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Weaponising memory

Last year I had the chance to work with theatre director Ian Rickson and the cast of his new production of Harold Pinter’s ‘The Birthday Party’. This essay was printed in the programme; thanks to John Good Ltd. for permission to repost it.

Soon after he shows up as a menacing presence in Meg and Petey’s guesthouse, Nat Goldberg demonstrates his particular style of remembering the past. ‘Every second Friday of the month,’ he tells his sidekick McCann, ‘my Uncle Barney used to take me to the seaside, regular as clockwork.’ The afternoons on the beach were golden, the deck chairs had canopies and a view of the sunset, and Uncle Barney was the perfect gentleman. It is a queasily idealised account that raises suspicions about how Goldberg is reframing the past to suit himself. Goldberg strives to portray himself as a superior mind with a flawless grip on what happened. It is the first of many examples of how he wields memory as a weapon.

In the sixty years since The Birthday Party was first performed, the scientific view of memory has changed profoundly. While memory is still often misconstrued in the public imagination as a literal reproduction of past events – something like pressing ‘play’ on a mental DVD – psychologists and neuroscientists now understand it as a reconstructive process in which memories are put together in the present moment from different sources of information, subject to all the biases and pressures of the now. Memories are enacted in the present tense as much as they are laid down in the past. By studying the varied ways in which memory lets us down, scientists have found out a great deal about how this complex process of reconstruction works.

There is nothing wrong with looking at the past through rose-tinted spectacles. But Goldberg’s memories are so impossibly perfect, we wonder what he has reshaped to fit his own purposes. These are stories that are slick with rehearsal, perhaps trotted out many times before. Tellingly, the only time Goldberg comes close to losing his threatening hold is when, as he and McCann ponder whether to finish the business with Stanley, Goldberg seems to suffer a crisis of faith. ‘Because I believe that the world… Because I believe that the world…’ What? The stories dry up. A memory of his dying father hints at an emotional heart to all the blokeish nostalgia. Getting a grip means jump-starting the revisionist narrative.

For Goldberg’s landlady Meg, the pressure is to glorify the present. She wants everything to be perfect right now. She seems a little amnesic, distracted. ‘Sometimes she forgets,’ Petey tells us. There are some fragmentary memories of Meg’s own childhood: ‘I had a pink carpet and pink curtains, and I had musical boxes all over the room.’ Is she hiding a trauma? She tells us that she never had any complaints. We can picture her growing up with her little sisters and brothers, each in their own colour-coded bedrooms, in the shadow of a father big in the medical world. We can only guess at what Meg’s memories are leaving unsaid.

A theme of much contemporary memory research is how we do our remembering in a social context. Memory is anything but a solo activity. Even an innocuous ‘Do you remember?’ is an invitation to negotiate a shared account of the past with someone who lived through the same events. Getting the story straight can be a key part of making relationships work, and disputes about memory can easily float to the surface when partnerships break down. The biases and pressures that shape memory reconstruction are very often social ones.

We don’t just mould each other’s memories; we can frankly steal them. Researchers in New Zealand asked pairs of twins, independently of each other, to come up with memories of their childhoods. The scientists then cross-checked the stories of each participant with those of the other twin. Fourteen out of twenty twin pairs produced what the researchers called ‘disputed memories’: uncannily similar memories for the same event. When the pairs were put together to discuss their overlapping accounts, the temperature could sometimes rise. Particularly when the memory showed the protagonist in a positive or heroic light, twins were eager to claim for themselves memories that could only possibly have happened to one of them.

Something like this goes on in the Boles’s guesthouse. When Stanley asks McCann whether he has ever been near Maidenhead, McCann claims no knowledge. Nor does he seem familiar with Fuller’s teashop or the Boots Library, or anything else about that ‘quiet, thriving community’. A little later in the scene, Goldberg drops exactly these details into another idealised account of himself. Did Goldberg know Stanley in Maidenhead before McCann came along? Or is Goldberg poaching and appropriating details that are central to Stanley’s weak, fracturing account of his own past? In a play where identities are so hard to pin down, the shape-shifting qualities of memory are a destabilising force.

We also tidy up each other’s memories to cast them in a different light. Meg doesn’t just want to make things better now; she wants to rewrite Stanley’s past to give it a happier ending. In his account of his single dismal moment as a professional pianist, Stanley tells us how his father didn’t show up and how he arrived at his next gig to find the hall shuttered and abandoned. ‘All right,’ Stanley laments, ‘I can take a tip.’ In Meg’s retelling of Stanley’s story, his father plied him with champagne and the promoters locked him in the hall by mistake, insisting on giving him a tip as an apology. That leaning towards the positive that we so often see in memory is here recruited on someone else’s behalf.

The key thing about all these disputed memories is that the individuals who might challenge or contradict them are often not in the room. Meg is telling Stanley’s story to Goldberg and McCann; the pianist himself has left the house. Pinter’s brilliance – and an essential root of Goldberg’s menace – is in creating spaces of solitude where these retellings can go unchallenged. Without the usual social restraints on memory’s perpetual reinventions, Goldberg’s embellishments and enforced forgettings can win out. When, in the final scene, Meg announces that it was ‘a lovely party’, there is no one around who can contradict her. Petey wasn’t there. With dizzying skill, the playwright contrives to keep the checks and balances of memory offstage.

(Reproduced by permission from John Good Ltd.; please do not reproduce further without permission.)

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