[31 January 2014]
If there is one recurring area of examination in the voluminous bibliography of British playwright Tom Stoppard, it’s the game-like nature of human interaction. No matter the situation, be it the negative pages of Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, Stoppard never ceases pulling apart the mechanics of the games people play on the small stages of home life and the grand stages of political engagement.
In the Agatha Christie parody-cum-metatheatrical satire The Real Inspector Hound, which Stoppard likens to a “wind-up toy”, the game is relatively trifling, though nonetheless voracious in its insight and wit. Rock ‘n’ Roll, a dramatization of the influx of Western rock music into Stoppard’s native Czechoslovakia during the Velvet Revolution, depicts how political games can end up being charades: “Capitalism, apparently, was going to be overthrown by gesture, by theatre,” he bemoaned to the South Bank Show‘s Melvyn Bragg. The constantly shifting reality of The Real Thing highlights the ways in which lovers play power games against each other.
No matter how high the stakes, gamesmanship is always a key element to Stoppard’s writing; part of what makes his plays so delightful is how he balances lofty, dense subject material with a light, comedic, and deft hand. The intricate staging of Arcadia, which takes place in two different centuries, is a dazzling thing to watch unfold; as the plot’s layered study of history, literature, poetry, and mathematics builds more and more upon itself, the cast weaves in and out of time with a pace not unlike a finely honed jazz ensemble.
Though Darkside, Stoppard’s latest venture into radio theatre, lacks the visual component that makes his stage works so compelling, he remains as invitingly cerebral as ever. Like The Real Thing, the boundaries between what is real and what is staged is constantly being interrogated. The play opens with a train about to derail and kill everyone on board, which is stopped only by the actions of Ethics Man (Rufus Sewell), who pulls a lever to divert the train onto the next track. Unbeknownst to bystanders, but known to Ethics Man, however, is that there is a young boy on this track.
Those avid students of analytic moral philosophy will recognize where Stoppard is going before the scene changes: this is the famed Trolley Problem, initially introduced by Philippa Foot in her Virtues and Vices, then later expanded upon by the likes of Judith Jarvis Thomson in the indispensable Rights, Restitution, and Risk. Boiled down to its simplest terms, the dilemma is often used to pit utilitarianism and deontological ethics against each other, weighing the concerns of the one against the many.
With Darkside, ethical dilemmas such as this one are a point of interest, but Stoppard’s concerns here are metaethical; the issue is with the overall construction of thought experiments such as the Trolley Problem. The play’s protagonist, Emily (Amaka Okafor), upon taking a moral philosophy class, finds herself sucked into a Wizard of Oz-esque world where thought experiments are the norm, ranging from a fat man who was pushed out of a hot air balloon to keep its weight stable for the rest of the passengers to a game theory analysis of the tragedy of the commons. The world of Darkside is a world of constant evaluation and the weighing of ethical impacts: everything is reduced to the barest of ethical scales, a world where Ethics Man—who at one point abandons his utilitarian views for a simplistic take on Nietzscheian egoism—reigns supreme.
Emily’s journey through the not-Kansas-anymore of moral philosophy is soundtracked by Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, which oscillates between being background music to taking front stage, with key passages from “Money”, “Us and Them”, and “Brain Damage” forming integral parts of Stoppard’s text. The value of Dark Side of the Moon here is that it adds to the play’s cheekiness, as well as establishing the Wizard of Oz motif that drives the plot. Stoppard knows how to wield Pink Floyd’s music to the advantage of his satire and humor, as evidenced by this exchange:
POLITICIAN: On the other hand, constraints are the essence of a just society—constraints, inclusiveness and accountancy.
MONEY intro, continuing as underscore.
POLITICIAN: I mean accountability.
BANKER: And accountancy.
POLITICIAN: And when I say “constraints,” I mean liberties.
This verbal game is one of the many places where Darkside pries apart the game-playing that goes on in language, a subject Stoppard has touched on in the past with the Wittgenstenian Dogg’s Macbeth. The persistent clarifying question of the play follows from this type of investigation: who is real, and who is a thought experiment? Emily, being “real”, is viewed with amazement by the fictional moral chess pieces she encounters for her “real-ness”, but to Emily these people, including the ghost of the small boy killed by the runaway train, are not to be viewed as intellectual abstractions.
Here lies another line that Stoppard masterfully “toes”, as he always does. Despite being a zippy 53 pages, Darkside is a philosophical feast; anyone drawn to analytic philosophy, economics, and game theory will find much delight in his satire. But in spite of all the theorizing going on, Stoppard never feels like he’s cutting out the human element; in fact, Darkside champions it. The “conclusion” of sorts that Emily reaches at the play’s conclusion derives from growing body of evidence that suggests, contrary to the conventional wisdom surrounding the Prisoner’s Dilemma, that altruism may not be such a bad thing after all. It, in fact, might be the most rational thing to do.
All of these questions require answers much longer than a single radio play could hope to answer. The beauty of Stoppard’s writing, however, is that he never feels like he’s mounting a take-down of a particular line of thought—though Darkside offers a compelling case that fleshed out character development is always more interesting than the bean counting of ethical casuistries. Just as he has done in the past, Stoppard is more interested in opening eyes than converting minds, and all the better for it.
Equal parts playful and engaging, Darkside reveals that, at 76, this playwright has not stopped innovating, a considerable feat not only because he is late into an illustrious career, but also because radio theatre, even in England, is far from de rigueur. Just as it was for Philippa Foot in 1978, so much depends on the pulling of a lever.