Jumpers hinges on the absurd but very amusing idea that the members of the faculty of philosophy at a major British university are also members of an amateur acrobatic team, the “jumpers” of the title. Sir Archibald, the vice chancellor, a “first-rate gymnast” himself, has packed his school with gymnastically talented thinkers, a combination admitted to be unique. Stoppard’s witty premise brings a dead metaphor to life through the “mental gymnastics” of Sir “Archie” and George, the professor of moral philosophy, as they argue and debate over philosophical principles and over Archie’s attentions to George’s wife Dotty, who is having an affair with her husband’s superior. George’s attention, however, is distracted by his need to prepare his side of a public debate with Duncan McFee, a rival philosopher who has enjoyed considerably more success than George. Dotty, whose state of mind seems to be just what her name implies, may have shot and killed McFee during an acrobatic exhibition in George and Dotty’s apartment. Inspector Bones, a detective, comes to investigate the murder, but he is so starstruck by Dotty, a retired music-hall singer, that he is easily distracted. The comedy results in part from conversations based on incorrect assumptions (Inspector Bones thinks George knows of McFee’s murder, but George does not) and from farcical interplay, as when Inspector Bones arrives with flowers for Dotty and is met by George, whose face is smeared with shaving cream and has a bow and arrow in hand.
The confusion does not end with the main characters; there is also a secretary who stripteases on a trapeze, a live tortoise, a dead hare, and two astronauts fighting on the moon. Yet Stoppard is able to bring a fair measure of order out of this chaos, and by the end of the play the audience has begun to accept the logic, or illogic, of this household. Stoppard makes little effort at suspending the audience’s disbelief, however, for his main interest is in the long declamations by George, who continually tests the logic of his arguments for the existence of God and the absoluteness of good and evil by rehearsing them aloud. These declamations allow Stoppard to include a recitation of the logical paradoxes of the Greek philosopher Zeno, who “proved” that an arrow released from a bow can never reach its target because it must first reach a midpoint in its flight, and before that the halfway point to the first midpoint, and so on in an infinite series of midpoints that can never be crossed. The focus on philosophical and logical cruxes such as these and on an ongoing debate between relativistic ethics and philosophical absolutes makes the play intellectually challenging even as the lunatic plot amuses.
Jumpers enjoyed less success than Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, with a number of reviewers complaining about the shallowness of the characters (little about Dotty is revealed, and the audience is not encouraged to care about George) and the superficiality of the plot (as in the earlier play, there are few “events” beyond what is described above). A just criticism is that the “jumpers” metaphor never really works. One reviewer notes that the practical problems of finding gymnasts who can act or actors who can jump led to a witty sideshow rather than to an integral element of the play, an integration of the sort that occurs with the Hamlet sections of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Also, Hamlet brings with it its own credibility and seriousness, while George’s maunderings seem too often the self-indulgence of a tiresome old fool, which of course he is. Yet Jumpers also seems very much a play of its time, with its nudity, mocking of authority, and attempts to shock the audience with the outrageous. The late 1960’s and early 1970’s were a period of wild experimentation in the theater, and Stoppard’s effort seems in perfect accord with that sensibility.