Tom Stoppard Essay - Stoppard, Tom

Stoppard, Tom


Tom Stoppard 1937-

(Born Tomas Straussler.)

Since the mid-1960s Stoppard has been recognized as a leading playwright in contemporary theater. Like George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde, with whom he is often compared, Stoppard examines serious issues within the context of comedy, using such devices as word games and slapstick to address complex questions regarding authority, morality, the existence of God, the nature of art and reality, the supposed progress of science, and other issues. This mixture of the comic and the serious in Stoppard's work has led some to characterize his plays as "philosophical farce." Although some critics argue that Stoppard's theatrical devices mask their lack of real profundity, most praise him for his wit and technical virtuosity.


Stoppard was born in Zlin, in the former Czechoslovakia, the second son of Eugene and Martha Straussler. His father was a doctor employed by the shoe manufacturer Bata, which moved the family to Singapore in 1939. Soon thereafter, just prior to the Japanese invasion of Singapore, Stoppard, his mother, and his brother were evacuated to Darjeeling, India. Dr. Straussler remained behind and was killed in 1941. Five years later Stoppard's mother married Major Kenneth Stoppard, a British army officer stationed in India, and after the war the family moved to England. Stoppard left school at the age of seventeen to become a journalist with the Bristol newspaper the Western Daily Press. Two years later he became a freelance journalist and began writing plays. His first work, A Walk on the Water, was written in 1960. In the early 1960s, while continuing to work as a journalist—including a stint as drama critic for the short-lived magazine Scene in 1963—Stoppard composed radio and televisions plays, the novel Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon, and several short stories. He also wrote Tango—an adaptation of a play by Slawomir Mrozek—and "The Gamblers." In 1964 Stoppard spent five months in Berlin participating in a colloquium of young playwrights. While there he wrote the one-act verse drama "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern meet King Lear," based on a question his agent had posed whether Lear was king of England during the time period in which Shakespeare's Hamlet is set. During the next three years, the work evolved into Stoppard's first major success, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The play opened to near-universal acclaim and Stoppard received several prizes, including the Evening Standard Drama Award for most promising playwright and a Tony Award. Stoppard has continued to write for radio, stage, and screen, winning a Evening Standard Drama Award for Jumpers, a New York Drama Critics Circle Award for The Real Thing, a Tony Award for Travesties, and an Olivier Award for Arcadia.


Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead explores such themes as identity, chance, freedom, and death. It centers on two minor characters from Hamlet who, while waiting to act their roles in Shakespeare's tragedy, pass the time by telling jokes and pondering the nature of reality. These two "bit players" in a drama not of their making are bewildered by their predicament and face death as they search for the meaning of their existence. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead has often been compared with Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot for its mixture of humor and philosophic speculation on the absurdity of existence. Jumpers reinforced Stoppard's reputation as a playwright who flamboyantly examines important questions. In this play, which parodies both modern philosophy and the "thriller" genre, George Moore—a philosopher attempting to prove the existence of God and of moral absolutes—and his wife Dotty—a nightclub singer who believes in the sentimental songs she sings—are stripped of their moral ideals and romantic notions. Travesties marked a new development in Stoppard's career: the presentation of detailed political and ethical analysis. This play fictionally depicts Vladimir Ilych Lenin, James Joyce, and Tristan Tzara residing in Zurich during World War I. By juxta-posing the theories of the three men—Lenin's Marxism, Joyce's Modernism, and Tzara's Dadaism—Stoppard offers observations on the purpose and significance of art. Stoppard's next four major works are commonly referred to as his "dissident comedies." Every Boy Deserves Favour, Professional Foul, Night and Day, and the two interlocking plays Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth blend themes of art, illusion and reality, marital infidelity, the freedom and responsibility of the press, and the moral implications of political issues. The Real Thing examines art, metaphysical concerns, and political commitment, while marking Stoppard's most significant treatment of the theme of love. As with the dissident comedies, The Real Thing continues Stoppard's movement toward conventional comedy, deemphasizing farcical action while increasingly concentrating on witty dialogue and exploring human relationships. Hapgood is a comic espionage thriller that employs theories regarding the behavior of subatomic particles to explore uncertainty and the subjective nature of truth. Stoppard's two most recent works, Arcadia and Indian Ink, both possess structures that divide the action between the historical past and the present. As the scenes set in the present uncover and comment on the scenes set in the past, Stoppard explores the elusiveness of certainty, be it in human relationships, historical events, or knowledge of the universe.


