New Course Delves into Memory Theater

Posted: August 9, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Art Taylor

While new faculty help introduce fresh ideas to the English Department, one of Mason’s veteran professors is also offering a fresh approach to some of her favorite works.

Professor Lorraine Brown has long taught such playwrights as Tony Kushner, Suzan-Lori Parks and Naomi Wallace, but one of her fall 2006 courses places these authors in a new light. She calls the course “Memory Theater” after a book she recently encountered, “Memory-Theater and Postmodern Drama” by Jeanette R. Malkin.

Inspired by that scholarship, Brown uses the course to reassess some of these contemporary playwrights and their contributions to building a collective memory – a movement both historical and political.

According to Brown, many of the leading playwrights of the 20th century, particularly the modernist period, showed characters using memory in personal ways to help make sense of their individual lives: Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman,” for example, or Tom Wingfield in “The Glass Menagerie.”

But especially from the 1970s onward, playwrights have shifted the way they use memory, and Brown credits many historical changes with fostering that shift – from the impact of World War II to the end of colonialism to the birth of new leaders and new voices.

“I think of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, looking at the wreckage behind him,” says Brown. “Out of that wreckage, we have to build a future, and many of today’s playwrights are pursuing ways to do that.”

Among those writers is Suzan-Lori Parks, whose work often deals explicitly with African American history and slavery.

“Parks faces challenges similar to what some of the German playwrights have encountered in dealing with the Holocaust,” explains Brown. “There, writers such as Heiner Mueller and Thomas Bernhard are countering the silence about the Holocaust. In America, Parks is struggling to fill the black hole of history – the problem of being written out of history – or she’s working against a kind of theme-park history.”

Such a new focus has often necessitated new forms of drama: monologue often replaces dialogue; ideas and images are sometimes more important than individual characters or a linear plot; texts are more often interactive than self-sufficient. What predominates is a critical examination of where we, as a people, are historically and culturally.

To this end, students in the course will not only discuss the texts, but also work with their own memories and explore how those memories help develop a sense of self in relation to history and culture.

“Some of our foreign-born students especially are coming from other cultures and dealing with questions of acculturation, adjusting to a new culture and working out their relationships to the culture they’ve come from,” stresses Brown. “I want to encourage students to think about themselves and consider in personal terms what it would mean to be written out of history or not told the truth.”

In addition to plays by Kushner, Parks and Wallace, the syllabus for Memory Theater includes works by Samuel Beckett, Sam Shepard and Timberlake Wertenbaker.

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in Not Just Letters, the English Department newsletter.

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