Yamomoto Baiitsu, The Shadow Dancers, ca. 1800s. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Andrew R. and Martha Holden Jennings Fund 1982.28. (Detail)

How delightful, the Theater of Shadows!—and yet, in the end, how serious and unforgiving. Even today, after so much has changed, I find it difficult to account for the turn in our lives, brought about by so innocent a pastime. Was it really so innocent? We embraced it for the sake of our children, we hurled ourselves willingly into the Theater of Shadows, but in that embrace, wasn’t there something for us as well? Shouldn’t we have warned ourselves to move more slowly? To yield, if we had to, less completely? Even then we must have sensed the uneasy nature of shadows—those creatures born of the sun, but rebelling against the light.

When I look back to that first performance, I’m astonished to recall a time before it all began. I was young, I was ambitious, my wife hummed as she slipped into her bathing suit. Our children laughed in the sun. We welcomed things, we and our friends, we seized whatever life had to offer, while at the same time we never felt the need to step outside certain unspoken bounds that struck us as natural and healthy. We knew a little about the Theater of Shadows, the way you do when you’re reading the morning paper while glancing at your watch. It had finished a run in New York and was making a three-day visit to our town. The one-man show, operated by someone from Rumania or Hungary, was said to be ideal for the whole family. The performance was to take place in the old Arts Building, used at that time by the local film society, by visiting lecturers, by actors reading plays at two podiums — by anyone who cared to rent space before an audience.

When we arrived, the stage was hidden behind its sagging dark-blue curtain. Most of the seats were taken. We smiled, we waved to friends, we settled the kids. Everyone continued to whisper as the lights grew dim. 

The curtain rose crookedly. On the half-dark stage stood what appeared to be a small theater, about the height of my shoulders, with a black curtain of its own, closed above a narrow proscenium. Slowly the black curtain-halves began to part, revealing a whitish rectangle that might have been paper. It was painted with a black scene showing a tree and a wall. 

Now the theater lights went out completely. In the dark you couldn’t hear a sound. From the depths of the small theater came a sudden glow that threw the screen into brilliant whiteness. A moment later two ink-black figures appeared, facing each other beneath the tree. The sharply outlined figures moved toward each other, moved away, while their arms and legs lifted and lowered, their heads leaned forward and tipped back. Could we make out the pale shadows of strings? From behind, a voice spoke a few words for each shadow in turn. Somewhere a tinkling music played. It was a drama of hopeless love, of repeated misunderstandings, with a comic beating or two, but the power of it all lay less in the story than in the sheer fact of the dark silhouettes moving in light, hidden and visible at the same time. The piece lasted eleven minutes. The whiteness of the screen faded away, and as we sat in darkness before the theater lights came on, we were aware of a hush that revealed not confusion or uncertainty but a kind of reverence, before we burst into fervent applause. 

Again the theater lights went out, and again a shadow-piece began, this time with a painted scene that showed a black house with two black steps. I remember nothing of the play except a moment when a silhouette leaped from the roof onto the back of a goat. Again the hush, followed by grateful applause. Four pieces were performed that evening, and when the final lights came on we rose from our seats and clapped with high-raised hands, we shouted our approval, we called for the hidden puppet-worker to come out and take his bow. 

Slowly the black curtains closed over the white screen. We heard a noise as of shaken paper. When the curtains parted, the screen was no longer there. In the empty rectangle appeared the head of a man with dark eyes, thin black hair combed to one side, and a drooping black mustache. High above, our dark-blue curtain came creaking down.

Did we sense that something had shifted in our lives? I suspect we simply opened ourselves to an enchantment we felt no need to understand. The next two evenings, people stood in line for three hours. Children were allowed to sit in the aisles. When the Theater of Shadows left to continue its run in the suburbs, our Town Board met. The rest is well known: the negotiations, the startling offer, the establishment of permanent residence, the building of a new theater.

Fads come and go. The Theater of Shadows stayed. One reason for its extraordinary success was the energy of the Shadow Master, as he came to be called, for he never performed the same piece twice. Night after night we witnessed new ingenuities of presentation. The figures, said to be of leather or wood, had always presented themselves in clear outline, illuminated from behind and thrown up against the translucent white screen, but one night a second pair of shadow-figures appeared, slightly blurred, behind the foreground silhouettes. We speculated that the second set of figures was being worked by a hidden assistant, at a distance behind the first set. The blurred look gave to the scene a new appearance of depth. Other innovations, which we found more difficult to explain, included shadowy spirits who appeared in the whiteness above the black figures, sometimes emerging from their heads or bodies. There were also effects of a kind that might be called realistic: the crumbling of a shadow-tower, the eruption of a volcano, the explosion of a mysterious box, whose separate parts could be seen rising into the air and slowly falling.

