The Play

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Jumpers begins with a party given by Dorothy Moore (Dotty), a retired music-hall singer. At this party, Dotty attempts to sing several sentimental songs, all of which include the word “moon”; it becomes clear, however, that she is suffering from a mental breakdown. The Jumpers, a troupe of rather mediocre acrobats, upstage her confused performance with a demonstration of gymnastics. As they pose in a human pyramid, the Jumper at the bottom of the heap is suddenly shot and killed by an unknown murderer. Though it is unclear whether she had a part in the murder, Dotty is left holding the dead body.

George Moore, Dotty’s husband, is now shown dictating to his secretary a lecture for a philosophical symposium titled “Man—Good, Bad or Indifferent?” George, a middle-aged professor of moral philosophy, launches into a long and rambling monologue expressing his doubts about the course of philosophy and telling of his own desire to find a moral absolute, to prove rationally the existence of God. Logical positivists, who are moral relativists, dominate the philosophy department; their position is represented by the Jumpers who performed earlier, philosophy professors who double as acrobats. George, unfortunately, does not “jump”; his insistence on standards of good and evil is at odds with the current philosophical tide. Consequently, he has not been promoted.

George’s musings are interrupted by Dotty’s cries for help. Annoyed at the disturbance, he confronts her in the bedroom. The ensuing exchange makes it clear that their marriage has deteriorated. George suspects Dotty of having an affair with Archie, the head of his department and a successful logical positivist; Dotty accuses George of neglect and tells him that her mental problems have recurred. These problems, she tries to tell him, stem from her sudden loss of idealism when the first man landed on the moon. For her the moon represented a perfect romantic ideal, attainable only through poetry and music. Her crisis is very much like the philosophical loss of faith in God, the moral absolute. However, George cannot grasp this parallel between her plight and his own trouble with logical positivism. He gives his attention instead to his small pets—a tortoise named Pat, a rabbit named Thumper, and a goldfish—which are missing.

After George leaves to resume dictating his lecture, he is interrupted by the arrival of Inspector Bones, investigating the murder of the Jumper. George, who knows nothing of the murder, assumes that Bones has come in response to a noise complaint that George had called in on the night of the party. Each is mystified by the behavior of the other. Bones is enamored of Dotty, who was formerly one of his favorite singers. Although he believes her to be the murderer, he is more interested in getting an autograph than in questioning her. When summoned, he eagerly goes in to see her, record in hand. When he arrives in her bedroom, the dead Jumper falls out on the floor.

George, meanwhile, continues working on his lecture. At the end of the first act, after he has reached some conclusions about the necessity of goodness, he meets Bones in the hall, and both exit. Dotty is left in the bedroom with the dead Jumper. Archie, impeccably dressed, now makes his first appearance. With the help of the other Jumpers, he places the dead body in a large plastic bag. The Jumpers carry it off, and Dotty and Archie are left alone.

The second act begins with a discussion between Bones and George. Bones describes the night of Dotty’s retirement from the musical stage and tells George that she could...

(This entire section contains 1203 words.)

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be cleared of the murder charge on the grounds of psychiatric problems. George finally realizes that Bones is there to investigate a murder. Bones tells him that there is a body on the floor of Dotty’s bedroom; the disbelieving George goes to see it for himself.

Upon opening the door to the bedroom, he finds not a dead body but Dotty and Archie, engaged in suspicious activity behind drapes. Archie claims that he is performing a dermatological examination; George leaves huffily for his study. Seeing a possible medical witness to attest Dotty’s insanity, Bones takes Archie aside into the hall. Archie offers not medical evidence but an alternative alibi: that McFee, the dead Jumper, committed suicide in a large plastic bag. Archie offers Bones the ridiculous bribe of an academic position in philosophy—the very professorship that George covets. From her bedroom, Dotty cries out for help once again, and Bones rushes off to her assistance.

George resumes composing his lecture but is once again interrupted, this time by Archie. They discuss the question of religious faith, and George is shocked by Archie’s news that McFee has committed suicide. He asserts that McFee’s logical positivism was incongruous with such an extreme act of self-inflicted violence. Dotty again screams offstage, this time the word “rape”; both men rush to her bedroom, where they find her and an extremely disconcerted Bones. Archie finds this a perfect opportunity to blackmail Bones into not arresting Dotty.

