Me at first – couldn’t remember
Me and you talking – remember?
’bout Dick Hell, remember?
–fIREHOSE, “Me & You, Remembering”
Within the past year or so, I’ve noticed that my memory has begun to falter. I’ll be in the middle of a conversation and will completely forget somebody’s name: “That guy. You know. He directed 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Strangelove … Don’t tell me! I can’t believe this.” Or a word will suddenly elude me and I’ll just say the first substitute that comes to mind, usually a completely different word, though it may sound like the one I want, and once I say it, the right word is conjured, as if the wrong one were some incantation of memory: “When I was a music major, I played the … encomium. Euphonium! Euphonium. Baritone horn.” A friend who is an occupational therapist assured me that I was really describing a difficulty recalling names not remembering things, and I shouldn’t worry about it.
But there’s something about memory and recall—they’re so wrapped up with one’s identity and even one’s understanding of reality that it’s hard not to be at least a bit shaken, even if one recognizes what’s happening as a natural condition of aging, as I do. Part of the problem is that most of us fetishize the memory over the remembering. We mistake the memory as something real and the remembering as a faulty mechanism to get at it. The truth, however, is almost completely the opposite. Neurologists have discovered that every time we remember something, we alter our neural pathways so that what we’re remembering, with each consecutive remembrance, less and less resembles an objective picture of some actual moment in the past, whatever “the past” is.
This common mistaking of “memory” with “remembering” was once again brought to mind for me a couple of weeks ago when I attended the Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s production of Life and Times: Episode 1 at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Basically, the show is a musical or operetta of somebody remembering her life, from her earliest memories to, in this installment, approximately the third grade. It was an odd and ultimately inspiring experience. As I watched it, I thought of it as a “memory play,” a term I derived from Tennessee Williams’ classic drama The Glass Menagerie. But the more I reflected on what I’d seen and heard, the more I came to think of Life and Times as a “remembering play” instead.
In his stage directions for The Glass Menagerie, Williams describes what a “memory play” is: “The scene is memory and is therefore non-realistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart. The interior is therefore rather dim and poetic.” In other words, in The Glass Menagerie Williams is trying to capture the fluidity of memory, with its sketchy relation to real events, the way it serves our current fears or desires, or both. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen The Glass Menagerie performed this way. It’s possible that the productions I’ve seen thought they were capturing the “dim and poetic” unreality to which Williams referred, but to my eyes, they displayed a tired kind of realism whose harsh light burned through the gossamer of Williams’ play, making it seem slight and corny.
A difficulty lies in the very dramaturgy of The Glass Menagerie. While Tom narrates the story from some time after the events being dramatized, those events don’t unfold in a manner that suggests something being remembered. Instead, they have a conventional dramatic structure, moving in chronological order toward a conclusion that the architecture of the play sets up. The memory, then, is a thing of the past that can be contained and, at least in some sense, understood. The active dreamwork that Williams claims is essential to memory is missing. None of this is to say that there’s anything wrong with The Glass Menagerie. It’s just that the way its story unfolds encourages the kinds of wan productions the play often receives.
Arthur Miller came closer to capturing the oneiric surge of memory in Death of Salesman, a play that is roughly contemporaneous with The Glass Menagerie. With the working title The Inside of His Head, it’s clear that Miller wanted Death of a Salesman to capture the subjective reality of Willy Loman’s life. To do that, the play skitters between the past and the present, the former rupturing the latter, triggered by what is taking place in the autumn of Willy’s life. While hardly a work of surrealism, the structure of Death of a Salesman allows for productions that can lead audiences to question what’s real and what’s not. That’s because, unlike The Glass Menagerie, Miller’s play isn’t about memory so much as it’s about dreams and their interrelationship with what’s real.
Miller establishes the primacy of this interrelationship in his stage directions, before any action has occurred, describing the Loman house as a “small, fragile-seeming home. An air of the dream clings to the place, a dream rising out of reality.” But if the dream that clings to Willy’s home rises out of reality, it doesn’t take long to realize that the reality of his life rises from his dreams, warped by them into a miserable thing filled with bitterness and regret. Similarly, Willy’s memories rise out of reality, becoming entangled with the dreams from which reality grows, which in turn provides the seed bed for more dreams, reminding us how, per Williams, memory omits some details and exaggerates others, possibly leading audiences to doubt the objectivity of the scenes that Willy plays in his mind. Their truth lies mainly in what they tell us about the man remembering them. Still, it’s possible for audiences to forget the subjectivity of Willy’s remembrances. In fact, there’s much in the play to suggest that Miller wanted us to accept them as objective representations of the past in spite of all he does to muddy those waters. So even though the focus of Death of a Salesman is on Willy remembering the past, the past is still treated, as it is in The Glass Menagerie, as an objective thing that can be brought into the present for our scrutiny and reflection.
