A Commitment to Memory

Theater of Dionysus, Parthenon, Greece. Photo by Vickie Bates.

I’m on the east coast this week, attending to important family matters, but while I’m here, I’ve also managed to snag tickets for tonight to the Broadway revival of Tom Stoppard’s play “Arcadia.”

“Arcadia” debuted at Lincoln Center in New York in 1995, with Billy Crudup and Blair Brown in the principle roles. Now, a decade-and-a-half later, Crudup takes the stage, this time playing an older academic rather than young-tutor-and-friend-of-Byron Septimus.

One of the joys of travel can be disconnecting from all of the devices and channels we’re plugged in to for so many hours of each day. It occurs to me that theater, like a live music or dance performance, is one of the few remaining mediums where the only recording device available is the human brain and the unique experience of each night’s performance during the run of the play is available only to a few hundred playgoers, with no ability for them or others to replay the event at a future date or when it’s convenient.

Committing a performance to memory has been – and I hope will continue to be – part of the tradition of theater since before the time of the Greek tragedies and comedies. It is also a commitment of another kind, on the part of the theater-goer, to preserve a performance, that cannot be shared in any other way except by word of mouth, to memory.

I grew up in Manhattan and have been attending plays since I was 4 years old (my mother was a member of a small, Off-Broadway theater company). I’ve seen “Raisin in the Sun” and “Godspell” in Washington, D.C., Stoppard and Coward in London, “The Gin Game” in Florida, “Brigadoon” in a remote New Hampshire outpost, and “An American Daughter,” “Rabbit Hole,” “The Real Thing,” “A Doll’s House,” “Proof,” and “Hamlet,” among others, on Broadway.

My recall isn’t perfect, but I have soliloquies and sermons, heated exchanges and witty repartee, missed lighting cues and sour bagpipes, tone of voice, grace of movement, ambience – parts of every single one of these performances since I was 4, all committed to memory.

What is it about those magical moments that allows us groundlings to retain them for so long without any benefit of rebroadcast or rewind? Why are they so important to us? And how do they inform who we are? Aside from the handful of people who attended these performances with us, who do we have to share the experience with – and does it matter whether we share what we’ve experienced? The medium and our response to it is so vastly different from Twitter as to make it feel from another planet and not just from another era.

When I saw Stoppard’s “The Real Thing” in London’s West End, it was staged with comfy, lived-in furniture – the set felt like home. The NYC revival staging had an austere, German Expressionistic coldness to it. I have distinctly different memories and feelings about each version.

It makes me a bit nervous about returning to “Arcadia” tonight. When I saw “Arcadia” in 1995, I literally swooned as I exited the theater (and not, as my friends would have it, just because I sat a few feet from Billy Crudup. I sat even closer to Crudup, a few years later, watching an experimental theater production of “Oedipus,” and I can assure you the outcome was not the same).

The ’95 production still rings in my memory, sometimes to the point of making it hard to sleep. It was comedy so divine, farce so well-executed, that when tragedy struck, it was a blow so unexpected that it knocked the air from your lungs. And to this day, I say to myself, “These are fictional characters.” Yet the devastation one feels is real. The questions the play asks – about our ability to ever really know and understand the past – aren’t merely academic, they’re personal and about people in our lives, as well as facts and circumstances, and they work on the mind and heart equally.

This is what great writing is all about – and theater – and it is something to celebrate and commit ourselves to.

Writing that inspired me this week:

“We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?”
~ Tom Stoppard, “Arcadia”