The Play

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 987

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Hapgood opens with a mostly silent scene in the men’s changing room of an old-fashioned indoor swimming pool in London. As a black man dressed like a bum shaves, voices are heard speaking on a shortwave radio. Men, some carrying briefcases, pass back and forth between the lobby, the changing cubicles, and the swimming pool. The briefcases are dropped off and picked up at various cubicles. After all but the black man leave, a woman carrying an umbrella and one of the briefcases emerges from the shower. Elizabeth Hapgood, of British intelligence, and Ben Wates, an American agent, discuss certain events as one of the men, Ernest Ridley, returns to say he was surprised that the two Russian agents in the previous maneuver are twins. He and another British agent, Merryweather, address Hapgood as “Mother.” There is confusion about who ended up with what briefcase, and Hapgood orders the Russian twins arrested. After she leaves and Paul Blair, another British agent, arrives, Wates says, “She blew it.”

In the following scene, Blair is at a zoo to meet one of the protagonists in the opening charade, Joseph Kerner, a Russian-born physicist. Kerner was sent to England years before as a “sleeper,” but he is now a double agent working for the British. Blair tells him that his career as a spy is over and demands, “Joseph—I want to know if you’re ours or theirs.” Blair is upset because, in addition to the phony information Kerner has been passing, real secrets about his work on the Strategic Defense Initiative have turned up in Moscow. Another problem is that the tracking device in Kerner’s briefcase disappeared during the switch at the swimming pool. While watching Hapgood’s eleven-year-old son, Joe, play rugby, Hapgood reveals to Blair her suspicions about Ridley, wondering how, if he was following one Russian, he noticed that there were two of them. Blair would rather the traitor be Kerner, because “the real secrets are about intentions and deployment.”

In Hapgood’s office, Blair tells Wates that Hapgood, the only woman on the Defence Liaison Committee, is called “Mother” because she is always the one who serves the tea, and though she is also called Mrs. Hapgood, she has never been married. He refuses to identify the father of her son. Wates has traced the missing bleeper to Hapgood’s office and had her followed. Hapgood arrives to disclose that she knows she has been trailed and that the bleeper is there because Merryweather drained the pool and found it. She threatens to have the Americans removed from this operation if Wates does not stop having her followed. Wates concludes that as long as the Russians are certain that Ridley is working for them, they do not care what side Kerner is on.

Hapgood informs Ridley that they are suspected of using Kerner to pass real secrets but that Blair is convinced of Kerner’s being a triple agent. A conversation between Kerner and Hapgood reveals that the Russian is the father of her son. She wants him to meet Joe and marry her. He says that she does not love him and that he is considering returning to Russia.

In act 2, Hapgood insists to Blair that Kerner has no motive for treachery, but her former lover reveals that the Russians know about Joe: “They said I had lied, broken the bargain, they said it was an ultimatum now, or they would take my son.” After Blair discloses that they prevented the Soviets from receiving Kerner’s latest delivery, they discover that the boy has apparently been kidnapped. Ridley argues that they should give the Russians what they want since the military applications of Kerner’s antimatter research are at least ten years away. After assuring Blair that she will abide by his decisions, Hapgood plots with Ridley to get back her son. Joe has not, however, been taken; Hapgood, Kerner, and Blair have laid a trap for Ridley.

In a photographer’s studio, Ridley meets someone who looks exactly like Hapgood; he assumes that she is Celia Newton, the twin sister of his boss. On Hapgood’s orders, he is paying Celia two thousand pounds to impersonate her sister. Blair, meanwhile, knows that, as with the Russian twins, there are two Ridleys. Ridley takes Celia to Hapgood’s office so that she may receive a telephone message from Joe’s kidnappers. He strikes her hand to ensure that she sound suitably upset during the conversation. After he leaves, Hapgood drops her pretense and assumes her own identity. In a cheap hotel room, Ridley unleashes a diatribe against Hapgood to her supposed twin, and “Celia” tells him that he must be in love with her sister. They begin kissing.