Such inventions drew us repeatedly to the Theater of Shadows, as if we couldn’t bear to miss a thing. They also began to draw people from nearby towns, who had heard stories of our theater and were eager to see for themselves. Not the least wonder of the Theater of Shadows was its success purely as a business venture. Especially in the summer, when our town has always attracted visitors to its upscale restaurants and wine bars, its spacious parks, its venues for visiting musicians and troupes of actors, the Theater of Shadows was forced to turn away long lines of people who had waited for hours and who were willing to pay outrageous prices for tickets hawked by young boys striding up and down the sidewalk, passing out circulars announcing the summer program.

But ingenuity and professional skill go only so far in explaining the dominance of the Theater of Shadows, at that time. Beneath or beyond the performances lay the fascination of the shadow-world itself, with its hiddenness, its refusal of color, its indifference to familiar effects of visual precision and detail. We who loved the brilliance of summer light, of sun burning on beach sand, we who loved to photograph our wives and children, to marvel at the beauty of faces, of tendrils of hair falling along a cheek—did we ever stop to wonder what it was that compelled us toward the shadow-world, which stood apart from the realm of sunlight while offering ungraspable seductions of its own?

I don’t mean that we withdrew at first from our usual pastimes. The Theater of Shadows was simply another pleasure, among many. And so we mowed our lawns, trimmed our bushes, organized birthday parties and trips to the beach, coached our baseball teams, went ice-skating in winter, and every night took our families to the Theater of Shadows, where we fell under a spell we never thought to question.

I suppose it was inevitable for a rival theater to appear. Demand for the Theater of Shadows far exceeded its capacity; people grew tired of learning that a performance had been sold out weeks in advance. The Rainbow Theater opened to a full house and offered a striking innovation: its shadows contained vivid details in red and blue and green. Sometimes an entire shadow was itself a single brilliant color. Most of us attended a performance or two out of curiosity but soon found ourselves back at the Theater of Shadows. The Rainbow Theater, we felt, was amateurish in its art of manipulating figures and embarrassing in its reliance on stories that strove solely for exaggerated effects. But what truly spelled the end of the Rainbow Theater was the fact of color itself. After the shock, not without its pleasures, of red or green or blue glowing against the white, the presence of color seemed only an intrusion of the sunlit world, and we found ourselves longing for the deeper, quieter, more dangerous attractions of pure shadow.

The rival theater held on for a couple of months before vanishing forever. Its significance lay less in its memorable failure than in its very existence: it was our first revelation that we wanted more of what we already had. For didn’t we carry the Theater of Shadows home with us night after night, didn’t we dream of shadow people and shadow countrysides, didn’t we yearn for more, always more, as if, in some way, the familiar world was no longer enough?

A few weeks after the closing of the Rainbow Theater, an event in a different part of town drew our attention. In an abandoned church that had been purchased and improved by a group of civic-minded businessmen who rented space for cultural activities, actors from the area regularly auditioned to put on two or three plays a year. One night the director announced to the half-empty rows of seats that an experiment was about to take place. The curtain parted to reveal a second curtain, plain white, stretched tight across the entire stage. As the theater lights went out, a brightness appeared behind the white curtain. The actors performed the play in silhouette, with no other changes. The event was attacked, praised, mocked, cheered; in the next two weeks the house was packed. Such was the beginning of the Company of Shadows. If in one sense it was an adult rival of the Theater of Shadows, in another it simply went its own way, since its actors weren’t jointed puppets operated by a hidden master but real people performing familiar full-length plays. It’s also true that the Company of Shadows quickly grew impatient with traditional forms and began producing shadow dramas of its own, with long stretches of silence and with scenes shaped to the demands of silhouette.

If the failed Rainbow Theater and the successful Company of Shadows were public signs of the widening influence of the Theater of Shadows, there were private indications as well. In basement playrooms, in garages and attics, in backyards at night, white sheets and translucent white screens had begun to appear, behind which teenagers would experiment with shadow-performances presented to friends and family seated on couches, rugs, or folding chairs. High school seniors with training in theater were especially devoted to these events, often adding musical embellishments by friends who played drums or guitar. Soon children at birthday parties or in their rooms at night began throwing themselves into spirited imitations. We watched as ping-pong tables standing in cellars and garages were folded up and left to lean against walls, as badminton nets stretching across lawns were wrapped around their poles and put safely away. Such variations in the history of family games are difficult to trace and shouldn’t be overstated. We still played backyard baseball, watched TV, leaned over board games and card games at the cleared-off kitchen table. But most of us who lived through those times remember a sense of difference, as of some change in the weather. 

