Tom Stoppard’s new play, the Hard Problem, asks whether individual consciousness (and the ideas of good and evil that go with it) can exist in a material world. A world in love with the matter of fact.
It’s been billed as an intellectual jeu d’esprit but I enjoyed it most as a study in the application of ideas in 21st century Britain. Much of the play touched on the activities of my daily living, which was odd as almost everyone in the audience appeared to be university lecturers!
The peril of being early
There’s a great moment in an early scene when an anonymous analyst for a hedge fund gets fired by Jerry Kroll (its owner) not for being wrong- but for “being early”.
His crime is to to share information that Kroll, were he to retain it, could act on to create value for himself (destroying others in the process).
The play is not making a moral point, it is rehearsing something that people in finance know well – “keep your mouth shut”- “knowledge is power” and the ‘common “good” is not necessarily “good business”.
For Kroll there are no coincidences, only a failure in information. His fantasy is a world that is fully known – where nothing remains a mystery. But here knowledge needs to be the privilege of the few,the property of Kroll, his hedge fund and his institute.
Sacked for blogging!
The analyst blogs his way to a P45.
Independent blogging is not something that the financial services industry encourages. It’s too disruptive to business as usual, and BAU is what pays the bills.
The hegemony of large firms – whether in banking, fund management or consultancy – is absolute. As with Kroll’s hedge fund, the concentration of wealth (and therefore power) leads to asymmetries of information, where the ordinary man is cut out of the action.
Blogging adresses asymétries and democratises information.
A diversion into pensions (bear with)
I wrote last week about my concern that the independent governance committees were in risk of losing their independence (Gregg McClymont’s written similarly). My blog, openly criticising a major insurer and the process of selection that allowed a primary distributor to become an independent adviser, has caused pain and anguish in certain quarters (for which I’m sorry). It has caused a lot of anger too (for which I am not sorry at all).
The point of being independent is to provide an alternative perspective , to prevent market failures (from Madoff to Equitable Life). When Andrew Warwick-Thompson blew the whistle on Roy Ransome of Equitable Life and its burgeoning liabilities, he was legally gagged.
Warwick-Thompson was early, Gregg is early – I would like to think that this blog is “early”too.
In my neck of the woods , the legal threats are gone, instead the gagging is implicit in phrases such as “career threatening” – it is not a matter of being right or wrong – it is just about timing- it does not “pay” to be early.
If you’re not early – you tend to be late
The problem with not being early- is you tend to be late. If we had been early in identifying problems with pension mis-selling then we would not have had to put things right (at such great cost). If the pensions industry had listened to those like Alan Higham and Ros Altmann who demanded reform at retirement, we would not have had the chaos that we are facing today.
If you dam a river, you hold back the free flow of water and risk a flood when the dam bursts.
If you dam information, you do much the same, when the information that is held back, becomes public, the mud flies – and sticks.
Back to the play – “the play’s the thing”!
Within the play, Hilary is sustained by praying to a God that she believes will make good happen, she thanks that God when what she considers “good” happens to her. To this belief system, she attracts Bo, who falls in love with her, the kindly but spineless Leo and ultimately Kroll himself.
The show’s publicity depicts Hilary as a Madonna with her child. This doesn’t come across in performance.
She’s no saint- infact she’s a “tart with a heart” and about a quarter of the play is spent watching her jumping in and out of bed with Spike, a loathsomely one-dimensional crony of Kroll.
Far from demeaning her, I found her sexual exploits brought Hilary to life. Having had a child at 15, I expected a victim; instead I got a woman in control of her own sexuality (and a great deal more).
It all comes right in the end
For without her, there is no alternative to Kroll. The analyst is seen no more after his dismissal, throughout the Hard Problem, information struggles to be published for fear of the damage it might cause Kroll’s Institute (ironically of learning).
There are others within the institute who are conscious of the Hard Problem, but only Hilary who is disruptive enough to address it.
For all that, the play is a comedy. For all the destruction created by his extreme materialism, Kroll fosters a department of psychology within the institute that holds onto its Carthusian principles.
Paradoxically, the man who is God-like in business cannot prevent the spread of consciousness , within the Institute.
This disruption culminates in Hilary declaring publicly that there is a God (and it is not Kroll), Though what God is, is defined here as what it is not. God appears as the alternative to pure Newtonian science that tells us that everything can be known.
Concepts such as “good” and “God” are able to be discussed within the play through the indulgence of Kroll. Somehow they even flourish. Kroll is shown as a father and in the denouement as someone who can recognise the good in Hilary.
The idea of motherhood as an example of altruism not egotism is returned to throughout the play.
There is a human interest sub-plot within this involving a lost daughter, an adopted daughter and a found daughter. In the context of the intellectual action, it creates a narrative structure as we move to some kind of synthesis in the respect that Hilary earns from Kroll (both as a free-thinker and a mother).
This is not King Lear, it is more the Winter’s Tale. I would like to ask Olivia Vynall (Hilary) – who has played Cordelia – how she managed the transition to Hermione.
Even though it is not a bleak play- it has bleak scenes (such as a disastrous dinner party) which show what could happen if Hilary were not there.
But we sense that Hilary will always be there- because she is given space to be. Is Kroll redeemed or redeemer – his relationship with Hilary is left an enigma.
Nous sommes Hilary (in our dreams)
This is the play’s political dimension. Set in the context of the suppression of liberties we are experiencing in other parts of the world.
I felt when watching that because we are a free country, where you don’t get 1000 lashes for speaking your mind, Tom Stoppard can write such a play, Neptune Investment Management can sponsor it and I can write a blog about disruption inspired by its dialectic.
Hilary surprises us, she is neither victim, student, employee or maverick, she ends the play her own woman (and a mother) – she has opened all the doors
She earns this through 100 minutes of lacerating honesty on stage.
She is a 21st century heroine that we can aspire to be. Hers an example of disruption that helps us with the Hard Problem.
Some people don’t like the Pension Play Pen, they don’t like this blog, they want to “turn off the tap”. Some don’t even like First Actuarial because of the disruption it is said to have created by allowing all of this to happen.
The views of this blog are the views of Henry Tapper – no one else (unless the blog says so)!