Tom Stoppard Essay - Stoppard, Tom (Vol. 8)

Stoppard, Tom (Vol. 8)

Stoppard, Tom 1937–

A Czech-born British playwright and novelist, Stoppard is noted for his humorous and innovative dramas. Best known for his popular play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Stoppard is the recipient of a Tony Award and a New York Drama Critics Circle Award. (See also CLC, Vols 1, 3, 4, 5.)

The external brilliances in Travesties, its manic virtuosity of language, its diabolical manipulation of time and notion, cannot elude any visitor to Tom Stoppard's verbal prank….

Stoppard's collage is … a jostling of dissimilar elements, personages related only in that they all happened to be in Zurich in 1917: James Joyce, Vladimir Lenin, Tristan Tzara (a founder of Dada), and a British consular flunky named Henry Carr. As [Luciano] Berio uses Mahler as his objet trouvé, Stoppard uses [The Importance of Being Earnest]. That is because [his protagonist] Carr's one moment of relative glory, in a life otherwise uncrowded with incident, was his appearance as Algernon in a production of the play put together by Joyce. That event, and the petty squabble that arose from it, were of no importance to anyone except Carr but, as his senile memory struggles to construct a portentous memoir of that time and that place, his thoughts take shape as scenes from Earnest….

Under the sheen of its immense daring, the play reveals a touching center, a study of a useless but endearing chap frantically beating off the onrush of obscurity. His struggle is inept, but ineptitude has been his life companion….

Multilayered, complex, intellectually astringent, Stoppard's play bats about a remarkable number of important ideas…. Stoppard involves his historical characters in a web of fictions: Joyce (who made words dance) bickering with Tzara (because he loathes the way the Dadaists make words dance); Lenin, the spirit of a progressive age, whose idea of a good evening at the theater is a performance of Camille…. The very disorganization of Carr's memory becomes the play's organizing force. As the old man gabbles along, his thoughts go off in opposing directions and take on clashing tone-colors. This Stoppard translates into a broad spectrum of theater techniques: a music-hall number here, a dance there, a spy-behind-the-arras routine worthy of the Keystone Kops….

"Great days … Zurich during the War," says Carr at the start of his last monologue. That much we know from history, and that chapter might serve for an excellent historical play. The ultimate, mind-tickling travesty in Travesties is the way history becomes vivid as anti-history. It is thinking-man's theater that makes it a privilege to think. (p. 102)

Alan Rich, in New York Magazine (© 1975 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and Alan Rich), November 17, 1975.

About Travesties [in an earlier review] … I had written that [Tom Stoppard] is "brilliantly adept as well as highly cultivated. He is certainly entertaining. Besides his shrewd theatrical sportiveness there is in him an itch to communicate matters of philosophical import." I failed however to grasp exactly what the import of Travesties might be. I supposed it to be contained in the play's concluding lines—"You're either a revolutionary or you're not, and if you're not you might as well be an artist as anything else…. If you can't be an artist, you might as well be a revolutionary…."

I realize now that this aphorism sums up an attitude that informs Stoppard's other plays: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Jumpers. This attitude—in its context it cannot be called a "philosophy"—is one of almost total skepticism: we can be sure of nothing. Humankind is tossed about in a storm of experience with no certainty as to its origin, direction or outcome. The thought may cause us to shed tears or arouse laughter. Stoppard laughs.

The joke in Travesties is that the memory of our own past is as unreliable as everything else…. [The] individual person can't alter the course of history. It's a rationalization for social passivity—or for becoming an artist!…

[In] this play Stoppard is neither a revolutionary nor, except in a most limited sense, an artist. The play is a charade, full of antic capers, educated allusions and bright writing in high-grade English. As such it is a superior show not entirely without significance. Its amused skepticism suggests flaccidity of will, the weakening of moral sinew characteristic of our time. It gratifies those for whom a jocular literacy and a modicum of theatrical and intellectual glitter are sufficient. (p. 540)

Harold Clurman, in The Nation (copyright 1975 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), November 22, 1975.

