An unseen character in theatre, comics, film, or television, or silent character in radio, is a character referred to but not directly known to the audience, but who advances the action of the plot in a significant way, and whose absence enhances their effect on the plot. The concept does not apply to the non-visual medium of literature, where all characters are unseen by the reader.
The portrayal of an unseen character may vary depending on the form of media. In visual media such as film, stage or television, an unseen character may sometimes be partially depicted as body parts or an offscreen voice, but is still considered unseen as long as their face is never revealed.
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.
- Al Capp introduced Lena the Hyena in June 1946 as an invisible character in the Li'l Abner newspaper strip. She was described as "the world's ugliest woman". Characters always reacted in fright when they saw her or an image of her but readers couldn't see her because she was hidden behind objects or out of frame. Eventually Capp organized a contest in which readers could send in their own graphic interpretations of what she might look like. The winner was cartoonist Basil Wolverton, whose design was first shown in the 21 October 1946 strip.
- In Merho's comics series De Kiekeboes Mevrouw Stokvis, a friend of Moemoe Kiekeboe, is always mentioned or referred to, but has never actually been seen in the series.
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 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.
- 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.
- The titular character in Mike Leigh's play Abigail's Party, the 15-year-old daughter of Beverly and Laurence Moss, is attending a party next door to the events portrayed in the play, and is never seen.
UK television and radio
- Dad's Army: Mrs Elizabeth Mainwaring, the wife of Captain Mainwaring, is never seen with the exception of the episode A Soldier's Farewell when her great weight in the bunk above Captain Mainwaring's causes her mattress to sag into camera shot.
- Minder: Arthur Daley's wife, referred to only as "'Er Indoors", is never seen or heard, but often quoted.
- In Keeping Up Appearances, Hyacinth Bucket has a phone conversation in each episode with her son Sheridan, who has moved out and is attending college. A photograph of a young boy meant to depict Sheridan in childhood appears in the opening credits, but the character is never seen as an adult. The running gag in these conversations is that Hyacinth remains persistently oblivious to all the evidence that her son is gay.
- 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".
- Throughout the entire 18-year run of Heartbeat, PC Alf Ventress refers to his wife Mrs. Ventress, but she is neither seen nor is her first name ever revealed.
- On the mystery drama Columbo, Lieutenant Columbo often describes his wife in detail but she is never seen, heard, or otherwise portrayed in the series. A short-lived, unsuccessful spin-off series Mrs. Columbo was created in 1979 after Columbo had ended its run, but Lieutenant Columbo never appeared. Mrs. Columbo, as played by Kate Mulgrew, was named Kate (although Lieutenant Columbo's wife in Columbo was never given a name). The series gradually severed all ties with the original detective series. Both the series and the character herself were renamed in an attempt to change direction, but this did not help the 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 Rhoda, Carlton, the doorman in Rhoda Morgenstern's apartment building, is often heard on the intercom (voiced by Lorenzo Music) but almost never seen – only his arm would occasionally appear from doors and he was once shown dancing and conversing while wearing a gorilla mask. After Rhoda ended its run, Carlton was featured as an animated character in the 1980 spin-off special Carlton Your Doorman. Once again voiced by Music, Carlton is shown as a young man with shoulder-length blond hair and mustache.
- 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. George Costanza also spent some time working for George Steinbrenner, the owner of the New York Yankees; however, Steinbrenner (as portrayed by series co-creator Larry David) was only ever shown as the back of his head in his office chair, and his face was never seen on camera.
- 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.
- In Charlie's Angels, the titular Charlie Townsend, the owner of the detective agency that employed the series leads, was never seen, and was portrayed solely as a voice (provided by actor John Forsythe) heard on a speakerphone.
- Vera Peterson from Cheers and Maris Crane from its spin-off 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. Her voice was provided by Bernadette Birkett, the real-life wife of George Wendt who portrayed Norm Peterson, leading Wendt to comment that he never personally wondered what Vera looked like. Maris is also seen as a silhouette.
- Stan Walker, the wealthy husband of Karen Walker on Will & Grace, has been depicted on screen only as hands and feet. Karen and Stan have divorced twice over the show's run, once after Stan faked his own death, leading the website CollegeHumor to label him as the one unseen character who "arguably drives the plot more than any other unseen character on a TV show."
- Mahfouz, Safi Mahmoud (22 June 2012). "The Presence of Absence: Catalytic and Omnipresent Offstage Characters in Modern American Drama.(Critical essay)". The Midwest Quarterly. Pittsburg State University - Midwest Quarterly. 53 (4): 392(18). ISSN 0026-3451. Retrieved 8 August 2016.
- Gray, Henry David (November 1914). "Romeo, Rosaline, and Juliet". Modern Language Notes. 29 (7): 209–212. doi:10.2307/2916173. Retrieved 4 February 2018.
- Lawson, Mark (8 April 2015). "Missing in action: meet the invisible stars of contemporary drama". The Guardian. Trinity Mirror. Retrieved 4 February 2018.
- Frederick Charles Green (1961). "Some Marginal Notes on Eighteenth-Century French Comedy". In Jones, Percy Mansell; Austin, L. J.; Reed, Garnet; Vinaver, Eugéne (eds.). Studies in Modern French Literature. Manchester: Manchester University Press. pp. 133–137. Retrieved 4 February 2018.
