Tom Stoppard Essay - Stoppard, Tom (Vol. 4)

Stoppard, Tom (Vol. 4)

Stoppard, Tom 1937–

Stoppard, an English dramatist, screenwriter, novelist, and short story writer, is a brilliant and witty stylist.

It would be tempting to label Tom Stoppard as the intellectual among our young playwrights, if 'intellectual' did not always tend, in the British theatre anyway, to have the ring of a dirty word. Also, he does deny very firmly that it's true: however precisely calculated his plays look, he insists that when he starts writing them he has no clearer idea of exactly where they are going, or exactly how they will get there, than the most innocent, uninformed member of a first-night audience. Nevertheless, the most striking, and most strikingly individual, effect Stoppard's plays make comes from their evident concern with structure, with overall pattern. Where other dramatists produce big, untidy effects, spilling out their materials generously, and often too generously, with little apparent concern for economy, concentration and scrupulous adaptation of means to ends, Stoppard works by neatness, precision, a meticulous tying-in of loose ends. He professes to mistrust most of all the arbitrary in art, the play which works as linear experience from moment to moment; he likes and works towards the feeling of completeness as one piece after another falls into place, and finds it very important for him that the structure of his plays should lock finally into a clear pattern with a 'clunk' at the end….

[Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead] is a long play in which virtually nothing happens: as soon as we meet the principals for the first time, playing some interminable game of coin-tossing, which defies all the rules of chance by coming up heads eighty-five times in a row, we know (primed with Beckett and all that crush) that Godot will never come, nothing will ever change, the two will remain perforce waiting in the wings for the rest of their lives, never quite grasping what is happening centre-stage of life. They can perhaps make a choice of some kind, decide to act instead of merely being acted upon; but if they do, they will be denying their essential nature, and will be able to assert their own existence only by independently choosing to extinguish it.

Which is fair enough: a pattern of Stoppard's imposed upon, or neatly dovetailed with, the pre-existing pattern of Shakespeare's play…. But what are their private lives like? Do they have any? Stoppard thinks not. They live, suspended in existential doubt, on the fringes of life. They never know what's happening, who is who and what is what…. They recognize, in spite of themselves, that life, like laughter, is always in the next room. In the end they go so far as to make a choice, or at least acquiesce in the choice of another, but it is only death that they choose, a death which will at last define and give shape to their pointless, shapeless lives.

The conception is cool, cunning, and intellectual: not for Stoppard the romantic inventions of those who choose to speculate on the nature of King Lear's wife, the number of children Lady Macbeth had, or what happens next to Katharina and Petruchio—the whole point of his play is to reinforce the strict classical viewpoint that dramatic characters do not have any independent, continuing existence beyond the confines of what their inventor chooses to tell us about them. This, it seems to me, Stoppard's play does with great skill and virtuosity; but, it is very evidently the working out of an intellectual, almost one might say a scholarly, conceit, with I would have thought little to capture the interest of a non-specialist audience once the pattern has become patent. It is not, to put it mildly, a play mad with too much heart.

And yet I am obviously wrong in this assessment; the play has not only had great success on its home ground, but has gone on to almost universal success abroad. This proves, if anything does, that audiences are not by any means so impervious to the appeal of writing which sets out to work on them primarily by way of their intelligence as we always, much too loftily, tend to assume….

All Stoppard's works since have been relatively slight, at least in terms of physical scale….

[We] may accept fairly happily Stoppard's insistence that intellect is not the prime motive-force in his work, just as we recognize that there are passages in it, notably in the monologues of Gladys in If You're Glad I'll be Frank and Albert in Albert's Bridge, which are beyond the reach of intellectual calculation. Perhaps the doubts I feel to some extent about all Stoppard's work boil down, rather surprisingly, to a feeling that he lacks a sort of fundamental seriousness as a playwright, that his ideas remain, in the Coleridgean definition, on the level of fancy rather than imagination. But all the same, it is pleasing to note that there is at least one young dramatist who, whatever the starting-point of his dramatic work, feels that intelligence and conscious art in the shaping of his material are necessary, are indeed a positive source of inspiration, rather than some dangerous outsider, to be tangled with very much at his peril.

