Apr/May 2015  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Hard Problem

Review by Ann Skea

The Hard Problem.
Tom Stoppard.
Faber. 2015. 77 pp.
ISBN 978 0 571 32293 0.

It is not unusual to come out of the theater after watching a play by Tom Stoppard having thoroughly enjoyed it but thinking that you really need to read the script so that you can consider, at your own pace, some of the complex issues he has raised.

I have yet to see The Hard Problem, but I think when I do that I will be glad I have read the script first. It is a very funny, witty, sharp and fast-moving play but some of the more biological/scientific/psychological speeches are not so easy to grasp. And the main issue—the "Hard Problem" as the scientists have begun to call it—is the old mind-body problem which philosophers have grappled with for centuries and for which there is still no universally acceptable answer. This is the problem of consciousness. Can self-awareness, altruism, grief, thought even, be explained by biological processes and an inbuilt necessity to pass on our genes? Or is there something more than the sum of (or result of) stimulus-response hard-wiring? This is the hard problem and, as Stoppard memorably said in a recent interview, it has nothing to do with erectile disfunction.

In Stoppard's play a multi-cultural group of individuals, all associated in some way with the Krohl Institute of Brain Science, interact, argue, make love, quarrel and pursue their various careers. Jerry, whose name, as he says, is on the Institute's building, has his own eccentric methods of choosing his staff. All are clever. Some, like Hilary, who is preparing to be interviewed for a position at the prestigious Institute when the play opens, he takes on as scientists. Others, like Amal and Bo are steered into being the mathematical and financial geniuses who make Jerry's millions. So, not only is there the Hard Problem to be solved, there is also stock-market prediction and financial manipulation to be discussed. And moral issues associated with the structure and reporting of scientific experiments also surface. Oh, and God is there, too.

However intellectual this all sounds, Stoppard is expert at weaving it all smoothly into situations which are funny and easy to understand. I recommend this book as a satisfying, stimulating and enjoyable read and I am now really looking forward to seeing the play performed in its current inaugural production at London's National Theatre. Unfortunately it is booked out, so I will be joining the queue for day tickets.


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