Critical Context

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

In Night and Day, Stoppard’s fourth full-length play, the author moves into a stage naturalism without sacrificing his verbal dexterity. The playwright’s usual formula—a marriage of serious ideas with high comedy—was set aside for this play. With Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (pr. 1966, pb. 1967), Travesties (pr. 1974, pb. 1975), and Jumpers (pr., pb. 1972), the astounding verbal and intellectual gymnastics are so effective that the plays are always highly entertaining but not totally accessible. Puns are piled upon puns; characters engage in fast and furious convoluted exchanges. Language itself is one of Stoppard’s prime concerns, a concern that links his work with that of the German linguistic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. In Stoppard’s relativistic world, no absolute meaning seems possible; language’s very usefulness and reliability are therefore under constant examination. There are strong absurdist elements in his plays—Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, for example, in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, remind one of the hapless Vladimir and Estragon of Samuel Beckett’s En attendant Godot (pb. 1952; Waiting for Godot, 1954)—but to Stoppard, language is ultimately an extremely valuable quantity; to the absurdists, it is most often meaningless and incomprehensible.

Stoppard combines the theater of ideas with an acute perception of twentieth century chaos and confusion, infusing the mixture with the brisk entertainment and humor of an Oscar Wilde play. Stoppard’s Travesties, in fact, parodies Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (pr. 1895) while incorporating Vladimir Lenin and novelist James Joyce as characters who are filtered through a narrator’s only partially reliable memory. The linguistic and philosophical gymnastics of Jumpers become literal gymnastics as well: The members of a university philosophy department are also members of an amateur gymnastics group. Their human pyramids tumble, however, and the philosophical issues remain unresolved, just as in his whodunit The Real Inspector Hound (pr., pb. 1968) the murder mystery remains unsolved—and insoluble.

Night and Day contains the Stoppardian coda; clever quips and repartee abound. Words are taken at their face value, then stretched, wrung out, and put back into context, to the delight of the audience. In Night and Day, however, the message, not the mode, dominates, and the audience is, if less dazzled, certainly more aware of Stoppard’s intention. It is not so much a play for the intelligentsia as it is one for the thoughtful.