Many critics rank Stoppard, together with Harold Pinter, at the forefront of contemporary British theater. The 1966 production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstem Are Dead was an immediate critical and popular success; when the play premiered in London, Harold Hobson declared it "the most important event in British professional theatre of the last nine years." Jumpers and Travesties solidified Stoppard's reputation as a major dramatist, as reviewers praised the moral and philosophical complexities presented in these plays, as well as their verbal and visual wit. While generally less well received, Stoppard's dissident comedies nevertheless have been admired for their broadening of the scope of Stoppard's art to include political themes. In Hapgood critics have detected a new note of optimism and a movement away from the absurdism of Stoppard's earlier work. Further growth has been observed in the highly acclaimed The Real Thing, which has been hailed as the playwright's most personal and autobiographical work and praised for its examination of the power of love. Arcadia has been judged a theatrical tour de force for its fusion of science, philosophy, and human emotion. Vincent Canby has pronounced it Stoppard's "richest, most ravishing comedy to date." Since 1966, Stoppard's theater has evolved from depicting the absurd view of existence to presenting artistic and philosophical attacks on absurdity. The political positions of his plays have moved from detachment to a commitment to personal and artistic freedom, while Stoppard's dominant theatrical mode has varied from farce to romantic comedy. Throughout these changes in Stoppard's career, critics have consistently extolled his wit and brilliant use of language, as well as his technical skill.

Principal Works


*A Walk on the Water 1960

"The Gamblers" 1960 [performed 1965]

