From the Studio Theatre in Washington, Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem tackles classic thorny debates of philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience with a fresh perspective and ample wit. Directed by Matt Torney, the play is a sterling example of the signature style we have come to expect from Stoppard—a script that doesn’t shy from controversy or high-brow intellect. The Hard Problem is an elegant exploration of the complicated beliefs surrounding consciousness, faith in the divine, and how we endeavor to reconcile the unexplained.
At the play’s core are ideological issues central to contemporary academic debate: the prisoner’s dilemma, altruism vs. egoism, materialism vs. dualism, and of course, the titular ‘hard problem.’ These arguments take center stage as the cast cleverly delivers charming explanations of complex theories to ease the audience into the realm academia. Torney’s adept cast serves the script well; the loftier discussions of science and philosophy never fall flat, but instead are playful and full of conviction.
The opening scene reveals a minimalist set: a bed, chair, and wastebasket. When the lights are up, we find Hilary [played by Tessa Klein] and Spike [Kyle Cameron] head-to-head in a spirited discussion about altruism in her bedroom. Hilary is a doctoral student at Loughborough, and Spike is her professor, who has just dropped her off at home after class but lingers for a potential romp.
From her bed, the pair dissects motivations for human behavior, and dispute if any act can truly be “good.” Hilary asserts that altruism “is being good for its own sake,” while, Spike, ever her contrarian bedfellow, maintains that “altruism is always self-interest.” Hilary ardently believes that humans are capable of selfless acts, citing the devoutness of a mother’s love, but this sentiment is incredulous to Spike—he insists that “good” behaviors are derived purely from self-interest, noting that even a mother’s love can be explained as a product of cost-benefit analysis. Spike offers a humorous story of a vampire bat to keep the dialogue buoyant, keeping the rising tensions at bay.
When the second scene begins with Hilary in prayer, Spike emerges in a tiny robe [hers?] and erupts in questions, none too harsh, but all the same interrogating her motivations for belief in the divine as a woman of science. What ensues is a “back-and-forth about God” that prompts a critical discussion of consciousness. Hilary asks Spike, “how do I feel sorrow?” and when Spike cannot resolutely answer, the ‘hard problem of consciousness’ is introduced to the audience.
The hard problem, in brief, is the problem of explaining how and why we feel the experience of consciousness. The hard problem suggests that qualitative aspects of consciousness exceed methods of science—indeed, no brain scan can qualify the sensation of heat, or the taste of wine, or account for the experience of seeing a red sunset—thus science can offer no complete physical explanation of the subjective elements of consciousness.
Throughout the play, Hilary grapples with this notion of the hard problem and altruism vs. egoism. Hilary carries these debates with her after university to her research position at the prestigious Krohl Institute. Actors in lab coats discretely transform Hilary’s bedroom into the impressive corporate aesthetic of the research institute. We soon learn that the Krohl is developed by hedge fund investor Jerry [played by David Andrew Macdonald] and is dedicated to researching the hard problem. Hilary joins ranks with Dr. Leo Reinhart [Martin Giles] and gains an assistant, Bo [Nancy Sun], to begin her work.
We soon learn that the Krohl is developed by hedge fund investor Jerry [played by David Andrew Macdonald], and the lab is dedicated to researching the hard problem. Hilary joins ranks with Dr. Leo Reinhart [Martin Giles] and gains an assistant, Bo [Nancy Sun], to begin her investigation of the nature of altruism and to further question God. She seeks the answers to timeless inquiries: are we inherently ‘good’? Can the existence of God explain the hard problem?
For Hilary, God represents many things: the moral intelligence of the universe, a catch-all for the unknown, and a force of protection for her daughter, whom she gave up at age 15. Her faith in God is a means of safety for her wayward child, and a shelter against the unknowns, the outliers, the unexplained. To articulate this devout belief, there is a truly moving moment that happens between Hilary and Julia, her pilates instructor/friend from school [Emily Kester]: Julia asks, “Do you believe in God?” and Hilary replies, “I have to.”
In a play that is saturated with dialogue, the strength of the overall performance lies in quiet moments of restraint—when Hilary is holding back tears, when Bo is smoking. While Tessa Klein leads the show, there are strong performances from the ensemble, notably by Joy Jones and Nancy Sun. In particular, Bo [Nancy Sun] offers an understated and nuanced treatment of her character. Nancy Sun‘s performance steals the stage during her private moments of the dinner party, when she steps out for a brooding cigarette. Teeming with quiet pathos, Nancy Sun’s stage presence is breathtaking and not to be overlooked.
The Hard Problem explores what we cannot easily explain with science or the divine. The show demonstrates that our human experience of consciousness exceeds our physical methods of scientific inquiry. With these limitations, how can we reconcile the unknown, the outliers, the coincidences? How do we measure metaphor, how do we feel sorrow? Can a belief in God and commitment to science coexist? The Hard Problem demonstrates the fallibility of hard science and invites us to explore our own convictions for answers.
For further reading on the ‘hard problem of consciousness,’ read here.