The Memory of Nothing

Spring 2013, Author: Matthew Preston

I first came across ‘A memory of nothing’ by accident.  I was browsing the second hand stalls outside the NFT looking with no great purpose for whatever might catch my attention.  In between a geological survey of the Devon coast and a forgotten Penguin Everyman discussion of time lay the thin booklet containing Stoner’s only published play.  I idly flicked through it and somewhat intrigued by the lack of dialogue, paid the twenty pence indicated on the cover.

For the next two months the play sat forgotten on my bookshelf.  Work had got busy and I was too caught up in the industry press to read for pleasure.  However, out of the blue, an old friend called and suggested we meet to catch up.  Having long ago nurtured something of a student crush on her, I readily agreed and was doubly delighted when she suggested a trip to the Southwark Playhouse to catch their new production of ‘A memory of nothing’.  That evening I sat and read the whole script.

This was not too onerous a task, as the play was mostly devoid of content.  The inaction centred around a middle-aged man who upon being suddenly bereaved, locks himself in an attic.  There he sits and (without any explanation how he came by them) reads his wife’s letters written to an assortment of her friends.

We are given an indication of his love for his wife at the start of the play in a sentimental and soppy monologue.  At the end, we are treated to invective and anger just before our hero kills himself.  Such a change, may be readily attributed to the correspondence.  But Stoner confounds us, and I admit, confounded my patience as I read.  For each time the actor reads a letter the playwright has him exclaim the name of the recipient, and the date.  Then Stoner gives a simple direction: “Marc reads the letter in silence before discarding it.”.  And that is the sole direction and dialogue for seven pages, spanning some forty letters.  There is no indication of the letters’ contents until at the end of the play the hero delivers his unheralded rant and promptly tops himself.

All of which, you understand, left me decidedly pessimistic about the performance the following evening!  I mentioned the script to my friend but we agreed that such a short play – nine pages total – would soon be over and we could afterwards repair to the embankment for drinks.  I have to also admit to a slightly macabre curiosity; what could have caused the young theatre group to have chosen this play?

At the time, the Southwark Playhouse was one of those delightful fringe theatres squeezed into the space between old warehouses, converted factories and new restaurants under the vaults of London Bridge railway station.  Actually, my calling it a theatre is misleading to the reader who may be more used to the colosseums of the West End, or the RST in Stratford, or even a school hall for the pantomime.  The intimate room we were ushered into had been set up to resemble a dusty, romanticised attic.  There was only a single entrance and exit, that through which we entered.  A couple of rickety steps led up to the stage, giving the appearance of a staircase.  On one wall was a mock window, light beaming through its protruding frame onto the off square central stage, whose angled floor added to the appearance of a confined space squeezed in below the tiles.  Around the edges were scattered about twenty chairs – each placed at such a distance from the rest that any conversation with other members of the audience was prohibited.  My friend and I found two seats reasonably close to each other and waited for the remaining audience to settle.

I normally use the minutes between taking my seat and the start of the performance to read the program, but the instant the last of the twenty had taken their seats, the lights fell.  Accompanied by a howl which came straight from the pages of Poe, a black suited young woman, hair cropped close and a thin pencilled moustache stencilled on her upper lip, stumbled onto the stage through the door.

Some entrance!  And the first soliloquy that followed was equally full of anguish and frustration.  Far from being the soppy and romanticised outpouring of a flowery poet, the young actress imbued it with the sincere lament of a middle aged man, whom having lost his soul partner in some agonising and premature misadventure, now falls back to clich√© in giving vent to his emotion.  In her performance Stoner’s cumbersome and over elaborated prose became stuttering, shuddering jolts to the soul.  I was enraptured; from the first syllable she had inhabited this man and this speech alone was worth the price of the ticket.

After falling exhausted into a reverie following the opening monologue, the actress drew from her jacket a packet of letters, with a reverence and guilt that at once painted a picture of illicit but irresistible theft. The bereaved husband – for in our eyes no longer did the young actress stand before us – preceded to read each letter precisely as directed.  But, far from being a dull, repetitive process, each name and date read out painted a picture: each trembling lip, shaking hand and whitened knuckle told of the oppressive mother-in-law, of lost friends, of a suspected lover.  As he read the letters, the husband became both more confused, jealous and angry.  Clearly the woman he had spoken of at the beginning of the play was not the same as the one who wrote these letters.  As her unhappiness led to his suspicion of infidelity and then to actual, confirmed betrayal and guilt, it became clear that this man who had been married for so long did not really know the woman who had just died.  The time flew past in a rich tapestry of silence; weaved with broad and subtly coloured reactions to the letters that gave birth to patterns that I had been unable to draw alone.

And the final speech, which in content and form appeared so angry on the page, now it was a yearning, searching exploration of betrayal and ignorance.  The bereavement had been doubled; not only had his wife died, but the woman he had thought her to be had been shown to be a chimera.  This speech was a longing to return to what had been but a short time before and yet could never be again.  When he paused and stared blankly out of the window you felt a palpable desire, √† la recherche du temps perdu,  to rejoin his wife and explore their relationship anew. As we watched, that desire drew him to the ledge and over into the abyss beyond.

We left the theatre enraptured.  My friend and I walked in silence down along the Embankment, contemplating the lights reflecting off of the Thames.  Our talk in the bar afterwards dwelt on misunderstandings: that between people, and that of the play and of the playwright.  We were divided; she enthusing on the genius of a playwright who gave actors such subtle freedoms, I on the merits of the actress who could bring such a worthless play to life.  The biography on Stoner in the programme was little help in resolving our disagreement.  The few facts given, including that this was his only published play, could be used to bolster both our views.  In the end, in deference to the memory of my infatuation, I pretended to allow her to convince me and we parted in high spirits: she from an argument won and I from the memory of a performance of nothing.

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