It's a question that's as old as the concept of philosophy itself: What makes us, us? What exactly constitutes personal identity? Cells replace themselves constantly, meaning that you're physically not the same as you were a few years ago. We have memories and thoughts that keep us psychologically connected to ourselves, but what happens when these memories fade? If you suffer from dementia, for instance, are you no longer the same person?
These are the sort of questions that spring out from Rose Lewenstein's new play Now This Is Not The End – a story that follows the lives of three generations of women and delves into the idea that identity can be passed down through memory. The story is set in London and Berlin and the eldest character is a Holocaust survivor, but Lewenstein insists that this is not a "Holocaust play". Instead – she says – the story is universal, exploring concepts that she has often grappled with herself. I gave her a ring to chat about why every family has shit they need to deal with and what it means to come from a long line of "bad Jews".
VICE: Could you tell me a bit about the play in your own words?
Rose Lewenstein: It's about three generations of women in one family. The eldest has come to England from Germany as a child refugee before World War II, the youngest has now moved to Berlin to learn German and make a life for herself there, and then in the middle of this, there is the second generation who is both mother and daughter, and who is desperate to somehow connect with her roots and hear her mother's story before it's too late. It's all connected together by this need to hear these stories from this woman's mother, just at the point where her mother is starting to suffer from early signs of dementia.
What inspired you to write the play to begin with?
There was this article that I read, where they interviewed different people at this Jewish old people's home, who had either been on the Kindertransport or in the camps and this was the last chance for them to tell their story first-hand. Over the years, they'd been told to forget about it and now suddenly they're all dying, and everyone's telling them it's important to tell their stories in order to teach the next generations. And I agree – these stories need to be told. Especially in this political landscape where we're faced with the EDL, BNP and UKIP. It's important to remind people what has happened and what can happen.
Another thing I wanted to look at was what happens when your memories fracture and fall apart – how that affects the stories that they're telling. This theme of identity, home and belonging is something I've been thinking about for a long time.
The play looks at the fact that you don't get to know much unless you ask for it. Which stories do we want to hear, which stories do we want to remember and which would we rather forget? In the play, there's this backdrop of the Holocaust that's never spoken about, but it's there. How much do you want to know when it's that horrific.
I guess that's quite a particular situation.
It's very specific but I hope that anyone that's grappling with that sense of identity can relate to that in some way. It's not a "Holocaust play" – I don't think it would be fair for me to label it as that, and I don't think I could do it justice if it were. It's very much about the present and about what we're doing now because within 10 years from now, all Holocaust survivors are going to be dead. There won't be any first-hand stories. We're at that crossover point.
The play asks what parts of our history are responsible for the present – the dysfunctional, damaging relationships that are something passed down through the generations. Every family is really complicated. I don't think you could find a family where there isn't some shit to deal with on some level, whether they know it or not.
Did you speak to any Holocaust survivors? What did your research entail?
When I was writing it, I read a lot of accounts and we also had a daughter of a survivor come into rehearsal a couple of weeks ago and give a talk to the cast. She told this incredible story about how her dad had escaped from various camps and made a life for himself in Britain. But as I said, it's not a play centred around the Holocaust.
The main character is called 'Rosie' and you're 'Rose'. Are there any personal elements to the play?
It's not autobiographical. The characters and events are completely fictional. But I think that every writer brings a piece of themselves into everything they write. You can't help it. The themes are definitely something I identify with. A lot of the characters in the play are non-practicing Jewish people and I come from a long line of "bad Jews". For generations, we haven't been celebrating any Jewish festivals or observing any Jewish traditions. I always found it strange that, because of my surname, people will ask whether I'm Jewish and I don't know how to respond. I'm still confused about what it is to be Jewish. That all ties in.
I find the themes behind your play quite philosophical. As in, if you lose your memories, are you the same person at all?
It's very philosophical. It's almost like that classic line, "If a tree falls down and there's no one to hear it, does it make a sound?". You could say the same about memories. If someone can't remember something, did it actually happen? I don't know the answer, but it's an interesting thing to think about. It's something that no one will ever know.
Maybe not. Thanks, Rose.
Now This Is Not The End runs at Arcola Theatre 3rd - 27th June.