March 23, 2001: Pinter, Remembrance of Things Past

National Theatre, Olivier. Pinter’s screenplay, adapted for the stage by Pinter and Di Trevis. 3 hours including interval. Trevis has also written a detailed account of the adaptation, planning, and rehearsal process: Remembrance of Things Proust: A Rehearsal Diary (National Theatre, 2001).

I thought I wasn’t going to like this piece at first, but it won me over and I ended up enjoying it greatly. The stage is an immense open platform, four-square, with a huge plain gilt frame where a proscenium arch might be, only the bottom of the frame has been moved to the front of the platform and the gilt sides extended to meet it. Just off-platform, on the other side, are various chairs for actors to sit on when they are not on; or they stand and wait. The play proceeds by means of numerous short scenes, each of which is a point likely to be fixed in the memory — our memory, perhaps; Proust’s memory, certainly. We see the boy Marcel, doted upon by his mother and ridiculed for responding to her love and affection by his stern-faced father. We see him grow to adulthood, gradually becoming a member of upper-class society, gradually gaining an initiation into that society’s mores and preoccupations — which we find have a lot to do with same-sex love, both men’s and women’s.

Marcel never forgets a face (though over time others forget his), and as time goes on we see him developing a kind of double consciousness: he is at one and the same time immersed in society and brought to maturity by its value as a life education, and gradually detached from it, becoming the percipient observer on whom nothing is lost and whose mind stores up the sensory particulars of experience. Those particulars, given the way memory works for Marcel, are concrete keys to the experience they signify. The clink of a glass can call up the entire experience of which it is only seemingly an unimportant detail. From an early age Marcel has aspired to be a writer; as the writer’s mind continues to store up the symbols of lived experience, Marcel reaches a point, finally, where he is ready to begin. That beginning coincides with the end of the play.

And so we gather that the play is a kind of essential autobiography articulated in dramatic form, its fragmentary nature entirely appropriate to the way the cells of the brain and the synapses that link them work. In fact, the synapses metaphorically speaking are more important, more indicative than the cells themselves. In this respect the borrowed line from Shakespeare’s sonnet — ”remembrance of things past” — distorts the original French: “temps perdu.” Not just “past,” but “lost.” Proust’s title suggests the presumptive impossibility of “recherche,” raising the question that now occupies us so deeply as we renew our investigations (not a bad translation of “recherche,” I think) into the springs of memory. We are anxious to know how the residue of our experiences is coded in the brain and how we “summon up” (Shakespeare’s phrase is apt) “remembrance”; that is, how we reconstruct — or is it construct? — the events of our lives. In this respect the play is as much about how the human memory works as it is about how Proust came to consciousness and what he made of it.

Thumbing my copy of Di Travis’s account of the mounting of the play, I noticed that it required a computerized organization of scenes, characters, and patterns to keep everything straight and to make it come out right. I’m not surprised. And yet the flow of the scenes one into another, and sometimes their simultaneous presence, seems natural and even inevitable: the surest sign of director and actors doing their job well and supported by the full range of artistic collaborators.

I thought Sebastian Harcombe was exceptionally fine as Marcel, who ages quite convincingly from youth to near-middle age in the course of the play (a competent child actor portrays him as a boy). Among others in this very strong ensemble, David Rintoul as the imperious, fey Baron Charlus was also fine, presenting an unusually detailed and finished portrait of a complex character, clearly very vulnerable and needy despite his bluster and hauteur. Duncan Bell’s Charles Swann was every bit as pale as the friends he visits proclaimed him to be; we believe him when he tells one of them that his doctors give him only a few more months to live. Swann’s deep interest in Vermeer and his scenes of bustling life is given its full due with a huge backdrop, raised out of the floor at the end of the play and covering the bland seascape and somewhat abstract image shown to us earlier. The drop reproduces Vermeer’s picture of Delft Harbor and emph­asizes the glimpse of gold wall (it looked like a roof to me, I have to say) that, for Marcel, recaptures the entire image.

All of this made for a moving, memorable experience in the theatre. Much to their credit, Pinter and Trevis stay well away from what has become the cliché of Proustian technique, the madelaine, whose taste conjures up a vast canvas of lived experience for this most reclusive of writers. Unfortunately, I’ll have to wait until after I retire to remedy this seven-volume gap in my reading.


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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