DRAMATIZING WHAT CANNOT BE KNOWN
Aerobic exercises for the cerebral cortex, Tom Stoppard’s daunting dramas (The Real Thing, Arcadia, The Invention of Love) go for the gray matter. In perpetual motion and unstoppable talk, they ponder, posit, propose, rebut and refute. But none so deliberately as his 2015 screed The Hard Problem. Now in an intriguing and exhausting Chicago premiere at Court Theatre, consummately orchestrated by Charles Newell, this 95-minute one-act tackles the title like a trouper. Can consciousness ever be caught in the act of creating our identities? Can it describe itself without in effect employing itself to do so? That is the question. As Australian philosopher David Chalmers puts it, “Physics explains chemistry, chemistry explains biology, biology explains parts of psychology.” But, like Keats’ beauty as truth, consciousness remains its own excuse for being.
Dismissed by some researchers as an irrelevant and reductionist pursuit of the unknown and unknowable, the “hard problem” drives questions like: Can a machine think? Can a computer be programmed to be a person? Are our personalities nothing more than an illusion of perception, the sum of millions of neural sequences which we collectively call consciousness (and, some will say, a soul)? Is all human experience just synapses meeting dendrites, a subterfuge that we mistake for our “inner life” at our peril? Is the mind just the brain?
Even more controversial is the issue of whether human goodness is a disguised form of individual self-interest. Is altruism merely a trick that genes learned by evolution to make us do good, not because virtue is its own reward, but for the betterment of the species? Paradoxically, are we most selfish when we ignore the fact that competition is the natural order of the biosphere that made us us? In the corporate world, which The Hard Problem marginally introduces, enlightened self-interest can still yield irrational panic and subversive speculation.
This behavior-science quandary goes to the heart of Stoppard’s protagonist Hilary (Chaon Cross), a young psychologist working on her own predictive theories of human behavior. Hilary’s application to and research at the prestigious (and vivisectionist) Krohl Institute for Brain Science advances the drama’s arguments as much as her career. Her quest is no abstract pursuit. She needs to believe in human beneficence in order to live with a sacrifice she made as a teenager for what she craves to believe was a greater good than a seeming evil. Can something like mother love, she wonders, be the product of a selfish gene?
Stirring the plot’s pot is the fact that Hilary’s materialistic tutor/boyfriend Spike (Jurgen Hooper), a hard-wired skeptic, takes issues with Hilary’s penchant for prayer and other unscientific activities. He dismisses Raphael’s “Madonna and Child” as “Woman Maximizing Gene Survival.” His purely biological mindset opposes Hilary’s subjectivism in the play’s challenging continuum of opinion. The other seven characters run the Stoppard gamut: a purist mathematician (Owais Ahmed); a cost-benefit, market-shorting tycoon looking for the perfect risk model to negotiate the 2008 business bubble (Nathan Hosner); a lesbian couple eager for all kinds of intelligence gathering (Celeste M. Cooper and Kate Fry); the department boss insisting on bias-free evidence from verifiable experiments (Brian McCaskill); an intern overly eager to produce the right results (Emjoy Gavino); and a teenager (Sophie Thatcher) who’s simply happy to be herself.
The plot, which ends satisfactorily (easy when little is at stake), is a mere pretext for these egos to bump ideas on, over and through each other. Nothing, Stoppard shows, can be concluded about consciousness: Like all things human, a script cannot step away from itself in order to discover its irreducible essence. Contrary to Pascal’s “I think therefore I am,” the act of knowing doesn’t necessarily imply a knower.
Some would argue that Stoppard’s introduction of God into his moral dilemmas muddies the waters: Hilary pushes all the right humanist and anti-scientific buttons: “Where in the brain does metaphor happen? Where is accountability and free will?” Worse, she always has divine intervention like an ace up her sleeve. Indeed the coincidences in this play suggest minor miracles in the making. For all its exegeses on game theory, natural selection, and the “prisoner’s dilemma,” the hard problem is harder than Stoppard will permit.
But, no question, Newell’s staging, suitably set in John Culbert’s sterile waiting room, is a smooth operation, a thinking machine in its own right that’s greater than the sum of its performers. Cross’s Hilary is a spunky and driven dreamer, her energy more eloquent than the fulminating dialogue. As always with Stoppard, the human touch gets us through his heavy haul–barely. If The Hard Problem succeeds, it’s as a theatrical demonstration of mind over matter.
The Hard Problem
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Avenue
Wed & Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8;
Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 2:30 & 7:30
scheduled to end on April 9, 2017
for tickets, call 773.753.4472 or visit Court Theatre
for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago