The Play

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 755

Both Dirty Linen and New-Found-Land take place in “an overspill meeting room for House of Commons business in the tower of Big Ben”; the audience can quickly observe that it is scarcely an ideal place for the conducting of governmental business, as the famous bell chimes with comic regularity every quarter hour. A bawdy tone is quickly established when the first character to appear, a voluptuous secretary, slips into a pair of “French knickers”—a garment which she evidently dispenses as souvenirs, as each of the other characters inadvertently displays a similar pair in the course of the play.

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The plot revolves around the efforts of a parliamentary subcommittee to draft a statement upholding the decency of the members of the House of Commons and rebuking the tabloids for inquiring too diligently into the sexual lives of the members of Parliament (MPs). The chairman, Withenshaw, has been promised a life peerage by the prime minister if he can produce a report that will calm the rough waters. Another member, McTeazle, helpfully explains, “this is a meeting of a Select Committee of Members of Parliament to report on moral standards in the House. . . .” The secretary assigned to take down the minutes of the subcommittee, the felicitously named Maddie Gotobed, has been hired less for her stenographic skills than for her apparent involvement with nearly every member of the panel. The audience can quickly deduce that the “titian-haired, green-eyed” Maddie is the “Mystery Woman” of tabloid headlines who presumably has provided sexual favors for a pride of MPs. As McTeazle ruefully explains, “. . . we face the possibility that a sexual swathe has passed through Westminster claiming the reputations of, to put no finer point upon it, 119 Members. Someone is going through the ranks like a lawn-mower in knickers.”

As the politicians attempt to thrash out the report, they take time to coach Maddie in the elaborate alibis they have each concocted to hide their liaisons with her. Although the MPs clearly respect Maddie less for her mental ability than for her physical attributes, Maddie ultimately shows more good British common sense than the politicians and helps transform the report into an assertion of the right of individual privacy:it is the just and proper expectation of every Member of Parliament, no less than for every citizen of this country, that what they choose to do in their own time, and with whom, is . . . between them and their conscience, . . . provided they do not transgress the rights of others or the law of the land; and that this principle is not to be sacrificed to that Fleet Street stalking-horse masquerading as a sacred cow labelled “The People’s Right to Know.”

The subplot of Dirty Linen is provided by a thinly separated interlude called New-Found-Land, in which two governmental functionaries borrow the room temporarily vacated by the parliamentary subcommittee while the MPs go to vote. The task of these two is to advise the Home Secretary on the application of an American for British naturalization, but each takes the opportunity to expound on a subject close to his heart.

Bernard, an octogenarian, relates how in his youth he won a five-pound wager from the prime minister, David Lloyd George, in a bet on whether it was possible to see Big Ben from the lad’s mother’s upstairs window. Ignoring old Bernard, who proudly displays the original banknote, Arthur launches into a rhapsodic celebration of the landscape of America, to which he aspires to emigrate. The interlude ends when the subcommittee reconvenes, and the two committees bicker over rights to the room until the Home Secretary—himself another notch on Maddie’s knickers—briskly recognizes the danger and makes a quick retreat. Then Withenshaw, the subcommittee chairman, interrupts Bernard’s efforts to tell his tedious Lloyd George story; he rudely rips to shreds the old man’s cherished five-pound note as he expels the two bureaucrats.

It is apparent that the irresistible Maddie has completed her conquest of Parliament. During the interlude, the priggishly moralistic French, who was the one politician not previously involved with Maddie, is to have shown her to the ladies’ cloakroom. When the committee reconvenes, it is clear that this last holdout in Parliament has had a change of heart, as shown by his brisk revision of the committee report, which now upholds the rights of politicians to privacy in their free time, and by his mopping of his brow with yet another pair of Maddie’s knickers. As he explains in conclusion, “Toujours l’amour.”

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 501

The play thrives on Tom Stoppard’s characteristically spirited multilingual wordplay, as when the first two characters to appear, Cocklebury-Smythe and McTeazle, greet each other in a page-long series of foreign-language clichés: “Toujours la politesse,” “Noblesse oblige,” “Mea culpa,” and “Après vous. J’y suis, j’y reste.” The avoidance of English in favor of French and Latin clichés is in the tradition of Restoration comedy in the late seventeenth century, with its foppish gentlemen who affect French phrases and who prefer any European values to native ones.

A persistent verbal motif is provided by the nervous instructions of the politicians, who urge Maddie to remember to deny all the places they have met for their liaisons, as when Cocklebury-Smythe urges her that the “best thing is to forget Crockford’s, Claridges and the Coq d’Or.” This reminder to Maddie to forget certain compromising moments rises in a consistently amusing crescendo of bawdy language, as when Cocklebury-Smythe says, “I forgot—I was at the Golden Carriages as well as Claridges, and the Odd Sock and the Cocked Hat,” or when McTeazle testifies, “I was at the Cox and Box, and the Cooks Door, the Old Chest, the Dorchester, and the Chesty Cook and—er—Luigi’s.” Because they are fired off in great barrages, and because even the bad puns remind the audience of the almost infantile pleasure people take in verbal similarities, there is much to admire even in the most deliberately sophomoric jests:Frence: What is that? Withenshaw: Pair of briefs. French: What are they doing in there? Withenshaw: It’s a brief case.

Since the action of the play is restricted by the characters’ confinement to a stuffy committee room, visual excitement is provided by each member’s possession of a pair of Maddie’s red knickers, which they imprudently display when they wipe their foreheads or blow their noses. When the male politicians glance at the notorious pinup pictures on page three of the daily tabloids, the action typically freezes as Maddie herself bends over for a pinup pose and a bright light goes off, as in a camera flash. The affectionate jabs at British tabloid journalism no doubt recall Stoppard’s youthful career as a reporter, and his fondness for “low” farce is redeemed by sparkling verbal wit.

As the politicians nervously scan the daily newspapers for references to their peccadilloes, they provide Stoppard with the opportunity to parody the various styles of British newspapers, as in this bit of rectitude, allegedly from London’s venerable The Times, known historically as “The Thunderer” for its responses to crises: “Cherchez La Femme Fatale. It needs no Gibbon come from the grave to spell out the danger to good government of a moral vacuum at the centre of power.” Stoppard’s impudent tone and consistently boisterous spirits allow the play to skewer the pretensions of journalism and the less than admirable behavior of politicians, within the context of a zestful and articulate sex farce.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 91

Sources for Further Study

Corballis, Richard. “Tom Stoppard.” In British Playwrights. 1956-1995: A Research and Production Sourcebook, edited by William W. Demastes. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Gambit: International Theatre Review 10, no. 37 (1981). Special Stoppard issue.

Gussow, Mel. Conversations with Tom Stoppard. New York: Grove, 1996.

Hayman, Ronald. Tom Stoppard. 4th ed. London: Heinemann, 1982.

Hearty, John, ed. Tom Stoppard: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1987.

Hunter, Jim. Tom Stoppard’s Plays. New York: Grove Press, 1982.

Jenkins, Anthony. The Theatre of Tom Stoppard. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Whitaker, Thomas. Tom Stoppard. New York: Grove Press, 1984.

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