In 1846, a 35-year-old Abraham Lincoln sent a copy of his recently penned poem “My Childhood Home I See Again” to his friend Andrew Johnston. The second verse of that poem reads, “Oh memory! thou midway world/ ‘Twixt Earth and Paradise,/ Where things decayed and loved ones lost/ In dreamy shadows rise.” Though Lincoln was tapping into the
transcendentalism prevalent in mid-19th century America, memory has long been considered a powerful and even spiritually potent faculty. Though animals are capable of something like memory—think of Pavlov’s dog—there is something essentially human about memory. Writing, a kind of codified means of preserving memory, is one of the hallmarks of civilization. Storytelling, perhaps the most fundamentally human of all activities, is all about reliving, preserving and sharing our memories. From the villages of Africa’s Great Rift Valley to the marbled halls of Classical Greece to the AMC Cineplex in Hamilton, New Jersey, human beings demonstrate a near-insatiable thirst for the telling of and listening to memories.
As enacted storytelling, the theater has been concerned with memory from its very inception. In Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, Clytemnestra is motivated to kill her husband by the memory that he killed their daughter Iphigenia before he set sail for Troy. On Shakespeare’s stage, memories sometimes took physical form to haunt the living, as in Hamlet’s Ghost. Interestingly enough, in order to memorize their lengthy parts with sometimes only a few days of preparation, Elizabethan actors would often imagine their memories as a house with many doors, and behind each door they would place a physical object that corresponded to a part of their speech. In modern drama, so often driven by psychology, memory is of the utmost importance, as demonstrated in the plays of August Strindberg and his American disciple Eugene O’Neill, whose Long Day’s Journey Into Night moves backward from the present into the realm of memory as the play progresses from day to night. The Glass Menagerie’s Tom Wingfield says, “the play is memory.” To apply Tennessee Williams’ statement to all of drama, we might simply state, every play is an enactment of memory.