The Memory Palace in Paula Vogel's Plays
Alan Shepard and Mary Lamb
Gore Vidal quipped in 1971 that “Americans hate history” (qtd. in Brownrigg 26). It is often observed that that caricature took root in Puritan society. Four centuries ago, those who landed in what would become New England were eschewing the past, or at least parts of it. Two centuries later, Tocqueville would praise the American habit of looking forward: “Democracy shuts the past to poetry but opens the future” (485). Notwithstanding his affection for America, however, Tocqueville also saw how democracy makes “men forget their ancestors” (508) because it privileges pragmatic self-interest, which often requires that the messy complexities of the past be cast off so as not to fetter an aggressive pursuit of the future. What Tocqueville marked as a tension between blinkered optimism and willful forgetting in nineteenthcentury America has often been made painfully explicit in the subsequent two centuries. The Civil War, emancipation, suffrage, the depression, the modern Civil Rights movement, feminism, gay and lesbian liberation, Vietnam— these cataclysms have forced Americans to grapple with the nation's collective past.
Paula Vogel collects shards of these events from America's past to make historical landscapes for her plays. America's uninterest in history is sometimes even an opportunity for whimsy. Take, for example, an exchange between Anna and a lover du jour in an imaginary Amsterdam in The Baltimore Waltz. Anna, dying of Acquired Toilet Disease, a comic analog of AIDS, is encouraged to visit the city's Van Gogh gallery and the Rijksmuseum. Replying to his advice, Anna sighs, “What's the use? I won't remember them, I'll have no memory.” Her beau, The Little Dutch Boy at Age 50, extrapolates cynically: “So you are an American?” (33). It's not simply that Anna is being pegged as a philistine who spurns Art. The Dutch Boy blunders across one of the principal topoi in Vogel's plays—the lack of interest in memory in contemporary American culture. Ironically, Anna is obsessed with memory. Only two scenes earlier she had