Issues with Contemporary Pressures

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1667

Critics seized upon The Real Thing as if it were a rainstorm in a drought, proclaiming that Stoppard had at last written a play with real characters who experienced human emotions. Precisely why they should be so enthusiastic about the playwright’s tardy conversion to realism when they once enthusiastically applauded his innovative Absurdism is not clear; nor is it clear why Stoppard has been burdened with the ridiculous smear that his writing was, up until he supposedly proved otherwise in The Real Thing, cold and unemotional.

Stoppard had always been a playwright whose intellectual curiosity mirrored his passion for language; he had not been particularly interested in squashing his energy into a realist or naturalist dramatic form but rather had invested time in unpicking the very fabric of such genres. His decision to pick up the realist garment finally and to fit it to his own devices deserves a better response than patronizing applause. It seems unlikely, too, that Stoppard would abandon his passion for the play as a vehicle for ideas, and, indeed, close examination of The Real Thing demonstrates that while the dominant theme may well be that of love, Stoppard’s underlying concern is with contemporary debates about language and art.

Hillary DeVries was on the right track when, in reviewing the play, she wrote that it covers ‘‘familiar Stoppard territory . . . whether our views of art, politics, and emotion have any reality beyond our own perceptions.’’ It is no accident that the play’s protagonist is a playwright. By identifying him as such, and by providing an example of his writing, Stoppard tells the audience that the key events and developments in the play will hinge upon Henry’s gifts as a writer and upon his perception of writing. Henry’s profession will determine the play’s plot and themes. If this is a play about love, then it is a play about Stoppard’s life-long love affair with language.

Stoppard famously tends to be inspired by an idea rather than an image or a story. The Real Thing began with an idea or rather a question: could he ‘‘structure a play by repeating a given situation—a man in a room with his wife showing up—three times, each differently.’’ Implicit in this question is an understanding of ‘‘reality’’ as something one attains, defines, creates, rather than as a material ‘‘given.’’ Stoppard is not interested in peeling away layers of meaning in order to reach, finally, the kernel of truth but rather in the way language transforms lived experience. It is in language and in all that language can do—the ‘‘bridges across chaos’’ that it can build—that Stoppard is most interested; love—its veracity and its pain—is simply the new season’s ball that Stoppard throws through this eternally intriguing hoop.

Bouncing along with this question is one of the most pressing issues in contemporary Britain, that of the relation between art and politics. Henry and Annie’s conflict over Brodie’s play asks the audience to consider several controversial questions. Should artists use their talent for political purposes? Can art change the ‘‘real world’’ in positive ways? What is the value of art if it has no overt political content? This issue was pressing in Britain for many reasons. Britain had long had a much stronger support of socially progressive art than America, and British theater has long produced cutting-edge politically conscious drama.

But British liberals were out on a limb in the early-1980s—locked out of political power by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party and seeking platforms upon which to voice their concerns. The tremendous social changes of the 1960s and 1970s...

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had radicalized both the theater population and the left wing in general and led to acceptance of the belief that ‘‘the personal is political.’’ It naturally followed that this applied not only to how one lived one’s life but what one did in one’s occupation. Amidst this noisy fray Stoppard dared to wag his finger and say ‘‘no.’’

He uttered that defiant syllable through the conflict between Henry and Annie over their different perceptions of the occupation of writer and the writer’s material, language. Ironically, in their different ways they both see language in the same way. Annie believes words are worthless unless tied to politically meaningful freight; Henry believes them to be ‘‘innocent’’ and ‘‘neutral’’ until shaped, carefully and lovingly, into a bridge across chaos. They do, however, differ about what the motivation of the writer should be. Annie believes that words should be strung together either to lob a hefty bomb at order (the government, the state, the military) or to express a truth that defies those same forces of law and order (oppression of an individual, a person’s innocence, group solidarity). Henry, however, has no interest in the relationship between language and society. As far as he is concerned, a relationship, or many relationships, may exist, but what the writer should be concerned about is each word’s connection to the next word.

Irving Wardle, in his review of the London premiere of the play, assumed Henry was Stoppard’s mouth-piece, a view expressed 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.’’ Stoppard’s arguments were a welcome change from the pressure to politicize art that dominated British theater and the arts in the 1980s. His arguments remain a strong assertion of the power—and the integrity—of the human imagination, which, after all, should not have to leap through lion’s hoops on demand but should instead be free to roam about in whatever territory and with whichever companions it delights in. Be that as it may, there are weaknesses in Stoppard’s splendid sophistry.

