Tim Sanford on The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence
“Cogito ergo sum.” – René Descartes, from Discourse on the Method, 1637
“You need not deny your frailty to me, Mrs. Merrick. We all suffer from moments of insufficiency, in which we must look to others to supplement our strength. That is no weakness, it is the first condition of human life. And it is a privilege for me to witness, and to minister to, your humanity.” – Madeleine George, from The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, 2013
“I think therefore I am.” The philosophical upshot of Descartes’s famous maxim is to split the world in two. There is the “I” and there are the “I’s” objects. It’s a fairly apt structural description of the way our brains work. The problem is it reduces other people to objects. And great moral thinkers have wrestled with this dichotomy ever since. In art, we see this split in the form/content duality. In the act of creation, form and content are inseparable. But art that is formally inventive and identifiably individual always draws our attention. And in the theater, don’t we all just love a well-crafted play? Who is on your list of favorite master craftsmen? Oscar Wilde? Caryll Churchill? Tom Stoppard? Bruce Norris, perhaps? Add to your list, Madeleine George. The first pleasures to be experienced from The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence will undoubtedly derive from the virtuosity with which George interweaves four narratives about four distinct characters named Watson—one a computer robot programmed for empathy, another an easy-going computer repairman, another Sherlock Holmes’s sidekick, and the last, the personal assistant of Alexander Graham Bell. She brings these characters, and a divorced contemporary couple who double as estranged spouses in Edwardian London to life, with blazing wit, invention and delicious period language.
But let’s not divorce Watson‘s form from its content. In my first reads of the play, I felt myself personally invested in the play’s focus on the Watson character as a facilitator of genius. Stories rarely focus on the second banana, romantic stories even less so. I well recognize the courtship gambit found within the play of a suitor who tries to make himself indispensable. As he makes himself needed, she lets herself be needed as well. But as Madeleine points out in her Playwright's Perspective on the following page, we’re living in a time when more and more of the objects in our world are vying for indispensability. And these objects don’t need us back. Or do they? Kant’s work talks a lot about the fact that the forms of consciousness dictate the nature of perception. We order the world according to the structure of our brains. Aren’t we now ordering the world according to the structure of our tools as well? Interestingly, the Watson robot character in some ways is meant to be a composite of both Holmes and Watson, evincing both logic and solicitousness. Where do people fit into this scheme? We talk a lot about co-dependence these days. And culturally, we aspire to independence. How do we feel about interdependence? Do we tolerate the imperfections that necessitate interdependence? Do we still “look to others to supplement our strength?” Or would we rather pretend we have no deficits?
What are the objects theater depends on? Most of us in the theater are asked to ponder from time to time the role new technologies might play for us. We are certainly grateful for advances in new production technologies that add creative possibilities to our designers’ toolboxes, and yes, social media will play new roles for reaching our audience. But most of us working in the theater remain cautiously protective of the primacy of the humanness of the theater. In her Perspective, Madeleine describes a dynamic in a writing exercise that involves getting closer and closer to an object and then merging with it – exactly what actors do every time they approach a character. A play is an object that demands to be merged with a subject. No other art form works quite this way. And the virtuosic shifts between subject and object, i.e. character and actor, that define Watson, can only be found in the theater. But here these shifts also delineate the play’s content. When you take the ride with this play, you will experience both the elusiveness of others and our commonality. And it will leave you pondering the nature of intelligence. Certainly there are many different kinds of intelligence humans can cultivate and prize, but I think you will find the particular kind of humane intelligence illustrated and celebrated in this play as valuable as it is rare.