Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 446

Using the dialectical possibilities of theater to dramatize the play of ideas, Tom Stoppard has given his audiences witty debates on the place of humankind in an existentially absurd universe (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, pr. 1966, pb. 1967); on ethical relativity and moral absolutes (Jumpers, pr., pb. 1972); on art, politics, and the uses and abuses of history (Travesties, pr. 1974, pb. 1975); and on journalistic ethics (Night and Day, pr., pb. 1978). His political commitment and concern about the treatment of dissidents is also reflected in a work such as Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (pr. 1977, pb. 1978). However, except for Night and Day, which Stoppard himself has called naturalistic, these plays might be classed as primarily dramas of ideas. With them Stoppard has won critical acclaim for his wit, verbal pyrotechnics, cleverness, and sense of theater as play. When the plays have been criticized, it is usually for lack of adequate, believable characterization, especially of women. Many have seen his characters as props on which to stick ideas—clever spokespersons for alternate sides of a debate, but not believable humans in their own right. In a 1979 interview with Mel Gussow (The New York Times, July 29), Stoppard said, “I’m not a playwright who is interested in character with a capital K and psychology with a capital S—I’m a playwright interested in ideas and forced to invent characters to express those ideas.”

In The Real Thing, Stoppard displays all of his usual verbal and theatrical talents, but he also presents his audience with truly believable and moving characters. The debate on human love, art and life, role and inner person, and what constitutes “the real thing” is as sharply joined and as brilliantly stated as in any of the earlier plays. Beyond that, however, critics generally praised The Real Thing for its successful characterizations. Henry, the intellectual with a boyish quality, the skeptic who is also a believer who never loses his loving feeling, has been described as Stoppard’s warmest character. Annie is independent, but also patient and loving, forgiving and forgiven, a fully realized woman. Only on the character of Brodie is there serious critical debate. Some blame Stoppard for placing the antinuclear argument in the mouth of a lout who lacks the verbal skills of Henry and hence is no fit antagonist for him. Perhaps they forget that Stoppard is dealing here not with one particular cause, but with the use of language only as a means in the service of any cause. Be that as it may, there is general agreement that The Real Thing enlarges Stoppard’s stature as a playwright who can write brilliant plays of ideas and humanly believable characters as well.

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Critical Evaluation