It would seem that to really get at its mercurial nature, memory—that stand-in for the objective truth of the past—should be banished from the stage. Rather, one would do better to stage the act of remembering, which is exactly what the Nature Theater of Oklahoma (NTO) do in their most recent work, Life and Times. The show is conceived as a ten-part, approximately twenty-four hour long, musical depicting the life of NTO member Kristin Worrall based on unedited transcripts of phone calls between her and cofounder of NTO Pavol Liska. By using a literal transcription of Worrall’s conversations, Life and Times shows us remembering with all its stops and starts, revisions and confusions, lacunae and continuities, analepses and prolepses, “umms” and “likes,” fact and fiction, shining a spotlight on the tenuous link between memory and some “real” past.
Though Worrall’s remembrances made up the text of the show, the NTO stressed that their show was as much, if not more, about the act of remembering than what was remembered by not having somebody represent Worrall. Had they done so, Worrall’s reminiscences would have been as locked in the past as Tom’s memories are in The Glass Menagerie, though in this case, the “truth” of the memories would be Wottrall remembering them. As someone having done something in the past, Wottrall would be inaccessible to us, even if Worrall herself were speaking or singing the words since she would not be the same person who spoke to Liska on the phone. Initially, at the beginning of Life and Times, it seemed an actor was standing in for Worrall, as one actress sang all of the dialogue for quite a long stretch of time. Then, a male actor took over, and soon numerous others sang Worrall’s words, and it became clear we were watching performers as performers who were not portraying somebody else.
Once it became clear that Life and Times was not representational, the words became unburdened of the weight of having to recreate past events and instead became a telling in present time, much like the rudimentary choreography that often consisted of the actors bobbing to the surprisingly catchy music, rooted in the presence of the music. To further emphasize the present over the past, parts of the performance were aleatoric: a company member sat in front of the stage holding up cards that informed the actors which choreography to perform. Actors also wore earphones so that the director, who stood behind the audience, could give them impromptu directions. These intrusions rendered the performance “script” dynamic, just as, by its very nature, performance is and just as the “text” of remembering is.
The remembrances in Life and Times were of mundane, homely details from a white, middle-class American life. Worrall mentioned just about every detail she could come up with during her phone conversation—some, like the funeral of her grandmother, were raised but never fleshed out (at least in the first part) as Worrall got lost in other details and narrative threads. Lasting just shy of three-and-a-half hours, the story of the first part of Life and Times was funny, touching, enthralling, and occasionally boring (which I don’t think is the sin that most do; I enjoy art that welcomes boredom more than I do art—or usually “entertainment”—that bores me by striving to keep boredom at bay).
What moved me most, though, was that, as the performers sang Worrall’s remembrances, I too began remembering things. They weren’t similar enough to Worrall’s memories that I was identifying with what Worrall was remembering. I identified with the act of remembering itself. For example, when Worrall remembered her seven great-aunts, all swooping in on her family at the time of her grandmother’s funeral, and how much she liked one of them in particular, I remembered my Great-Aunt Avis and her husband Fat, sitting on a couch in what seemed a small, dark living room, their evil cat Tuffet (was that really its name?) hiding deep under the furniture, hissing and scratching at us kids as many cats are wont to do. Avis worked as a clerk at one of those stores that bored me so much as a child—did it sell crafts? Clothing? I remember it being on a hill on Kaukauna’s south side with large windows and worn, hardwood floors. We always got clothes from her for Christmas, possibly secretly purchased by my mother, using Avis’ employee discount, Avis asked to say the gift was from her to hide from our stepfather how much my mom was spending on Christmas gifts, a typical ploy of hers …
Except the night I was at the theater, I’d remembered it differently. The details are already changing, as is to be expected. Memory is ephemeral, a thing manifested through the act of remembering, itself disappearing in its appearance, undoing through its doing, the perfect subject for theater, which moves in the same undulating fabric of reality and dream.