pieces of light

Creative memories in Harold Pinter’s Old Times

Ian Rickson’s new production of Harold Pinter’s Old Times is currently wowing the critics in London and beyond. Late last year I was invited to visit rehearsals and talk to the cast about the workings of autobiographical memory, which plays such an important role in the piece. Those conversations led to me being invited to write an essay for the programme, which I have reproduced below.

I got to see the production a couple of weeks ago, with Lia Williams in the part of Anna and Kristin Scott Thomas playing Kate (one interesting thing about the production is that the female actors swap roles every few days). Many of the reviews have pointed out how different the two casting configurations are, and I’m hoping to see it again with the female roles reversed. Williams was a revelation as Anna, fanatically pulling on threads to the past and managing to convince the others of memories they hadn’t known were there. Scott Thomas was devastatingly restrained and then brutal in the play’s climax, as the three characters fought over the details of their past lives together. Rufus Sewell was funny, violent, simmering and obsessive as Deeley, the man whose memories of the play’s two key events appear to be shaped by his feelings about the two women involved.

Whichever way you get to see Old Times, it runs until 6 April. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

From the Old Times programme:

Creative Memories

Forty years after its first performance, Old Times shows a prescient sensitivity to the quirks of autobiographical memory. The efforts of Anna, Kate and Deeley to reconstruct the past—and to some extent themselves—mirror many of the themes that have preoccupied cognitive scientists in the decades since Pinter wrote his play.

The psychologist and memory expert Martin Conway has proposed that two forces go head-to-head in memory. The force of correspondence acts to make our memories true to the way things were, while the force of coherence acts to tell a story that suits the self. We know that autobiographical memory is a reconstructive process, drawing together different sources of information and putting them together in ways that can differ subtly from telling to telling. These dynamic reshapings often serve to make memories as true to how we want the past to be as to how it actually was.

Deeley’s memory is slave to the force of coherence. He wants things to be a particular way, so he makes them so. The two key events of the play—the cinema showing and the party—are recalled in ways that selectively construct and filter the key details, even to the extent of screening out people who might actually have been there. In Deeley’s mind, only Kate was present at the showing of the movie Odd Man Out; only Anna was there at that fateful Westbourne Grove party. We don’t know the actual facts of the matter, because the two women’s memories can be as unreliable as Deeley’s, but we get the strong impression that he has reshaped these events to suit himself.

It is Anna, of course, who actually gives voice to this idea: ‘There are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened. There are things I remember which may never have happened but as I recall them so they take place.’ The reconstructive nature of memory guarantees it this creative power, and furnishes it with properties that make it something akin to imagination. In fact, neuroscientists now think that imagination and memory draw on common neural resources, in the hippocampus and medial temporal lobes of the brain.

It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that imagination can feed into memory, and that things imagined can become things remembered. Psychological studies support the idea that simply imagining that something happened can in some cases lead us to ‘remember’ it. Kate, the dreamer, imagines seeing Anna dead (it’s not hard to see why she might feel this way about her old friend). But in the laboratory of her scenario-juggling mind, that imagining turns into a memory. ‘I remember you. I remember you dead.’ As she imagines it, so it takes place.

Of course, Old Times resists any such simple explanation, and the complexities of the play run far deeper than this. Like all of us, Kate edits her memories, updating them as new information comes to light. She knows that Anna didn’t really die—she is standing there before her, fully alive—but she still experiences it as a memory. This is not a hallucination or a sign of mental disorder. Psychologists have reported that large numbers of us have what are termed nonbelieved memories: memories for events that we no longer believe actually happened. That would appear to be the fate of some imaginings that are converted into memories and which we later realise could not literally be true. Some people ‘recall’ seeing live dinosaurs, or flying with their arms outstretched; the products of imagination take on the wrappings of memory. These rememberers know, rationally, that the events could not have happened, but they still unfold in their minds just like a memory would.

Pinter’s play is also alert to the emotional underpinnings of memory. Anna’s rose-tinted, impossibly perfect memories of London betray the fact that she wants things to have been a particular way in those heady days with the younger Kate. Emotional factors cause characters to mix memories that shouldn’t fit together. When Kate ‘remembers’ Anna lying dead, the corpse’s face is covered with dirt. One reading of this is that she has incorporated details from a real memory—the trick she played on Deeley in response to his sexual expectation—into the imagined scenario. At another point, recalling his trip to a café before the notorious party, Deeley clearly mixes up his memories of the two women, because it suits his revisionist self to do so.

Remembering is not something we do alone. For the characters in Old Times, negotiating an account of the past is a fraught, dangerous process. Memories can be weapons as well as instruments of persuasion. And memory has only a part-time interest in the truth. It deals in scenarios, real ones and imagined ones, making and remaking the self from the partial, damaged information available. As another writer, Mark Twain, observed in his autobiography, ‘When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the things that never happened.’

Charles Fernyhough’s book on autobiographical memory, Pieces of Light, is published by Profile in the UK and HarperCollins in the US.

Programme essay reproduced by permission of John Good Ltd. Publishing.

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