Baker Academic

Monday, January 28, 2013

Verbatim Theatre and Historiography—Chris Keith

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.


  1. I like Volf's "The End of Memory" because he helps people recognize that remembering rightly is most difficult. Not that their memories are not historically true, but only accurate as they remember.

  2. Chris, I am busy defending my weak understanding of memory history on my blog, but when you say that memory distortion renders memory historical, I’m tempted to change sides and join the attackers!

    I defend memory history based on my understanding that memory is NOT history, but the accounting for memory IS history. Your post is making me think about this harder. Perhaps it’s more accurate to state that history is memory accounted for. So perhaps, a play like “The Laramie Project” is a work of history, so long as the playwright can account for the play’s creation/assembly. The accounting could be simply that the playwright interviewed the first 50 people he met at a given location and time, and presented the material verbatim and in order of collection. But then, is “Gone with the Wind” also a work of history? Do we have any critical standards for what passes for an accounting? (A challenge for you is to answer these questions without using the word “guild”!).

    Is there any distinction between a work of history and a collection of “primary source material”? Is the Shoah Foundation’s visual history archive a large piece of verbatim theatre?

    What do you mean when you say that distortion renders memory historical? Given that all memory is distorted (or "refracted"), where is the rendering that transforms memory into history?

  3. Larry, thanks for these questions. I don't want to step on Anthony's toes too much because he has, in my opinion, addressed these matters more convincingly than anyone in his The Historiographical Jesus. But embedded into those questions are nuances about what constitutes memory and history. When I say that distortion associated with the processes of memory actually renders the past historical, it assumes that "history" does not equal "what happenened." "History" is what is narrativized, interpreted, remembered out of the long stream of events past. This is what Anthony means when he insists that interpretation is what makes something historical and therefore there is no history without interpretation. (He doesn't want to go beyond that and talk about the "actual past"; I do. But that's a debate for another post.) Since memory provides the categories through which events of the past are narrativized, the distortion involved in that process actually renders the past historical. In other words, if you assume that "history" equals "what happened" then memory and history are not the same things. But if you assume that "history" does not equal "what happened" but rather "that which is interpreted/narrativized out of all the things that happened," then memory and history share so much common ground that they are quite nearly the same thing. Does that help? (Note, no "guild" in sight!)

    1. Chris, that helps, but only a little.

      I'm actually OK with ignoring the "actual past". I buy into the idea Anthony presented, that we don't have access to the actual past, but only to the impact of the actual past as preserved (in refracted/distorted fashion) by memory. I understand that memory is interpreted/narrativized from the moment it is created (or before that!). I understand that the refraction/distortion of memory occurs as memory is preserved in familiar thought categories that are themselves shaped by memories past and present. So far, I think we're on the same page.

      But it seems to me that, just as we have no access to the "actual past", we also have no access to "collective memory". The process of deriving collective memory is a creative process -- more precisely, it's the historian's creative process. It is here that I understood Anthony to say that history is memory accounted for. The accountant is the historian. The accounting may be relatively minimal -- something like the Shoah Foundation's visual history archive is pretty close to memory unaccounted for. But even there, just asking the question "what do you remember about the Shoah" may elicit a different response than "what do you remember about life in Nazi Germany". The way that interviewees are approached, the way that the project is presented to interviewees, even the media used to record the interviews, are all creative elements that shape how the message is received by us, and even how the memories are described by those being interviewed. Moreover, even if it were somehow possible to deliver unadultered collective memory to us, we'd still need the historian to "account" for the fact that this is what happened.

      So ... I would argue that memory and history are not "quite nearly the same thing". Memory is a raw material, history a processed product. If we're going to go pomo, we can't go half-way, can we?

    2. Larry, of course we can go halfway. We can do whatever we want. There's no such thing as a slippery slope; that's a figment of fearful people's imagination. That being said, I'm not sure that I did go halfway and stop.

      A couple clarifications: Anthony and I agree that we cannot access the actual past. We disagree about whether we can talk meaningfully about what it could have been based upon its impact. I'm interested in what created the impact, even if we can't actually get to it; Anthony is interested almost solely in the impact itself.

      You can argue that memory and history are not quite the same thing, but in my opinion you'd be wrong. We of course have access to collective memory. We, in fact, cannot avoid it. And the production of collective memory is not, in the first instance, the historian's task. The "accounting for" the past has already selectively occurred long before the historian even entered the equation. All the historian can do is work with what has already been selected/preserved of the past in the sources available. I'm not denying that historians can put their own spin on things and thus offer their own "memory" of it (per your example). But all they're doing is continuing a hermeneutical practice that they inherited. They are not the pioneers.

