‘Incognito’ means having one’s true identity concealed. Nick Payne’s play very much questions the notion of identity itself.

There are three interwoven stories in Incognito. Two are set in the 1950s and are based on real events. One focuses on the pathologist Thomas Stoltz Harvey who performed the autopsy on Albert Einstein and subsequently stole his brain. The other story from that era tells us about Henry, who underwent pioneering surgery for epilepsy that left him profoundly amnesic. The third story is a present day one, and focuses on Martha who is a clinical neuropsychologist.

Harvey decides to steal Einstein’s brain in an attempt to undertake research that might explain what genius is and ‘looks like’ at a neuroanatomical level. It soon becomes apparent that there was more to Einstein than his genius, and that as a father he was often strange and cruel. What does ‘knowing’ someone really mean?

Martha has a client who confabulates. He has amnesia and his brain compensates by making up stories:

‘A damaged brain can continue to make sense of the world even if the patient can’t.’

Who are we? What part does memory play in creating our identity and our sense of self? Incognito raises these and other questions, which are most likely unanswerable, yet still important to consider.

Martha also considers the potential benefits of amnesia:

‘Imagine if you could, if you could forget all the embarrassing things you’d ever done…if you could forget all that trauma and pain’

For me, Martha had the most insightful land thought provoking lines:

‘The brain builds a narrative to steady us from moment to moment, but it’s ultimately an illusion. There is no me, there is no you, and there is certainly no self; we are divided and discontinuous and constantly being duped. The brain is a storytelling machine and it’s really, really good at fooling us.’

I am less fatalistic than Martha – ‘We are pointless. We’re a blip. A blip within a blip within an abyss.’ – yet I am also grateful to Nick Payne and Incognito for encouraging me to consider what it might, or might not, mean to be me.

The text for the play includes the following disclaimer:

‘Despite being based, albeit very loosely, on several

true stories, this play is a work of fiction.

But then isn’t everything.’

 

‘Everything’ may well include ‘everybody’…

 

CQ

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