Dirty Linen, 1976 (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Maddie Gotobed, the new secretary to the Select Committee of Members of Parliament, which meets in an overspill meeting room in Big Ben. Voluptuous and inexperienced, she evidently has been involved in affairs with all the male members of Parliament (MPs) on the Select Committee, which has been commissioned to investigate sexual misbehavior in the House of Commons. Each member, as he arrives, slips her a pair of lace panties, evidently left at their last rendezvous, so that by the end of the play she has collected a drawer full of “knickers.” Maddie is nobody’s fool, however, and by the end of the play it is she who dictates her own text for the committee’s resolution: that MPs have as much right to private life as any other citizens and that as long as they break no laws, their privacy should not be broken to indulge public curiosity.
Cocklebury-Smythe, the first of the MPs on this committee. He longs to move into the House of Lords. Like his fellow committee members, he urges Maddie to put out of her mind the various restaurants at which they have met.
McTeazle, the second of the nearly interchangeable MPs. He pulls Maddie’s panties from his briefcase at the end of a long, huffy speech explaining recent press allegations of bad behavior among MPs. He, too, urges Maddie to forget the locales of their meetings, some of them the same places she has met Cocklebury-Smythe.
Chamberlain, another of the lecherous MPs on the committee. Although he has a wife and family in Dorking, he still writes Maddie a note instructing her to forget more restaurants.
Withenshaw, the chairman of the committee. He is from Lancaster, as his speech sometimes betrays. He may be the author of the original draft of the resolution, a cliché-ridden document that says nothing and that is rapidly being revised in several directions by the committee members.
French, the stickler for detail on the committee. He is the member who moves to scrap Withenshaw’s resolution in favor of Maddie’s.
New-Found-Land, 1976 (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Arthur, a junior Home Office official. He and Bernard are making a preliminary review of an American’s application for British citizenship. His attempt to tell Bernard about the United States becomes a heroic monologue in which he catalogs every cliché about American life as he surveys the American landscape from Long Island to California.
Bernard, a very senior (and very deaf) Home Office official. He tells Arthur a long story about how he once won a five-pound note from Lloyd George, but he sleeps through Arthur’s monologue.
Dirty Linen and New-Found-land (Magill's Literary Annual 1978)
Line for line, word for word—and this is a “words” play if ever there was one—Dirty Linen along with New-Found-Land may well be Tom Stoppard’s liveliest and funniest work, if not one of his deepest or most ambitious. From the opening lines—five minutes of clichés in foreign tongues—the play sizzles with a continuous flood of one-liners, comic monologues, outlandish puns, extravagant metaphors, hyperbolic rhetoric, double entendres, verbal duels, sophisticated witticisms, and ludicrously corny jokes. In all, Stoppard overwhelms us with a comedic verbal dexterity, punctuated by adroit bits of physical farce, which is almost unique on today’s stage, although it has many predecessors: Congreve, Sheridan, Wilde, Shaw, George S. Kaufmann, and even the Marx Brothers.
Dirty Linen and New-Found-Land is really a sandwich of a theatrical evening; the second shorter play, a dramatic duet actually, is inserted about three-quarters of the way through the action of the first one, prior to the working out of the main play’s “problem”—although the basic conflict in Dirty Linen is, at best, an extremely thin one. Indeed, although the actual resolution of the play occurs offstage, during the New-Found-Land interlude, this indirect climax is perfectly appropriate to a play whose impressiveness derives from its wit and ideas, rather than its conflicts.
What is the play about? Political hypocrisy and pomposity, especially the British parliamentary variety, the absurdity of traditional forms and rituals, of moral double-think, of the journalistic need to make something out of nothing in order to fill space, sell papers, and “compete,” the artificiality and irrelevance of both politics and journalism to real life, and, above all, the split between what is actually done and the nonsensical, cliché-ridden language we invent in order to describe and conceal the doing of it.
Dirty Linen involves the attempt of a parliamentary sub-committee (the “Select Committee on Promiscuity in High Places”) to submit a report on the recent and extravagant extracurricular sexual activities of that august body:McTEAZLE: . . . there is no phrase as certain to make a British sub-editor lose his sense of proportion as the phrase “Mystery Woman.” This Committee was set up at the time when no fewer than 21 Members of Parliament was said to have been compromised. Since then rumour has fed on rumour and we face the possibility that a sexual swathe has passed through Westminister claiming the reputations of, to put no finer point upon it, 119 Members. Someone is going through the ranks like a lawn-mower in knickers.
Their fact-finding and reporting are greatly complicated by the fact that all save one of the male committee members can be included among the fallen and that their new secretary, Maddie Gotobed (Stoppard has never been a slave to subtlety), is, indeed, the “Mystery Woman,” having risen in the ranks with remarkable speed despite dubious secretarial qualifications (Q: “You do speedwriting, I suppose?” A: “Yes, if I’m given enough...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Corballis, Richard. “Tom Stoppard.” In British Playwrights. 1956-1995: A Research and Production Sourcebook, edited by William W. Demastes. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.
Gambit: International Theatre Review 10, no. 37 (1981). Special Stoppard issue.
Gussow, Mel. Conversations with Tom Stoppard. New York: Grove, 1996.
Hayman, Ronald. Tom Stoppard. 4th ed. London: Heinemann, 1982.
Hearty, John, ed. Tom Stoppard: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1987.
Hunter, Jim. Tom Stoppard’s Plays. New York: Grove Press, 1982.
Jenkins, Anthony. The Theatre of Tom Stoppard. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Whitaker, Thomas. Tom Stoppard. New York: Grove Press, 1984.