The Hard Problem, Tom Stoppard’s first new play in nearly a decade, was beamed from London’s Southbank arts complex into North America cinemas last weekend under the auspices of National Theatre Live.
For the remote audience the event is colloquially known as a simulcast, but the term is misleading given that the time change between the Old and New Countries renders a simultaneous broadcast unworkable. In spite of the marketing of the event as vivid and spontaneous, these “simulcasts” are sapped of the excitement that comes from experiencing a play as it is being performed in real time. National Theatre Live’s version of “live” is like watching the World Cup Final on a delay. You can marvel at the aesthetic elegance of the winning goal, but it lacks the thrill of the authentic, the twinned possibilities of glory and failure that attend the actual. Of course, even without the time lag, watching theatre on the big screen can never attain the magic of being there in the presence of real actors on stage.
In spite of this somewhat dampened atmosphere for spectatorship, it was nonetheless worth sacrificing a chunk of last Saturday’s perfect, cloudless spring afternoon to head into a big air-conditioned box divided into sub-boxes, referred to nostalgically as “movie theaters,” in order to marvel at Stoppard’s unmatched talent for grappling with outsized moral and philosophical issues with his multi-faceted wit and theatrical legerdemain. In The Hard Problem, the 77-year-old dramatist has fashioned a hundred-minute-long vessel filled with glinting dialogue in an elaborately plotted story that stages human interactions and ontological arguments with captivating, if occasionally schematic, brilliance.
The play’s “problem” is that old favorite—human consciousness. Is this ineffable thing merely a figment of solipsistic nostalgia? Can the mechanisms of perception, self-awareness, even artistic creation be ultimately explained by the movement of atoms obeying the physical laws of the universe?
Stoppard sees it as no coincidence that these questions exercise a society in which all is thought to be quantifiable, whether through the binaries of digital logic, genetic cataloging, or the trajectories of share prices.
Indeed, these times are crassly materialistic in every sense:
even while the science of the brain seeks to overthrow psychology and philosophy of mind by explaining perception and emotions in purely physical terms, the world at large is obsessed with money and what it can buy. With his unique gifts for language, Stoppard shows us that among the things not for sale at the market price are love, happiness, fulfillment, and beauty.
Thus we pick up the action with our heroine, Hilary (Olivia Vinall) scrabbling together an application for a prestigious research fellowship at the Krohl Institute for Brain Science, funded by American hedge fund billionaire Jerry Krohl (Anthony Calf). Ignoring most of the advice of her lusting adviser, Spike (Damien Molony), she will win the position thanks to a sympathetic, if also groping, institute director Leo (Jonathan Coy). He’s the single male character in the play fighting against the unstoppable tide of materialism, even if his own scientific sinecure and material well-being are financed by the ever-growing Krohl empire.
Much to Krohl’s delight, the findings of the craven scientists (and scientists turned financial analysts) in his employ have applications to the big brain that is the market. As if obeying the Darwinian laws of capitalism’s evolution, the men themselves appear unable to resist the power of money.
Holding out against Spike’s macho posturing and fanatical belief in the religion of brain science, Hilary clings to mind even, it seems, to God. Much to her sometime lover’s incredulity, she is prone to pray, later admitting to him that she is mourning the teenage loss of the child she felt required to give up for adoption—“the last shame baby in England,” as she puts it. In the end science spurns Hilary, and she it.
Outgoing artistic director of the National Theatre, Nicholas Hytner directs the play with an understated tastefulness, moving his characters efficiently around a sleek set by Bob Crowley and Mark Henderson. This set minimally and expertly conveys geographic and moral positions—from a sparse student flat, to angular corporate chic, to the modernist irony of the trader’s pad, to the palazzo plush of a hotel in Venice.
The centerpiece of this design is a large chandelier-like object hanging broadly above the stage —a seemingly abstract construction of bars and curved pieces of metal fixed with lights that blink on and off like firing synapses.
