A Trip Down Amnesia Lane

26 January 2013

Stephen Sondheim’s musical Merrily We Roll Along and an encore screening of Trainspotting remind me of the irresistible awfulness of revisiting the past. 

The word “nostalgia” is a compound of two Greek expressions – νόστος (nóstos), meaning “homecoming”, and ἄλγος (álgos), meaning “pain or ache”. Though it’s more commonly used in modern parlance to refer to a sentimental longing for the past, the essential ingredient of nostalgia, at least according to the Ancient Greeks, is pain or suffering. As comforting as it can be to remember the past, it’s inevitably suffused with sadness, as we realise that the past is lost to us, and can never be revisited or recovered. Nostalgia is, arguably, the emotion that makes us most human. Unlike animals who move only forward with survival and reproduction as their only goals, we crazy old humans are able to look backwards in time and reflect on our past selves, mostly making ourselves miserable in the process as we recall earlier, happier times, or sometimes kid ourselves that there were earlier happier times to remember.

The emotional intensity of nostalgia has, unsurprisingly, inspired most of the world’s great works of art – Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, and Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion springing most readily to mind this morning. In the last forty eight hours, I’ve had an unexpected double dose of nostalgia – Stephen Sondheim’s musical Merrily We Roll Along, enjoying a wonderful revival at the Menier Chocolate Factory, which plays backwards in time from the 1970s to the 1950s, leaving the lead character with a killer case of nostalgia for his idealistic youth; and Danny Boyle’s film Trainspotting – not in itself a study of nostalgia, but reminding me of an exciting chapter in my own past, when anything felt possible. Each one on their own might have been blithely entertaining, with the sweet and sour taste of nostalgia. Seen back to back, they were enough to wipe out my weekend.

Merrily We Roll Along starts at a louche Hollywood poolside party in the 1970s, where film producer Frank, decked out in a revealing pair of polyester flares, is celebrating the success of his new schlocky-sounding blockbuster. It all looks fabulously jet set and Jackie Collins-decadent, but the rot is setting in. In the background his boozy brittle wife Gussie fumes as Frank carries on with a young starlet, while Frank’s old friend Mary knocks back Scotch and declares them all a pack of phonies. An awkward mention is made of Charlie, Frank’s former friend and writing partner, who’s just had a hit in New York with a new play. As things spiral out of control, Frank is left alone, alienated and unhappy, asking a silent “Where did it all go wrong?” as the scene fades.

The rest of the piece attempts to answer Frank’s question, as each scene jumps back in time by five to ten years, filling in the backstory of Frank and Mary and Charlie’s history. Gradually we learn that the trio were friends in college and struggling writers together in the early 60s, producing a sweetly terrible musical revue sketch in a nightclub where they were first discovered by Gussie and her then husband, a Broadway producer. Frank and Charlie write a hit musical – not the “great work” of their dreams, but something shallow and silly and guaranteed to be a success – and slowly Frank becomes seduced by the pull of Hollywood and strays from his partnership with Charlie. Meanwhile, Mary becomes a successful novelist but drinks herself into a pit of misery realising that she’ll never be able to articulate her romantic feelings for Frank.

The appeal of Sondheim’s reverse narrative is that it replicates the bittersweet experience of nostalgia. It’s a strangely agonising process watching the younger Frank, Charles and Mary, dreaming their big dreams and with no idea where their lives are headed. This is, of course, what it is to be human – life moves only forwards, and we have no knowledge about what might be around the corner. It’s only in hindsight that we’re able to construct a complete narrative about the twists and turns of life. Merrily’s narrative becomes that act of hindsight, in which we’re forearmed with knowledge of How It Ends that the younger characters lack. This generates huge sympathy towards the three, whose vulnerability, idealism and cluelessness echoes our own.