The invisible character may best be defined as a character who, although never shown to the audience, nevertheless influences the action of the play.
- Poquelin, Jean-Baptiste (1664). . Tartuffe or the Hypocrite. Translated by Curtis Hidden Page – via Wikisource.
- Barbour, Jon (Producer); Khammar, Gary (Producer) (24 November 2003). Behind the Couch: The Making of 'Frasier' (DVD). Season 1. Paramount Home Entertainment.
- Byrd, Robert E. Jr. (1998). "Unseen characters in selected plays of Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee". Dissertation Abstracts International. New York: New York University. 58 (12A): 4497.
- Ade, George (6 December 1914). "Introducing "Nettie"; Who Is the Leading But Unseen Character in a New Princess Playlet". The New York Times.
- Wellington, Marie (1987). The Art of Voltaire's Theater: An Exploration of Possibility. New York: Lang. p. 176. ISBN 9780820404837.
- Miller, Michael (27 September 2013). "'Romeo and Juliet' meets Jeff Buckley in 'The Last Goodbye'". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 16 May 2014.
- "The Women". Internet Broadway Database. Retrieved 21 September 2013.
- Goldstein, Malcolm (2007). "The Women". In Cody, Gabrielle H.; Sprinchorn, Evert (eds.). The Columbia Encyclopedia of Modern Drama. 2. New York, NY: Columbia University Press. p. 1489. ISBN 9780231144247.
- Bennett, Michael Y. (2011). "The Parable of Estragon's Struggle with the Boot in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot". Reassessing the Theatre of the Absurd: Camus, Beckett, Ionesco, Genet, and Pinter. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 27. doi:10.1057/9780230118829. ISBN 9780230118829. Retrieved 4 February 2018.
- Styan, John L. (1960). "The Meaning of the Play as a Whole". The Elements of Drama. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 209. ISBN 9780521092012.
- Chekhov, Anton (1916). "Act IV". The Three Sisters. Translated by Julius West – via Wikisource.
NATASHA: Mihail Ivanitch Protopopov will sit with little Sophie, and Andrey Sergeyevitch can take little Bobby out. […] [Stage direction] ANDREY wheels out the perambulator in which BOBBY is sitting.
- Lawson, Mark (8 April 2015). "Missing in action: meet the invisible stars of contemporary drama". The Guardian. Retrieved 8 March 2019.
- From Twin Peaks' Diane to Mrs Columbo: TV's 10 greatest unseen characters - The Daily Telegraph 2 March 2018
- "Top 30 Characters You Never See: out of sight, but in your mind". The Independent, February 16, 2015.
- "'Er indoors enters the lexicon". The Independent. 30 August 1992. Retrieved 15 May 2014.
- Cunningham, Jennifer (25 March 2011). "In praise of … silent Archers characters". The Herald. Glasgow: Herald & Times Group. Archived from the original on 28 December 2014. Retrieved 9 November 2014.
- "Profile of Columbo". Encyclopedia of Television. The Museum of Broadcast Communications. Archived from the original on 3 March 2016. Retrieved 16 May 2014.
- NME Picture Desk (14 June 2016). "The 25 Best TV Characters You Never See On Screen - NME". NME. Retrieved 4 February 2018.
- "Kate Loves a Mystery". Retrieved May 14, 2016.
- "Mrs. Columbo Revealed!". Retrieved July 29, 2016.
- Lascala, Marisa (25 November 2015). "11 Famous TV Characters We Never Actually Saw". Mental Floss. Retrieved 15 May 2014.
- Macauley, Marnie (29 October 2018). "10 Legendary TV Characters We've Never Seen". Top TENZ. Retrieved 4 October 2014.
- Fitzpatrick, Kevin (8 December 2010). "TV's Best Characters (That You're Not Allowed To See)". UGO. IGN Entertainment. p. 2. Archived from the original on 17 May 2014. Retrieved 15 May 2014.
- "12 Television Characters We Never See (Even Though They Were On TV)". CollegeHumor, July 1, 2009.
- "The 25 Best TV Characters You Never See On Screen". NME, June 14, 2016.
- Pierce, Scott D. (28 November 1995). "Maris is missing in another great episode of 'Frasier'". Deseret News.
Maris Crane is missing! Actually, Maris Crane has always been missing. The thin and Caucasian wife of Dr. Niles Crane (David Hyde Pierce) has never actually been seen on "Frasier" - although she's been a frequent presence on the show. And the unseen Maris plays a major part in a don't-miss episode of this excellent, Emmy-winning comedy.
- Hines, Ree (5 January 2009). "Favorite TV characters that no one ever played". NBC TODAY. NBCUniversal. Retrieved 4 February 2018.
- Endrst, James (12 December 1995). "These TV Series Stars Are Out of Sight". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 4 February 2018.
Like so many of TV's unseen stars, Maris is one of our most beloved characters, someone we're free to color in the way we choose, a figure who adds mystery, imagination, an X-factor to the show.
- Matheson, Whitney (22 March 2005). "Some things onscreen are best left unseen". USA Today. Retrieved 4 February 2018.
- Dawidziak, Mark (7 December 2012). "'Big Bang Theory's' Mrs. Wolowitz is the latest in a long line of enigmatic invisible TV characters". cleveland.com. Advance Ohio. Retrieved 4 February 2018.