Prof. Sehdev Kumar
TORONTO: As ravages of dementia and Alzheimer’s strike one family after another across Canada and the world a large, playwrights like Francois Archambault are naturally drawn to their inherent drama and poignancy. The play, originally in French, You Will Remember Me, currently being presented at Tarragon Theatre in Toronto, explores this in the life of an aging professor.
As a long-time professor myself, Professor Edouard’s trial and tribulations, played brilliantly by R.H. Thomson, as once a political activist and a historian, seemed all too real to me. The professor remembers – or so he insists – all the dates and events of history many a century ago, as though the universe could be, and must have been, framed only around them. But he cannot remember what he ate in the morning, or with whom.
Such ravages of memory are all too familiar to many of us, in the context of our own lives or of others, as care givers, as friends and well-wishers, as sons and daughters.
The play touches on all these and more: what is it that we are remembered by? And by whom, and how? It explores some of it well and quite engagingly. But I kept feeling that something was amiss in the play. Memory is a profoundly tricky and provocative subject, not only in our everyday life, but in psychology, philosophy, neurosciences, biology, biochemistry, and more. A modern play about memory cannot but reflect on these fields somewhat, thus making each character in the play as a sounding board for new questions and provocative new answers. I kept missing Tony Kushner and of his philosophical-mythological-historical plays.
Surely, I kept thinking, modern theatre in metropolitan centres of the world, now frequented largely by sophisticated and educated audiences, needs to be more bold, more courageous, more daring in its approach; it should not merely be telling the story of one character but of all characters. I would have loved to hear a biting soliloquy from the young 16-year old Berenice about the futility of history; what a rejoinder that would have been to the history professor for whom life has been, for so long, frozen in time. Or something from the professor’s wife, who is obviously tired of his fossilized obsessions.
Does modern theatre have to tell us only the news of the day? Should it not dare to explore life and ideas in new and challenging manner?
How memories are stored, distorted, retrieved, diminished, erased, forgotten, repressed and recalled have long intrigued not only philosophers, neurologists and the psychologists, but also the writers and the playwrights (Marcel Proust, Lawrence Durrell, Vladimir Nabokov, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams), and filmmakers (Bergman, Fellini, Resnais).
Memories, and their thousand fickle and abiding faces, make us who we are; it is by cohering them that we create a ‘self’ and an identity, and also a touch of wisdom, or unity of purpose.
What does life without memory mean?
A long life – such as Prof. Edouard in the play has had — means also a treasure-trove of long, deep and convoluted memories of a thousand events, words, failures, resentments, and traumas. There is a loss of memory on one hand, and a desperate need to forget certain memories on the other. This longing for regeneration – for redemption — is at the heart of nature; as a psycho-physiological process, it is as crucial as the phenomenon of reproduction and creation.
In the play there is a hint of incest; certainly there is a suicide of a young daughter. But it remains hanging in the air. Memories of early childhood abuse, often in incestual situations, have been a matter of psychological and clinical interest and study for well over a hundred years since early theories of Sigmund Freud about neurosis and hysteria. Can, or do, such memories stay repressed for years until they are brought to the surface of consciousness with the help of a therapist? And when they do come up, how genuine repressed memories are, all goaded and guided by overzealous psychotherapists, and inspired, for instance, by a fervently ideological book, The Courage to Heal.
During 1970s and 80s, thousands of adult women, and sometimes men, accused their fathers and grandfathers, and sometimes their mothers, of incestual violations in early childhood, often over many years. Rarely without any corroborative evidence, these false memories of perverse behaviour, were accepted at their face value, thus creating havoc in the lives of thousands of men and women, ruining their reputations, their professions and their families. This mass hysteria engulfed many countries, creating false and destructive selves, not only for the accusers but, even more viciously, for the accused.
You Will Remember Me is an interesting play; with more daring and imagination, in my view, it could have been a memorable play. The play continues at Tarragon Theatre until April 10.
(Prof. Sehdev Kumar has written extensively about memory, particularly in his book, The Lotus in the Stone. He lectures at the University of Toronto on “International Films and the Human Condition”)