Tom Stoppard put forth his best claim to be England’s funniest dramatic political satirist in 1976 with Dirty Linen and New-Found-Land. In a style that mixes Stoppard’s characteristic fondness for puns, amusing coincidences, and broadly drawn characters, the play pokes genteel fun at the British Parliament’s long history of sexual indiscretions and appears to urge restraint on London’s tabloid newspapers, ever ready to exploit the sexual vices they appear to condemn.
Neither the press nor a large part of the audience may concur with Stoppard’s apparent belief that politicians need not set a higher standard of moral conduct than the public in general. The unhappy ends to the careers of British politicians such as John Profumo and Americans such as Wilbur Mills and Gary Hart do not support Maddie’s (and Stoppard’s) belief that “people don’t care what M.P.s do in their spare time, they just want them to do their jobs properly bringing down prices and everything.” Surely Stoppard understands that people do (and should) care; the play is a useful corrective, a reminder to journalists to reexamine their own motives as they attack the lax behavior of public officials.
Dirty Linen is in the most playful vein of the early part of Stoppard’s career. It looks backward to the zestful frolics with clichéd language of The Real Inspector Hound (pr., pb. 1968) and the philosophical high jinks of Jumpers (pr., pb. 1972) and forward to the weightier explorations of the role of journalism in a democracy in Night and Day (pr., pb. 1978) and the fragility of political freedom in Professional Foul (pr. 1977). In the 1980’s, Stoppard turned to the need to maintain fantasies in order to keep marriages intact, in The Real Thing (pr., pb. 1982), and to the inability to discern any commonly agreed-upon reality in Hapgood (pr., pb. 1988).
Dirty Linen reveals Stoppard’s verbal agility, love of puns (often involving several languages), and knack for setting a host of stereotypically British characters spinning within a relatively limited plot. Stoppard put these characteristics to good use in this play, which ran successfully for several years at London’s Arts Theatre in the West End after first premiering at Inter-Action’s Almost Free Theatre.