Since I tend to think that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern has a genuine point to make about the relation of role to identity and that Jumpers is a serious statement about the failures of traditional humanism, I expected to find substance under the glitter of Travesties. The word travesty is used just once in the play, when Henry Carr, recalling the legal decision which went against him, labels it "a travesty of justice." This usage suggests to me that the travesties of the play are not simply those of the ideas and words of Joyce, Lenin and Tzara, but that—in his usual pessimistic way—Stoppard is viewing all of art and politics as travesty, and certainly, through Carr's reminiscence, the remembered life becomes burlesque. The Russian revolution, the writing of Ulysses, the anarchic implications of Dada have the same validity and the same importance as the cucumber sandwiches in The Importance of Being Earnest. Stoppard has been doing a soft-shoe around existential chaos ever since he turned up in the English theater, and Travesties is either his blackest statement to date or his assumption that the surface joke is what counts. I tend toward the second reading, classing Travesties with After Magritte rather than Jumpers. (p. 114)

Gerald Weales, in Commonweal (copyright © 1976 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), February 13, 1976.

In the beginning was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, a puzzling and therefore profound comedy; then came the Fall: from Jumpers, a witty satire on linguistic philosophy, to Travesties, a clever farce about nothing in particular. Such seems to be the commonest current view. It should be scotched before it hardens into critical orthodoxy; for Stoppard's wild Wilde is greater than his domesticated Shakespeare.

Admittedly, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is profound comedy, in spite of some unclarity, but Jumpers offers a good deal more than satire on philosophy, while Travesties is Stoppard's greatest and most superficial play—as Wilde's Importance of Being Earnest is his. There is more, however, to Travesties' travesty of Wilde than there is to Wilde's travesty of Scribean melodrama. Like Wilde, it is everywhere paradoxical, but its paradoxes far more often open up the nature of reality. Though blatantly artificial it resembles reality by being ambiguous and multi-layered. In fact, Stoppard's latest play is an onion; superficial at every level: profoundly superficial. Like the world of appearances it is heartless; no inner truth or more real reality is to be found by stripping off layers of appearance. An idea anticipated by the striptease that opens Jumpers: the secretary swinging by her legs from a trapeze 'between darkness and darkness … into the spotlight and out' discarding layers of clothing (but not her knickers). A brilliant coup de théatre, but in retrospect, surely, a symbol of the Naked Truth, seen only in glimpses, flashes of illumination, and never quite whole. Throughout the play she never speaks (the truth is not self-explanatory). She is the mistress of McFee the rationalist 'acrobat' and the secretary of George Moore the metaphysician; she 'takes down' for both, but in different senses. Theatrically speaking, both sides are seen to possess her in some way, but neither knows the Whole Truth. In Travesties the idea is given an extra twist when Cecily strips (again, only to her knickers) while incongruously purveying at length the Marxist 'truth' about the economic nature of reality.

If some truths, as distinct from mere facts, involve values then such values, not being given, must be constructed (as Joyce put it) 'upon the incertitude of the void'. Or so it would seem. To say so definitely would not only be undramatic but also unStoppardian…. For Stoppard the problem of knowledge has no solution; we must just learn to live with it—and laugh about the absurdities it generates.

Fundamentally, all three of his plays deal with the problem of knowledge (how do we know we really know what we think we know?); and all three are travesties…. Moreover, something of each is to be found in all. In Jumpers philosophical debate, not quite travestied, but satirical in so far as it concerns Archie, dandy leader of the scientific rationalists, humorous in connection with George Moore, outgunned but undefeated metaphysician. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, texturally, often travesties philosophical debates on reality and illusion while structurally calling in question the nature of reality through its triple perspective: of the worlds of Hamlet, the Players, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. And Travesties travesties not only Wilde (and Joyce) but also Shakespeare…. (pp. 66, 68)

All three plays, by evoking literature as often as life, merge questions of art with those of nature and reality—and also, almost inevitably … raise questions of identity. Is 'the truest poetry the most feigning' as Shakespeare said? Is the truest person the most posing, as Wilde maintained? After all, characters are not being 'themselves' when travestying some other author (or even travestying the travesty…). (p. 68)

All are remarkable comedies combining brilliant surfaces with deep themes. The difference is that in Travesties Stoppard has so mastered his medium that with deceptive ease he provides more of everything, as if it were nothing.

