Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1002

When The Real Thing first premiered in London in November of 1982, there were two distinctly different reactions to the play— reactions that have come to characterize critical reaction to Stoppard’s work. While all reviewers of Stoppard’s writing, right from the first ecstatic reaction to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in 1966, have exulted in his wit and cleverness, some of them have complained that his writing lacks emotional depth.

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Just such a reaction characterized Irving Wardle’s hostile review of the premiere of The Real Thing in the London Times. In ‘‘Stoppard’s Romance in a Cold Climate,’’ Wardle complained that ‘‘the cumulative effect of The Real Thing is one of cleverness with its back to the wall.’’ Wardle took a dim view of the debate between Henry and Annie about Brodie’s play. He admitted that it was ‘‘a classic statement of the art versus truth debate’’ but felt that it was part of an over-riding tendency towards ‘‘self-laceration’’ on Stoppard’s part. Wardle clearly took Henry as a stand-in for Stoppard, and to an extent he was encouraged to do so by Stoppard himself, who less than a week after he had finished writing the play declared to an American audience that he would read Henry’s cricket-bat speech ‘‘as though’’ it were ‘‘mine.’’

In contrast to Wardle’s cool review, the Guardian’s Michael Billington offered a highly favorable appraisal. Far from criticizing Stoppard for continuing to write ‘‘cold’’ plays, Billington praised the play as ‘‘that rare thing . . . an intelligent play about love.’’ Billington acknowledged that the territory Stoppard covered was familiar but argued that the play was worthwhile because of Stoppard’s intelligent commentary on ideas connected to the theme of love. Billington’s only quibble was that Stoppard had come down too hard on the thenfashionable genre of political drama. He disagreed with Stoppard’s assumption that ‘‘impassioned political drama is irreconcilable with irony and finesse.’’

Nonetheless, Billington’s review was influential, for it established the dominant interpretation of the play, that by the end of The Real Thing, Henry has changed for the better: ‘‘pain has transmuted him; and the assumption is that he will be a better writer and a richer man.’’ Much of the later commentary upon The Real Thing followed this line of interpretation.

Paul Delaney, writing in Critical Inquiry a few years after the initial production, supported Stoppard’s response to the then British infatuation with political drama. Delaney suggested that Stoppard ‘‘praises art which ‘works’ aesthetically whether or not it ‘works’ in terms of social utility.’’ In effect, Delaney identified Stoppard as a cultural conservative: someone who believes that art and literature can be evaluated from a universal standard and that there is a great gulf dividing popular culture like TV, Hollywood films, comic books, and romance novels, from ‘‘high’’ culture like opera, theater, art films, and intellectual novels.

Delaney thus dragged Stoppard into the socalled ‘‘Culture Wars.’’ This debate was fought largely within the universities, although it also effected high school curriculum battles, too. The battle was divided between two fronts: on the one hand, people who felt that the curriculum should be more inclusive, and that texts should be read for their social and historical value as well as their aesthetic value; and on the other hand, people who argued that the curriculum should stay as it was, that the ‘‘new’’ writers critics were trying to promote were not good enough and that aesthetic values were all that counted when it came to assessing a novel, poem, or play. Delaney enlisted Stoppard on his own side—the conservatives—although with hindsight, readers might ponder the play’s ending, when Henry capitulates and re-writes Brodie’s play, and wonder if Delaney was justified in doing so.

More than one critic picked up on the implications of Stoppard’s stance against the political value of art. The New York Times’s Benedict Nightingale, reviewing the Broadway premiere of the play, pointed out that ‘‘every British dramatist seems to be expected to flaunt his social conscience these days.’’ Stoppard’s commitments, Nightingale suggested, were only ‘‘to be the freedom of the writer to ignore the day’s prejudices, choose his own subject-matter, and treat it with all the honesty and artistry he can muster.’’

Nightingale wrote approvingly of Stoppard’s attack on ‘‘political correctness,’’ but not everyone was so quick to praise the playwright’s representation of the relationship between art and politics. Frank Rich, also writing for the New York Times, thought that Stoppard had loaded all his guns and given his opponents only faulty ammunition: ‘‘Throughout the play, Henry’s ideals about art and language are set against those of a fledging playwright . . . who writes poorly, but, unlike Henry, champions a social cause. Whatever the relative merits of polemical playwrights versus ‘pure’ writers, no light is shed here. By painting Brodie as a moral fraud and loutish philistine, Mr. Stoppard lets Henry demolish him without contest—and reduces a complex debate to a smug, loaded dialectic.’’

Some critics saw Stoppard’s sketchy representation of Brodie as yet another example of his inability to create nuanced characters. Leo Sauvage, writing in the New Leader, felt that Stoppard put his characters through all sorts of hoops only in order ‘‘to find a spur for the changes in Henry.’’ The characterization that most suffers as a result of the playwright’s steel-eyed focus on Henry is Annie, whose ‘‘bizarre’’ mixture of ‘‘superficial political militancy’’ is apparently compatible with ‘‘her whimsical enthusiasm’’ and her status as ‘‘a sort of updated symbol of l’eternel feminin.’’

The critical reception of Stoppard’s twentieth play was thus fairly positive, although a few prominent critics did express some reservations about the work. Most critics applauded Stoppard’s complex exploration of adultery and love and were unanimous in praising his wit and humor. A few argued that the playwright’s characteristic prioritization of ideas and technique over emotions and characters weakened the characterizations and the plot development.

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