Thinking About Theater

ReGoogling of Things Past

Our Clouded Memories.

Julie Harris in <i>The Belle of Amherst</i> in London.
Julie Harris in The Belle of Amherst in London.

(© Associated Press)

This was going to be a silly-fun essay, a little light relief from the heavy stuff I was ruminating on last month. And then Julie Harris died. I don’t mean that the event instantly plunged me into deep grief: Ms. Harris, whom I had the good luck to see onstage many times but never had the honor to meet, lived a rich, lengthy artistic life, spanning many decades and an astonishing range of roles. She left enough evidence of her magical artistry behind her on film, video, and audio so that her future in the pantheon of the world’s great performers is assured. My sadness at her leaving us is far outweighed by my joy that she was here among us for so many years.

But — because I was already mulling this topic over when the news of her passing came — I did grieve a little, as the online tributes poured in, because I couldn’t help wondering how soon some theater person under 30 would hear her name and say the dreaded line — the one that has become, in the 21st century, the most familiar phrase in intergenerational conversation.

“Julie Harris? I don’t know who that is.”

Countless artists have suffered that indignity. The phrase extends universally: These days, it seems, nobody has ever heard of anybody. When Cheyenne Jackson spoke the fatal line on Broadway some years back, in the musical Xanadu, he was responding to someone’s mention of Errol Flynn. But it could just as easily have been Leon Errol, Leslie Howard, Louis Hayward, or Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. In today’s world, all names are unknown. “I don’t know who that is” has become the song of our time. Only the most recent and the most ultra-celebrated names, works, and ideas are exempt; the rest have vanished from the public consciousness, as cleanly as if they had all fallen off a cliff.

Of course, individuals still remember; specialists still know the great names and the pivotal events of their special field. Cultural amnesia is general, not uniform. All human brains have not been emptied simultaneously, as if they were network computers over whose data storage someone had passed a giant magnet. The pleasures of memory and the meanings of history will never disappear from human awareness; they form an essential part of what makes us human. Only, the era we live in exerts high pressures, and demands rapid responses; it blasts us with too much information to be stored and sorted handily. Far simpler, under those circumstances, to let the machine do the job: The record of humanity’s past is no longer lodged in our personal gray cells, but in the cloud from which all informational blessings flow when you click “Download.”

And why shouldn’t it be stored there? After all, you can program your bank account to pay your credit card bills, your smartphone to remind you when you have a dental appointment, and your coffee maker to start brewing before you get up in the morning. Why not let those ever-tinier memory chips store and sort some of your culture’s larger meanings too? Maneuvering through today’s media barrage is far easier without the burden of endless facts, concepts, and names. Wikipedia, be thou my guide. If I am asked to differentiate Shirley Booth from Shirley Verrett, and explain why neither of them could have been Shirley Jackson, I can rely on you to be there for me.

Granting their limitations, those minuscule chips and those giant storage bins in the virtual sky are far more efficient than our organic brains, so prone to playing nasty tricks on us. Comic playwrights always think it’s funny to make pretentious dowagers get cultural terms wrong, like the lady in Paul Osborn’s The Vinegar Tree who says proudly that a young artist compared her to a Holstein. (Her wiser husband rejoins, “He said ‘Holbein,’ but your word’s more accurate.”) In reality, though, it’s the cultivated, fighting their mental way through piles of accumulated detail, who most often make such slips. Every journalist knows that the inexplicable impulse to write “C.S. Forester” when you mean “E.M. Forster” or “Molissa Fenley” when you mean “Karen Finley” is always there, lurking, eager to drag you down into the depths of humiliating error.

Admittedly, the Web, though infinitely more reliable, has tricks of its own. Even the best-policed website can become the innocent victim of some obsessive’s partiality for this or that side of a question. Wikipedia bios of minor figures from the past often contain startling overestimations of their importance, courtesy of some academic who chose them as his or her thesis topic. Often, too, an inputter’s simple errors of transcription can get magnified into computerized permanence. A recent theatrical example involved the 1958 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. It was a tie, but somehow got registered on all the standard websites as having only one winner (Russell Nype, for Goldilocks). Some discussion on a theater message board triggered a bit of archival delving by that site’s data-honcho contributors, so that the late Leonard Stone’s droll performance in Redhead finally got recognized for tying with Nype. Data-wise, a happy ending.

Not all Internet stories end in such archival happiness. The Web has its interests and its preoccupations. And although materials from the past are arriving online at an astounding rate, the virtual world still has large areas where you simply bump up against blank space, because the matter has not yet been of sufficient interest for anyone to post the relevant data, let alone to sort or interpret it. And the theater — a passion for you and me, but a source of only mild diversion or total disinterest to millions unlike us — often bears the onus of being one of those blank areas. More about that, and about other aspects of Internet-era cultural literacy, next week.

Stay tuned to TheaterMania for part II of this “Thinking About Theater” column, which will appear on Friday, September 20.