What separates humans from the rest of the animal world? Whilst we have many evolutionary advantages it is surely the way our brain evolved its extraordinary capacity to retain and recall information to such a complex degree that makes human fundamentally different from other animals.
Genetically it may be our DNA that determines that we are biologically human but is it not our memories that are essential in creating personality – in essence what turns a ‘human’ into a ‘person’. Without memories we can be biologically human and be expected to treated as such, but if we lose all sense of our memory and the associated ability to make the connections to identify with our past, can we still be thought of as the same person as we were before?
This argument is a modern conception of the Humean idea of the self. We are made up of instances, of individual perceptions, and it is the continuous linkage that creates the self. Without this ability to tap into these experiences, to recall them, do we retain the same self?
Part of the problem with answering these questions is that, compared to our other organs, we know laughably little about the brain and how it functions. Neurologists may claim, with assured prognoses, that x image or y area tells us that a person is a serial killer or understands a joke, but this is all inference. We do not know how it works in practice, we cannot say with certainty what is in a brain that makes one person a genius and another a fool.
This is the starting point for Nick Payne’s latest play, Incognito. Payne takes the remarkable story of Einstein’s brain and uses it to frame a complex, demanding but ultimately satisfying investigation into the fragility of humans, both as physical objects and emotional beings.
He is a very nimble playwright and interweaves three separate stories, threaded through multiple characters and multiple scenes. He is supported in this by a superbly flexible cast that is called upon to take multiple roles and often change character mid-scene. Throughout they are able to delineate characters and create rounded individuals rather than stereotypes. It is inevitable that some parts are brought more alive than others, and in particular Sargon Yelda’s Henry and Amelia Lowdell’s Martha linger long after performance.
Henry’s story of amnesia is one of agonising poignancy. We follow him through life, as he both ages and never ages. Physically he becomes an old man whilst mentally he is awaiting his fiancée to arrive. The final scene where Yelda through the subtlest of physical gestures demonstrates his age, and then forgets the cigarette he has borrowed, is in itself heartbreaking but the true tragedy comes as the play ends.
Oliver Sacks, in the majestic ‘The man who mistook his wife for a hat’, debates whether a person should feel that is more tragic for an amnesiac who cannot retain short-term memory function to have an awareness of this loss or to live in a state of permanent confabulations, where the brain creates a permanent narrative to sustain itself. He concludes that if there is a sense of ‘loss’ then the tragedy is in the person who lost his mooring to reality, as it could be envisaged that there is a possibility that they might ‘return’. A person who lives so completely in their own world that they cannot distinguish between the world of their own reality and the world of the actual reality cannot be aware of the present and so has no sense that there is a mooring that they might wish to return to.
Payne’s Henry lives in this first world that Sacks describes. We sense that he is always on the edge of grasping reality only for it to melt away through his fingers and it is in the final moments, when Henry seemingly finds an inner-peace on the arrival of his granddaughter that he successful plays a piano, and the audience is reminded of the life that has been lost.
Ultimately though the play must be viewed as being about sanity of all kinds; Henry’s condition does not make him ‘mad’ but he does lack capacity. In the other characters we see people who have capacity but who deviate to greater or lesser extent from the social norms. Through these characters we see that ‘madness’ is partly in the eye of the viewer – we witness obsession painted as scientific endeavour, volatility masked by drink.
The audience as spectator is a reminder that the debate has moved on since Hume. On one level we may be viewed as a collection of individual perceptions. However we are also a series of perceptions created in the memory of those we interact with. Our self-image is partly formed by how it is held by other people. Thomas Harvey perceives himself as a great scientific mind but ultimately it is the impression left in the journalist’s article that creates our perception. We see Martha from multiple perspectives and through this we view a fragmented self of brilliant scientist, possible alcoholic, insecure mother and liberated sexual being. Payne leaves it to the audience to perceive the self that we wish to see.
At times the play’s structure seems to mirror the interior of the brain and possibly mimic the sense of enclosing, increasing mania. As it reaches its climax, scenes get shorter, scene changes occur onstage, characters morph into one another in front of the audience. One wonders the extent to which Payne is reflecting the way that the brain’s ability to make synaptic jumps that we can never be aware of, and that as the play’s stories bleed together so the interior walls of the brain begin to collapse into one another as the mania rises..
Whilst Incognito does not have the immediate charm of Constellations, it is possible that it is a more complete play. Constellations played a wonderful but limited idea superbly but Incognito renders a difficult topic brilliantly clear and does so within a structure that seems to reinforce the nature of the play. It contains a beautiful poignancy and understated intellectual curiosity, and if it demands attention then you always feel confident that Payne will reward you for your troubles.
Watch a teaser