John Russell Taylor, "Tom Stoppard," in his The Second Wave: British Drama for the Seventies (reprinted by permission of Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1971 by John Russell Taylor), Hill & Wang, 1971, pp. 94-107.

The Stoppard comedies do not pretend to be much more than clever exercises. The Real Inspector Hound sets out to combine a parody of a mouldy British whodunit with a witty fantasy in which a third-string drama critic nefariously manages to become number one….

Stoppard [accepts] the difficult challenge of making his … spoofs merge into something that both adroitly completes the exercise and also reflects a certain degree of surreal truth….

After Magritte is an interesting and remarkably successful attempt by the playwright to create a theater piece that has the quality of the Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte, or, that is, the quality Magritte would have had if he had been dealing with aspects of British middle-class society.

Henry Hewes, in Saturday Review of the Society (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), August 26, 1972, p. 66.

On Broadway, "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern" was verbally so dazzling—the English language seems a treasure chest just opened for Stoppard—and the acting was so polished that one tended to think of it as the most exciting, witty intellectual treat imaginable. It is that, of course, but much more. In the midst of all the word games and punning, even in the first scene, as the two young heroes toss that coin in the air and it comes down heads time after time after time, feeling seeps in—bewilderment, gathering melancholy, and, finally, tragedy—so subtly that the line, near the end, "There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said no" comes as a shattering and sobering surprise. "Rosencrantz" is, among other things, about having no control over events, over what happens next. Why didn't I realize the first time that these two were waiting for Godot?

Edith Oliver, in The New Yorker, March 4, 1974, p. 70.

Seven years ago, in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, British Playwright Tom Stoppard turned Hamlet inside out and seemed to prove that even for bit players, great tragedy has no silver lining. When critics inquired about the play's message, Stoppard averred that this is no age for message in the theater. "One writes about human beings under stress," he said, "whether it is about losing one's trousers or being nailed to a cross." To risk a play whose primary level was philosophical, he added, "would be fatal." In Jumpers, that is just the gamble he has taken—in London with triumphant results….

[The] goings-on may be taken as the kind of crazy crime and panachement that Stoppard displayed so well in The Real Inspector Hound. But the playwright also offers a long, rambling monologue by Dotty's rumpled husband, George Moore….

By itself, George's discourse is exquisite parody. By themselves, the goings-on in Dotty's room are surrealist—eventually futurist—farce, which reflect the cumulative personal and political effects on the modern world of not believing in absolute values. Together, they make up an extraordinary statement: if God does not exist, it will shortly be necessary to re-invent him.

Timothy Foote, "Crime and Panachement," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), March 11, 1974, p. 103.

Stoppard's problem [in Jumpers] is, first of all, that he is himself the archetypal jumper, always in mid-salto mortale between metaphysical puns and absurdist metaphors: swinging brilliantly from an epigram, but fatally neglecting the safety network of solid character, plot, and structure to protect his neck. George and Dotty interest us, but Stoppard tells us far too little about them, seldom even letting them inhabit the same side of the stage. Problematic, too, is the piquant stage image of philosophers as jumpers, which stumbles over the difficulty of finding actors and acrobats in the same skin. The roles, regrettably, remain divided into jumping and non-jumping ones, and the play's basic concept fails to coalesce.

Subjects proliferate profligately; philosophy, religion, politics, love, the survival of mankind, psychiatry, linguistics, the music hall (i.e., Pop art) and its influence on culture—even the acting out of the paradoxes of Zeno. The stage cannot cope with all this: it is a muscle-bound Achilles vainly lumbering after Stoppard's tortuous tortoise. And there is even something arrogant about trying to convert the history of Western culture into a series of blackout sketches, which is very nearly what Jumpers is up to. But, undeniably, there are funny bits jumping all over the stage like performing fleas; hilarious as they bounce about, but capable also of drawing a little blood.

John Simon, in New York Magazine (© 1974 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and John Simon), March 11, 1974, p. 84.

There is no doubt that Jumpers was conceived by a bright mind, for (our knowledge of his previous writing aside) author Tom Stoppard makes several intelligent points as he manipulates words and concepts into parodies of themselves. But what might look good on paper, or sound humorous during late-night discussions, does not necessarily make good theatre.

