“The Hard Problem” by Tom Stoppard, at the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia

Tom Stoppard never caught my attention before. Everyone but me has read or seen “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead”.

I went to see “The Hard Problem” because a friend was performing. Not acting, but providing musical accompaniment on the saxophone, mostly improvised. Good enough reason for a Sunday afternoon venture to Philadelphia.

I watched the play with no expectations whatsoever. That’s how I like theater. I’m ready to buy into whatever the playwright and producer offer. I love to see the curtain rise on the unknown and unexpected.

Part of the plot framework for this play is an Institute for Brain Science, a think tank that employs the heroine, a young woman named Hilary. At the beginning, I was afraid the whole play would be about evolutionary neurobiology, which could have been pedantic. But Hilary has a habit that surprises some of her acquaintances. She PRAYS. This makes no sense to those who believe that “consciousness” is physically determined.

That’s the “hard problem” of the title. What is consciousness? If it is as predetermined as quantum physics, how does one explain love, or sorrow?

The music that accompanies parts of the play is intended to reflect Hilary’s inner life, which includes emotions that can’t be explained by any theory of consciousness and which are revealed to the audience only slowly. Apparently, the musical accompaniment was an addition by the Artistic Director of this particular production of “The Hard Problem”, a relatively new work. I’m curious how the playwright feels about it, and whether it will be included in future productions. I vote “yes”.

I liked the music, but don’t feel I got the maximum from it. The dialogue was dense and required all my attention, so I think I tuned out the music some of the time. If I were to see the play again, I might react differently, and I do assume I might see it again. After all, I watch Shakespeare over and over.

At the end of the play, Hilary is giving up neurobiology for the study of philosophy. Does this tell us what Stoppard thinks about consciousness?

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One thought on ““The Hard Problem” by Tom Stoppard, at the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia

  1. I am so very happy to report that Tom Stoppard loved the inclusion of the saxophone as a voice with something important to “say.” As you stated, it was the director’s idea, and luckily he permitted her to do so. It was a rare opportunity for me, as I have never been on stage as part of the cast in before. I would jump at the opportunity to do it again! I’ll leave the question about Stoppard’s idea of CONSCIOUSNESS unanswered, as I think I should.

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