Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Tom Stoppard - The Hard Problem

Tom Stoppard is well-known as a playwright of ideas. He's woven such things as rock and roll, Russian history, and existential philosophy into the dialog of his plays, while doing a pretty good job of keeping his scripts buoyant and his tone slightly racy. But it would perhaps be more accurate to say that Stoppard writes plays about people who have ideas. The ideas involved are seldom resolved and sometimes not even examined much in the course of a given drama. They often serve merely as decorative elements, giving his often brainy characters something to banter about while the machinations of the plot grind on.

The success of Stoppard's productions depends to a large degree on how closely the fields of banter at which his characters excel dovetails with the action. In Arcadia, the fields are rich—landscape gardening and Romantic poetry—and the interactions between ideas and events genuine and illuminating. In Stoppard's newest play, The Hard Problem, which finished its run recently at the National Theater in London, stimulating banter abounds, but the subjects are less interesting and their application to events on stage more strained.

The milieu in which Stoppard has chosen to set The Hard Problem is neurobiology. The question around which the drama is based, at least according to the marketing campaign, is this: "If there is nothing but matter, what is consciousness?" But the characters in the play have nothing much to say about that subject. The drama actually focuses on (spoiler alert) a bright and attractive young woman named Hilary who gave up a child for adoption as a teenager, and is now nursing a variety of sorrows as a result of it. She enters the world of nuerobiology largely as a coincidence. Much of the drama turns on conflicts between that reductive world and Hilary's more fertile and probing intellect.

In The Real Thing, one of Stoppard's previous plays, a playwright is accused by his wife of giving short shrift to the female character in order to display his own wit. That is certainly the case in The Hard Problem. Hilary's tutor (and soon-to-be lover, as the play begins) Spike, delivers long speeches about evolutionary science, and how a mother will behave so as to maximize her offspring's chances of survival. But Hilary is a mother, and little of what Spike is saying rings true to her.

Later on, Hilary's rival for a position at a small and prestigious think tank, a man named Amal, who has already received a slew of academic distinctions, delivers long speeches about how computers have surpassed the human brain. Hilary has the superior insight. "I wonder what a computer is thinking when he's just waiting for his chess opponent to make a move." But she isn't given much stage-time to elaborate it.

In short, there is little genuine dialogue between points of view, and as the play develops across half a decade, we begin to wonder why Hilary continues to hang around with such arrogant jerks.

A major subplot of The Hard Problem deals with hedge funds. The owner of the think tank Hilary works at makes his living outguessing his colleagues and scamming the markets with the help of behavioral research his institute produces. Amal takes a job with the firm, but makes the mistake of publishing a paper about over-valuation of the market. His observations happen to be true—but the paper threatens to undermine his boss's plans to sell the market short.

The play receives an enormous boost from Olivia Vinhall, who, in the part of Hilary, exudes vulnerability and wonderment, sorrow and goodness. Perhaps Stoppard recognized that the meat of the play consists in a battle not of words but of personalities, the most appealing of whom is driven by serious but inarticulable questions rooted in awareness and emotion, rather than easy answers rooted in fashionable but reductive scientific theories.

The Hard Problem runs a hundred minutes without intermission, and the time goes by in a flash. (I saw it in a simulcast at St. Anthony Main.) That's good news. But I look forward to the sequel, during which Hilary moves to New York to study philosophy at NYU, gets a proper boyfriend, and starts an avant garde theater group to explore the spiritual dimension of human interactions across genders and generations. Maybe Stoppard himself would agree to giving a guest lecture? 

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