Caught up in its own cleverness, the play is over-run with Mr. Stoppard's witticisms. Consequently, his characters all sound alike and the absurdity of the basic situation … is lost in verbosity….

[In] spoofing cliche philosophy and boring philosophers, [the play] becomes cliche and boring itself.

Debbi Wasserman, in Show Business, April 25, 1974, p. 13.

In his waggishly donnish way, Mr. Stoppard is tremendously clever. George's lecture is a very witty parody of inane philosophical discourse: no professional philosopher will want to miss ["Jumpers"], and it might do some of them a lot of good….

[In] spite of all its merits, the first act of "Jumpers" left me unsatisfied. Mr. Stoppard's basic joke is the old one about the absent-minded professor; George's preposterous lecture is really a set of variations on this joke, and as George bombinates on and on, the joke begins to wear thin. (This parody-lecture, by the way, owes a good deal to a Jonathan Miller sketch from "Beyond the Fringe," in which the Cambridge philosopher G. E. Moore figured very prominently. Mr. Stoppard's George, of course, is also a G. Moore. And while we're at it, Inspector Bones of the Yard bears a distinct resemblance to Inspector Truscott in Joe Orton's play "Loot.") The bickerings between George and Dorothy verge at times on the tiresome. Worse, the play seems to be about nothing in particular at all; it appears to be a self-indulgent, wayward excuse for Mr. Stoppard to be too clever by at least three-quarters….

[The] second act, for me, tips the balance in the play's favor. Just in time, it becomes clear that Mr. Stoppard's cleverness is not just cleverness in a vacuum. My point is not that pathos is more satisfying than comedy, but that coherence is more satisfying than sprawl; coherence is what "Jumpers" attains, just in time.

Julius Novick, "Saved by the Second Act," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; © 1974 by The Village Voice, Inc.), May 2, 1974, pp. 83-4.

What Mr. Stoppard and the Reverend Mr. Dodgson have in common is an interest in symbolic logic, in puzzles that embody that logic, and in animals that embody the puzzles (a hare, a tortoise, and a goldfish play significant roles in "Jumpers"); they are also interested—if I may animadvert upon so delicate a topic without disturbing Dodgson's diffident ghost—in naked girls. Dodgson as a photographer and Stoppard as a playwright use nakedness as a metaphor for purity of apprehension; in Dodgson this would imply innocence, in Stoppard experience….

Because Stoppard is such a fiendishly clever fellow, anything I say about ["Jumpers"] after but a single viewing of it is bound to be provisional, save this—that I find it as amusing as it is mysterious, and that a few more viewings of it will no doubt diminish its mystery without diminishing my amusement.

Brendan Gill, "Tumbling onto the Truth," in The New Yorker, May 6, 1974, p. 75.

British Playwright Tom Stoppard chain-smokes ideas like cigarettes and emits the smoke with puffs of mirth. The latest display of his intellectual curiosity, verbal agility and quirky sense of humor is Jumpers …, a philosophical roller coaster careering dizzyingly along the parallel tracks of wit and logic over such subjects as the existence or nonexistence of God, the nature of good and evil, and the interdependence of ethics and metaphysics….

Though Stoppard ravels and unravels the destinies of these characters, that is not his prime concern. Utilizing the Socratic method of perpetual questioning, he is assessing the destinies of 20th century man in a Shavian play of jousting ideas. In dramatic kinship, Jumpers is a child of Shaw's Heartbreak House. In that play, written shortly before World War I, Shaw dramatized the sundering of the social fabric of Western civilization. Stoppard is concerned with the moral fabric, the abyss of non-belief. He sees man, devoid of metaphysical absolutes, as rending his fellow man and reducing the planet to a desolate, lifeless cipher rather like the moon, which is a key symbol in Jumpers.