So much more, that this play requires a new concept. Where most, including Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Jumpers, have a theme or themes, Travesties is constructed as a thematic network: some twenty interrelated aspects of the problem of knowledge, areas of uncertainty, working in varied permutation. All, of course, are dramatized either in the Library, repository of fiction and faction (mirrored in the characters of Joyce and Lenin), of illusions and truths, or they are set in the Room, where Carr's often unreliable memories are cultivated.

That life is layered is most obviously, but by no means only, suggested by the underlying Wilde play and the fact that Travesties is a play about doing a play, in the middle of a war. The problem of layered personal identity is constantly posed…. (p. 69)

Design and Chance, Appearance and Reality, Art and Delusion, all … are reflected throughout in innumerable touches, for the thematic network is built up, insinuated almost, by a verbal pointillisme. In that way contextual density is triumphantly married with textural lightness, gravity with levity.

Occasional touches, it is true, simply serve to maintain the sunlit atmosphere…. Mostly, though, what might appear to be only textural playwit turns out to be also relevant to theme and structural form. So, for instance, 'My art belongs to Dada' recalls Joyce's repeated Yes to life (something echoed elsewhere in Travesties), and it prompts subliminal reflections as to whether a mercenary 'heart' represents a falsity or a true (or realistic?) attachment as compared with romantic illusion. Similarly the two Joyce chapters travestied are relevant to theme as well as character. For the Oxen of the Sun chapter, itself made up of chronological parodies, suggests that men in every age stylize basic realities—but leaves open the question whether they thereby falsify a true identity or, through the pose, create one. (pp. 70-1)

The general flippancy over the great and bloody issues of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, too, avoids censure by being always relevant to such highly abstract concerns. (This is a play of ideas, not characters; that is why the characters have no characteristic diction.) Joyce's rejoinder to Carr is a miniscule example: '"And what did you do in the Great War?" "I wrote Ulysses," he said. "What did you do?".' In retrospect, which was the better thing to do? (p. 71)

In brief, the mode of Travesties is metaphoric, parodic, and semifactual—constantly, therefore raising the question: What is literal truth? What is authentic? What is fact? The mood, appropriately paradoxical, is hilarious and nostalgic: gradually Carr's youth is revealed as the youth of our world and of modernism in art (and this hints—no more—that these, like Carr himself, may have turned to seediness and disillusion now). The form is almost a contradiction in terms—again appropriately, for we are not to be allowed to settle into assumptions of certainty. Wild Wilde, it mingles the well-made play and its elegance of dialogue with the dislocations of Brechtian expressionism and its shock tactics (imagine Wilde's Gwendolen musing: 'Gomorrahist … Silly bugger!') The texture is shot-silk, always shifting and shining—and, like life, paradoxical. Patches of rhyme and dance demonstrably turn life into art and, some might argue (depending on their views of modernist art), vice versa.

Travesties travesties both the literature and the lives it is based on, in the cause of something other than 'the facts'. Concerned with the problem of knowledge, however, it is unconcerned about it; like most of the best comedies it encourages us to enjoy what we must endure. (pp. 71-2)

[Stoppard's] is the kind of comedy nearest to farce; and much of his work … is farce—but neither pure nor simple. Indeed, [the] farces are curiously complementary to the comedies. His is the kind of farce nearest to comedy—'divertissement' might identify it better.

