Writing history

Communicative memory and conversational remembering in August Wilson’s 'The Piano Lesson'

Seminar Paper, 2008
13 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Time and place

3. Communicative and cultural memory

4. Communicative memory in The Piano Lesson
4.1 Wining Boy and Cloetha
4.2 Wining Boy and the ghosts of the yellow dog
4.3 Crawley’s death
4.4 The History of the Charles family

5. Site of memory

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

History is an issue of great meaning within the works of August Wilson. In this paper shall be analysed through which channels and with which methods the author transports not only the history of a family, but also the history of slavery interwoven with the experiences of the characters and their ancestors in the award winning novel The Piano Lesson. In this process of analysis we will find, that Wilson proposes a concept of memory that can be summed up with the term “kommunikatives Gedächtnis” which was coined by Jan and Aleida Assmann and further developed by Harald Welzer. For better understanding the term “communicative memory” will be used instead. In his play Wilson uses the method of storytelling. Through this we can see how the characters within the play communicate with each other and on one level transport communicative memory. But on the other level the reader becomes a silent listener participating in these conversations and in this role is able to read historical elements from the subtext of the stories told. In the last chapter August Wilson’s way of communicating memory will be compared to Toni Morrison’s approach in Site of Memory.

2. Time and place

What the reader finds in the first lines of the play is a short description of the setting. This short text tells about the Charles’ house and the people who live in it. Most of the description however is concerned with the piano. “What time or period is the setting for The Piano Lesson? That was the first question asked by the late great Chinese actor and director Ying Roucheng after he read the play in 1991.”[1] His confusion concerning the time in which the action of the play is set can be understood easily, because nothing in the secondary text informs the reader about the temporal conditions of the play. It is necessary to take a closer look at the primary text to find the hints Wilson gives to define the temporal situation. The most prominent of those hints can be found in Doaker’s story about the piano when he says, that his older brother Boy Charles “would have been fifty-seven if he had lived.

He died in 1911 when he was thirty-one years old.”[2] Subsequently the reader has to do the math. Knowing this, the play must take place in the year 1936 or 1937. That Wilson does not inform the reader initially can be seen as a way of creating a different way of looking at history than the traditional one. The reader has to “listen” to Doaker’s story to get information about the present time. This communicative way of transporting historical events will be dealt with in detail later on.

3. Communicative and cultural memory

What Welzer means with communicative memory must be seen in contrast to the technical term “kulturelles Gedächtnis/cultural memory”, also coined by Jan Assmann, and the modern view on human memory. The way in which humans remember and forget is not a singular one. Modern psychology and social science have determined several methods through which information is saved within the human mind. The first distinction that must be made is between sensory-, short term- and long-term memory. Sensory memory has only a capacity of few milliseconds and is responsible to retain certain stimuli within the sensing organ. The retina for example saves the information entering through the eye for about two milliseconds, so that this information can be transported to the brain even if the stimulus itself only lasted shorter. Short term memory can be seen as a limited buffer for memory items or chunks. It can hold about from six to eight entities but has a rapid decay. Only when these chunks are mentally repeated they can be kept over time. On this way and by linking the information to other existing memories, they can enter into long term memory, which is intended for saving information over a longer period and in a wider variety. These distinctions can be found in almost any introductory book about general psychology. But not only information like facts and data is saved in the long term memory but also emotions, feelings, procedures and episodes from an individual’s life. Jan Assmann defined his concept of cultural memory as:

Sammelbegriff für alles Wissen, das im spezifischen Interaktionsrahmen einer Gesellschaft Handeln und Erleben steuert und von Generation zu Generation zu wiederholten Einübung und Einweisung ansteht.[3]

On this background of a memory, that is not fixed in time and highly ritualized he differs the communicative memory which Welzer describes as the short term memory of society.[4] Its existence is linked to the life of its bearers/communicators and reaches over roughly 80 years or three to four generations. The cultural memory is the basis of a society’s consciousness of unity and individuality. The communicative memory on the other hand functions in a similar way for smaller groups, like families and their members as individuals. Communicative and cultural memory, as explained by Welzer, however, can not be seen as two separated structures but rather are influenced by each other:

