By: Choo Ruizhi
I watched a student-produced play on Saturday, called Everlife.
It cost $18, which is a lot of money, even if you are from the Singaporean bourgeoisie, and have pretensions to high culture. I didn’t have just a few pretensions to high culture. Not many, just a few. The play gave me some food for thought.
Of course, the work itself had its flaws, despite the weeks and months of effort put into crafting this work. At certain points, the title “Everlife” seemed to describe the play’s duration than its subject matter, and there were certain dialogues that fell rather flat. But hey, who doesn’t make mistakes?
I also walked away from the play feeling very drained, because it was a production that let rip with many displays of anger, sadness and frustration. My main gripe with that is that I could have saved $18 and watched my own life if I wanted to experience anger, sadness, grief and frustration (okay I’m kidding guys, really I am).
Moreover, the deus ex machina (“an unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation, especially as a contrived plot device in a play” – quick Google search) conclusion was unsatisfying and unconvincing for me. Two characters with painful, traumatic pasts, conveniently saved in one single scene of redemption? I get that one must suspend disbelief when watching plays, but this was one emotional stretch too many. At some point it felt like someone had decided “okay, I think we need to wrap up now”, and then steered the play to a hurried conclusion. But with a work so long that was perhaps inevitable.
What captured my imagination about ‘Everlife’, though, were its ghosts.
First, a hurried, scribbled caricature of the play. As far as I can gather and remember, ‘Everlife’ examines the use of a theoretical technology which allows its users to re-engage with past lives and past personalities. So a user of the Everlife technology can put on a special pair of glasses and talk to a past “someone” who had/has an Everlife account, almost as if this person was in front of them again, anew.
The play centres on the characters of Xin Yi and Richard, who are employees of the Everlife company. These two character (illegally) use the technology for their own purposes. The common thread here is that both are escaping into the past.
Richard, whose parents died in a car crash years ago, finds solace in the ‘everlife’ of a deceased, depressed suicide, Abigail, who had hung herself several years ago. As a programmer(?) Richard had stumbled onto her Everlife account while checking for glitches. The collected, collated memories of Abigail become his only source of comfort in the wake of his parents’ death. This is of course, incredibly creepy and ethically questionable, but hey, Richard’s been through a lot. How would we cope with such a personal catastrophe?
Enter Xin Yi, who discovers Abigail’s (who was her childhood friend) everlife being used by Richard. Xin Yi is weirded out, but then Xin Yi isn’t one to talk, because she uses her employee privileges to escape into the past, with the everlife of her first ex-boyfriend. There is a sub-plot somewhere about her crippling inadequacies and how she struggles with them in the context of the workplace. I suppose that was supposed to add depth to her character, and partly explains why would keep escaping into the spectral arms of her ex-lover, who has moved on in real life. On Facebook, anyway, as one scene showed.
Eventually, Xin Yi’s busybodying curiosity leads her into Richard’s path. They clash and argue. Issues about “WHY ARE YOU INVADING MY PRIVACY” and “WHAT RIGHT HAVE YOU TO PRY” ensue. Lots of shouting, sobbing and gnashing of teeth. There are literally scenes where Richard cries mother and cries father.
Eventually, at (what I guess you could call) the play’s denouemeunt (“day-noo-mon”, referring to the climax of a play… I may have cultural pretensions), Richard tries to kill himself. Coincidentally, Xin Yi rushes in and stops him. They finally thrash their difference out. Magically, things are better from then on. Richard is no longer so grumpy, and takes Xin Yi’s advice. Xin Yi stops using her ex as a crutch. The last few minutes of the play is sort of salad dressing, because you can guess things are going into “happily ever after” mode already from then on.
Richard and Xin Yi are thus redeemed from this single instance of human connection, at the day-noo-mon. Their self-contained realities are smashed as they come into dialogue with each other. Xin Yi helps to bandage Richard’s hand. There is thus even a literal, physical connection between these two fractured individuals. Two worlds are breached, but also bridged. The play suggests that there is the possibility that the sometimes-self-destructive realities we live in can be salvaged and redeemed through the possibility of sincere, genuine human kindness and compassion.
(As a corollary, it’s also interesting to note that Richard tries to stab himself in his suicide attempt, and succeeds in drawing blood. Blood is also the reason why Xin Yi comes in to bandage him up, perhaps in more than a physical way. On a metaphorical level, the suicide is successful because the old Richard dies away from this scene onwards, and we see an individual who turns away from the totalising grip of the past, and begins to look to the possibilities new peoples, new futures entail. He dies unto himself in his suicide attempt here.)
To me, the play is also about the (in)ability to let go. It is about the gaps in our lives. It is about ghosts.
