11/04/2011 06:32 pm ET Updated Jan 04, 2012

Theatre and the Persistence of Memory

When I cast my mind back to the last week of October, there is one fact that stands out. In Spain there was Guernica, but in my life there were memory plays. Well, they are not all explicitly memory plays like the allusions I've just made (extra points if you can name both), but they all deal with the topic of memory. Because of the specific nature of theatre, memory is one of our favorite and most useful currencies. Having seen the original Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie is an intangible possession that many would envy, myself included. Yet as Tennessee Williams showed us back then, and as playwrights like Brian Friel, David Bar Katz and Wendy Beckett show us now, our memory is all we have, but it is often not reliable, accurate or "truthful" because we are not perfect receptors or processors.

Since we all have memories, the topic is certainly universal. Yet each of these three playwrights, and their currently running productions of these memory-themed plays, are doing something very different in terms of both plot and style. Let's look at how these plays can help us think about our own memories, as I now insert myself and my memory into the picture, which means observing the subject thrice removed. Cue mood lighting...

Brian Friel's 1990 play Dancing at Lughnasa is the most "classic" memory play of the three that we will be discussing. The current production at the Irish Repertory Theatre does an excellent job of staging the play so that the narrator, Michael, is both outside and inside of the story. He is recounting his memories as a child in his house in the fictional town of Ballybeg in Ireland, yet he speaks the lines of himself as a young boy from outside of the playing space. He looks at his remembered relatives, but they reference an invisible child when they speak. Here memory is represented as fairly accurate, and we are to assume that though young Michael couldn't understand all of the implications of the circumstances around him, he still recalls what actually happened. Yet Friel seems more interested in how the meaning of memories changes as the characters and situations change over time. Friel stages the process by which our memories acquire significance in our own narratives, as he has Michael rupture the action to tell us what will become of the women on stage, after which we resume the story with a burden of knowledge.

Not all playwrights see our process of remembering as something useful. Labyrinth Theater company's production of David Bar Katz's The Atmosphere of Memory is a meditation on how we can fully construct memories that then replace any actual memories. Through the use of objects which are generally considered truthful "evidence," Bar Katz reveals the power of our ego, and its ability to help us rewrite our narratives. These rewritten narratives can influence the memories of other people and the rewritten memories are not always psychologically healthy improvements. Here the concept of "proving memory" becomes counter-productive because it leads you to believe that you can ever do such a thing.

Wendy Beckett's play, A Charity Case, is perhaps at the furthest remove from the topic of memory out of these three. Yet the play does concentrate on memory in a greater sense, something like meta-memory. Here we are no longer as concerned with the specific recollection of an individual, though the topic of adoption naturally brings up concerns of recognition, but rather deals will something like a blood-memory. As this play ponders the cycle of adoption, it leads one to wonder if remembering a traumatic event is positive or negative. Will remembering abuse lead you to abuse, or will it allow you to break the cycle? In this case memory is an unknown, something that might be lurking under the bed which we can't quite bring ourselves to investigate.

Obviously we are still interested in these issues as a culture, or we would not still be watching plays around the topic of memories and remembering. Of course, there is nostalgia involved, but that is too simple an answer. I think that it is a primal human fear to be unable to trust your own mind -- just look at urban legends about being falsely committed to an institution -- and our interactions with memory remind us of this fact constantly. We have no choice but to trust ourselves, but this also makes memory a perfect dramatic device: both the universal and the private. Yes, when I cast my mind back to the last week in October I see memory, all alone in the moonlight, trying to remember a time in September.