Das kommunikative Gedächtnis bezeichnet […] die eigensinnige Verständigung der Gruppenmitglieder darüber, was sie für ihre eigene Vergangenheit im Wechselspiel mit der Großerzählung der Wir-Gruppe halten und welche Bedeutung sie dieser beilegen.[5]

The space in which this communicative memory exists is communication. Members of a family for example define their own past, present and future in a way of “conversational remembering”[6]. In this case the past does not necessarily have to be talked about per se, but forms itself in the background of a story for example told at a family reunion:

Ein großer Teil der Praxis des kommunikativen Gedächtnisses transportiert Vergangenheit und Geschichte en passant, von den Sprechern unbemerkt, beiläufig, absichtslos.[7]

The feeling of being an individual depends strongly on these repeated acts of “conversational remembering” or “memory talk”. Seeing oneself in contrast and in accord with the group’s memory enables a person to define himself as an individual.

4. Communicative memory in The Piano Lesson

In Wilson’s play we find several situations in which members of the Charles family come together and engage in a grouped act of story-telling and “conversational remembering“. There is the moment, when Doaker, Wining Boy, Boy Willie and Lymon sit together in the kitchen and Wining Boy tells about his former fiancé Cloetha. Then there is the story of Wining Boy about how he met the ghosts of the yellow dog on a railroad track. Boy Willie and Berniece remember the time when Crawley was killed, Wining Boy again tells the story of Lymon’s family and most prominently Doaker explains the carvings on the piano to Boy Willie by telling the story of the Charles family. “The arrival of Doaker’s brother Wining Boy puts the household into family reunion mode with ghost stories and other reminiscences as a backdrop to the ongoing contest of wills between brother and sister.”[8] This “family reunion mode” forms the basis on which communicative memory can take place. How the theory of communicative memory can be applied to those situations in detail, will be the issue of the following paragraphs.

4.1 Wining Boy and Cloetha

When Wining Boy reads the letter about Cloetha’s death he and Doaker engage in a conversation about Wining Boy’s youth and his relationship with this woman. The conversational remembering is first signified in Wining Boy’s rhetorical question:”You remember I used to run around there.”[9] By telling the story Wining Boy mostly states, that the woman and moreover his memory of her was a basis for his own hope and identity: “When it didn’t look like there was nothing else for me, I said, thank God, at least I had that.”[10] For Wining Boy this conversation obviously has the function of reassuring himself of a coherent autobiographical history. To the reader on the other hand, who implicitly also takes part in it, this story transports more than this. He gains a view on the figure as a rambling, restless young black man, who is driven out from his southern home. In the subtext He is presented with a person reacting to the circumstances of his time and sociological environment in a particular way and so gains historical knowledge.


[1] Felicia Hardison Londré, “A Piano and Its history: family and transcending family,” The Cambridge Companion to August Wilson, ed. Christopher Bigsby (New York: CUP, 2007) p. 113.

[2] August Wilson, The Piano Lesson (New York: Penguin Books, 1990) p. 45.

[3] Jan Assmann, „Kollektives Gedächtnis und kulturelle Identität,“Kultur und Gedächtnis, ed. J. Assmann, T. Hölscher (Frankfurt a. M.: Fischer, 1988) p. 9.

[4] Harald Welzer, Das kommunikative Gedächtnis: Eine Theorie der Erinnerung, (München: C.H. Beck, 2002), p. 14.

[5] Welzer (2002), p. 15.

[6] Dover Middleton, D. Edwards, “Conversational Remembering: a social psychological approach,” Collective remembering, ed. D. Middleton, D. Edwards (London: Sage, 1990) p. 112.

[7] Welzer (2002), p. 16.

[8] Hardison Londré (2007), p. 114.

[9] Wilson (1990), p. 31.

[10] Wilson (1990), p. 32.

Excerpt out of 13 pages


Writing history
Communicative memory and conversational remembering in August Wilson’s 'The Piano Lesson'
University of Bamberg
African American Drama
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Writing, African, American, Drama
Quote paper
Andreas Fingas (Author), 2008, Writing history, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/113108


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