An unforgettable lesson about amnesia

May 16, 2017

There is a wonderful and amusing irony about Anastasia, the latest hit show on Broadway, co-produced by Bruno Wang Productions : although it tells the story of the last Russian Romanov princess who lost her memory, it is a truly unforgettable show.

Nominated for multiple awards just a few weeks after opening night, the production is a glorious swirl of period costume, enthralling dance routines, and great singing, especially by the young lead Christy Altomare as Anastasia. It’s the story line above all though that keeps us hooked: the young princess has amnesia as a result of her traumatic experiences escaping the Bolsheviks who murdered her father and the rest of her immediate family.

The idea that one’s past could be erased so suddenly is fearful – everything on which we stand is built on our past, good and bad. And as a society, our shared histories create the world we live in now. The American novelist Elie Wiesel says: “Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.”

Yet there can be something beatific in living for the day afresh too. Think of Phil Connors, the cynical Pittsburgh TV weatherman who is doomed to spend every Groundhog Day repeating his experiences until he learns how to be a better person. He collects and curates his new memories until he has changed and evolved, then the spell is broken.

Living in the now is not easy: it requires mental discipline, contemplation and acceptance – all of which can only be developed with mindfulness and quiet perseverance. We can all take comfort from Buddha, when he says: “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.”

And we can learn from our fictional heroines and heroes too. When Anastasia gains her memory back, she does not forget the person she has become. Instead of returning to life as a princess – as her past would compel her – she chooses to live a humbler life and to build new memories of her own.

It is a way of life which is refreshing and honest; perhaps a reminder to us all to be less in thrall to the past and more open to the future.

Bruno Wang, founder of Bruno Wang Productions