After Magritte is a sort [of] Jumpers in rompers, Dirty (New-Found-Land) Linen a bourgeois Travesties in black bowlers…. Appealing, respectively, to the infant anarchist and the feet-of-clay fetichist in all of us, they are not consciously problematical. Though they concern inquiries, the problem of knowledge is no part of their meaning; merely a significance that could be extrapolated from them for the sake of metacritical argument. Appearance and reality, identity and hypocrisy occur as matter for amusement only. Moreover, their latent problems of knowledge, if wilfully actualized, would seem to be shown as unreal or easily soluble. The scenes of apparent polymorphous perversity, the weird interpretations of identity, in After Magritte turn out to have rational, even humdrum, explanations, while the Freudian slips (and knickers) exposed at the opening of Dirty Linen leave us in no doubt of the underlying truth.

However, these pieces are complementary to the major works in two ways. Firstly, they obviously spring from the same source, but the laughter is less that of conscious recognition than of a defensive and escapist reaction to some subconscious awareness of nightmare uncertainties that are in fact neither unreal nor easily soluble. Secondly, the assured structures here operate as reassuring frameworks of order rather than demonstrations of absurdity.

Taken as a whole, then, Stoppard's work to date is all of a piece, but three-dimensionally so, the divertissements only expressing what the comedies also consider—and, by considering, conquer. (pp. 72-3)

Allan Rodway, "Stripping Off," in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1976), August-September, 1976, pp. 66-73.

Having demonstrated (to anyone's satisfaction, I should think) an awesome mastery over the English language in the service of elegant and witty game-playing, Tom Stoppard has now moved gloriously onward. Dirty Linen, Mr. Stoppard's latest verbal sally … represents the author's conquest of something new for him, and very old for anyone else. On the surface, his work is pure, old-fashioned knock-about farce. Beneath that surface, however, there is a great deal more.

The premise is farcical enough, no less so for being as timely as tomorrow's headlines. A parliamentary committee is in session to investigate press accusations of moral whoop-de-do within legislative ranks. The setting is London but, as any fool can see, that choice of venue is purely arbitrary; Washington, Rome, or perhaps even Katmandu would do as well. The committee members are, we are soon to learn, up to their own quivering necks in the same stuff they're out to explore….

Mr. Stoppard's manner of treating this material is, as I suggested above, the most elemental kind of comic theater…. But there is also a circularity to the joke-writing, an underlying web of comic leitmotiv, a complex texture of cross-references that keep the mind—and, even more, the memory—constantly and congenially at work as the play winds its brief course. This is Mr. Stoppard's peculiar, individual skill. He has taken the easiest of theatrical forms, and infused it with a structure, an ability to challenge the intellect, that raises the level of farce to something approaching sophistication….

There is also something else. The committee recesses, and into the same room come two more governmental flunkies…. Basically this insert (called New-Found-Land) is a pair of monologues. The older man delivers a dithering memoir of Lloyd George; the younger, a weird and wonderful flood of blather about romantic America, a coast-to-coast travelogue so full of overblown hyperbole and misinformation as to make a Fitzpatrick blush. The whole diversion is a wonderful knockabout of language at its most useless; its insertion into a wholly different context is, like everything else in this wild and dazzling flight of theatrical fancy, the work of a cockeyed, original theatrical genius.

Alan Rich, "'Dirty Linen' Is Pure Silk," in New York Magazine (© 1977 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and Alan Rich), January 24, 1977, p. 89.

Mr. Stoppard is a particular hero of mine, and it is an ineradicable defect in our relationship with heroes that we assume they can do no wrong; on occasions that prove the contrary, we feel indignation along with disappointment, as if we were in the presence not of a momentary failure of talent but of an act of personal malice directed by the hero against his worshippers. In my awareness of the perils of such pitfalls, I must take care not to be too angry with Mr. Stoppard for being fallible; it was I who invented and praised the inhumanly perfect playwright he isn't. The glee with which I listened to the opening volley of badinage in "Dirty Linen" was, I perceive now, an emotion more appropriate to the play than the irritation with which I responded to the operatic exclamation—"Finita la commedia!"—that arbitrarily concludes it. Mr. Stoppard has written a trifle, better suited to summer camp than to Broadway; in his grand Collected Works, to be brought out in twenty folio volumes in the year 2000, it is likely to survive as little more than an asterisk. (p. 63)

Brendan Gill, in The New Yorker (© 1977 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), January 24, 1977.