I couldn’t get a very good sense of the dimensions and placement of this symbolic cortex from the simulcast, and as far as I could tell it seemed to ruminate only during the scene changes when its lobes and quadrants were investigated by the camera in close-ups, like a scanner probing parts of the brain. Whether the chandelier’s activity counted as thought or mere computation was at the crux of the play’s debate.
As the apparatus did its thing, music came over the sound system.
Of course it was Bach.
Even at the time of his death, Bach’s music was held up as a defense against the threat of philosophical Materialism, especially in response to the provocations of Julien Offray de La Mettrie’s L’homme machine of 1748. La Mettrie had fled France and been given refuge by Frederick the Great in Potsdam soon after Bach had astonished the music-loving monarch there with the powers of his extemporizing mind activating ten fingers he loaded up with as many as six contrapuntal parts.
Writing in 1754, the theologian Johann Michael Schmidt adduced the musical reflections made by Bach on his deathbed on a chorale melody whose text describes the appearance of the subject before Gods’ throne as proof not just of the existence of the soul, but of its immortality. Although Bach’s intricate, ever-changing combination of motives had a computational logic, Schmidt argued that the effect was, like the composer’s spirit, literally transcendent. There was no more eloquent a rebuttal of increasingly popular claims that machines could be devised to write music, then perform it in a way indistinguishable from the results achieved by feeling humans.
Closer to our own time and sensibilities, Bach’s music has more often been deployed to symbolize demonic possession (cf. Captain Nemo and the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor) or cold-blooded, sociopathic genius (cf. Hannibal Lecter’s fondness for the Goldberg Variations).
In Hytner’s staging of The Human Problem we get a succession of Bach’s preludes—and, by my count, a single fugue—from the Well-Tempered Clavier. As these are heard the brain above the stage blinks, computes, cogitates. The permutational demonstrations of the fugues would have seemed the more obvious choice with which to confront the play’s paradoxes. The fugues are, after all, more overtly “mathematical,” yet also so moving and unfathomable. But these orations take too long to unfold: this is a play, and one without intermission to boot. The story and its arguments need to move along briskly. As was said of Bach, Stoppard favors a fast tempo.
The job the music is charged with by Hytner in The Hard Problem is to bridge the scene-change and do so with a thought-provoking product of the human mind. What is needed is something short or, if not short enough, something modular that can be handily truncated.
A fugue cannot easily be chopped down to serviceable duration, a prelude can be. In the National Theatre production these splices are generally grammatical in harmonic terms, though less-so according scansion. But they are disconcerting, especially in the most well-known of the preludes, the iconic C major that begins and ends the play.
Even after given this the procrustean treatment, the preludes amaze through their sheer variety and unpredictability. The not-so-subtle alterations of them only stoke the contradictions celebrated by Stoppard in the play—as if Bach, that very human superhuman, is being fed through a machine that makes radically different “decisions” about how to move through musical time and emotion.
These abridgements were not done by a computer, however, but by a professor of music at Southampton University named Matthew Scott. He introduces himself this way on his website: “I teach Commercial Composition, which is a third-year undergraduate course. The structure of the course aims to equip the student to compose at will rather than waiting for inspiration to strike.”
This sounds rather like something a character in Stoppard’s play would say, an attempt to get composers to be me more like machines.
I almost always dislike having to listen to canned music at live theater. Oh, for the days of a full orchestra and works like Beethoven’s Egmont Overture setting the stage for Schiller’s great tragedy. Nowadays it’s a bit of blaring world music for a play about India, or some rock ‘n roll to vault us back to the 50s, or some Bach to get us thinking about the ineffability of human artistic invention, elaboration, and emotion. The Hard Problem mini-preludes were recorded by young pianist Benjamin Powell, a specialist in music of the 20th and 21st centuries. His absence from the theater provides still more fodder for the play’s quandaries, since what we hear is the ghost in the machine.
Even as automatic reproductions disfigured by the commercial composer’s surgery, Bach’s preludes miraculously prove that the blinking mechanical brain hovering above the stage coupled with all the world’s computers could and would never make such a series of discoveries of decisions.
For all the rampant cleverness and inevitable pathos of the play, it cannot hold a candle to the light and dark of Bach’s music and the mind that created it.
DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org