- Memory in Play: From Aeschylus to Sam Shepard
"Even memory has a history" (Terdiman 3). These words open Richard Terdiman's Present Past: Modernity and the Memory Crisis. They also introduce the theme that drives Attilio Favorini's exciting Memory in Play: From Aeschylus to Sam Shepard. Aptly titled, Memory in Play is a study of how remembrance has infused character construction in Western drama since the Greeks, and, inversely, how memoried characters reflect the mnemonic discourses of their culture. "Memory" thus refers to the ways societies remember and to how these "ways" change. It also refers to how the self is revealed in drama along the memoried coordinates of its period. Memory in Play is a work of theatre history in which memory is viewed as "a system property of dramatic construction" (ix). That is, memory works in the same way that gender or ethnicity does: as a material of dramatic construction that reflects, often unconsciously, the norms and ideologies of its time and place.
Memory studies, as Favorini demonstrates throughout, have recently moved to the forefront of cultural as well as cognitive research. Indeed, since the 1990s, with millennium's end, a rush of studies have tried to come to terms with the remains of the past, and especially with how we remember what we remember, and with what memory means for the nation, the community, the self - and the arts, including the theatre arts.
What is unique about Favorini's book is its audacious breadth. I refer not only to the two and a half millennia of dramatic history covered, but also to the two and a half millennia of thinking about memory - metaphorically, historically, theoretically, philosophically, scientifically - that creates a literature parallel to the plays and is surveyed and analysed alongside them. Favorini unfolds memory discourses from Aristotle to the neurobiologist Gerald Edelman by way of Giordano Bruno, Darwin, Freud, William James, Henri Bergson, Maurice Halbwachs, Pierre Nora, Richard [End Page 270] Dawkins, and a plethora of others. He applies these in his always astute and enjoyable close readings, which demonstrate dramatic texts to be memory-machines. The confluence of memory theory and dramatic analysis, as well as the richness and ease of the telling, set this book apart.
Given the enormity of his project, Favorini leans judiciously on previous research of the areas he explores, offering a précis of numerous books and articles and discussing an enormous range of plays. Within the first forty-seven pages of the book, Favorini sets out his project; gives brief, incisive introductions to the major memory discourses of ancient Greece (Mnemosyne and Lesmosyne: remembering and forgetting), the Middle Ages (Memoria), and the Renaissance; offers an extraordinary reading of the dialectic memory relations between Shakespeare's Hamlet and Pericles within the Renaissance models of memory; and discusses the decline of memory discourse in both theory and drama from the Restoration period through Romanticism.
Chapter two, "Drama and the Memory of History," focuses on the evolution of historical drama from Aeschylus to the documentary theatre, beginning with a beautifully rendered reading of The Persians as the earliest extant Western historical play. His discussion of documentary drama, throughout the book, is especially perceptive (Favorini is himself the author of a number of quasi-documentary plays). The late nineteenth century and its memory theorists, including Freud, is the subject of chapter three. Here, plays by canonic playwrights - Ibsen, Strindberg, Pirandello, O'Neill, and Wilder - are discussed in terms of individual and public memory constructs. Chapter four moves to memory plays proper and to their various narrative paradigms: the use of a remembering narrator (e.g., The Glass Menagerie); of psychotically disturbed memory (e.g., Willy Loman); and of amnesia, conflation, and recovered memory.
Chapter five takes us to the drama of the late twentieth century in which narrative paradigms dissipate into what Favorini calls "mnemic signs," that is, signs of unconscious memory. This category includes Beckett, Pinter, and Shepard as well as Hélène Cixous/Simone Benmussa and Dennis Potter. These authors, Favorini concedes, "appear to...