Back at the swimming pool, the British agents carry out another charade to snare the two Ridleys. First, Joe arrives as if just freed. After they catch Ridley picking up what Hapgood has ostensibly left to the Russians in exchange for her son, the double agent tries to convince Hapgood that she is fooling herself, that the British, particularly Blair, merely exploit her: “He’s had enough out of you and you’re getting nothing back, he’s dry and you’re the juice.” As he draws his gun to kill her, she shoots him. Ridley’s twin has been arrested, and Hapgood is angry at Blair for lying to her about making Joe appear in the Ridley stratagem.

The final scene occurs at Joe’s rugby field, as Kerner bids Hapgood farewell before leaving for the Soviet Union. She accuses him of telling the truth about the Russians finding out about Joe, of actually being a triple agent. He does not deny her charges but finally meets his son. Turning to leave, he becomes caught up in the action of the game. The play ends with Hapgood cheering her son’s team.

Dramatic Devices

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Hapgood’s depiction of a turbulent world is heightened by the play’s division into twelve scenes in seven locations. Tom Stoppard’s stage directions suggest that Hapgood is to have an almost cinematic quality. The opening scene is meant to hook the audience’s attention, with the repeated yet fluid entrances and exits of the characters, and to suggest that the proceedings will involve an element of farce. As some scenes change, a character often remains in place, as if the play were a film cutting from one shot to another. Stoppard once provides an “inter-scene” in which the actor playing Ridley becomes Ridley’s twin; the stage direction reads, “It’s like a quantum jump.” At the beginning of the final confrontation at the swimming pool, the stage is dark as one Ridley enters carrying a flashlight; the stage darkens further, obliterating all but the light into whose beam the other Ridley walks, moving to embrace his twin. Such techniques underscore the play’s theatricality while commenting on its concern with identity and truth.

Hapgood is full of the jargon of espionage. For the Russians, Kerner is a “sleeper,” an undercover agent slowly establishing his “cover” before beginning to reap the information his masters desire. To Hapgood, he is her “joe,” an agent outside her service working directly for her. Language is used to make other points in the play. It separates the British characters from the American Wates, whose response to anything he finds surprising in the way his colleagues operate is the succinct “You guys.” Blair admits, “I like the way they talk, the Americans . . . so direct, descriptive, demotic.” He occasionally finds it confusing, as when he and Kerner debate whether Wates has used the term “ballroom,” “ballgame,” or “ballpark.” Hapgood reprimands Kerner for refusing to perfect his English, as when he says “honeypot” when he means “honeytrap.” She prides herself on her mastery of the language yet errs when she tells Blair the score in Joe’s rugby match is “sixteen love” rather than sixteen nil. Given her feelings for her son and his father, the error can be seen as a Freudian slip. The ways the characters use language reveal how they see themselves and others and show the barriers separating them.

Stoppard also employs frequent puns. Of the KGB twins, Blair says, “Now that’s what I call a double agent.” Ridley calls Hapgood’s hiring her twin “sibling bribery.” There is also the pun on joe, Joseph and Joe. The protagonist’s name seems to be a pun on the random morality of the modern world, the spy business in particular. Typical of the other humor in Hapgood is Hapgood’s knowing that Wates takes lemon with his tea and going to Fortnum and Mason, trailed by Wates’s men, to buy a lemon for their boss.


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Sources for Further Study

Billington, Michael. Stoppard the Playwright. London: Methuen, 1988.

Nightingale, Benedict. “The Latest from Stoppard: A Quark-and-Dagger Thriller.” New York Times, March 27, 1988, p. B5.

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

Radin, Victoria. “Whodunnit? Whocares?” New Statesman 115 (March 18, 1988): 29-30.

Schleuter, June. Dramatic Closure: Reaching the End. Teaneck, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995.


Critical Essays