maris would appear after several episodes, but were enjoying writing excuses for her absence so eventually it was decided she would remain unseen, and after the increasingly eccentric characteristics ascribed to her, no real actress could portray her.
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Unseen characters occur elsewhere in drama, including the plays of Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee. Author Marie A. Wellington notes that in the 18th-century, Voltaire included unseen characters in a few of his plays, including Le Duc d’Alençon and L’Orphelin de la Chine.
- Rosaline in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is never seen, but is only described.
- In Alain-René Lesage's 1707 play Crispin an unseen character called Damis with his forced secret marriage is essential to the whole plot.
- In Clare Boothe Luce's play The Women (1936), and the 1939 film based on the play, male characters (husbands, lovers, etc.) are referred to but do not appear, even in photographs, and the entire cast (from stars to extras) is all female.
- Godot in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot is never seen. The play's two main characters spend the entire play waiting for Godot to arrive.
- In Anton Chekhov's play Three Sisters, Protopopov, who is cuckolding his employee Andrei and having a torrid and far from secret affair with Natasha, is unseen but plays a central role. Some sources suggest Protopopov, not Andrei, is the real father of Sofia, Natasha's daughter.
UK television and radio
- Minder: Arthur Daley's wife, referred to only as "'Er Indoors", is never seen or heard, but often quoted.
- In the long-running British radio soap opera The Archers, a number of permanent inhabitants of the village in which the story is set are frequently referred to but are never heard in their own voices. Fans of the programme often refer to these characters as "the silents".
- On The Odd Couple (1970-1975 series), one of Oscar Madison's best-known and least refined girlfriends, "Crazy Rhoda Zimmerman", is often mentioned but never seen. (On one episode, however, her aunt shows up to tell Oscar that Rhoda will not be able to keep their date that night.)
- On the mystery drama Columbo, Inspector Columbo often described his wife in detail but she is never seen, heard, or otherwise portrayed in the series. A short-lived, unsuccessful spinoff series Mrs. Columbo was created in 1979 after Columbo had ended its run, but Inspector Columbo never appeared. Mrs. Columbo, as played by Kate Mulgrew, was named Kate (although Inspector Columbo's wife in Columbo was never given a forename). The series gradually severed any possible ties with the original detective series. Both the series and the eponymous character herself were renamed in an attempt to change direction, but this did not help poor ratings and the series was ultimately canceled in March 1980 after only thirteen episodes had aired.
- On The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Phyllis Lindstrom's husband, Dr. Lars Lindstrom, is oft-referenced but never seen.
- On Seinfeld, Bob Sacamano, Lomez and "Cousin Jeffrey" are often mentioned but never seen. The first two are friends of Cosmo Kramer, and the last is the cousin of Jerry Seinfeld. Jeffrey works for the New York City Parks Department, as Jerry is told ad nauseam by his Uncle Leo.
- On The Andy Griffith Show, Juanita Beasley, for whom Barney Fife occasionally expresses affection, is unseen but often referenced and telephoned by the love-struck Fife.
- Vera Peterson from Cheers and Maris Crane from its spinoff Frasier are two of the most widely recognized unseen characters of American television, though Vera's body (with her face obscured by a pie) is seen in one episode, and her voice is heard in other episodes.
- F. C. Green, "Some Marginal Notes on Eighteenth-Century French Comedy", In: Studies in Modern French Literature Garnet Rees, Eugène Vinaver (eds), pp. 133-37
- Wellington, Marie A., The Art of Voltaire's Theater: An Exploration of Possibility (Peter Lang Pub Inc, 1987), p. 176.
- Mahfouz, Safi Mahmoud (Summer 2012). "The Presence of Absence: Catalytic and Omnipresent Offstage Characters in Modern American Drama". Midwest Quarterly.
- Lawson, Mark. "Missing in action: meet the invisible stars of contemporary drama." The Guardian. 8 April 2015.
- Act II, Scene II
- "Behind The Couch: The Making of Frasier", DVD Extra, Season 1
- Byrd, Robert E. Jr. Unseen Characters in Selected Plays of Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee (Dissertations, Academic, 1998).
- Ade, George. "Introducing "Nettie"; Who Is the Leading But Unseen Character in a New Princess Playlet", The New York Times (6 December 1914): Drama Music Real Estate Business Financial, pg. xx2
- Wellington, Marie A. The Art of Voltaire's Theater: An Exploration of Possibility (Peter Lang Pub Inc, 1987), p. 176; ISBN 0820404837
- Gray, Henry David. "Romeo Rosaline, and Juliet". Modern Language Notes 29.7 (Nov 1914): 209-212.
- Michael Miller (27 September 2013). "'Romeo and Juliet' meets Jeff Buckley in 'The Last Goodbye'". Los Angeles Times. accessed 16 May 2014.
- "The Women". Internet Broadway Database. Retrieved 21 September 2013.
- Goldstein, Malcolm (2007). "The Women". The Columbia Encyclopedia of Modern Drama, Volume 2. Columbia University Press. p. 1489. ISBN 978-0-231-14032-4.
- Bennett, Michael. Reassessing the Theatre of the Absurd: Camus, Beckett, Ionesco, Genet, and Pinter. Palgrave Macmillan (2011), p. 27; ISBN 9780230118829
- Styan, John L. (1960). The Elements of Drama. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. p. 209. ISBN 0-521-09201-9.
- Three Sisters Act 4, Julius West's translation: "NATASHA: Mihail Ivanitch Protopopov will sit with little Sophie, and Andrei Sergeyevitch can take little Bobby out. ... [Stage direction] ANDREY wheels out the perambulator in which BOBBY is sitting."
- "'Er indoors' enters the lexicon", independent.co.uk, 31 August 1992; accessed 15 May 2014.
- "In praise of … silent Archers characters", The Herald, Glasgow, 25 March 2011; accessed 9 November 2014
- "Crazy Rhoda Zimmerman" profile, mentalfloss.com; accessed July 29, 2016.
- Profile of Columbo, museum.tv; accessed 16 May 2014.
- "Kate Loves a Mystery". Retrieved May 14, 2016.
- "Mrs. Columbo Revealed!". Retrieved July 29, 2016.
- Lars Lindstrom reference on "Famous television characters we never actually saw", mentalfloss.com; accessed 15 May 2014.
- Reference to unseen Seinfeld character "Bob Sacamano", ugo.com; accessed 15 May 2014.
- "Famous television characters we never actually saw", mentalfloss.com; accessed 15 May 2014.
- Pierce, Scott. "Maris is missing in another great episode of Frasier." Deseret News. 28 November 1995
- LaScala, Marisa. "11 famous television characters we never actually saw." Mental Floss. 15 November 2015
- Hines, Ree. "Top favorite TV characters that no one ever played." NBC Today. 2013
- Endrst, James. "These TV Series Stars Are Out of Sight : Television: What do Maris, Charlie Townsend, Carlton the Doorman and Columbo's 'missus' have in common? They're some unseen characters on the small screen." Los Angeles Times. 12 December 1995
- Matheson, Whitney. "Some things onscreen are best left unseen." USA Today. 22 March 2005
- Dawidziak, Mark. "'Big Bang Theory's' Mrs. Wolowitz is the latest in a long line of enigmatic invisible TV characters." Cleveland Plain Dealer. 7 December 2012