Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 472

Although the action of Dirty Linen reveals that all the MPs except for one moralistic gentleman, French, have previously been intimately involved with Maddie and that she is the mysterious woman described in the salacious newspaper reports of governmental indiscretion, Tom Stoppard allows the voluptuous Maddie to pronounce the play’s judgment on privacy rights: “All you need is one paragraph saying the M.P.s have got just as much right to enjoy themselves in their own way as anyone else, and Fleet Street can take a running jump.” Her disarmingly simple proclamation of the right to privacy both quells the controversy about moral misbehavior in high places and stands in refreshing contrast to the tortured prose of the committee’s early drafts of their statement.

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If Parliament is at all typical of the country, the Great Britain of this play is a feverish hotbed of sexual intrigue, with a press corps determined to exploit the reading public’s appetite for prurience. Dirty Linen is a lively bowler-hat sex farce that also happens to contain a witty and articulate defense of the rights of elected public officials to personal freedom. Despite Stoppard’s own background as a journalist, the play rejects the public’s right to know as a freedom less valuable than the right of an individual to personal privacy.

As Dirty Linen has revealed its message well before the interruption of New-Found-Land, Stoppard needed only to arrange for the seduction of the lone abstainer during the interlude and then to have him draft the final report (with help from the clear-thinking Maddie), absolving the House of Commons from guilt, at the play’s conclusion. Stoppard seems to admit the tenuous nature of the connection between his two plays in an after note: “Dirty Linen was supposed to be a play to celebrate Ed Berman’s British naturalization, but it went off in a different direction—New-Found-Land was then written to reintroduce the American Connection.” In performance, however, the discrepancy between the two plays does not strike one as a problem. The seemingly extraneous interlude actually complements the longer play in ridiculing the ineptitude of governmental functionaries and smiling at sexual intrigues in high places. The audience understands Lloyd George’s willingness to gamble five pounds in exchange for a peek at Big Ben from Bernard’s mother’s window, even if old Bernard does not. Through his desire to emigrate to the United States, Arthur—who gives an absurdly overripe description of an imaginary train ride past the most frequently fantasized parts of the United States, from the Statue of Liberty to the Hollywood sign—contrasts with the American who seeks British naturalization. (The American expatriate Ed Berman did have his application approved and became a British citizen just in time for the first performance of the two plays.)

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