‘The Hard Problem’: how to understand, and not understand, Tom Stoppard
The Daily Beast
November 19, 2018
In ‘The Hard Problem,’ Tom Stoppard takes a typically dense and questioning approach to the mysteries of neuroscience. The subject is fascinating, the characters oddly stilted.
If you sit scratching your head during Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem at Lincoln Center Theater, don’t worry or feel like an intellectual inadequate. So did its director.
In a fascinating discussion in the Lincoln Center Theater Review, in recalling his decades-long relationship with Stoppard, Jack O’Brien said that when he saw the London National Theatre production of Stoppard’s 2015 play, he said, “Although it was a good evening, I didn’t understand it.”
At the suggestion of André Bishop, the artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater, O’Brien next sat and read the play out loud. “I was equally baffled when it was over,” he recalled. He called Bishop up and said, “André, I can’t make much sense of this. It isn’t speaking to me.” Bishop told O’Brien to read it again.
“And I hung up and read it again out loud to myself. And the second time I thought, Oh, wait a minute. And then I read it a third time, I wept.”
Any Stoppard fan knows an evening of his playwrighting will not be an easy matter of plot, complication, and resolution. But whereas the likes of Travesties and the Tony-winning The Coast of Utopia fold big ideas into involving characters, The Hard Problem feels more distancing, its characters more repositories for ideas, and generally unsympathetic at that. To get the most from it, you may have to revisit it as O’Brien did.
It burrows into evolution, psychology and “the hard problem” of consciousness and experience; what makes something painful or felt, and what makes our brains behave in the way that they do in response to that. Who or what makes us who we are: nature or nurture?
The play focuses on Hilary (a commanding and also questioning Adelaide Clemens), a psychology researcher seeking to make her name in the world of science who goes to work at Krohl, a major neuroscience facility founded by hedge-funder Jerry Krohl (Jon Tenney, playing the magnate as both avuncular dad and temperamental bully).
If Spike (a chippy and mischievous Chris O’Shea), Hilary’s tutor and sometime sex partner, “believes in the notion of survival strategies hard-wired into our brains millions of years ago,” Hilary has reason to believe that we also have something to do with how and why we think. She prays, for example (much to Spike’s amusement), and later in the play she will oversee a flawed experiment that examines the capacity for human empathy. She is not defensive about her beliefs, telling Spike, “If I were up for a back-and-forth about God, I’d rather not have it with an arsehole.”
For Hilary, evolutionary science is a pluralistic discipline, and her professional pursuit seems rooted in the personal too: she had a baby as a teenager, then gave that baby up for adoption, and wonders about both what she did and who and what her child turned out to be.
This opens up another of the play’s fields of inquiry around miracle versus coincidence. This is the kind of play where the question, “What is to be done with the sublime if you’re proud to be a materialist?” is an actual question rather than a piece of show-off rhetoric. Even if you are sometimes as puzzled as O’Brien, it is also refreshing to sit in a play and be the opposite of spoon-fed.
As the dense arguments flow between characters around science, purpose, evolutionary biology, altruism, philosophy, consciousness, genetics, and the workings of hedge funds, David Rockwell’s elegant sets are ferried on and off the stage by a team of stage workers (who also double as onlookers to the debates), and who set tables and light candles under elegant lighting by Japhy Weideman and accompanied by Bob James’ music.
Hilary wonders about the girl gang she was in when younger (reuniting with another member now), and she wonders about her daughter. She gets her job at Kroll by advancing the idea of a computer that doesn’t mind losing. The Hard Problem proposes that “every theory proposed for the problem of consciousness has the same degree of demonstrability as divine intervention. So—psychologically—they’re equivalent.”
The emergence of Hilary’s adopted daughter both illustrates that, but also stretches our own credulity, because whatever Stoppard thinks about the provenance of miracle and coincidence, in this play it makes far too neat dramatic sense.
The characters also feel like conveniently placed echo-chambers and spokespeople, rather than people believably living within these big ideas and their effects. The play more plausibly illustrates the corporatization of neuroscience, and where that is leading us.
In the same Lincoln Center Theater Review where he mulled the complexity and power of Stoppard’s writing, O’Brien said that while the playwright was prolific, he was not when compared to “David Hare or his compatriots, who really can spin them out. Tom takes a long time. He writes in longhand on yellow pads. He does not use a computer. He writes by hand. It’s arduous work. The playwrighting process in the classical sense of the word. Boatwright. Cobbling together something to make it real. And that’s what he does. He is the author of his own oeuvre, in that respect, and no one sounds like that.”
That may be true, but sometimes what Stoppard is imagining could do with some further unpacking for a general audience watching it. Amal (Eshan Bajpay) starts the play as a cerebral, competitive nerd and suddenly becomes a capitalist wide-boy (why? how?), claiming, “In theory, the market is a stream of rational acts by self-interested people; so risk ought to be computable. But every now and then, the market’s behavior becomes irrational, as though it’s gone mad, or fallen in love. It doesn’t compute. It’s only computers compute.”
The ideas within the play fizz and bang, but the actors’ mannered, stilted delivery somewhat stunts their “evo-bio” jousting and affects the most human parts of the play too, especially when it comes to being unexpectedly confronted by a long-lost child, which tonally (and implausibly) comes to be something of an administrative issue.
Two characters are in a lesbian relationship, and there is an unexplained tension in this relationship (which isn’t played that convincingly anyway). Researcher Bo (Karoline Xu) is attracted to Hilary, and Hilary seems to be to her. But then, pfft, apparently not.
Still, Stoppard studs the play’s odd dramatic cul-de-sacs and theoretical density with jokes and zinging put-downs—and at the end supplies a genuine emotional punch as Hilary confronts past ghosts very directly.
In Lincoln Center Theater Review, O’Brien recalled seeing the recent Broadway revival of Travesties. O’Brien had directed so much of Stoppard’s work he thought he would understand the play, no problem.
O’Brien said, “I watched it unfold, and I thought, I’ve no idea what’s going on, and yet it was like being caught in this astonishing blizzard of intellectual stimulation that was so much fun, so enthusiastic, so theatrical, so incredibly articulate, that later I sort of did understand it.
“But if you’d stopped the tape at any moment and said, ‘What’s going on?,’ I would have been hard-pressed to have come up with a declarative sentence.”
Perhaps this is the most fruitful approach when watching Stoppard’s plays—and gleaning the most from them. Embrace the blizzard. You may be surprised at what the mysterious sponge that so fascinates Stoppard makes of what is unfolding right in front of you.