Past Trauma, New Memory and the Now
We are shaped moulded by yesterdays, past generations of our families hand down formed rituals as facts to live by. Generation after generation, commemmoration after commemmoration. Rigid to custom, tradition and strict rule. Ireland and the Irish State draws from a similar past for its authenticity. As a people we seek our identity in a past that is overwhelmingly tragic. We are baptised by and large into a faith based on suffering, sacrifice and death with a promise of everlasting afterlife. Our very bones carry the memory of a traumatic past, not of our making, and we are captured and held hostage by it and, as we face into this commemmorative decade, we must ask ourselves – who we truly are and what we would like to become in the future? What new memory can we create now that will change that perception of ourselves as victims and survivors which keeps us from true ownership of ourselves.
In Ireland, change comes about with great reluctance, resentment and vindictive consequences. We have had the case of Savita, the X case, the child abuse issue, the nursing homes, the banking issue, the planning issue, the Northern troubles, not to mention the Limerick City of Culture and the issues of Temple Bar Cultural Trust – yet, no new way is forged. We remain childlike, hapless. We jump up and down and shout outside the Dáil, re-elect the same people and on it goes. Yet no lessons are learned. No new way forged. We all complain about RTE, The Abbey Theatre, yet we still watch and we still go. Disappointment seems to be our sedative.
Appeased by our own complaining, we saunter fatalistically along with our false image intact. Uncomfortable? Of course. But alcohol can take care of that. On we go, until somebody mentions any of these institutions or individuals and then the backlash begins. You are accused of having ‘sour grapes’. You’re accused of personalizing. The keepers of ‘no change’ make you out as a loose cannon. Negative, destructive, dangerous. A threat to their cosy number. And we all sing the chorus line ‘Sure it’s not that bad, ah sure it could be worse’. “lets move on’. Or in the immortal words of Pat Cox “I’m determined to hit the reset button’. Not address the problem, not learn from the problem but simply “reset” so the problem seems never to have happened – that’s the Irish way.
So what do you do with themes like the role of memory in making theatre. The challenge of commemorating historical events? Well, you simply make something new. Something that will grow and be free. Big and open. The making of new memory. New ackowledgement of the immediate now. Your now. Our now. How you feel rather than how you think.
The challenge is not so much about the challenge of commemmorating historical events like 1914, 1918, 1916, 1922 , the Lockout, the Battle of Clontarf. It’s about how you set yourself free from them. And how you free them from us. Create a new legacy.
We have to remove ourselves by all means possible from our own institutionalisation. Otherwise the continued indoctrination of our collective memory by the State and other agents through the spectacle of event commemmoration will succeed in reducing us to spectators, lookers on and not the true owners of our own history.
Theatre events are made from interrogated memory, from memory which is investigated and creatively interpreted. The burial of active memory and conscious recall is a form of conditioned self-censorship. In a way, we have to save memory from being consigned to memory. We must resist adopting the ruling class memory of a magic nostalgic masquerade which separates us from truth. Their version of our memory is akin to a closed down thing. Coma induced. Our conscious memory struggles to be switched on. So tread softly cause you tread on my memory. Memory cannot be told ‘thus far and no further’. So let new memory arise. Without interference and without baggage. Memory is not a thing of the past.
Facebook, Google, Twitter, Linkedin and their like, they are the enemies of live human memory. The mobile phone and other machines have the potential to erode and take over our relationship with our memory and private self. Synthetic history has begun – out there on the world wide web. In our hands, on our persons, in our houses, in our environment – our intimate relationship with our private selves and self discovery, that mystery, that journey is being surrendered to triumphant capitalism and consumerism.
“No Escape” at the Peacock Stage some time ago, and also part of this symposium, is, in my view, an exercise. An excuse for the lack of artists’ involvment in exposing State terror and church inhumanity as well as society’s indifference to what went on in State institutions in this country. The theatre makers in this case take a whitewashed State document – the Ryan Report- take witness statements and do a kind of pageant enactment which turns real events into theatre commodity. Rendering the struggle for truth and justice into a night out in the theatre for the elite cultural class. It is easy to move an audience to crying and feeling sorry for what happened to the poor kids in the institutions in this society. It is much more courageous though to enrage a public in order to change this society. In this instance the State Theatre, used a State document in furtherance of its own self-service and appeasement. True story and real events are stolen from the owners. The authentic voice is silenced and we are estranged, again. Orphaned again. This time from one of the few things we can truly call our own – the memory and experience of what happened to us. The theatre in this instance kills the possiblity of inclusion for an entire generation and a deeply oppressed class. The struggle is betrayed and all of the uncomfortability of Irish society is laundered out, made safe.
New memory can only arrive with true authenticity. An uncontaminated platform. It won’t hold or lend itself to the notions of those with no real true cultural credibility who float about, aloof. New memory will seek the risk taker. The brave. The daring. Not those who lick up to the Arts Council or other funders who wish to continue to promote the lie of the status quo. The fake of the State.
The Risen People, the show, set out to make new an old play, an old story about a past real event. The primary purpose of staging the work at the Abbey Theatre, the State Theatre is the acknowledgment of the anniversary of the 1913 lock-out 100 years ago. This meaning gets lost at the Abbey Theatre because of the failure to acknowledge what they have created, which is the ‘theatre of commemmoration’ and not the theatre of the Risen People. What now needs to happen here is a process of disentanglement from versions of the work to a celebration of the new possibility for a new public that will carry a lasting memory of commemmorative theatre that has meaning and healthy acknowledgement of real events in our city.
The future generations have a right to be free from a contaminated institutionalised collective memory that enslaves them and closes down the possibility of past as a celebration. Our task is to rescue and recover historical memory and events from the brutalised past and transform them into celebratory events. Free of the brutalised memory. Now is the time for a new hour, a new day, a new memory for a new time.