** Tidying up my WordPress blogs today (I have a few) I found this post from last September that never got published, a thought hovering on the edge of the light. So here it is. **
This term I have the good fortune to be engaged in a directed reading course with a senior student. Our topic is performing history. The step for me from documentary and theatre of the real to history plays in fact a small one. Verbatim plays are history plays. Autobiographical performance is a kind of history play. Maybe not history writ large, not the history of great men, of centuries gone by. But these plays are grounded in the real, committed to reproducing in various ways actual-world events from the past, sometimes from the very (very) recent past.
Our first reading is from Pierre Nora and his concept of lieux de memoire. Nora argues that contemporary Western society — individualistic, migratory, and rootless — is irredeemably forgetful. We no longer have memories — that is we lack collective traditions, rituals, and seasonal patterns of life as the embodied habitation of memory. To compensate, we create lieux de memoire. “Lieux de memoire originate with the sense that there is no spontaneous memory, that we must deliberately create archives, maintain anniversaries, organize celebrations, pronounce eulogies, notarize bills, because such activities no longer occur naturally” (12). To this list I would add ‘perform stories about our collective past.’ Since the past is no longer alive in us, we have forgotten it, it needs to be consciously disinterred and re-membered.
History plays as lieux de memoire are “moments of history, torn away from the movement of history, then returned; no longer quite life, yet not death, like shells on the shore when the sea of living memory has receded” (12). As much as I like Nora’s seashell image, I think it does not quite go far enough in capturing not just the sense of loss, but the return. The re-inhabiting of that empty space with a simulation of the original, something like but eerily not quite. Nora, does not address the genre of history plays, and of course, he does not say, zombies, but…
I do think that Nora’s sense of the ambivalent ontology of the lieu de memoire goes some way to explain the persistent sense that there is indeed something uncanny about the spiritual possession involved in embodying someone else; replicating their appearance, speaking their words, adopting their mannerisms.
Historical re-enactment is not a thin pallid ghost but now animated and also transformed into something new, intent on consuming the living. Do history plays want to eat our brains?
Nora, Pierre. “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire.” Representations 26 (Spring 1989): 7-24.