      This point is important because historians, and humans in general, often have the past forced upon them rather than create it. 9/11 is not a historian's creation. The passing of a family member is not a historian's creation. These things are traumatic and must be accounted for, but it is not the historian that drives the need to account for them. It is the breakdown of society on macro- and micro-levels that forces particular forms of hermeneutical reflection in order to stabilize identity.

  4. Keith, I'll respond directly to the only thing you said where I feel I have expertise. As an ex-attorney, I can assure you that there are slippery slopes. But you're right, we should not fear them. In response to the question "where do we draw the line", I answer "somewhere". That's our job, to draw lines.

    As to the remainder of what you said, I suspect that our disagreement may be mostly on how we use terms -- you use them as an expert, I use them as someone who's read Allison's big book and Anthony's little one. I'll cut to the chase: as a member of a minority religion that has frequently fallen victim to the majority's faulty memory, you'll have a difficult time convincing me that unprocessed memory = history. History, like hermeneutics, is a responsibility. If I remember the content of Matthew 27:25, that's a natural (if unfortunate) process of biology and memory-cognition. If I report Matthew 27:25 as history, then I'm responsible for how I do that. The excuse that "this is how I remember it" won't fly, there's too much water under this particular bridge.

    As you said, we often have the past forced upon us, and I hear that in a way that might not be the way you meant it.

    Add onto this Anthony's statement (and I think he's right) that the unremembered past is not history. I would argue that we Jews have no memory of Jesus that goes back to Jesus -- what we remember of Jesus derives from our experience of Christianity. If history is memory without the need for a historian's accounting, then in a strong sense we cannot participate here. If memory requires accounting to produce history, then we each need the other.

    BTW, I like it when people disagree with me, and I strongly like it when the disagreement is strong.

    1. Larry, I would say this hardly counts as a disagreement. I think you are right, though, that we're using terms differently. At no point did I say there's no need for a historian's accounting; I make a living off the implicit assumption that there is. I also affirmed that the unremembered is not historical. And I certainly never said that we should just take things on the surface. My point is that even that surface already reflects the interpretive work of memory. Again, the historian is not the pioneer of meaning-making; he/she is the heir of it, shaping it anew in his/her own context. In short, I never said that unprocessed memory=history. I said there's no such things as unprocessed memory.

    2. The sound you (don't) hear is my thinking about this.

      You make it sound as if on some level, there's no difference between the interpretation I must do (probably mostly on a subconscious level) to store and recall a memory, and the interpretation performed by the historian as part of the process of presenting that memory as history. That is confusing to me ... doubtless because on some level I want that difference to exist, but I'm no longer sure that it does. On this point, I smile at your reference to the "implicit assumption" that the historian is necessary, but I cannot come up with an explanation for why I'm smiling that doesn't risk use of the word "guild"! ;^)

      Oh ... and agreed, there's no such thing as uninterpreted memory. My use of the word "process" confused things unnecessarily. Sorry.

      What you said about the historian being the "heir of meaning-making" is a very cool turn of phrase. I think I'll pause to admire that phrase, and consider it further.

      Thanks for sharing all this.

    3. Your point about the difference between your memory and the work of the historian is something I should have addressed head-on. It's not that there's no difference between them. For one, the (theoretically) publicly-sanctioned commemoration of the historian often has a different function in society. The point, though, is that there are tremendous similarities between them. Both really entirely upon language and social categories of thought in order to generate meaning, both of which the remember-er has appropriated from his/her context, not invented in a silo. So, while they are different, they are not altogether different.

    4. Chris, learning with you is a treat. In the final analysis, I might try to insist on two things: one, a historian who is personally not "heir" to a particular memory tradition can nonetheless write history about it (giving due consideration to the special nature of writing about memory-history from the inside). Two, while the memory interpretation performed by a historian is very similar to that performed outside of the guild (there, I used the word), the historian performs her work under a special duty of professional care to the rest of us, a duty that I think goes beyond the historian's "social function" and approaches something like a moral accountability. On this second point, I haven't figured out any details.

  5. Oh crap. Chris, I confused your first and last names again. Very sorry.

    1. No problem. I've been answering to both, and much worse, for a long time.