Mind-Body Problems: Stoppard Writes Brains

Chicago Sun Times. Spike charmingly tells Hilary why she's wrong.
Chicago Sun Times.
Spike charmingly tells Hilary why she’s wrong.

“The Hard Problem,” Tom Stoppard’s latest work, playing at the Court Theatre on the University of Chicago campus, is about consciousness … and, also, the 2008 financial crisis. And some gender politics handled not all that well, I don’t think. The show got me thinking, though probably not about the things you might expect, or that Stoppard intended.

First, let me say that this play succeeded in providing a good time at the theater. It was well-acted and hit some of those emotional soft spots you look for in a dramatic production. The play, which follows main character Hilary and her fellow researchers as they explore the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness, worked best for me when those traditional dramatic moments burst through Stoppard’s talky scientific/philosophical exploration:

This happens, for example, when the resident jerky guy/stand-in for uncompromising scientific materialism, Spike, blunders into telling Hilary, “You’re just an animal, but you can’t accept it” — and she bursts, backstage, into tears. The insult here, on one level, is clear — calling someone, particularly a woman you’ve just slept with, an animal is pretty rude — but Spike (later, Spencer) had already been plenty rude, with little offense taken by Hilary. (She’s used to this sort of guy, it seems.) But in her response here, there is mystery, suggested by the sudden depth of her emotional reaction, a revelation of the deeply buried human fear that there may be something terrible, or terribly diminishing, at the core of being human.

Similarly, later, Hilary’s touching, one-sided familial reunion (I’m trying not to spoil anything here) is moving — not least because it surfaces amidst the murky waters of impersonal philosophical/scientific argument. I don’t know if this was Stoppard’s (or this particular production’s) intention: to make the human elements sparkle by setting them against colder discussions. That can be an effective method, but based on the Stoppard interview in the playbill I read, and the extent to which he stuffed the play with the science talk, I kind of doubt it. It would also suggest that Stoppard intentionally made the ostensible main point of his play pretty bad.

Because…it’s not terrific. Imagine if you’d read a few popular science books and articles on consciousness over the last few years, and then had some characters loudly repeat those points on stage. That’s what Stoppard does here, and he gets credit for writing an intellectual play for that. The work fails to explore those ideas in a very intellectually thrilling manner. You have, for example, the jerky Spike character pompously explaining the prisoner’s dilemma, because Tom Stoppard also took an Intro to Psych class freshman year, just like you. Only he thinks it’s impressive to keep bringing it up now. The prisoner’s dilemma also, in case you weren’t impressed enough by Stoppard’s cleverness, comes back around to basically structure how the characters finish out their stories.

Isn’t that clever??

Not really, unfortunately. It felt like bad network television, or an equally bad Christian Slater movie or something, when an early bit of dialogue gets repeated later, solemnly, to demonstrate DEPTH and THEME and ART — and you just feel insulted as a viewer.

More interesting, because more open to interpretation, was this production’s treatment of the body side of the mind-body problem. In a play centered on such a heady, abstract subject — a play, which is to say, that’s so much in the head — this production strikingly emphasizes Hilary’s physicality. She moves like a dancer, or the yoga practitioner she is later revealed to be. She wears light, loose, dark pants and tops that still emphasize her athletic, feminine form. And from the opening scene, where she moves fluidly and, well, sensually on the stage’s floor, here representing a bed, her body is a site of expression. She raises her arms lithely over her head; she moves at the waist, Latin-dance style.

In a play so much about the mind, why pay so much attention to Hilary’s body? There’s the uncharitable interpretation: Hilary has been sexualized, because that’s what male authors tend to like to do to their female leads. Because the emphasis on Hilary’s body doesn’t come solely from the production. It’s there in the text, too. Her relationship to the male scientists in the play is primarily sexual: She is an object of desire for both Spike and her later mentor/boss. Spike, in particular, seems mostly interested in her body (though, to be fair, Stoppard does go out of his way to make sure you know Spike’s trash). And Stoppard did give her yoga practice a role by including a yoga teacher character and a scene in which Hilary engages in her practice with that teacher (and is, tellingly, assumed to be coming onto the yogi by the teacher’s lesbian partner).

But I think the play, both as written by Stoppard and produced by Court, is doing more than that. Hilary’s embodiment, her physicality, I think, is part of the play’s rejection of Spike’s materialist perspective, seeing it as inadequte. Consciousness is an experience — it is a physical experience. And it remains a mysterious physical experience. Hilary’s experience of her own body, the sensual way in which she inhabits it — not as an object of desire (not always, anyway), but her personal experience of living inside of it, her clear enjoyment of its ability to move and express — cannot be reduced to equations. Similarly, neither can her experience of familial love be so reduced. These are the mysteries at the heart of the play that tug at you when they surface: The animal that can recoil in horror at its own animal nature. The truths that can be experienced by practice, by physical practice or emotional entanglement, and remain inaccessible to rational probing.

Here, Stoppard succeeds. So, perhaps I should be more charitable about the “bad” scientific-argument prose I snarked at above. Or perhaps I’m just jealous of an author with enough fame to intentionally write badly about science, and profit by that.

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