Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Stoppard's The Hard Problem:
Dramatizing Thought

[Photo: Original production at London's National Theatre, with Damien Molony and Olivi Vinall, from]

Tom Stoppard early in his career claimed to write plays because they provide a respectable forum to argue with himself.  He argues in his latest script The Hard Problem that both altruism and consciousness itself can be explained by evolutionary biology. Or not.  Though Stoppard argues the heck out of both sides, I'm not sure who wins.

But, reading the script, I noted with pleasure how Stoppard found dramatic situations to fit the thoughts. In drama class, I urge my kids to find ways to do what Stoppard does so well, to make thoughts visible. Like rhyme in essays by Pope and Auden, patterns of images can substitute for developments of substance, and, besides, they are a pleasure in themselves.

For example, there's a visual motif of kneeling in prayer.  We see the protagonist Hilary kneeling at her bed (8).  It's a sign of her belief, her hope, and also her guilt for something revealed shortly after.  The image of kneeling at prayer is repeated (46), then echoed in a scene at a Venice hotel room, where the concluding stage direction reads, "He [Spike, her materialist friend] pauses to listen, kneeling in the light from the minibar" (53). Her final prayer is just "Thank you," spoken aloud, to no one (72).  

The image of mother-and-child works into the fabric of the play's rhetoric and plotline.  Hilary alludes to the bereaved mother who breast-feeds a starving man in The Grapes of Wrath (6), and Hilary's debate partner Spike renames Raphael's Madonna and Child  as "Woman Maximizing Gene Survival" (13).  Spike says the universe is "no baby, just bathwater" (10), not bothering to reiterate for Hilary, or for Stoppard's audience, the whole argument behind the allusion. (Later, Hilary says there is nothing under science to explain the lowly gene's conviction that "life has a value" so "it's tortoises all the way down," oblique allusion to more than one myth.)   In all this banter about motherhood, Hilary inexplicably begins to cry (15).  We soon learn that she gave up her baby Catherine to adoption.  By coincidence, her wealthy employer has an adopted daughter of the same age and name, who first appears on stage asking her father, "What's 'coincidence?'" (26).

Another kind of repeated "image" is that of the psychological simulations or "problems" that deal with altruism.  First, there's discussion of a classic psychology simulation, "the Prisoner's Dilemma." Stoppard assumes we know it.  Later, as I guessed he would do, Stoppard makes the hypothetical dilemma into action on stage, when the protagonist Hilary is offered the chance to evade consequences of her collaborator's malfeasance (70).  Hilary also alludes to a psychological study called "the custody problem," for which subjects decide who should get custody of a child if one parent is average but dependable while the other is wealthy but erratic (37), the very situation we see.

Alongside the argument about the brain as a mechanism that either does or does not "cause" consciousness, we have analogs represented by characters in the play.  Market analyst Amal sees traders operating as one self-interested "mind," predictable by computer models, except when the market acts "stupid" (33, 68).  Hilary's nemesis Spike writes a paper about hormones affecting risk-taking behavior among gamblers and stock traders (56).

I enjoyed the play from start to finish, feeling sympathy for Hilary, and amusement at dialogue.  Variety's critic Matt Trueman was less amused seeing the original production at the National Theatre of London, but his analysis can't be faulted:
There’s no denying the richness of these ideas, jostling up to one another in myriad ways, but that’s the measure of good thinking, not good theater.   In a play that invokes emotion throughout, emotion is still hard to come by. Stoppard’s characters aren’t people, so much as opposing viewpoints with jobs and characteristics attached. (1/29/2015)
Trueman points to another theme in the play that I missed, how all of these experimenter / theorists  to some extent allow bias to determine their results, especially by discounting the "outliers" in the data.  In his view, Stoppard's shaping the story to fit the thought is tantamount to twisting the data to suit one's predisposition.

Still, Stoppard provides his actors with great text to say and lots of subtext to play. An old friend catches up with Hilary, and hears about the adoption. "So everything turned out all right. I'm sorry" (20).  A lot of perception and feeling happen between "all right" and "sorry."   I love the observation (concerning mice brains) "It's only amazing, not counter-intuitive": score for the materialists (36).

The end of the play is silent business of packing up personal items.  Is this emotionally satisfying?  Is it somehow a solution to the problem?  I'm puzzled. I may have to see it to understand Stoppard's thought.

(Read a more general reflection on Stoppard's work, "The Invention of Stoppard.")

No comments: