In Shelagh Stephenson’s Olivier-award winning dark comedy, The Memory of Water, three sisters reunite to bid farewell to their recently departed mother. As adults, it is evident that their present lives have not lived up to expectations. That’s how life goes. But these girls can’t even agree on their shared past. And that’s how memory goes.
A common estimate used by psychologists suggests that a single ‘moment’ can last up to 3 seconds. So we experience about 20,000 separate moments each day, and about 500 million of them if we live to be age 70. Professor Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist and psychologist suggests that the vast majority of these moments simply vanish: poof – gone. And the memories we are left with can be very different from our experiences!
He distinguishes between what he calls the Experiencing Self and the Remembering Self. One of his favourite illustrations of this dichotomy is a story about a music lover, listening to a rare vinyl recording of a symphony. For 20 minutes, he got to experience some of the most sublime music of his life. Then, right near the end, there was a scratch on the record, a loud squeak, and he angrily declared: “It spoilt the whole thing!” But did it? He had enjoyed 20 minutes of lovely music, many moments. But that single negative moment coloured his memory of the entire thing. That’s what he committed to memory. What a shame.
What we now know is that, of the very many moments we experience in life, we are selective about which ones we commit to memory. And, for significant moments, we never simply record the facts. There’s always an emotional component – a feeling – that gets attached to the memory of that moment, and the two parts are not easily separated.
We all know people who lean towards a ‘glass is half empty’ philosophy of life. So is this merely a phenomenon that affects the pessimists among us? Probably not. Scientists believe that we are hard-wired to actively seek out, and remember, the negative. It is thought to be an evolutionary adaptation that enhances our ability to survive. Which I imagine was very useful in the jungle (“Yikes! A tiger, big teeth, scary, avoid in future!”) but occasionally frustrating for us in the modern world. For how does a ‘ruined’ memory of music impact the survival of the species? It doesn’t. But our hard-wired cognitive processes can’t automatically distinguish between the two.
Naturally, we also store and recall good memories. Things that nurture us, or feel pleasurable, are worth repeating if we get the chance, for they can also help our survival. For example, last week I was offered a piece of soda bread in a restaurant. It looked and tasted exactly like my granny’s bread, and I vividly remembered a warm kitchen and the smell of her apron as she hugged me close, more than 40 years ago.
That the girls in our play recall their shared experiences quite differently should come as no surprise. The emotional component of those moments was quite different for each of them, as our audience discovers along the way. One of the key reasons that the practice of mindfulness is so popular today, is the discovery that we can ‘hack’ our minds. By consciously marrying a neutral, or less negative, emotion to an immediate unpleasant experience we can influence our future mental states. Literally, we can write happier endings. It’s fascinating stuff.
In the 1960s Ellie Greenwich was a prolific songwriter, responsible for dozens of classic hits from The Girl Group era. Vi, the girls’ mother in our play, would certainly have sung along to these tunes as she got ‘dolled up’ to go out to the dance hall. One of Ellie’s lesser-known songs laments the heartache of having loved, and lost. The aching end lyric goes like this: “I wish I never saw the sun shine. I wish I’d never saw the sun shine. Cos if I never saw sunshine baby then…maybe… I wouldn’t mind the rain.”
As theatre makers it’s our job to know the breadth of human possibilities, and the depths of our individual character’s possibilities. We work with what the author gives us, and we can’t rewrite the ending. But by holding up a mirror to life, we believe that great theatre can help an audience to rewrite their own script, and maybe learn to love a little rain.
Written by Sean Worrall, an Ensemble Member of Wag the Dog Theatre.
The Memory of Water will play at Drama Centre Black Box, 100 Victoria Street, Singapore from 30 June to 9 July. Tickets are $35, available at SISTIC.