Night and Day

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

ph_0111201622-Stoppard.jpg Tom Stoppard Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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,...

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The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Night and Day begins with a dream sequence in which the photographer Guthrie is gunned down by machine-gun fire. The scene quickly changes to the reality of a comfortable colonial veranda where the audience meets the hostess, Ruth Carson, the attractive wife of mine-owner Geoffrey Carson. Guthrie has arrived, uninvited, to await his colleague, Dick Wagner. Both are journalists in the midst of a revolution in the fictitious Kambawe. President Mageeba is beset by the insurgent Colonel Shimbu, and the wealthy Carson will act as middleman in their peace talks. The journalists have heard rumors of this meeting and thus intrude themselves on the Carsons in order to be on the scene of the action. They also need access to the telex machine Carson possesses. An anonymous special correspondent has, meanwhile, scooped the two professionals by obtaining an exclusive interview with Shimbu and sending it to their own London paper, the Sunday Globe. This same reporter, the young and idealistic Jacob Milne, arrives on the scene with Carson and has information for another potential scoop: Shimbu’s forces have secretly attacked and captured Carson’s mines.

Dick Wagner is furious with the idea of the younger reporter’s success, but even more so when he learns that Milne had worked previously for the Grimsby Evening Messenger and was the “Grimsby Scab,” the reporter who broke ranks by refusing to join the journalists’ union in the strike against management. Wagner is a staunch union man, a good old boy of the old school. The three journalists debate the rules of the profession, while each plays his own game in trying to be the first to get the story of the African war to the waiting world. Wagner remains at the Carsons’ home knowing of the secret meeting to take place there between Mageeba and Shimbu, and Wagner sends Milne with Guthrie to the scene of the fighting to pass on to Shimbu the president’s reply to his request for peace negotiations.

Act 1 also...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Night and Day introduces both acts with an attention-grabbing flight from reality. The first act opens to the beauty of an African sunset shattered by a helicopter, the headlights of a Jeep driving onstage, machine-gun fire, and a spotlight following the photographer Guthrie as he darts about. A burst of gunfire catches him and he falls. This image immediately changes over to Guthrie in a garden chair, the machine-gun fire the noise of a telex, the Jeep an approaching car. It has been a dream but a projection of the play’s action: the attacks on the press and the war in Kambawe, which will provide the backdrop for the dramatized debate to follow.

The second act begins with Ruth Carson in the night section of...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

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

Bigsby, C. W. E. Tom Stoppard. Harlow, England: Longman, 1976.

Cahn, Victor L. Beyond Absurdity: The Plays of Tom Stoppard. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1979.

Dean, Joan Fitzpatrick. Tom Stoppard: Comedy as a Moral Matrix. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1981.

Gabbard, Paquet Lucina. The Stoppard Plays. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1982.

Gitzen, Julian. “Tom Stoppard: Chaos in Perspective.” Southern Humanities Review 10 (1976): 143-152.

Gussow, Mel. Conversations with Stoppard. New York: Grove-Atlantic, 1996.

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

Hayman, Ronald. Tom Stoppard. London: Heinemann, 1977.

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

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