The idea that there’s no such thing as moral goodness, the sort that can be distinguished from Spock-like cost-benefit analyses or Darwinian instincts, isn’t exactly novel. Noted contemporary philosopher Joey Tribbiani made that argument to Phoebe Buffay on Friends, which led her on a memorable series of botched attempts at selfless deeds. “I went down to the park and I let a bee sting me,” she announced to him in defiance. “The bee is happy, and I am definitely not.”
Tom Stoppard’s 2015 one-act drama The Hard Problem, his most recent work since Rock ‘n’ Roll in 2006, opens postcoitus with two lovers—Hilary (Chaon Cross), a 22-year-old scientist, and Spike (Jürgen Hooper), her university tutor—enrapt in a heightened version of the same conversation. Having witnessed her kneeling to pray before sleep, Spike unloads a torrent of condescending questions about her belief system and notions of truth and motivation, which he insists are indistinguishable from those formed by natural selection over millions of years of interpersonal conditioning.
The counterargument that Stoppard, now 79, and director Charles Newell’s sleek Court Theatre production put forward seems squarely aimed at the University of Chicago intellectual elite for whom smug Spike and his like-minded industry colleagues feel like surrogates. As presented, it also feels like a straw man. WNYC’s Radiolab cohost Robert Krulwich regularly dismisses the idea that his personal spiritual and scientific beliefs cannot coexist, and a few of the U. of C. professors interviewed for a feature in the show’s program similarly object to Hilary’s theologically inspired “trying to prove” versus “testing whether” methods.
More interesting, and perhaps more relevant now than during the play’s debut two years ago, is Stoppard’s depiction of the increasingly prominent and unholy matrimony between capitalism and research driven by private equity. After taking a job studying consciousness—the “hard problem” of the title—for the Krohl Institute, a firm run by an entrepreneur, Hilary finds her own philosophy at odds with the short-sale profiteering her research is ultimately meant to serve.
This element—drawn by Stoppard from an incomplete script he wrote based on the 2008 global financial crisis—elevates the perfunctory faith-versus-fact argument to something quintessentially American and of the moment. It’s easy to envision hedge fund manager and Krohl founder Nathan Hosner as Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel, or any of the other billionaires who’ve wrested enough influence to become household names. In these rough-and-tumble scenes from the real world, Newell’s cast mines the humanity from the thought experiments. After all, in a society that rewards self-growth above all else, where is there room for altruism? v