Rosencrantz and Guildenstem Are Dead 1966

Tango [adaptor; from a play by Slawomir Mrozek] 1966

Enter a Free Man 1968

"The Real Inspector Hound" 1968

"Albert's Bridge" 1969

"If You're Glad I'll Be Frank" 1969

"After Magritte" 1970

"Dogg's Our Pet" 1971

Jumpers 1972

The House of Bernarda Alba [adaptor; from play by Federico Garcia Lorca] 1973

Travesties 1974

Dirty Linen 1976

Every Good Boy Deserves Favour 1977

Night and Day 1978

Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth 1979

Undiscovered Country [adaptor; from a play by Arthur Schnitzler] 1979

On the Razzie [adaptor; from a play by Johann Nestroy] 1981

The Real Thing 1982

The Love for Three Oranges [adaptor; from an opera by Sergei Prokofiev] 1983

Rough Crossing [adaptor; from a play by Ferenc Molnár] 1984

Dalliance [adaptor; from a play by Schnitzler] 1986

Largo Desolato [adaptor; from a play by Václav Havel] 1986

Hapgood 1988

Arcadia 1993

lndian Ink 1995


"The Dissolution of Dominic Boot" 1964

"M Is for Moon among Other Things" 1964

A Walk on the Water 1965

"If You're Glad I'll Be Frank" 1966

"Albert's Bridge" 1967

"Where Are They Now?" 1970

Artist Descending a Staircase 1972

The Dog It Was that Died 1982

In the Native State 1991


A Walk on the Water 1963

A Separate Peace 1966

Another Moon Called Earth 1967

Teeth 1967

Neutral Ground 1968

Eleventh House [with Clive Exton] 1975

Three Men in a Boat [adaptor; from a novel by Jerome K. Jerome] 1975

The Boundary [with Exton] 1975

Professional Foul 1977

Squaring the Circle (documentary-drama) 1984


The Engagement 1970

The Romantic Englishwoman [with Thomas Wiseman] 1975

Despair [adaptor; from a novel by Vladimir Nabokov] 1978

The Human Factor [adaptor; from a novel by Graham Greene] 1979

Brazil [with Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown] 1985

Empire of the Sun [adaptor; from a novel by J. G. Ballard] 1988

The Russia House [adaptor; from a novel by John Le Carre] 1990

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead 1991


Introduction 2: Stories by New Writers [with others] (short stories) 1964

Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon (novel) 1966

*This work was not staged when it was first written. It was adapted for television in 1963, revised for radio in 1965, and finally produced on stage as Enter a Free Man in 1968.

†This work is an adaptation of his radio play In the Native State.

‡This work is an adaptation of his radio play "The Dissolution of Dominic Boot."

Author Commentary

Tom Stoppard with Ronald Hayman (interview date 1974)

SOURCE: An interview in Tom Stoppard, Heinemann Educational Books Ltd., 1977, pp. 1-13.

[In this conversation, which was conducted in June 1974, Stoppard discusses his methods of composition, maintaining that the best writing is largely a "lucky accident."]

[Hayman]: Some people got the impression from Jumpers that you 'd been a student of philosophy, and in the programme for Travesties you mention your indebtedness to Lenin's Collected Works, half a dozen books about him, an illustrated history of the First World War, two books on James Joyce and two on Dada. Obviously you make your preliminary reading almost integral to the writing.

[Stoppard]: That's been true right from my journalism days. A lot of my reading has resulted from the sheer necessity of having something to deliver—a piece of writing. An article on Norman Mailer for some arts page somewhere. You read the works of Norman Mailer in fourteen days in order to write an article of 1200 words. With Jumpers I was reading stuff I'd never have dreamed of getting round to. The books on ethics and moral philosophy that went into Jumpers I found immensely enjoyable. I think I enjoyed the rules that philosophers play by. It's an extremely formal discipline… .

There's an argument about the value of art in Travesties which is almost identical to an argument in Artist Descending a Staircase—

If it's worth using once, it's worth using twice.

But is this an argument you have with yourself?

One of the impulses in Travesties is to try to sort out what my answer would in the end be if I was given enough time to think every time I'm asked why my plays aren't political, or ought they to be? Sometimes I have a complete comical reaction, and I think that in the future I must stop compromising my plays with this whiff of social application. They must be entirely untouched by any suspicion of usefulness. I should have the courage of my lack of convictions.

Structurally you seem to make more demands on yourself from one play to the next. How much do you plan in advance?

My experience is that a lot of one's work is the result of lucky accident. When you look at the body of it and see all these lucky accidents all in one go, one assumes there must be some kind of almost premeditated connection between them, but there isn't—only in so far as one might suspect the subconscious of working overtime. The plays seem to hinge around incredibly carefully thought-out structural pivots which I arrive at as thankfully and as unexpectedly as an explorer parting the pampas grass which is head-high and seeing a valley full of sunlight and maidens. No compass. Nothing.

In an ideal state all the meaningful and referential possibilities in a work of art exist in a highly compressed form in the mind of the artist, probably before he even begins, and the existence of that nucleus dictates what the tentacles do at the extremities of his conscious gift. What's wrong with bad art is that the artist knows exactly what he's doing… .

Jumpers seems to take its starting point from that moment in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern when Rosencrantz says, 'Shouldn't we be doing something constructive?' and Guildenstern asks him, 'What did you have in mind? A short blunt human pyramid?'