The Shadow Parties sprang directly from these amateur performances. College students, bored after a day at the beach, appear to have started the trend. In a basement playroom at night, a sheet or translucent screen was hung, behind which shone a bright lamp. A few couples danced on the illuminated side of the screen. On the dark side, partygoers seated on pillows watched the silhouettes, some sharp and some blurred, while talking among themselves and waiting their turn. The dancers, aware of being watched, and equally aware of being hidden, liked to imagine their silhouettes moving voluptuously against the whiteness. Sometimes, aroused by the music, by punch spiked with gin, above all by the sense of acting a part, the dancers would slowly begin to remove their shirts and blouses, at last flinging them into the air to wild applause. Girls thrust out their breasts and buttocks, boys gyrated their hips. In the dark, friends watched the shadows of friends act out secret desires. It was at the Shadow Parties that the eroticism of shadows first became evident, though exactly what was so alluring about those shapes, exactly what drew the attention of couples in the dark, who were touching each other’s bodies with hands and mouths but kept pulling away to watch the shadowy presences moving against the whiteness, no one could say.

At about this time we first began to hear talk of shadow practices in the bedrooms of our town. Here and there a married couple, perhaps feeling a slight loss of excitement, perhaps aroused in some fashion by the dark figures in the Company of Shadows, would set up in the bedroom a translucent screen of linen or oiled paper, behind which husband or wife would slowly undress. The disrobing partner, who was silhouetted against the whiteness, moved with unnatural deliberation, sometimes pausing to pose against the screen, and was said to cause in the watching spouse such deep surges of desire that the lovemaking which followed was like nothing that had happened before. In one variation, a light was placed on each side of the screen, so that the shadow-undressing of one partner could be succeeded by the other, the first now seated in darkness as the second performed behind the white divider. 

Sometimes, moved by irresistible longing, a watcher would approach the screen and start to touch the shadow, an act invariably accompanied by disillusionment and a kind of despair. For some, this was the first experience of what came to be called the cruelty of shadows. In a much talked about play, The Cruelty of Shadows, the Company portrayed its own version of the remoteness of shadow: as actors performed behind the tight-stretched white curtain, a male actor concealed in the audience began to stare with terrible yearning at one of the shadow-actresses, with her waves of hair and her long, flowing arms. At the height of the performance, the man rushed up onto the proscenium and hurled himself against the white curtain, which came down with loud ripping sounds, exposing to the audience a view of actors staring open-mouthed in alarm, a harshly bright light, and a cellist seated on a stool, gripping the neck of her cello as she held the bow motionless in mid-stroke.

The migration of shadows to the bedrooms of our town was only one manifestation of their increasing presence among us. Stimulated by the Theater of Shadows, people had begun looking at their familiar surroundings in a new way. Some took to painting their houses deep shades of black, set off by white shutters and white chimneys. Beds of black calla lilies, black roses, and black orchids appeared. In green backyards, you could see the shiny black swing-sets, the black Wiffle Ball bats, the sandboxes filled with black sand. One maple-lined street became famous among us when every one of its houses was painted black, with neat white trim. Black flagstone paths led up to white-and-black porches.

It was during this move toward decorative darkness that a local business known as Crown Glass, which supplied us with panes for our windows and glass panels for our doors, began to advertise a product called Shadow Glass. This smoky glass was said not simply to darken the brightness of objects but to drain color from them as well. Here and there, in the houses of our town, a darker window would appear in a row of windows overlooking the front lawn. These early shadow-panes were widely criticized for not performing as advertised—colors grew dim but failed to disappear. In response, Crown Glass produced a new, improved version of Shadow Glass, which did in fact remove every trace of color and permitted the viewer to see nothing but black objects standing or moving in grayish light. The result was a distant and not very convincing variation of the Theater of Shadows, but our interest was awakened, and now kitchens, bedrooms, playrooms, and porches began replacing traditional glass with darkened panes. Soon downtown storefronts began to experiment with Shadow Glass, led by Keene’s Drugstore and quickly followed by restaurants, clothing shops, and business offices. The new glass worked in both directions: people passing a house or coffee shop fitted with Shadow Glass saw dark figures moving within.

