Tom Stoppard Essay - Stoppard, Tom (Vol. 1)

Stoppard, Tom (Vol. 1)

Stoppard, Tom 1937–

A Czechoslovakian playwright and novelist, now living in England, Stoppard is the author of the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and the novel Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon.

My only objection is that without the exhilarating stylistic device of the play-beneath-the-play, the play [Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead] proper would be very much second-hand Beckett. Much of its cross-talk is facile wordmanship that benefits accidentally from ambiguity. The play's originality, however, does not lie in its thought, but in its craft. Stoppard displays a remarkable skill in juggling the donnees of existential philosophy. His masterstroke comes when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, discovering the switched letter which dooms them to death, accept their fate—in exactly the same way they have accepted every nudge of circumstance that has preceded. Suddenly, the play becomes a blinding metaphor about the absurdity of life. We are summoned, we come. We are given roles, we play them. We are dismissed, we go. Have we ever been? Has there been a point? If so, what? Murky reflections on the meanings of meaning slink around in our minds long after the play has ended, bequeathing the kind of angst it is the theatre's duty to arouse….

Like Brecht, Stoppard has excavated Shakespeare. He has dug into sub-text so deeply that he has come up with a completely new play but, to its credit, one doesn't think of it as an invention but as an undiscovered vein running beneath Shakespeare's play.

Charles Marowitz, "Writer in Our Midst" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; © 1967 by The Village Voice, Inc.), in Village Voice, May 4, 1967.

"Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" is an immensely witty and charming play, from the initial idea through virtually all its thorough elaboration. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are ultraminor characters in "Hamlet," plot functionaries Shakespeare didn't bother to account for, interchangeable, remarkable only for their names, gratuitous victims of the tragedy. Tom Stoppard has written the play that happens to them, in which their moments in "Hamlet" are the high points but the time between has to be lived too.

The play's preoccupation is their helplessness and the anguish they feel. They have lost all will and are fast losing their separate identities, they don't know why they're at Elsinore or what they're supposed to do or how to do it or what's happening, they have a premonition and then foreknowledge of their deaths and can't do anything but continue as directed. Meanwhile the events of "Hamlet" pile up around them, king and court or Hamlet himself appearing on stage for few, brief words with R. and G., other times glimpsed in passing, and they tangle independently with the elaborated players, but mostly they are left desperately alone. What they do is talk and wait….

The writing is brilliantly clever, the basic trick inspires a tour de force, and the play is great fun. The drawback is Stoppard's attempt to push it to deep significance. The early part of the play repeatedly echoes "Waiting for Godot" in sound and situation but entirely lacks its resonance. These "intimations of meaninglessness" are Shakespeare's doing, not the human condition. Later the play becomes a meditation on death but without much impact. Death per se is not a dramatic event, and Stoppard's decision to have R. and G. see their execution order and dumbly accept it makes them fools.

Michael Smith, in Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; © 1967 by The Village Voice, Inc.), October 26, 1967.

Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead … is Waiting for Godot rewritten by a university wit. Based on a nice conceit, it is epigrammatically literate, intelligent, theatrically clever. It marks a scintillating debut for its author.

Harold Clurman, in Nation, November 6, 1967, p. 476.

Tom Stoppard borrows Shakespeare's joke about identity and Samuel Beckett's inescapable situation and transforms them into Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a funny, intelligent, and finally moving play about two young men, not very sure who they are, who answer a summons from some source they do not recognize to carry out a task they do not understand and to end in the darkness they do not want to think about.

Gerald Weales, "To Be and Not to Be" (© 1967 by The Reporter Magazine), in Reporter, November 16, 1967, pp. 39-40.

Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon is a complicated kind of parody. Beginning in a Kingsley Amis vein, and having recourse to Amis' manner throughout, it also incorporates touches of Evelyn Waugh and P. G. Wodehouse, as well as that of popular fiction writers who use phrases like "she looked roguishly at him." But the parodic impulse frequently passes beyond literary models into popular states of mind, for example in a brilliant passage that plays with all the clichés of current British racism. The characters, too, seem to come from different kinds of books. There are a couple of American gunslingers who shoot it out in Trafalgar Square as the funeral cortege passes. Lord Malquist's coachman is O'Hara, who sounds Jewish but is a Catholic anti-Semite and a Negro. There is a Risen Christ with a stage Irishman's brogue, and Marie, a maid who gives corrective French lessons.

All of these styles and characters are handled with deadpan, convincing realism. As a playwright, Stoppard knows how to construct dialogue that sounds as if it could be spoken, and his plot, for all its implausibility, moves steadily forward. Farce, intellectual fantasy, and moments of genuine feeling succeed one another without apparent incongruity.

Thomas Rogers, "Funny, Sad and British (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1968 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), in New Republic, June 15, 1968, p. 37.

After "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" you could expect anything from Tom Stoppard, and that is frankly his misfortune. His latest play, a one-acter called "The Real Inspector Hound," is a kind of spin-off from the earlier play. Here it is two critics watching a conventional murder mystery who eventually find themselves dragged into the action of the play.

In a sense it is the same existential attitude—in the first play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern extend the emotional fabric of "Hamlet," in the second two laymen (critics) find themselves dreaming out their wish fulfillments on the stage.

Clive Barnes, in New York Times (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 8, 1968.

Stoppard loves to sport with conventions. Old-fashioned melodrama, drawing-room comedy, ladies' magazine fiction, westerns, vaudeville, cinema, but especially absurdist literature (the conventions of which he, in part, takes seriously) are grist to his parodic mill. Though generally sophomoric, his novel [Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon] is often droll, clever, and able to tickle the imagination.

David J. Gordon, in Yale Review (© 1968 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Autumn, 1968, p. 123.