In 1876 Alexander Graham Bell sent the first communication by wire to his trusty assistant, Thomas A. Watson, thus sparking a revolutionary new string of communication. Suddenly, one could communicate with another in a different room; then a different house; then a different city. In the coming years, as radio technology advanced, messages were liberated from the connective wires and the advent of transcontinental communication shrunk the parameters of time and space even further. Fast forward (as, yes, new technologies have allowed us to do) and the immediacy of contact and knowledge flies into the palms of our hands almost instantly through our smart phones. In the blink of an eye, we can contact anyone, anywhere, at anytime.
Another revolutionary invention altered society’s comprehension of time and space: The Steam Engine. This powerful, industrial machine sped across the countryside, accelerating travel time and connecting communities at a seemingly impossible rate. Interestingly enough, this invention that led to the unifying of time via time tables, has also been credited with the “annihilation of time and space.” As the connectivity of rail travel shrunk the world, humanity’s view of the world altered as well. Travelers viewed life speed by in a blur through a static train compartment window which, for many, caused new anxieties about the lack of control and possible danger that new technology presented.
Through a philosophical lens, there is another massive force that has the potential to transcend time and space: Love. As Eliza puzzles out her predicament with Josh Watson, she poses the same ontological query: “what is the nature of the phenomenon where a person who claims to know you better than you know yourself makes you feel his physical presence like a, like a burning sensation in your chest even when he’s miles away?” Just as the steam engine, radio, and telephone technologies provided individuals with immediacy in communication, so can intimacy. New lovers Eliza and Josh lose their sense of time in one another; but, they also run the risk of losing their sense of self.
Thus we are presented with the ultimate paradox of companionship. In order to have the gifts of relationship and intimacy, one has to experience unbearable things. This ultimately proves risky - the vulnerability of dependency on another person with unpredictable actions can cause one to return to the security of technological companionship. The cosmic shift that occurs internally as a result of opening oneself to another human being can alter one’s perception of their surroundings, causing “tremendous foreboding such as we always feel when there comes an enormous, an unheard-of event whose consequences are imponderable and incalculable.” Interestingly enough, this quote from Heinrich Heine refers not to love, but to rail travel in the late 1800’s. These parallels between the space/time disruption of love and of technology occur stylistically within the text of THE (curious case of the) WATSON INTELLIGENCE, viewed in the braided overlap of various time periods. At first there are a distinct jumps in time and place; yet each clearly defined shift contains the same actors and character names. There is unease, there is unsettlement. The audience must figure out how to reconcile these uncanny realms. Just as they grow accustomed to the leaps in time, the shifts begin to blur. The shifts between realms occur smoothly by the end of the play, blurring the lines and our perception of the world - much like the fluid view from inside a train compartment.
Adam Greenfield, Director of New Play Development at Playwrights Horizon’s where WATSON received its world premiere, notes that “technology has changed the way we perceive time moving. Stories begin to resemble the behavior of technology, finding narrative and meaning in the search for connections, associations, and patterns. It’s a compression of space and time, where everything is related to everything else and time becomes a constant present.” As we journey our way through the play, the series of seemingly unrelated events begin to highlight a pattern in each individual, shining a light on the core essence of the character. It is in this distilled clarity of the Constant Present that we can ask the deep questions about what it means to be human. Or, perhaps more specifically, what it means to be human with other human beings.