Absences in the Present
Everlife throws up an interesting question. If you had the means to preserve the memories of your loved one, in a manner so vivid that it was almost like they were there, would you do it? (“or just let it slip?” Cf. Eminem and his mum’s spaghetti)
I walked away into the joyous singing darkness of the Saturday evening (it had just rained and Yale-NUS has a lovely huge pond with perhaps a thousand frogs, happily chirping away that night) munching on that question. I think my answer for now is an empathic “no”.
Because as much as life is about acquiring new talents, new memories, new perspectives, it is also about forgetting. It is also about letting go.
We like to talk about the past, and what we remember about it. But there is also an aspect about remembering that we often forget, its silent twin – the idea of forgetting. What we remember is simply what we have not forgotten. But sometimes we actually need to forget in order to survive.
Years of rote learning and drilling have convinced us that remembering things down to the smallest detail is a talent and a virtue. But years of living as human beings have also shown us how necessary it is to forget. We would rather not remember some of the awkward things we once did, to ourselves or to other people. We would rather forget some of our past failures, or the people we hurt deeply and grievously. The past is another country, but it is sometimes also a dark forest filled with unpredictable terrors and failures. We need to forget in order to move on, in order to reinvent ourselves, in order to step into new incarnations. This is, in part, what dreams are for.
Sure, it may be a great idea to hold on to the memory of loved ones. In the absence of an all-encompassing technology like Everlife, we utilise objects to access the past. A letter, charged with words of love and affection, or a photograph, that froze time on a hot April morning. Remembering can be a bittersweet process. It is a paradox, that memories of joy and laughter and happiness can also bring us much pain sometimes.
‘Everlife’ struck me because it does not actually talk about a far-off future. It talks about ghosts we confront everyday: through an unexpected smell, a thought, a turn of phrase, a landscape, a taste, a song.
‘Everlife’ simply takes this premise and amplifies these ghosts, making them appear whole and complete again – until you can almost feel them, and touch them, or even (in one awkwardly executed scene) make love to them. It looks like an amazing idea. But that joy is illusory, because living with people who are long gone, either deceased or moved-on, locks us in a static past. We become data-points on a continual loop, trapped forever in prisons we choose to live inside, unable and unwilling to crack our shells of solitude. I’ve come to realise that is a horrible way to live.
As I contemplate Everlife, I cannot help but think of Cobb, the protagonist of that oneiric epic, Inception, who runs back continually to his dreams so that he can be with his dead wife. Or, more accurately, the memories of his dead wife. This causes him a lot of pain, and even endangers the lives of his colleagues. Like Cobb, the Richard in Everlife is only able to find new life, new possibilities when he finally lets go of his past.
“I wish. I wish more than anything. But I can’t imagine you with all your complexity, all you perfection, all your imperfection. Look at you. You are just a shade of my real wife. You’re the best I can do; but I’m sorry, you are just not good enough…I miss more than I can bear, but we had our time together. I have to let you go” – Cobb, talking to the ‘dream’ of his dead wife, Inception (2010)
And perhaps our lives are a whole series of letting-gos. It’s certainly a theme many poets, writers, thinkers and dreamers have thought and written and sung at length about. It’s at the core of much of human suffering, and thus, human existence – the desire for something, the fear of losing it, and the struggle to reconcile that terrifying abyssal fear.
The Name of an Insurance Company
When I first saw the name for one of this year’s USProductions, I was a little disturbed by its title. ‘Everlife’ sounded (and still sounds) like the name of an insurance company. (You know, the kind your Primary Two classmate is now working at, and suddenly contacted you from, because he wants to “catch up” over coffee…). But I’ve since realised that there is significance in that title, and at least two layers of meaning to be discerned.
On a literal level it talks about the technology and concept that allows you to keep your loved ones close to you, forever. There will be no fear of death, no fear of grief of loss or suffering or pain. There will only be everlife.
But perhaps hidden deeper in the play is a more delicious paradox, a better premise: that of letting go. I do not speak of giving up on human beings and human relationships, because no wo/man is an island, and we are all social, gregarious animals, no matter what your Buzzfeed article may tell you about how “% INTRO- EXTRO- AMBI-PER=VERT” you are. I speak about the struggle mere humanity confronts and grapples every day of its life, for-ever; the struggle to love and then to lose, to hold and then to let go, with grace and with dignity, and to go on with life.
Ghosts are real. More often than not, we make them, and then allow them to exert a relentless grip over how we navigate and negotiate and process our realities. I watched a play on Saturday, and it reminded me that we need to exorcise our ghosts, to leave them be or to let them go, if we are to ever live.
“to live in this world
you must be able
to do three things
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go”
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of The Cinnamon Roll or its editors.