The Hard Problem
The Hard Problem is a play by British playwright Sir Tom Stoppard, first produced in 2015. The title refers to the hard problem of consciousness, which Stoppard defines as having "subjective First Person experiences"; he notes the strangeness in the illusion of consciousness in which, clearly, you have to be conscious to experience.
The play first lays the problem out through dialogue between the main character, Hilary, and her boyfriend, Spike, who works for a Krohl conglomerate and who is now coaching her for her job interview at its Institute for Brain Science. They argue over the paradoxes encountered when tying to explain human consciousness, moral sense, altruism, and parental sacrifice, either through Darwinian evolution, random chance, or divine creation. This sets up The Problem: Do humans act predictably, like computers, calculating risks and benefits, or do they act unpredictably, according to each individual’s immeasurable sense of what is “good”? In either case, is their behavior a product of Darwinian struggle, sometimes disguised as compassion or altruism, or can it spring from the soul in a relation with God.?
Hilary is somewhat defiantly in the latter camp. Spike and another candidate for the job, Amal, are in the former. Hilary, we soon learn, has given away an unwanted daughter to adoptive parents. A few years later she will learn that the name she gave her daughter at birth, Catherine, is the same that Jerry Krohl, the founder of the company, and his wife gave the baby they adopted, now called Cathy. This, coupled with the fact that the two girls are about the same age, brings the “hard problem” into focus. If they turn out to be the same girl, can the statistically improbable intersection in this way of Krohl’s adopted daughter with her birth mother be simply a million-to-one chance or can it only be explained as a miracle brought about by Hilary’s nightly prayers or some other beneficent force? The play is nearly all dialogue exploring the ramifications of this question. There is really only one dramatic action. In the party scene a strong thirty-something woman knocks out the obnoxiously drunk Spike.
Five years after Hilary and Amal are hired, the latter uses a statistical model of market fluctuations to predict correctly the stock market crash of 2009. But his timing is off, thus causing Krohl considerable loss, which, in turn, earns Amal a firestorm of invective and a major demotion from analyst to computer drudge. Krohl’s apparent personal compassion, shown in adopting a daughter, clearly does not carry over into his business world.
Whether compassion is disguised self-interest deployed instinctively as an evolutionary strategy or whether it can exist as unalloyed self-sacrifice becomes a major part of the “hard question.” This is posed by an experiment that Hilary is conducting with her math-genius assistant Bo. In this experiment 96 children from the school that Jerry’s adopted daughter attends are divided into age groups to see with how much compassion each group feels toward a woman they witness supposedly being subjected to electric shocks. Bo compiles the statistics part of Hilary’s paper, which scientifically demonstrate that younger children show more native compassion than older children, who presumably have to be taught to be comfortable with cruelty. She is pleased to be able to present the printed document to Hilary when the latter returns from a Krohl business-vacation trip to Venice. The work Bo has done seems to show unselfish desire to please Hilary. But that impression is qualified by the hint Hilary lets slip to her boss that Bo feels a (selfish) lesbian attraction to her.
While in Venice, Hilary is randomly assigned to room at the hotel with Spike whom she has not seen for eight years, raising again the question of whether this conjunction is just a statistical outlier, or is it arranged by some kind of providence guiding their lives. Their arguments now center on another aspect of the “hard problem”—whether inert matter can create consciousness. In bed, Hilary asks Spike to say a prayer, like the one she does nightly, that her daughter may be happy and well cared for by her adoptive parents. But in spite of the temptation to please her, Spike remains true to his principles and refuses. He hears her crying in the shower.
After returning from Venice Hilary hosts the afore-mentioned party in Scene 9 (of 11) to celebrate the printing of what Hilary has altruistically put forward with Bo’s name first. It’s a disastrous party. In addition to Spike’s rude behavior, Hilary burns the food and Amal, now Bo’s boyfriend, belittles “her” paper. Worse, Bo reluctantly reveals to Hilary that had fudged the data to make it come out the way she knew Hilary wanted. So Hilary’s happiness at having science “prove” that humans are natively nice is shattered. The problem of whether “goodness” is what it seems, or whether it can always be analyzed as a self-enhancing tactic, remains “hard.”
Because Krohl’s 13-year-old daughter, Cathy, was one of the participating subjects, Hilary can verify that Cathy was adopted and that her birthdate as well as her name correspond to those of her daughter. QED, Jerry’s adopted daughter Cathy and Hilary’s natural daughter, Catherine are one and the same. Jerry has known this for some time, and in the last scene he again displays his personal compassion by inviting Hilary to visit them at any time to see her daughter. Hilary is grateful but thinks such visits should be deferred until Cathy/Catherine is older. The play ends with Jerry and Cathy leaving Hilary’s apartment. Hilary looks happy, and Jerry comes back to give Hilary Cathy’s ID pass with her picture on it. She looks at it for a moment, then quickly stuffs her few belongings into a bag and exits.
- Elaine – Kristin Atherton
- Jerry – Anthony Calf
- Cathy – Hayley Canham
- Bo – Vera Chok
- Leo – Jonathan Coy
- Julia – Rosie Hilal
- Cathy – Daisy Jacob
- Spike – Damien Molony
- Ursula – Lucy Robinson
- Amal – Parth Thakerar
- Hilary – Olivia Vinall
- Cathy – Eloise Webb 
The production received mixed reviews, varying from "stimulating...rich" by Michael Billington of The Guardian and "elegantly interpreted" from The Standard's Henry Hitchings to "major disappointment" from Dominic Cavendish of The Daily Telegraph.
Philadelphia's Wilma Theater produced the U.S. premiere in January and February 2016. The play was directed by Blanka Zizka, with the cast that featured Sarah Gliko (Hilary), Ross Beschler (Spike) and Shravan Amin (Amal).
The Midwest saw a production in 2017 at the Court Theater in Chicago.
- Stoppard, Tom (28 January 2015). "First Person". Programme notes. London: Royal National Theatre.
- The Hard Problem – National Theatre
- The Hard Problem: mixed reviews for new Tom Stoppard play, BBC News, 29 January 2015
- US premiere, Knight Foundation
- Zinman, Toby. "Review. 'The Hard Problem'" philly.com, January 14, 2016
- The Hard Problem is Stoppard’s problem with science, New Scientist, 29 January 2015
- The Hard Problem review – Tom Stoppard dodges the big question, The Observer, London, 1 February 2015
- The Hard Problem, National Theatre, review: 'a major disappointment', The Telegraph, London, 28 January 2015
- The Hard Problem, review: Nicholas Hytner's last production for the National Theatre is a disappointment, The Independent, London, 28 January 2015
- ‘The Hard Problem’, National Theatre, London – review, The Financial Times, London, 29 January 2015