The story ends (almost) at the beginning, with the three watching the launch of Sputnik from their apartment rooftop, bright-eyed, brimming with excitement about the possibilities of the future and their plans to take the world by storm. It’s an extraordinary, excruciating moment – the joy of the characters tempered by our painful realisation that their friendship won’t last 20 years. Any recollection of the past must necessarily reckon with the present. As a reminder of this, Sondheim neatly circles back again to 1970s Frank, clutching the script of his and Charlie’s unfinished musical, and no doubt silently pondering his future. It’s an intriguing, ambiguous moment – is he despairing that he made the wrong choices and that his life is a sham, or is this the trigger for a turning point in his life, in which he’ll sit down and finish the great musical he never got around to writing? Maria Friedman’s production leaves the question deliciously unanswered, sparking fierce debate from audiences afterwards.

Merrily would’ve been unbearable were it not for a sparkling witty script, Sondheim’s delicious score, and a perfectly cast ensemble who play the parts with great passion and feeling. It’s shortly to transfer to the West End, where I hope it finds the larger audience that it richly deserves. It is, unusually, I think, a drama for and about adults. I’m not sure that my 20 year old self would’ve been able to grasp the implications of Merrily, having not been around long enough to sense the inexorability of the passage of time or to learn that some choices can’t be replayed or recovered.

It was in this emotionally fragile state that I went to see Trainspotting, screening as part of a BFI retrospective on director Danny Boyle. I was expecting an entertaining romp through a film I’ve seen many times and loved. What I got was a bumpy ride back to my life in 1996, and, again, the bittersweet taste of nostalgia that follows revisiting an iconic moment from my youth.

Danny Boyle’s first two films, Shallow Grave and Trainspotting felt instantly like they would be defining cultural points in my generation: hip, edgy, techno-scored, dark and cynical, they were also fabulously dynamic pieces of filmmaking. I first saw Trainspotting on a trip to Melbourne in 1996, when I was 21. Despite it confirming what I’d decided years before about never, ever wanting to touch drugs, I was dazzled by the film’s energy and intelligence and its bold presentation of a sexy nihilism, which felt very 90s. (It also confirmed Ewan McGregor as a significant lust object in my life, though that’s another story). I remember watching Trainspotting and making a pact with myself that I, too, would have adventures, though nothing involving heroin or prison. The (slightly tinny) montage where Renton moves to London seemed hugely exciting. In the context of the film, London’s status as a glamorous metropolis was meant to be read ironically – if anything, it’s a Sodom and Gomorrah where the hapless drug addicts’ problems become writ even larger than they were in Edinburgh – but to me, it seemed hugely exciting. “One day, I will live there,” I remember saying to myself.

As I now know, I ended up living in both Edinburgh and London. What an odd experience it was, though, to see the film 17 years later, looking back from the other side of the fence, and pondering the ups and downs of the various choices that lead me here. Like the characters in Merrily, the excitement of being 21 and sitting in a movie theatre in Melbourne watching Trainspotting was my sense that (almost) anything might be possible, but that life hasn’t yet fashioned itself inexorably in one way or another. Almost 20 years on, that feeling has tempered somewhat. My 20s are long over, and I’m in the closing years of my 30s. The choices made or not made as a younger man have been made, and can’t be reversed and remade. Though it’s unimportant for the purpose of this analysis whether I’m happy or satisfied with the choices I’ve made, I share with Merrily‘s older characters a pang of nostalgia for the sense of unlimited possibility that’s unique to being in one’s youth, and the flinty metallic taste that comes from knowing that life only unspools in one direction.

It’s unsurprising that I’ve spent much of the last six months working on a first draft of a novel that’s based on my life in my mid 20s. Perhaps, like Sondheim, I’m trying to impose an aesthetic order on my life and my choices in a way only art allows you to do. I take great comfort from the fact that Merrily was, of all Sondheim’s works, his most slow-burning work and the one that seems to have taken the longest to mature to artistic fruition. Dismissed as a flop when it was first performed on 1981, it ran for only 16 performances on Broadway before closing. Sondheim tinkered away at it over the years, and supervised a revised premier in 1992 at a theatre in Leicester (of all places). He’s given his semi-regal kiss of approval to this production, and seems satisfied that it finally “works” – and given its ecstatic critical and audience reception, he appears to have hit on something that’s both personally meaningful and relatable to other people. Sometimes it takes 30-odd years to get something right, suggesting that, while life goes only forward and our past can’t be replayed, it still pays to keep plugging on forward.

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