T. E. Kalem, "Ping Pong Philosopher," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), May 6, 1974, p. 85.

When Jumpers opened at the Kennedy Center, the production was pronounced unready; to me, it seemed that the playwright was unripe. And the short time between Washington and New York was hardly enough for Tom Stoppard to ripen. A well-known English critic insists that Stoppard is nothing but a clever sophomore, which strikes me as oversimplified and unjust. An author who has read as much as Stoppard has, who has a facile but sophisticated way with mathematics, philosophy, and linguistics, is no bright, snotty kid; at the very least, he is the prince of sciolists. Moreover, Stoppard at his wittiest is very funny indeed—take the scene in which Archie tries to bribe or brainwash Inspector Bones, where almost every line is a swift, masterly cut to the quick of comedy. And the attempt to cut political satire, murder mystery, metaphysical speculation, and bedroom farce into one multifaceted, highly polished diamond is no sophomore's prank. If Ludwig Wittgenstein, who is evoked in the play, and whose spirit to some extent informs it, could speculate about theology as grammar, why not philosophy as farce?

Yet for all that, Stoppard's is more of a ready wit than a ripe good humor. Time was when I wondered how Shakespeare could stoop to plagiarizing himself by writing in Hamlet, "the readiness is all," and then, in a similar context, "ripeness is all" in King Lear. Now I know better: this is no reiteration but an emendation, the maturer phrasing of the same great truth. Translated into comedic terms, it means that you must have more than a tart epigram for every occasion: a sense of underlying character from which the comic retort or aphorism springs. Stoppard's George Moore, the uxorious metaphysician, is somewhat schematic but believable, with the manically heightened credibility of a Beckett or Ionesco character; but Dotty, the moral philosopher's wife, is no character at all. She shuttles between a brainless sexpot and a bitterly disillusioned intellectual, and even if some of her gaping contradictions could perhaps be yoked together into a theatrical zeugma, Stoppard hasn't begun to try….

I admire Stoppard's intelligence and wit (wistfully I think of the times when "wit" meant intelligence), but I await the day when he puts them to their best uses. Even his admirable love of words does not yet protect Stoppard from solecisms, notably so ugly a lapse as that of the opening stage direction: "a screen, hopefully forming a backdrop…." No person with any pretension to culture can permit himself that ghastly Teutonicism, the impersonal use of "hopefully." Let me hope, then, that the still very young Stoppard will ripen in every way into a more humane and considered playwright….

John Simon, "Ripe, or Merely Ready?," in New York Magazine (© 1974 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and John Simon), May 13, 1974, p. 98.

Jumpers is superior by virtue of felicitous wit and its cleverness in making bright stage fare of its ideological content. But it fails to turn its material into true drama; its point or "thesis" is not revealed through action: it is only stated. There is no basic confrontation, conflict or delineation of real characters. What keeps the show going, apart from the amusing "mask" of the author's spokesman and his brilliant verbiage, is mere window dressing: acrobatics, pastiche mystery melodrama and dollops of nudity.

The intellectual substance of the play hardly ever challenges one's mind, nor is it made emotionally penetrating. What, in sum, does the play tell us? As against the so-called "radical-liberals" of Stoppard's invention we are told that God exists. "Cogito, ergo Deus est," Stoppard's professor says. I am pleased that he takes this positive position at a time when most drama and literature are hell-bent on negation. But to assert rather than to make manifest God's existence is to go no further than does any sensible humanist, not specifically a "believer." There is more of God in the tragicomedies of Chekhov, in the murk of Gorky's Lower Depths, even in Beckett's bleak despair or in Shaw's cheerfulness than in all Stoppard's literary exercises.

Harold Clurman, in The Nation, May 18, 1974, pp. 637-38.

Tom Stoppard, the Englishman who wrote [Jumpers], is the author of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which was hailed for its novelty and its existential explorations. The latter seemed to me even more tenuous than its novelty: W. S. Gilbert wrote a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in 1891. Stoppard's R&G was only a bright undergraduate's one-act prank waffled out to three acts. Then we got a bill of his one-act plays The Real Inspector Hound and After Magritte, which showed the undergraduate being less bright, merely facetious. In 1972 we read about Stoppard's new play, Jumpers, produced at the (British) National Theater and hailed as a work of philosophical richness and wit.

Sorry. Jumpers, in proof, is a work of copious philosophical allusion, written in that rhetorically ornate style brandished by the dramatist who has more wish than need to write and who takes the offensive stylistically in order to cow us. (Latter-day Albee is another example.) But Stoppard slides even further. He tries to fob off one more example of a stage-worn shallow genre: the play in which the author shows he has cosmic itches and tries to scratch them with a mixture of facile intellectual rotundities and self-conscious theater mystique. Examples: Philip Barry's Here Come the Clowns, Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, Max Frisch's The Chinese Wall.

