The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 987 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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 entire section is 475 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.