Tom Stoppard is a giant, a playwright whose enormous talent has endured for decades: Arcadia, written almost thirty years after he first experimented with a one-act titled Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Meet King Lear, is among his best work. The Hard Problem, his latest, is not. It pains me to write this, since Stoppard is an idol of mine, one whose exuberance and inventiveness rarely wane. Sure, sometimes this comes at the expense of his character work—he has at times a cold, intellectual quality—but at others, like The Real Thing, Stoppard is as humane as any of his contemporaries.
The Hard Problem is about a psychologist, Hilary (Adelaide Clemens), who toils away studying the hard problem of consciousness, or the question of why we are sentient. Her peers and her sometime lover, Spike (John Patrick Doherty), insist that man is simply a complex animal, that the key to consciousness is in the meticulous mapping of the brain. Hilary remains a skeptic, of sorts, continuing to pray despite Spike’s ridicule, maintaining that God is as good an explanation as any. As this summary may suggest, the narrative of The Hard Problem is really an excuse to discuss that problem, so large swaths of the play consist of long speeches between colleagues who seem to talk about nothing else but work.
Furthermore, there is nothing in the substance of this dialogue that is new. Questions about the mind/body problem have been publicly and enthusiastically debated for years, authors like Marilynne Robinson and Stephen Pinker among the participants. Ultimately, the play treats as novel ideas that were revived in the culture at least a decade ago. The cast is admirable, and it’s a testament to their talent that The Hard Problem is never boring. But it is absent of drama, the characters just an excuse for their intellectual positions. It feels a little like an earnestly-written essay dressed up in the conventions of a play.