As improved Shadow Glass began to spread among the windows of our town, we became aware of another product sold in the hardware store out by the strip mall. Packaged in individual rolls like aluminum foil, Shadow Wrap was a dark, translucent plastic sheeting that prevented colors from showing through. It was intended for vases, scenic lampshades, framed paintings, and other indoor objects, as well as for outer parts of the house like porch posts and chimneys, though some people tried wrapping it around tree trunks, telephone poles, and corner mailboxes, where it worked for a while before coming undone and giving things a wrinkled look. 

Shadow Wrap was finally an unsatisfactory product, which remained all too visible and was significant only as a clumsy expression of our desire. A far more successful item was Shadow Shellac, a colorless liquid that could be brushed directly onto any surface and immediately turned the color to shadow. Houses and garages coated with Shadow Shellac soon lined many streets of our town, which even in bright sunshine took on the look of a grainy movie filmed in black and white. The new substance worked also on leaves, bark, and grass. For a while it became fashionable for high school football players to paint Shadow Shellac onto their bare biceps and forearms; cheerleaders darkened their cheeks and throats. One day a tall, thin senior, who spoke very little and always kept to himself, came to school with his face and hands and clothes coated entirely with Shadow Shellac, so that he resembled a phantom. Shouts and applause erupted in the corridors, before he was sent home with a note.

This brief vogue for shadowing the body was only another sign of our growing impatience with the old look. First in high school and then in lower grades, students had begun dressing in shades of black: black blouses, black skirts, black button-downs, black cords, black shoes. Blonde-haired girls, once highly popular but now embarrassed by their look, sought out powerful jet-black dyes, often adding a stylish streak of white. One morning a well-liked basketball player came to school on black metal crutches, his foot raised in a black cast. Friends signed their names in white ink. 

The fashion for darkness spread quickly, in all directions—to young couples starting out, to patients in our elder-care facility, to waitresses, bank tellers, and highway maintenance crews. Babies wore soft black diapers. People blew their noses into black tissues. On summer afternoons, in our lively downtown, you would see crowds in black straw hats and black polo shirts and long black dresses moving past store windows darkened by Shadow Glass, while in the outdoor cafes, at ebony tables, under black awnings that cast a deep shade, customers sipped dark drinks in smoky glasses. 

Meanwhile, at the beach, girls in Shadow Sunglasses strolled along the water’s edge, displaying the latest in nylon Shadow Wear, which covered their bodies in glistening black from neck to toe.

And yet this gradual draining of color from our town, exhilarating though it may have been, was accompanied always by a sense of dissatisfaction. Despite our clever inventions, we knew that our dimming streets and darkening bodies remained dense and substantial, without the impalpable mystery of shadow. Sometimes it seemed to us that what we wanted wasn’t so much the absence of color as the blurring of hardness and definition. The sunlit world oppressed us with its sharp lines and edges, its brilliant details, which seemed to us nothing but knife-blades piercing our skin. It was as if what we longed for was release from the fierce precision of things.

Driven by such moods, we sought out forms of weather we had usually complained about, in the days before the Theater of Shadows. We became celebrants of fog, especially the dense, billowy fog that came rolling in from the Sound, causing cars to pull over and streetlights to tremble like dim candle-flames. We walked in our fog with outspread arms, watching our fingers fade into ripples. One evening the Company of Shadows surprised us with a fog machine. It produced new undulations behind the white curtain and slowly spread a vapory grayness into the audience itself, so that you could no longer make out your neighbor. But such impressions could take us only so far, and we soon found ourselves searching for less obvious effects. Drizzles under dark gray skies offered their own quiet attractions, though some preferred the drama of sudden thunderstorms, with rain slashing against windows as shadowy trees bent low in high winds. In white blizzards, when snow came blowing and swirling down, we liked to see shadow-people making their way along sidewalks, like background figures in the Theater of Shadows.

If we found much to admire in these natural performances, we also knew that they couldn’t satisfy us for long. We who were devotees of the Theater of Shadows, we who had been present from the beginning, craved nothing less than an uninterrupted world of shadow, as if the truth of things lay only there. In our beds at night, we lay awake dreaming of dim streets barely visible in the dark light of streetlamps coated with Shadow Shellac. We imagined ghostly citizens moving through a world of blacks and grays, shadows sliding into shadows. A few enthusiasts, in the extremity of their longing, sought to transform themselves into shadow-beings by extravagant methods that were bound to fail. Some replaced the inner walls of their houses with silk hangings that encouraged the sensation of passing through solid walls. Others numbed their fingertips with the new Shadow Spray in order to deaden the sense of touch and create an illusion of immateriality. Such actions, most of us believed, represented a serious misunderstanding, for they undermined the feeling of distance that was an essential feature of the Theater of Shadows.

