The Curse of Theatrical Memory

February 29th, 2012 § 3 comments

To my great regret, I did not see the fabled flop Broadway production of Carrie The Musical in 1988, therefore I cannot offer comparative information on how the new production by MCC Theater has or hasn’t fixed any problems with the show. My only frame of reference for the musical I saw this past Saturday afternoon is Stephen King’s original novel, which I read about 30 years ago, and Brian DePalma’s terrific film adaptation, which I manage to watch every few years, though I missed its original release. But I do know the bloody history the theatrical Carrie drags along like Marley’s chains.

On the other hand, in two weeks, when I see Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton in Sweeney Todd, they will be doing battle with countless other duos I have seen as Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett, among them George Hearn & Dorothy Loudon, Hearn & Angela Lansbury, Bob Gunton & Beth Fowler and Michael Cerveris & Patti LuPone (I have seen, at least, three additional less-famous pairings, not including the film). In addition, I have the original cast recording with Len Cariou & Lansbury burned into my brain from hours of playing and singing along, so much so that I have to remind myself that I never saw Cariou in the role, even though I can easily ape his timing and inflections.

For the avid theatergoer like myself, good memory is a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that I have no trouble recalling Brian Dennehy as Willy Loman, Mandy Patinkin as Che, or Kathleen Chalfant as Vivian Bearing. The problem is also the fact that I have no trouble remembering them and they will loom over me in the coming weeks when I see Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ricky Martin and Cynthia Nixon take on these roles that were so indelibly played for me in the past. I must work, rigorously, to remain open to new performers, new interpretations, new productions.

Of course the productions are different — and of course I am different. My responses at 17 are bound to be different than my responses at 27 or 37 (and so on). The impact of seeing any show for the first time rarely can be repeated; more than once I have seen a play that I loved as a teen and wondered how I was ever so naive to like it (though I have also found plays that I’ve come to understand better and thus admire over time, such as Fugard’s The Road to Mecca). My life experiences, my theatrical experiences, inform my reactions to shows and performances. At the same time, my recollections are fallible; memory is not fixed but plastic — we construct our memories over and over again, they are oral history even to ourselves, rather than a pristine digital record.

As I have become ever more of a veteran and ever more informed, it becomes harder to thrill me, and harder for me to keep fresh as an audience member.  Will I see Hamlet again and again? Yes, but whoever next plays the Dane for me is fighting with the ghosts of Christopher Walken, Richard Thomas, Kevin Kline, Ralph Fiennes and Jude Law (to name but five) and that’s to their detriment, and mine.

This challenge is surely amplified among theatre critics; I have seen perhaps 2500 productions in 34 years of earnest theatergoing, while critics probably reach that threshold in less than half the time, and are charged with not only assessing but contextualizing work as they go along. For me, although theatre has always been my profession, theatergoing remains an avocation, and save for my required attendance at Tony-eligible shows since 2003 and those shows produced at theatres where I worked, I see only what I want to see and, at certain times, what I could afford to see.  I recently turned down an opportunity that offered (and required) seeing another 100 shows each year. While I may well see close to that, the compulsory aspect frightened me and, as I’ve written before, I want to insure I have time for experiences other than just theatergoing (like family, friends, travel, movies, TV and books).

To those without the opportunities I’ve had, I imagine I’m evoking little sympathy. But the fact is, I’m not seeking any. What I do look for is every way in which I can continue to approach theatre with the most open mind, without constantly analyzing, comparing and judging what I see by the standards set by other productions and performances. “Only see new plays,” you might suggest, and surely this is rarely a problem in those instances. Yet sometimes the theatrical spreadsheet in my head is an asset for new plays, as prior knowledge of A Raisin in the Sun, while not necessary for Clybourne Park, surely lends another layer of depth to appreciating Bruce Norris’ work. “Avoid the major classics,” I hear you cry. But the next Lear, the next Viola might be even better than those that came before in my experience, and I love Shakespeare too much to miss out if that’s the case.

So I’ll just keep filling up the faulty hard drive that is my brain, hoping that the accelerating rise of video won’t become so prevalent that the oral history of theatrical production I’ve cultivated for so long becomes obsolete. And I’ll fight against my own instincts and keep shaking my internal Etch-a-Sketch, entering the theatre with as rasa a tabula as I can muster. But if you ever want to hear about shows that went unrecorded that you never saw, or compare your own memories of shows to see how they check out, I have a flawed and opinionated database waiting, ready to be accessed.

Print page

  • Jealous of your theatergoing! I would *love* to see Imelda Staunton’s Mrs. Lovett. It would in no way be comparable to Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Lovett (which I also saw). Different actor in same roles = different experiences.

  • WCH

    This thoughtful article offers an insightful perspective on the problem of being cursed not by my own theatrical memory, but by that of others. I never know what to make of reviews or conversations that spend a lot of time comparing current productions to previous ones– I almost want to call this the “Follies Syndrome”.  If I’ve never seen a play before, it doesn’t help me much to know if this production is better or worse than one 15 or 20 or 30 years ago.  For me, with a limited data bank, it is comparing an unknown to an unknown. 

    But now, at least, I have a better idea of why people may do this, and how for those who do have an extensive theatergoing history, the comparisons may be enriching, helpful– and maybe even unavoidable.  Thanks for this!

  • Clo

    I’ll sum it up for you. Ball in no way is as good as Hearn, no way. Some of the lines are lost within Ball’s performance, which were great with Hearn. Imelda is amazing, I must say she completely made the role her own, she was more engaging than Langsbury (never thought I’d say that). The chorus are great. 

%d bloggers like this: