Critical Overview

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Stoppard is one of the leading playwrights of the twentieth century. Anne Wright, in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, asserts that Stoppard ‘‘ranks as a dramatist of brilliant and original comic genius.’’ Wright succinctly captures the scope and success of his career as a dramatist, stating that ‘‘His first major success established him as a master of philosophical farce, combining dazzling theatricality and wit with a profound exploration of metaphysical concerns. His output through more than three decades has been extensive and varied, including original plays for radio and television, screenplays for television and film, adaptations and translations of works by European dramatists, several short stories, and a novel.’’ Wright notes that Stoppard’s plays ‘‘have been heralded as major events by both audiences and critics. He is now a playwright of international reputation in Europe and the United States. . . . His popularity extends to both the intellectual avant-garde and the ordinary theatergoer. Since the 1960s his work has developed in other areas, from absurdist or surrealist comedy to political and even polemical drama.’’ Wright maintains that Stoppard’s ‘‘career to date confirms his importance, not merely as a theatrical phenomenon, but as a major contemporary playwright.’’

The work for which he is best known and most widely celebrated is the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1964–5), which was first performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 1966, and then by the British National Theater in 1967. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet whom Stoppard develops as his central characters. An introduction to the printed version of the play explains its central themes and major stylistic elements: ‘‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern depicts the absurdity of life through these two characters who have ‘bit parts’ in a play not of their own making and who are capable only of acting out their dramatic destiny. They are bewil dered by their predicament and face death as they search for the meaning of their existence. While examining these themes, Stoppard makes extensive use of puns and paradox, which have since become standard devices in his plays.’’ Stoppard received several awards for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, including best new play in 1967, the Antoinette Perry (‘‘Tony’’) Award for best new play in 1968, and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play in 1968, as well as the Grande Prize at the 1990 Venice Film Festival for the film Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which Stoppard both adapted and directed.

Indian Ink (1995) was adapted by Stoppard from his original radio play, In the Native State, which was broadcast by the BBC in 1991. The play was first performed at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford, England, and then opened at the Aldwych Theatre in London in 1995.

Stoppard’s other major plays include Jumpers (1972), Travesties (1974), The Real Thing (1982), and Arcadia (1994). Stoppard has also written several highly successful screenplays, such as Brazil (1985, co-written with Terry Gilliam), for which he received an Academy Award nomination and the Los Angeles Critics Circle Award for Best Original Screenplay. Subsequent screenplays include Empire of the Sun (1987, adapted from the novel by J. G. Ballard), The Russia House (1989, adapted from the novel by John le Carré), and Billy Bathgate (1991, adapted from the novel by E. L. Doctorow).

Stoppard also wrote the screenplay for the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love, which swept the Academy Awards, garnering seven Oscars, including Best Picture. Shakespeare in Love was directed by John Madden, and stars Gwenyth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush, Ben Affleck, and Judi Dench.

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Essays and Criticism