I did begin with that image. Speaking as a playwright—which is a category that must have its own boundary marks, because a novelist couldn't say what I'm about to say—I thought: 'How marvellous to have a pyramid of people on a stage, and a rifle shot, and one member of the pyramid just being blown out of it and the others imploding on the hole as he leaves'. I really like theatrical events, and I was in a favourable position. Because of the success of Rosencrantz it was on the cards that the National Theatre would do what I wrote, if I didn't completely screw it up, and it has forty, fifty actors on the pay-roll. You can actually write a play for ten gymnasts. I was in a fairly good position to indulge myself with playing around with quite complex—not to say expensive—theatrical effects and images, and I was taken with this image of the pyramid of gymnasts.

It's perfectly true that having shot this man out of the pyramid, and having him lying on the floor, I didn't know who he was or who had shot him or why or what to do with the body. Absolutely not a clue. So one worked from a curiously anti-literary starting point. You've simply committed yourself to giving nine hundred people in a big room which we call a theatre a sort of moment—yes? At the same time there's more than one point of origin for a play, and the only useful metaphor I can think of for the way I think I write my plays is convergences of different threads. Perhaps carpet-making would suggest something similar.

One of the threads was the entirely visual image of the pyramid of acrobats, but while thinking of that pyramid I knew I wanted to write a play about a professor of moral philosophy, and it's the work of a moment to think that there was a metaphor at work in the play already between acrobatics, mental acrobatics and so on. Actually it's not a bad way of getting excited about a play.

Somebody told me that Alfred Hitchcock has been trying to make a film which begins in a car factory in which cars are put together entirely by automation and you just dolly along these incredible gentries with mechanical arms putting wheels on, and the doors are clamped on, and at the end of this interminable process—during which the credits are rolling—down the ramp at the further end of the complex rolls this car, untouched by human hand. You open the boot and inside is a body. I'm told that as soon as he can work out how it got there he'll make the picture.

But as a playwright you can start without knowing.

Yes, that's true. Because you have other threads converging, and I suppose in the end you can just change your mind, and if you can get enough threads going for you, you can leave out the one you started with.

Did Rosencrantz and Guildenstern feel like a breakthrough? It seems as though you suddenly got fed up with trying to entertain naturalistically and gave yourself permission to take more risks.

I didn't, you know. All the way from Enter a Free Man, which was 1960, to Travesties (1974) I've written what appealed to me, and I've written it with the assumption that it would appeal to everybody else. It's surely true that if you don't actually write from that standpoint, you get into deep trouble.

Then what was new about Rosencrantz?

Four or five years had elapsed since Enter a Free Man, and when I was writing Rosencrantz I was in no sense engaged in any sort of esoteric work. It was like music-hall if anything—a slightly literate music-hall perhaps. Enter a Free Man was a play written about other people's characters. It appears to be much more about real people than Travesties, which is a huge artifice, but at least I've got a mental acquaintance with the characters in Travesties, however much, in one sense, they're two-dimensional dream people. Now Enter a Free Man looks as though it's about people as real—at least in terms of art—as the people in Coronation Street. But to me the whole thing is a bit phoney, because they're only real because I've seen them in other people's plays. I haven't actually met any of them myself. It's about upper-working-class families. They had to be a bit upper because I kept giving them extremely well-constructed speeches to speak at a high speed of knots. The main point really is that it's actually impossible to write anything at all unless you're absolutely behind it. I think that Travesties is capable of entertaining more people than Enter a Free Man. Everything I've written—at the time I've written it, I've felt 'Oh this is absolutely accessible, communicable.' To qualify that, I haven't felt that at all. One doesn't think it. One simply writes what one is impelled to write at that time, what one wants to write, what one feels one can write. Even on the single occasion when I've actually written a play for a specific occasion. I knew the boys who were going to perform it. There was one headmasterish figure that I made into a headmaster, but—all that being said—what actually emerged was something that I was absolutely behind. I was really excited by the idea of the language I was using having a double existence. One of the things I hope I'll do one day is really to make full use of that little idea I used. "Dogg's Our Pet" is an anagram of Dogg's Troupe. The play is constructed out of a vocabulary of about fifty words, all based on certain sound values.