Dirty Linen displays the unencumbered Stoppard of The Real Inspector Hound and the first act of Travesties, rather than the weightier and duller one of the existential implications in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Jumpers, and the political ponderosities of the second act of Travesties. Here Stoppard has actually created two larger-than-farce-size characters: Maddie Gotobed, whose simple and unpremeditated copulations, coupled with shrewd observations on human nature, make her a splendid comic archetype; and Malcolm Whitenshaw, the committee chairman, a lowly Lancastrian with brazen aspirations to a peerage, the peerless paradigm of inept opportunism that will eventually make it on sheer dumb persistence. (p. 24)

John Simon, in The New Leader (© 1977 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), January 31, 1977.

In a certain sense, Mr. ________ is to me our only thorough playwright. He plays with everything: with wit, with philosophy, with drama, with actors and audience, with the whole theatre.

Bernard Shaw wrote that in 1895 about Oscar Wilde, thus neatly anticipating what I want to say about the most brilliantly playful of living playwrights, Tom Stoppard. Of course, Shaw's formulation is far from being the whole truth about Wilde, beneath whose levity can generally be discerned a desperate seriousness—not surprising in one who labored under the crushing burden of inventing and exemplifying a whole outcast subculture (now, of course, arduously casting itself back in).

Since Wilde, the frivolity of many gay writers (from Coward to Ortun, not to mention Tavel and Ludlam) has tended to have an edge, an animus, a driven quality about it; wit for them, as for Wilde, is their main armament in a guerilla war against respectable society. Mr. Stoppard is more nearly purely playful than they; being evidently not gay, he can afford to be less sad. As a literary dandy he can go plume on plume with anyone, but his plumes, on the whole, are not weapons in disguise. (Which does not in itself make him better or worse—just different.)

He can, however, in his own way, be serious in the midst of his playfulness; he does not even try to hide it, as Wilde did. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Jumpers are about real predicaments, real states of feeling; we can get into a personal relationship with their protagonists, and be touched by them. As for Travesties, I have maintained that there is something serious in Mr. Stoppard's refusal to be serious about the serious matters he deals with in that play: a paradox that Wilde would have found congenial. In Travesties, as in so much of Wilde's own work, playfulness becomes a kind of assertion of freedom.

But Mr. Stoppard's Dirty Linen … is merely playful….

[As] satire, Dirty Linen doesn't get very far. Mr. Stoppard is not primarily interested in satire; he's interested in playing word games. They are unbelievably brilliant word games—parodies, allusions, running gags, puns, puns, puns in mind-boggling profusion—but there is nothing much in Dirty Linen to become involved with. In the very best comedy, from Aristophanes to Groucho and beyond, there is usually someone whose fate, in however odd a way, we come to care about; not here. Like The Real Inspector Hound, Dirty Linen is one of Mr. Stoppard's minor works, a jeu d'esprit, and somewhat … insubstantial.

But the show is saved by Mr. Stoppard's most playful stroke of all. Inside Dirty Linen he has ingeniously contrived to place an entirely different play, a tiny interlude entitled New-Found-Land. (p. 69)

The high point of New-Found-Land [is] … what [Mr. Stoppard] mocks: the yearning for a new land, the vision that America has created, and that has in turn created America. Here is the moment of feeling that the evening had needed to raise it from mechanical laughter and dispassionate admission to real delight. (pp. 69-70)

Julius Novick, "Going Plume on Plume," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc., 1977), January 31, 1977, pp. 69-70.