Stoppard attempts a triple counterpoint between his vaudeville, a murder-mystery farce, and an intellectual comedy…. This braiding of vaudeville-farce-cogitations is supposed to stun us into perception of the relation of one to the other: the acrobats as visual equivalent of moral flip-flop, the murder-farce and sexual innuendo as gloss on the professor's moral speculations and vice versa. Not one shadow of a hair of such relation or supportive resonance is established. The elements are merely juxtaposed, that is all; and the mere juxtaposition is itself supposed to create weight—more, to bully us into fear of doubting that weight. Some physical connections (the corpse's tumbler costume, the stripper-secretary) are made; but there is no thematic resonance whatsoever between the scurrying antics in the boudoir and the intellectual meanderings in the study. And those meanderings end with the usual bland cop-out in this kind of purportedly probing work. It turns its back on query after the appropriate two-and-a-half hours, and accepts the universe so that we can all go home….

The play is fake, structurally and thematically…. [Stoppard] is just one more half-baked egoist anxious for a cosmic grab, who thinks that the size of his ambition will certify his seriousness, particularly if he is comic, most particularly if he is reflexively theatrical.

Stanley Kauffmann, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © The New Republic, Inc.), May 18, 1974, pp. 18, 33.

Since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, a play I admired but found a little too coy and dramatically forced in its darker moments, Stoppard has come closer and closer to a successful wedding of theatrical artistry and intelligence. He is already the best playwright around today, the only writer I feel who is capable of making the theater a truly formidable and civilized experience again. In George Moore [protagonist in Jumpers] he has created, with humor and familiar authority, a moving and comical attitude toward a modern intellectual dilemma, and I wish only that in place of "attitude" I might have said "character."

Jack Richardson, in Commentary (reprinted from Commentary by permission; © 1974 by the American Jewish Committee), June, 1974, p. 80.

It is a long time since my hands smarted so from applause for a flawed play as they did when the curtain fell on Travesties. There had been moments during the second half of the play when I feared that the whole thing might fall disastrously to pieces, mostly during a scene in which Tom Stoppard seemed not quite to have involved Lenin as persuasively as James Joyce and the Dadaist, Tristan Tzara, in the pattern of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, but this was a passing anxiety….

The idea of having such disparate characters as Joyce, Lenin and Tzara—comparable only in that each, in his way, was a revolutionary innovator—in the same play has doubtless struck you already as unlikely; to see them, respectively, as analogous to Lady Bracknell, Miss Prism and John Worthing is plainly so bizarre as to verge upon the impossible, and Stoppard's notion is always a little inebriated by its own temerity; but the overall effectiveness of his theatrical legerdemain is incontrovertible. The skill and wit and irony displayed in the trick are impudently dazzling….

The form of the play reminded me vaguely of Anouilh's The Rehearsal, in which the characters, rehearsing a comedy by Marivaux, were themselves involved in a situation that paralleled the events in their play. Anouilh wrote his piece in the style of Marivaux, and Stoppard—finding echoes of The Importance of Being Earnest in his own invention—writes his very largely in the style of Wilde, often pitched so little above or below the key of the original that anyone hearing samples of both might be legitimately confused…. [The] Wildean trick of inverting a cliché to coin an epigram is not neglected: "If Lenin did not exist it would be unnecessary to invent him." This is, of course, parody of a high and rare order. Stoppard supplements it by applying an equally astute and effective comic invention to Joyce … and to Tzara, who is dealt with mainly in puns ("My art belongs to Dada"), a literary form shrewdly calculated to be precisely right for burlesquing this particular subject. The Stoppard irreverence sprays in all directions …, and with such lavish flippancy that there will almost certainly be those who will fail to appreciate the essentially serious nature of the play's discussion of the place of art and revolution in society; but this is the inevitable lot of writers who inform criticism with a genial sense of humour and a texture of wit. Stoppard clearly knows all about the importance of being earnest, and happily ignores it.

Kenneth Hurren, "Wilde about Stoppard," in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), June 22, 1974, p. 776.