Academic journal article TheatreForum

This Geometry of Memory: SITI and Charles Mee's Hotel Cassiopeia

Academic journal article TheatreForum

This Geometry of Memory: SITI and Charles Mee's Hotel Cassiopeia

Article excerpt

According to the ancient Greeks, human memory was often considered to be an objective science. This science of memory-known as Ars Memoriae (the art of memory) or the Method of Loci-finds its foundations in myth and legend rather than in the physical sciences. According to ancient legend, the poet Simonides of Ceos was employed by Scopes, a wealthy aristocrat, to attend a banquet and sing the praises of his benefactor. Simonides began his performance by first praising the gods, as was the custom of the time, thereby enraging Scopas, who felt that the gods had unjustly stolen the limelight from him. Simonides was paid only half of his agreed fee with the instruction that he should seek the other half from the gods who were praised above Scopas. At this very moment, a messenger arrived and drew Simonides outside while the gods completely destroyed the banquet hall and all of its inhabitants. The devastation was so complete that identification of the bodies was impossible. But Simonides was able to amaze everyone by identifying each person by their exact location within the hall. In the years following, this ability to attach memory to location became the foundation of what would later come to be referred to as "memory palaces."

Thousands of years later, the artistic team of playwright Charles L. Mee and the SITI Company, led by director Anne Bogart, revisits the science of memory in the recent production Hotel Cassiopeia. Arguably the centerpiece of the Actors Theatre of Louisville's 30th Humana Festival of New American Plays, Hotel Cassiopeia is a collaborative journey through the mind and memory of American artist Joseph Cornell, who is known to have produced his unique collage art in an attempt to make sense of his own personal history and place in the world. But for Mee and Bogart, this science of memory must be combined with a certain aesthetic, transforming Cornell's life and memories into a visual collage that mirrors, if not occasionally mimics, the artist's own works. Throughout the production, Cornell is both textually and visually associated with the mythological artist Simonides, thereby equating his unique collage work with Ars Memoriae.

As D.J. Hopkins and Shelley Orr note in their 2001 TheatreForum article, Mee has distinguished himself as both a playwright and a historian, and that "not only have Mee's researches fueled several of his plays, but the plays themselves can be seen as fragmentary, deconstructed replies to his books" (14). Though this largely resulted in Mees successes with his visceral and powerful adaptations of classical Greek drama-as with Orestes, Agamemnon, and Big Love (The Suppliants)-much of this penchant for extraordinary historical detail can be seen in his "artist" plays which attempt to explore the work of American artists through a deft combination of biographical fact, artistic extrapolation, and performative experimentation and exploration.

Inspired by the life and works of American collage artist Joseph Cornell, Hotel Cassiopeia is a collage in its own right, drawing from numerous sources, including "texts taken from his diaries and letters edited by Mary Ann Caws, some of his favorite movies, Deborah Solomons biography Utopia Parkway, the writings of a Cornell workshop [...], the writings of Collette, and the treasures of the internet" (Program notes). This is by no means a new tack for Mee, however, as he has employed many of these same techniques in the writing of the majority of his dramatic works. What is unique about Hotel Cassiopeia, both in terms of the written text and performance text, is the extent to which theatrical form is crafted to mirror the subject matter and vice versa. Remarkably, the subject of the work-the life of Joseph Cornell-becomes almost indistinguishable from the art objects for which he was renowned.

In his so-called "hotel boxes" (from which Hotel Cassiopeia gets its title), Cornell imagined spaces that were simultaneously mundane and exquisite-an imaginary excursion to places that do not exist, and may never have existed-where exotic birds, ballerinas, and stellar constellations could meet and still hold a significant fragment of personal truth for the spectator. …

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