Tom Stoppard’s Biggest Problem, With Plenty of Body and Soul

The relationship between brain and consciousness is at the core of a new play by the British master.

Michael Handelzalts
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Olivia Vinall in ‘The Hard Problem’ by Tom Stoppard, London, February 2015.Credit: Johan Persson
Michael Handelzalts

LONDON — I’ve had rare good luck. During almost half a century as a theater critic, three artists have shaped much of what I feel is the truth in matters of art, theater and life, in the broadest sense. One of them, Hanoch Levin, is no longer with us. The two others — Stephen Sondheim and Tom Stoppard – keep creating, and long may they be at it.

And when a new play by Stoppard, considered by many in the Western theater world the most important playwright active today, is performed at the Royal National Theatre and directed by Nicholas Hytner, it’s an event for me even before I enter the Royal National’s Dorfman Theatre.

Hytner is concluding a highly successful 12-year run as the theater’s artistic director. And the Dorfman is a small renovated stage in the National Theatre building. It was formerly the Cottesloe Theatre: an intimate black box.

I’m starting on a personal note because it’s very relevant. The play by Stoppard, the intellectual wizard of words and paradoxes, addresses the most difficult problem for people who think and feel — biologists, psychologists, neurologists, philosophers — the problem of the relationship between body and soul, brain and consciousness. That’s actually the play’s name: “The Hard Problem.”

It’s an insoluble problem, in a sense, and maybe that’s a good thing. After all, you can't discuss it without bringing in the greatest unknown of all, the “self” of anyone who deals with it as a researcher, spectator and critic.

Tom Stoppard at the annual literature festival in Jaipur, India, January 22, 2012.Credit: Reuters

In other words, it’s impossible to discuss it without indulging every part of one’s emotions and the soul. This is hot and unpredictable stuff; complex common sense isn’t enough.

So to begin with the bottom line “How was it?” — my answer is “I wasn’t bowled over.” But in the same breath I’ll ask: “Shall we receive good at the hand of Stoppard (“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” “The Real Thing,” “Arcadia,” “The Coast of Utopia,” to name only a few) and not receive something slightly less good?

This wording, which posits the playwright in the same place as God, isn’t coincidental here, because God is one of the great unknowns when it comes to the human brain and knowledge.

Not only neurons

The play’s main character is Hilary, a psychologist who comes to work in a prestigious private institute funded by a billionaire interested in matters of the brain and consciousness (and hedge funds). Hilary doesn’t believe that the brain is only neurons. She’s willing to admit that “there’s overwhelming evidence that brain activity correlates with consciousness. Registers consciousness. Nobody’s got anywhere trying to show how the brain is conscious.”

Hilary prays every night before going to sleep for the welfare of the baby girl she had at 15 and gave up for adoption. She’s not willing to accept the argument of the scientist with whom she has a casual physical and emotional relationship that a mother-child relationship is a cost-benefit matter. (The baby wants food, the mother wants to pass on her genes.) Hilary believes in altruism, not only in selfish genes.

This is without doubt Stoppard’s least witty play. There are very few quotable verbal acrobatics. Apparently when he approaches the focal point of humanity — the question of what makes us human — he isn’t in the mood for fun and games.

His main problem as a playwright is to turn a complex intellectual subject into a drama and conflict in which the characters behave like people with bodies and souls, rather than mouthpieces for (his) opinions and ideas. And emotion (in the right dosage, insofar as such a thing is even possible) is tough stuff for the British in general — to mete it out in just the right words and gestures in particular (not too little and not too much, and mainly not “more or less”).

Here I stumbled as a spectator and critic; to a certain degree I tripped myself up. I read the play before watching the show, so I served myself up with an ultimate spoiler. I knew in advance an important plot detail whose gradual unfolding to the characters and viewers is vital for the play’s emotional effect. For obvious reasons I won’t go into the details here.

To those interested in game theory, I’ll say Stoppard’s play is sort of a dramatic version of the (altruist) prisoner’s dilemma, and the main character Hilary is that prisoner. And for those who like paradoxes, I’ll say that in the debate on “can a computer think?” (in other words, is a brain a computer, and will we ever be able to create a humane computer) Hilary believes that it will happen — not if we devise a computer that can play chess (we did, and it can beat anybody), but if we can build “a computer that minds losing.”

Stunning stage design

The program, which devotes a few pages to the fact that this is Hytner’s final production as the theater’s artistic director, includes a text by Alan Bennett on Hytner’s unique quality as a director, which Bennett sums up with a typical remark by Hytner to a playwright with whom he’s working: “Don’t worry. Just write it and I’ll make it work.” (The program also devotes space to a thought-provoking article by Stoppard about the play, and the hard problem, and an inspiring exchange of letters between Stoppard and scientists who study the brain and the soul.)

And it works, of course, on the Dorfman stage for about 100 minutes without an intermission. The stage is empty, almost ascetic. The furniture necessary for a scene is brought in: a bed, a dining table, a desk with a computer, chairs and a wastepaper basket. The actors are outstanding, especially Olivia Vinall in the role of Hilary; she’s the play’s emotional and intellectual focus. All this is happening to her — body and soul, emotion and brain.

But I think that in this play, which carries such a heavy intellectual load, the real theatrical brilliance is Bob Crowley’s stage design. Actually, not the stage itself, but the visual image above it: a kind of cloud vaguely reminiscent of the human brain, one like a maze of twisted metal strips.

In the transitions between scenes, to the strains of piano music by Bach, the essence of the complexity of mathematical reason and surging emotion, lights flicker along the length and breadth of this cloud.

There are parallel vertical strips in changing colors that create patterns that appear and disappear. There are quasi-random flashes all over this visual galaxy: an evasive and misleading sight of order and logic, amid the blinding chaos of  confusing information, momentarily reassuring and instantly disintegrating. These moments, at scene changes, say it all to the eye and the emotions, without words.

Maybe this is the place of Stoppard’s blind spot. In his play “The Real Thing,” the ex-wife of Henry, the main character-playwright, says he doesn’t have a sense of humor — a human quality — but rather a joke reflex. Henry delivers a passionate speech about the power of the word. He claims that words are precise, unambiguous and objective. So he demands that everyone be precise in using words as a precondition for life, relationships, understanding and art.

It’s possible that at the meeting point between body and soul in the human brain, with words the only bridge we've formed for psychological and emotional understanding, the words on which Stoppard relies fail. This is because unlike what we tell ourselves, these words are imprecise, ambiguous, far from impartial, prone to twists and unexpected turns, making us victims of hit-and-misunderstandings.

But until we find — if we ever do — better means than words for human communication on matters of body and soul, emotion and intellect, words are all we have to play with as people, spectators, playwrights and critics.

And as a critic I’ve already wasted too many of them — as precise as I could but definitely not objective. I remain a fan of Stoppard the playwright, who isn't afraid to address — head and heart on — hard human problems on stage.