• Jun 22, 2018

A Different Kind of Memory Play

By Laura A. Brueckner

Jordan Harrison’s elegant 2015 Pulitzer-finalist play, Marjorie Prime, conducts a number of thoughtful inquiries into the nature and meaning of memory. Through its characters and their relationships, the play proposes complex topics for consideration: how memory shapes our own sense of who we are, what makes a specific memory valuable—and to whom, and what a memory actually is to begin with.

Harrison introduces us to these questions through the character of 85-year-old Marjorie—a compelling, irascible, clever woman who is experiencing symptoms of memory loss. The exact pathology is never specified in the play; we learn only that Marjorie’s daughter and son-in-law, Tess and Jon, are concerned for her, and have sought the advice of a professional organization called “Senior Serenity” on the best ways to support her well-being.

In addition to bringing Marjorie to live with them, focusing on her nutrition, and hiring a home care aide to assist her while they are at work, Tess and Jon have procured for Marjorie a computer-generated holographic program, known as a “Prime,” to provide additional companionship. (The play is set in 2062; the field of artificial intelligence has advanced enough that digital creations like the Prime are being produced for home use.)

The Prime is designed to collect information about Marjorie’s past by speaking with her, or speaking with Tess or Jon about her. Its purpose is to keep Marjorie mentally active and in constant contact with the key landmarks of her life, to prevent her from losing them. It seems, on the surface, like a perfect solution. Before long, however, the play begins to cast doubt on this scenario. Are memories really just information?

The Prime, of course, would likely respond “Yes.” It is programmed to turn Marjorie’s memories into data that it can store indefinitely, replay, delete, edit, or write over with new data; it offers total memory management. However, we see that this process flattens Marjorie’s lived experiences into mere pieces of content. The Prime can retain Marjorie’s exact phrasing and intonation from the last time she recounted a given story, but it cannot capture the emotional context or impact that gives that story meaning.

Surprisingly, Marjorie seems to regard her memories as editable content, too. In the first scene, we watch her replace a tenuous recollection of a ho-hum film with a convincing (though artificial) experience of something more romantic. This sequence challenges an overly sentimental understanding of memory’s relationship to identity: Marjorie, sturdy and resilient, has no fear that a change to this minor memory will alter who she fundamentally is. As the owner of her memories, she claims the right to redesign them for her own amusement.

Jon, however, also yields to the temptation to spiff up some of Marjorie’s memories. Ethically, this is troublesome; although he intends only to make Marjorie happy, he is inarguably taking control of an aspect of her life that would be inaccessible to him if she were not experiencing memory loss. Is this an act of kindness, or of what Tess calls “pacifying”? The answer is unclear; the play, instead of judging, presents multiple perspectives, inviting us to examine all possible sides.

It is Tess whose understanding of memory conflicts the most fiercely with the Prime’s store-and-replay functionality. For her, memories are truths, not data points; they are emphatically not transferable, disposable, or replaceable. As the play continues, we see that Tess’ attachment to her mother’s memories stems from respect for Marjorie as a capable adult, but only partially. She is also acting from her own need for her mother to stay her mother—that is, to stay the same person Tess has both loved and resented her whole life, so that she can continue to hope that their relationship may someday heal.

When faced with an impossible decision—whether or not to remind Marjorie of a past trauma that impacted their relationship—Tess must weigh her own hopes for emotional resolution against a chance for her mother to finally live free of sorrow. Not all memories are harmless, the play reminds us. So which is better: truth or peace?

Again, Harrison’s play declines to deliver a definitive answer. Instead, it offers iterations of contrasting perspectives, each with its own advantages and shortcomings. The Prime’s version of memory may be problematic, but human memory presents its own set of flaws. Marjorie can access the full range of human emotion, but sometimes struggles to remember—or misremembers—past events that have profoundly impacted her. Even Tess and Jon, who are not yet experiencing age-related memory loss, have complicated relationships to one another’s memories, as well as to Marjorie’s. Marjorie Prime shows us that, although artificial intelligences lack basic human understanding, humans are subject to emotional injuries and needs that can reconfigure their memories in far more unpredictable ways. The result is the play’s evocative invitation to reconsider our memories: our emotional reasons for retaining particular memories, the ways we may alter our memories to suit ourselves, and how this activity has shaped who we are today.