Last Monday night I attended the inaugural lecture of Prof Trevor Walker, my colleague here at St Mary’s University College. Prof Walker is a drama professor and his lecture was, by far, the best public lecture I’ve ever attended. It involved skits, (fake) gunshots, and an impersonator lecturing for Prof Walker. His topic was verbatim theatre, which he has pioneered, its relationship to reality, and the manners in which the public at large perceives these things. Verbatim theatre is where the actors dramatize transcripts of actual events; in other words, they act out scenes from the transcripts using the words from the transcripts. So, for example, one of Prof Walker’s most famous plays is “Cancer Tales,” a dramatization of real interviews with cancer victims, survivors, and their families.
What grabbed my attention was Prof Walker’s questions concerning whether the dramatization of these events, and thus the re-narrativization of the transcripts, obscures the “reality” of them or clarifies that “reality.” In short, does putting these peoples’ words on stage make them any less real? Indeed, does it, to the contrary, make them more real? At one point, I was wondering also—Is it more real than, say, a documentary, a genre that tends to bill itself as the closest to reality? Alternatively, is it actually a form of documentary?
These questions relate to the topic of this blog because of the discussion concerning the application of social memory theory to Jesus studies centers on this matter of historiography—the relationship between the “real” past and portrayals of it. Memory distorts, of course, but some people think that’s a good thing and some people think it’s a bad thing. Does distortion make it less historical? To the contrary, does the distortion of memory actually render it historical? The first question assumes a disjunction between memory and history; the second question assumes that memory and history are essentially the same thing. I think Anthony and I would both land here with the second question, as would many others.
There’s another interesting issue that Prof Walker’s lecture raised for me, though. Jan and Aleida Assmann have much discussed the transition of memory from the collective memory of eyewitnesses and the immediately subsequent generation to the cultural memory wherein memory becomes firmly rooted in cultural consciousness. The transition essentially entails memory’s ultimate transcendence of autobiographical memory. In personal correspondence with Alan Kirk, I have mentioned that I’m skeptical that it takes as long for commemorations to enter into cultural memory as the Assmans think it does. (They put it at around 40 years.) Alan said he too was skeptical. I wondered if part of the issue in debates over verbatim theatre hinges precisely on this issue. The re-narrativization of these transcripts in a genre of art that is publicly shared launches what are essentially private memories about their ordeal with cancer into the cultural sphere. Does it seem more real if the reader or audience believes it to be transcript versus being a play? Prof Walker mentioned how one playwright had thrown a monkey wrench into the system by writing a fictional verbatim theatre play. Some of the members of the audience were really upset when they found out they were watching true fiction. Again here, the issue is audience expectation.
Congratulations to Prof Walker on an excellent and thought-provoking inaugural lecture.