Court Theatre play examines debate around human consciousness

Where does the brain end and the mind begin? That tricky question is the center of debate in Court Theatre’s production of Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem. 

The title of the play refers to the ongoing search by both philosophers and scientists to explain the phenomenon of human consciousness. It’s rare to see an artistic representation of such heady philosophical and scientific thinking on the stage, but that’s the achievement of Stoppard’s writing under a production team led by Charles Newell, the Marilyn F. Vitale Artist Director of Court Theatre.

Newell credits the wealth of scholarly input available to him from the University of Chicago for the depth and strength of this production.   

“There is no other place where a theater company has had the benefit of the kind of intellectual resources that the Court Theatre has,” Newell said. “We have been graced by the extraordinary generosity of all of our University colleagues.” 

Best known for intellectual high-wire acts of philosophical debate in works such as the Tony award-winning Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and The Coast of Utopia, Stoppard has turned his attention to neurobiology in this latest work, his first since 2006. To better understand the philosophical and scientific debates around consciousness, Newell and his production team worked closely with numerous UChicago facultyProf. Peggy Mason in the Department of Neurobiology, Prof. Leslie Kay in the Department of Psychology, Prof. Jonathan Lear in the Committee on Social Thought and the Department of Philosophy, Prof. Dario Maestripieri in the Department of Comparative Human Development, and Assoc Profs. Jason Bridges and David Finkelstein in the Department of Philosophy. 

“From the very beginning, the creation of the art has been deeply fed by our UChicago colleagues,” Newell said. “It was also helpful to meet and go into Peggy Mason’s laboratory—not only to understand how and why the characters in the play might behave the way they do, but literally some of the structure of her lab informed set design and clothes design.”

Mason also helped the theater team understand the emotions of a scientist. One of the critical scenes in the play revolves around a scientist manipulating her data. In one of her first meetings at Court, Mason compared the fudging of data to murder.

“I read the script and a lot of people reacted to the main character’s personal story,” Mason said. “I really reacted to the story of this other character taking out data points. That is just such an evil, so abhorrent, it makes a scientist recoil in a way that non-scientists don’t get.” 

“Listening to Peggy helped clarify for me how a scientist thinks about experiments. It totally changed my thinking,” Newell said.

And as for the philosophical side of the show?

“The play does get it right,” Bridges said. “Stoppard is sensitive both to our dream of a scientific account of consciousness that will reveal once and for all its true nature, and our nagging suspicion that whatever science might teach us, it cannot provide the kind of understanding of consciousness that we are really after. The Court’s production gives equal voice to both sides of this struggle, and shows its emotional stakes for the play’s characters.”

Chaon Cross, who stars as Hilary, the young psychologist at the center of the story, said she has enjoyed learning the emotional stakes of the science world inhabited by her character. She believes that the audience, despite the complicated subject matter, will still connect with the human experience of the play.

“It’s kind of like good Shakespeare,” Cross said. “If the actors really know what they are talking about, you can miss a monologue but still be with them on the emotional track. All the scientific and philosophical information isn’t going to throw people out.” 

The Hard Problem runs through April 9. Tickets are available online through Court Theatre.