Arcadia Essays and Criticism
by Tom Stoppard

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Stoppard's Critical Reputation as a Wordsmith

(Drama for Students)

In his Poetics (c. 335 BC), Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher and literary theorist, suggested six elements that are crucial to theatre: plot, character, thought (or theme), diction, music, and spectacle. He explained each element in what he felt was its order of importance and devoted to each a corresponding amount of space in his treatise. When he arrived at "diction," the words the playwright places in the mouths of his characters, Aristotle explained the difference between common and elevated vocabulary, riddles, and jargon. He suggested: "The greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius—for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances.’’

In more than two-thousand years of plays, playwrights, and players since Aristotle, different eras have found one or the other of his six elements to be more important than the rest. The Neo-classicists of the eighteenth century, for example, prized plot like the Greeks. Writers of "problem plays'' in the late-nineteenth century, like George Bernard Shaw and Henrik Ibsen, often emphasized important themes in their work. Many twentieth century dramas are noted particularly for their characters, while modern musicals often draw crowds for the spectacle they offer audiences. From every era, however, it is the playwrights with a masterful command of language—the greatest gifts for metaphor—who are passed along to the generations that follow.

The Greeks gave Aristophanes to posterity—a writer of satire and wit so dexterous, politicians of his day avoided him for fear they would appear in one of his plays. In sixteenth century England, the Elizabethans loved language. They experimented with it. They played games with it (‘‘quibbling’’ was a pub pastime that relied on clever wordplay). And, of course, they produced William Shakespeare, who managed to create a great deal of it.

While there are several contenders poised to represent the twentieth century as the era's great master of dialogue and dialectics, Tom Stoppard appears at the top of many critics' lists. In Tom Stoppard's Plays: A Study of His Life and Work, Jim Hunter observed:

Perhaps it is the words one notices first, in Stoppard. Later the sense of theatre, the craftsmanship, the thinking and the caring may seem more important; but at first one is dazzled—the cliché; seems accurate— by the brilliance of the verbal polish. Stoppard comes across as fluent to the point of facility, gifted with the gab of the Irish: Wilde, Shaw, Joyce, Beckett, and perhaps through these if not directly, Swift. The brilliance also seems to have an academic element: he might well be taken for a University Wit.’’

High praise indeed for an artist who left school at seventeen, received no university education, and is whose facility with letters is largely self-taught. Yet the praise is entirely apt. Throughout his thirty-year career as a playwright, critics and scholars have attuned themselves to the language in Stoppard's plays. Writing about the debut of Stoppard's 1974 play Travesties in Plays and Players, Garry O'Connor observed, Clever, all this stuff, and occasionally very funny indeed: full of acrostics, limericks, parody, absurdity; quite exhilarating: altogether a relief to be teased and dazzled by words for once.''

Stoppard's unique talent for language lies in his ability to turn words upside-down and inside-out in a search for ambiguities, contradictions, double-meanings, humor, and half-hidden truths. Not since Shakespeare has an English playwright so strenuously exercised his native tongue. In an article Stoppard wrote for the Sunday Times early in his career, he admitted:

[I have] an enormous love of language itself. For a lot of writers the language they use is merely a fairly efficient tool. For me the particular use of a particular word in the right place, or a group of words in the right order, to create a particular effect is important; it...

(The entire section is 5,438 words.)