But there must be influences. Enter a Free Man is a preBeckett play and Rosencrantz is obviously Beckettian. At the end of Junipers you actually find a way of saying thank you to him.

At the time when Godot was first done, it liberated something for anybody writing plays. It redefined the minima of theatrical validity. It was as simple as that. He got away. He won by twenty-eight lengths, and he'd done it with so little—and I mean that as an enormous compliment. There we...

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Overviews And General Studies

Philip Roberts (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "Tom Stoppard: Serious Artist or Siren?" in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 3, Autumn, 1978, pp. 84-92.

[Attempting to assess Stoppard's view of drama, Roberts notes the playwright's ambiguous pronouncements about his own work.]

Tom Stoppard's writing career is a remarkable one. Since 1963, when his play A Walk on the Water was transmitted on television a few days after the assassination of President Kennedy 'as a substitute for a play deemed inappropriate in the circumstances', he has had performed some eleven stage plays (including two adaptations), seven television plays, six radio...

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Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead

R. H. Lee (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "The Circle and its Tangent," in Theoria, Pietermaritzburg, Vol. XXXIII, October, 1969, pp. 37-43.

[In the essay below, Lee employs the image of a circle and a line tangential to it—representing the world in Stoppard's play in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstem are "people" and its intersection with the world of Hamlet, in which they are "characters"—to elucidate the structure of Stoppard's drama and its relation to Shakespeare's tragedy..]

Almost every critic or reviewer who has written on Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstem are Dead has paid tribute to the dramatist's...

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Carol Billman (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "The Art of History in Tom Stoppard's Travesties," in Kansas Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 4, Fall, 1980, pp. 47-52.

[In the essay below, Billman explores the connection between art and history in Travesties: "Through his characterization of Carr, Stoppard yokes the roles of artist and historian … , affirming through Carr the importance of history and the individual 'making' it."]

In his profile of Tom Stoppard for the New Yorker [December 19, 1977] Kenneth Tynan, pursuing a biblical distinction, divides contemporary British dramatists into two camps:


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The Real Thing

Paul Delaney (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Cricket Bats and Commitment: The Real Thing in Art and Life," in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 45-60.

[In the essay below, Delaney explores the intersection of life and art, genuine and ersatz love, in The Real Thing.]

That Tom Stoppard's plays are neither imprecise nor obscurantist, that his ambiguities are intended neither to dazzle nor confuse but 'to be precise over a greater range of events', was perhaps the most signal contribution of Clive James's [November] 1975 Encounter article: 'It is the plurality of contexts that concerns Stoppard: ambiguities are just places...

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Hersh Zeifman (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "A Trick of the Light: Tom Stoppard's Hapgood and Postabsurdist Theater," in Around the Absurd: Essays on Modern and Postmodern Drama, edited by Enoch Brater and Ruby Cohn, The University of Michigan Press, 1990, pp. 175-201.

[In this essay, Zeifman focuses on Hapgood to uncover a note of optimism which distinguishes Stoppard's plays from works by Samuel Beckett and other writers of absurdist drama.]

In a 1974 interview with the editors of Theatre Quarterly, Tom Stoppard was questioned about the genesis of his playwriting career [Theatre Quarterly IV, No. 4, May-July 1974]....

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Further Reading


Delaney, Paul, ed. Tom Stoppard in Conversation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994, 300 p.

Collection of interviews dating from 1967 to 1993, containing comprehensive coverage of Stoppard's plays.

Gordon, Giles. Interview with Tom Stoppard. The Transatlantic Review, No. 29 (Summer 1968): 17-25.

Conversation in which Stoppard discusses the conception and composition of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Gussow, Mel. Conversations with Stoppard. London: Nick Hern Books, 1995, 146 p.

Series of interviews, spanning the years 1974 to 1995, in which...

(The entire section is 1595 words.)