The temporary turn to Nature, the misguided embrace of literal shadowhood, an awareness of minor alterations in our behavior—all this alerted us to other, more lasting changes. In our impatience with the old way of seeing, we had arrived at inner shiftings. An inclination toward daydreaming became noticeable among us. Hard-headed businessmen who prided themselves on habits of discipline would look up from their work and gaze for a long time at a mark on the wall that resembled a branch or a river. One afternoon a workman repairing a slate roof fell and broke his leg; in the hospital he reported that he had been “thinking of other things.” The owner of a downtown hat shop wandered out the back door and across town into a park, where she sat down in the shade of a tree while customers kept pressing a silver bell on the counter.

Such changes in our way of looking at the world began creeping into our public institutions. College graduates hired by the local paper to report on mundane incidents, like traffic accidents and minor arrests, were urged to suppress the merely factual and develop the personal and impressionistic. The Senior Center offered a popular art class in the construction of deliberately incomplete work: fragments of ceramic figurines, half-finished drawings of faces, stories that broke off in the middle of a scene. In high school English classes, teachers encouraged students to avoid the tedious method of careful analysis in favor of a looser, more intuitive engagement. Some teachers attacked the old rules of grammar as forms of constriction, intended to conceal the free-flowing nature of language. Others questioned language itself, which was said to be nothing but a noisy invasion of the country of silence.

Broader intellectual disciplines, such as history and religion, were also succumbing to the new spirit of shadow. The director of the Historical Society gave a well-attended lecture in which he described the town’s past as a time of few lights and deeper darkness, when many shadows inhabited the house. The growth of vivid modern lighting, he said, had destroyed our intimacy with shadows and damaged our ability to comprehend the past. Meanwhile the minister of a new church that met in the basement of a retired policeman preached to his congregation about the New Heaven and the New Hell. The New Heaven was a realm of whiteness inhabited by shadowy spirits. The New Hell was a world that resembled a sunny afternoon in an American town, with its sharp outlines and vivid colors, its relentless pressure of hard-edged detail.

Today, as advances in technology permit images of the outer world to rush in on us at every moment, groups of concerned citizens have searched for ways to protect our town against a return to the past, with its surfeit of sunlight, its assault of color. One group has developed a Shadow App, which turns all images on mobile devices into silhouettes against a white background. 

We watch them, the new children. They seem quieter, more contemplative, than we remember ours to have been. They rarely attend performances of the Theater of Shadows, preferring to spend six or seven hours a day absorbed in the new shadow-games, which they follow on their laptops and smartphones. The new children live indoors. In day-long dusk, behind windows of Shadow Glass, they play alone. The new games have complex rules and can last for months at a time. The new children are pale. They are growing dim. We see their faces flickering in screen-light.

Some say that our passion for shadows has gone too far. They point to our darkened streets, the rows of houses and trees that are barely visible, our sidewalks vanishing into blackness. Whole neighborhoods, they warn, are slowly disappearing. They propose shutting down the Theater of Shadows and transforming the building into a fitness center. They urge us to replace our windows with the old glass and let the sun back in. Our town, they say, is in danger of fading away.

Those of us who defend the art of shadow believe that a new town is emerging, that the visible world is itself a form of deception.

Let others decide such questions. We know only that we no longer see the world in the old way. I’m not now speaking of our Shadow Glass, our streets artificially darkened by Shadow Shellac, our tastes in weather and entertainment. Such things never last. No, I’m speaking of a street untouched by our arrangements. The house-fronts brilliant in sunlight, the sharp blades of light-green and dark-green grass, the edges of maple leaves precise against the blue sky—we acknowledge them, we know they invite our full attention. But what draws us is the half of the rose petal closed in shadow, the blurred grass dissolving in the shade of a garage, the dark figure seated on a porch behind the blazing white posts. We who have been marked by the Theater of Shadows search only for things that are scarcely there. Is it possible that our bright town is only the shadow of a town we have never seen? What stirs us is the hint, the suggestion. We are connoisseurs of intimation, sensualists of the half-seen. Sometimes we long for that other world, for your world, when sunlight on a beach in summer was enough. For then our eyes were unopened, but now we see. We may remember it, the old way, but we’re no longer what we were. Look! The lights are growing dim, the black curtains have begun to part. The time for talking is over. Let the new world begin.

Steven Millhauser

Steven Millhauser is the author of numerous works of fiction, including Martin Dressler, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1997, and, more recently, We Others: New and Selected Stories, winner of The Story Prize and a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. His work has been translated into 15 languages, and his story “Eisenheim the Illusionist” was the basis of the 2006 film The Illusionist. He teaches at Skidmore College and lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.

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