Friday, July 10, 2015

The Silver Coffee Pot

I've been researching memory, and allied subjects, for months, so I can't seem to get out of my head why the last scene in "Skylight" is memorable in an unusual way

“The cocktail party effect” is one example of subconscious memory sorting. In a room full of conversations, we listen to only one. The others become background noise unless our selective radar hones in on another, more salient, conversation across the room. This isn't a conscious decision - our neural system, always on the look-out for our well-being, shifts our hearing and attention on its own. Our first partner, whose words became noise when our attention moved away, may try to bring us back with a question. Our minds seemingly blank, we say, “Sorry, would you repeat that?” But even before he repeats it, we’re often able to retrieve it from short-term memory and provide the answer.

How long does any experience remain in short-term memory? In the farce, "Noises Off," lines are repeated so often that the audience remembers them and begins to mouth the words, with laughter, at each repetition.

But "Skylight" uses memory differently. A 3-character play, in which the man's son appears only in the 1st and last scenes. He comes to the apartment of a woman who lived with his family for many years - their best years, as he remembers them - and he doesn't know why she left them. He asks her for her best memory from that time. She says, "Breakfast." And then goes on to describe breakfast in detail: the juice is cold, the coffee is hot and served from a silver pot, scrambled eggs, the toast wrapped in a napkin. If one were to analyze only the 1st act, the rationale for such detail would be to give us an image of the everyday homeyness of their lives together.

In the last scene, the son brings her breakfast the following day. He tells her that the coffee is hot, holds out a thermos. He doesn't mention that he's pouring it into a silver pot. He doesn't mention that he's wrapping the toast in a napkin. And yet those unspoken words come back to us from the 1st scene and bring us near tears. And change the play for us because we can imagine that scene changing the woman, and perhaps giving all the characters a different future than we'd thought possible.

Why did we remember those words, seemingly unimportant, except as a writerly device, in the 1st scene, but vital to the play? Why were we able to supply them ourselves, 2 hours later, in the last scene? Much credit has to go to Matthew Beard, who played the son. He showed us their importance to his character - how lovingly he lifted the coffee pot from its box and placed it on the table, how carefully he wrapped the toast. Credit, too, to Carey Mulligan, who played the woman, and gave us those details lovingly in the 1st scene.

I remember the gist of other lines from the play, but I can't quote them exactly. "The cocktail party effect," or selective listening, like all innate autonomic phenomena, is believed to benefit us in some way. So does part of the credit for remembering those 1st-scene words go to the audience, and what they want for the characters?

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