George goes to his study to muse further on the death of McFee. His thoughts and his lecture finally come to some kind of conclusion, and he returns to the bedroom, where Archie and Dotty are having a cheerful lunch. He asks Archie for the Chair of Logic, McFee’s old position, and is denied his request. He discovers that Dotty is indeed guilty of murdering his pet goldfish; he suspects that she also killed his pet rabbit. George leaves to answer the doorbell. Crouch the butler appears and tells George that McFee was murdered. George rushes back to question Dotty, who says that she thought Archie killed McFee. George, unable to get an answer, goes back into his study with Archie. Both his secretary and Crouch are there. Crouch mentions that philosophy is one of his hobbies; the late McFee, he says, was his mentor. He supplies a final confusing clue to the murder: George’s secretary, he tells them, had been McFee’s secret mistress; immediately prior to the murder McFee had informed her of his intention to leave her for the monastery. The silent, unsmiling secretary rises during this story to leave the room; as she exits, her coat is shown to have blood on it. George discovers, however, that the blood comes from the bookcase. The true killer of Thumper the rabbit proves to have been George himself, who shot his pet during an illustration of his lecture. In despair, George accidentally kills his tortoise Pat as well when he steps off the bookcase.

The play ends with a dreamlike coda in which George is pitted against Archie in the symposium. Each speaker is ranked by scorecards. Archie’s lecture is pure nonsensical wordplay but receives a nearly perfect score. There is another murder, this time of the new archbishop of Canterbury, Sam Clegthorpe. When Clegthorpe contradicts Archie, he is shot in the same manner as was McFee. Dotty appears in a spotlight and sings. After George makes his final plea for the existence of God, Dotty bids the moon good-bye with a single musical line.

Dramatic Devices

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One of the most striking characteristics of Jumpers is its mixing of different theatrical worlds. Tom Stoppard combines a parody of philosophical language with music-hall songs, a detective story, and the acrobatics of the Jumpers. He has expressed his liking for what he calls “ambushes for the audience”; the mixing of genres enables him to create a variety of dramatic surprises. Each of the highly theatrical effects he creates is integral to plot and theme.

In the beginning sequence of the play, the secretary performs a striptease on a swinging chandelier, Dotty sings a confused medley of songs all containing the word “moon,” and an acrobat is shot out of the bottom of a human pyramid. The collapsing pyramid becomes a dramatic metaphor for the collapse of stability in the philosophical, political, and private worlds of the characters.

Stoppard draws attention to the lack of answers to the philosophical dilemmas of the play by giving the audience a number of dramatic puzzles, each of which has various possible explanations, all of which, it seems, become equally valid and compelling. The murder of the dead Jumper is given many alternative explanations: Stoppard hints that the murderer could have been Dotty, Archie, the Secretary, or even McFee himself. George believes that Dotty is having an affair with Archie; however, Archie tells him that his interest is merely professional and that he spends his time examining her. The puzzles range from the large to the small; for example, George and Dotty play games of charades. Each character is engaged, on some level, in philosophical inquiry.

In the face of their dilemma of relativism, the main characters hopelessly try to construct things that have some stable significance, some evident value as truth: George’s lectures, Dotty’s songs, Bones’s detective work. This effort to make meaning, in the face of the philosophical acrobatics of logical positivism, is nearly always impossible. Dotty mixes up the words of her songs and the lines of poems she quotes; George’s long lecture fails as a rational proof. Still, it is this very failure of rationality that makes these characters so appealing. George spices up his lecture with dramatic climaxes, outlandish metaphors, sound effects, and live animals as props. Even Archie does not make a compelling argument for logical positivism; instead, he strings together a dazzling string of puns on philosophical expressions. Dramatically, it is “the irrational, the emotional, the whimsical” that make the play so appealing.


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Sources for Further Study

Anchetta, Richard A. Tom Stoppard: An Analytical Study of His Plays. Chicago: Advent, 1991.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Tom Stoppard. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.

Corballis, Richard. Stoppard: The Mystery and the Clockwork. London: Methuen, 1984.

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

Hunter, Jim. Tom Stoppard: “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” “Jumpers,” “Travesties,” “Arcadia.” New York: Faber and Faber, 2000.

Jenkins, Anthony. Tom Stoppard. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990.

Londré, Felicia Hardison. Tom Stoppard. New York: F. Ungar, 1981.

Rusinko, Susan. Tom Stoppard. Boston: Twayne, 1986.

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


Critical Essays