Since his London debut in 1967 with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard has generally been acknowledged as Britain’s finest playwright of ideas, as well as probably its funniest. His plays have been characterized by a brilliant wit, incredible and extended wordplay, frenzied pace, farcical situations, imaginative images, biting ironies, inventive literary parodies, and a breathless series of comic reversals. At the same time, each of his dramas has offered a provocative clash of serious ideas: the more farcical the theatrical context, the more complex has been Stoppard’s intellectual thrust. Thus, in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, he uses the “unwritten” material from Hamlet to create a stimulating, funny, sad meditation on death, art, and identity; in Jumpers (1972, 1974), the metaphysical speculations of philosophy professor George Moore are parallel to the continual trampoline antics of a team of “jumpers”; in Travesties (1974, 1975), the obscure historical fact that James Joyce, Lenin, and Tristan Tzara may all have lived in Zürich at the same time provides the excuse for a sharp, witty debate on the role of the artist in society, all done in the context of a parody of The Importance of Being Earnest.
What Stoppard’s plays have not been known for, however, is depth and roundness in characterization, a sense that real people are engaged in believable conflicts, and an impression that the ideas emerge from these situations rather than being tossed into the play and batted about like balls in a pinball machine.
Night and Day, however, represents a shift in Stoppard’s approach and emphasis. It is his slowest and, despite many brilliant flashes of wit, his unfunniest play. Although Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1977) moved in this direction, it is also the first play in which the characters are understandable human beings caught up in a credible modern crisis. The major deficiency of Night and Day is a rather slow, meandering, talky first act (although much of the talk is exciting); the major virtue of the play is a brilliant, increasingly intense second act that fuses these apparently disparate themes and characterizations into a climax that is both viscerally and intellectually powerful. The ideas in Night and Day are every bit as serious and provocative as those in the earlier metaphysical farces, but here they are reinforced by the reality of the characters and situations. The result is a powerful and moving, but surprisingly conventional play.
The action of Night and Day takes place in the mythical African country of Kambawe, a former British colony, now run by President Mageeba, a soft-spoken but brutal black dictator. The predictable Russian-backed insurrection has broken out, and foreign journalists converge to cover the events. Two writers—Dick Wagner, a veteran Australian reporter for the Sunday Globe, and Jacob Milne, a young free-lancer, as well as a photographer, George “Gigi” Guthrie—arrive at the house of Geoffrey Carson, owner of the rebel-occupied Malakuangazi Mines. Carson has two things that the journalists need: contact with Magaweeba and a telex machine that stands impressively in the middle of his living room. This machine takes on symbolic force as the play develops; it comes to represent communication and civilization in the midst of violence and confusion.
Some critics have complained that the insurrection remains too far offstage. Such carping misses the point that Night and Day is not a study of revolutionary Third World politics, but is an extended debate on the nature, role, and morality of a “free press” in the contemporary world. The Kambawe insurrection is merely the backdrop for the debate, and it provides the necessary visceral punctuation needed to reinforce the meanings that emerge. In Dirty Linen and New-Found-Land (1976, 1977), Stoppard hilariously chided the Fleet Street Press for the way it abused and trivialized its news-gathering functions by distorting, bloating, and sensationalizing the petty, the frivolous, and the irrelevant while ignoring the substance of the events happening around them. In Night and Day, the playwright continues this dissection more directly and emphatically. Undoubtedly, the fact that he began as a journalist before taking to the theater helps to account for his intense concern over these issues as well as his intimate familiarity with that exotic professional milieu.
Two specific conflicts gradually develop in the play to focus these issues. The first is between Wagner, the old professional and advocate of “journalistic solidarity,” and Milne, the idealistic, lucky free-lancer who, it turns out, launched his writing career by scabbing on a small provincial paper during a strike. The second conflict is ostensibly between Wagner and Ruth, Carson’s bored wife, who, having had a recent one-night affair with Wagner in London, is shocked by his sudden arrival. Actually, Ruth’s real conflict is with herself, and her anxious musings, directed in asides to the audience, create an ironical counterpoint to the play’s main thrust.
The free press controversy is at the center of the Wagner-Milne dispute and is also, more indirectly, crucial to Ruth’s discontent. Wagner sees himself as a thorough professional who does his job well and, while having no illusions about the ultimate value of his work, takes considerable pride in it. He has little patience with reporters of trivia or with journalistic essay writers. “I am a fireman,” he tells Milne,...
(The entire section is 2319 words.)