Henry’s arguments fall down when Annie asks him whether he cares in the least about ‘‘who wrote it, why he wrote it, where he wrote it.’’ To Henry, these considerations simply ‘‘don’t count.’’ Henry’s position is made to seem more reasonable because of the crassness of Brodie’s writing and because Brodie is such an unappealing character. Indeed, if Brodie and Annie are meant to be the wall against which Henry batters his bleeding head, then Stoppard has given his protagonist too many cushions. As Frank Rich remarked in the New York Times, ‘‘the particular left-wing playwright who arouses Henry’s ire proves a straw man—a boorish fraud who’s ‘a lout with language.’ Arguing at length [against] such a pushover of an antagonist’’ is no difficult feat, and the same might be said of the vehicle through which Henry batters the unseen Brodie, Annie, who is indeed, as Charlotte says, ‘‘a feed’’ for Henry’s views. Annie’s naivete encourages the audience to ask why her considerations should, indeed, ‘‘count.’’

But count they should, albeit not in the ways that Stoppard suggests. Henry’s ‘‘bridges across incomprehension and chaos’’ enable the writer to ‘‘nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you’re dead.’’ But fame is not every poet’s ambition, and the bridges that were created in one lifetime can mean a different thing in another. This is precisely the beauty and wonder of language—that different people in different times and places can look at the bridge and see it in a different light—but it also means that the questions of ‘‘who, why, where’’ are fundamentally important to the reader—if not to the writer.

It is at this point that Stoppard’s straw man trips up, because Henry is a writer, not a reader, and Annie is an actress, not an audience member. Each character speaks about language and the profession of a writer from the perspective of the creator and the doer, rather than from the perspective of the listener and the watcher. Both, of course, touch upon these perspectives—Henry in his attempt to create art that will outlast his ‘‘mortal coil’’ and Annie in her hope that her art will also leave its mark upon the world—but their debate is rooted, fundamentally, in their own experience. ‘‘Who, why, where,’’ are valuable considerations, for taken together with the art work they can often offer the reader an altogether fresh voice.

Does it help the reader to think about Aphra Behn’s identity, and the time in which she was writing, when watching The Rover? Does it help the reader to consider August Wilson’s background and his relationship to black and white culture when reading The Piano Lesson? Undoubtedly, the experience of reading and watching and listening without asking these questions is still a rich one, but holding both birds in one hand makes it richer still.

Stoppard’s intervention into the muddy forays of British cultural politics is a daring and a commendable one: one, indeed, that more writers in the period should have had the courage to follow his lead. Ideas, if unquestioned, can be illogical and indeed oppressive, no matter how progressive they appear. Stoppard’s essential argument, voiced through the debate between Henry and Annie about the value of the writer and of language, is that language is ‘‘sacred’’ and ‘‘innocent’’ and that its value accrues only in use. It is a logical and a persuasive argument. Its second half, however, that the identity of the writer is meaningless, is less so. Writers should certainly not be valued simply for their identity alone: no one wants to sit through three hours of diatribe if they will not be entertained or moved. But if pursued to its logical endgame, the argument Henry advances would mean that the identity of the writer—their race, their gender, their class, their family circumstances, their relationship to their culture’s language—would simply be discounted altogether.

Source: Helena Ifeka, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.

Hippolytus Can Feel

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1308

It has sometimes been said of Tom Stoppard, by others besides me, that there is nothing going on beneath the glossy, slippery surface of his bright ideas and arch dialogue. With The Real Thing (Plymouth Theater), he has decided to confound his more skeptical critics by chipping a hole in the ice for us to peek through—under the proper conditions, no doubt, suitable also for fishing. You’ve probably heard by now what’s swimming around this chilly pond. The ‘‘real thing’’ is Stoppard’s amorous equivalent of the ‘‘right stuff’’—grace and style in the performance of a difficult task, in this case conducting erotic relationships.

In short, Britain’s leading intellectual entertainer is now exhibiting a highly publicized, wellcongratulated capacity not just for verbal and literary pyrotechnics but also for feeling, in that his characters can actually experience such human emotions as jealousy, envy, sorrow, and passion. Hearing these exotic emotions expressed, I was reminded of Racine’s Phèdre, where the lovesick heroine has been assuming all the while that Hippolytus is frigid, only to discover that he has actually been in love with the young Aricie. ‘‘Hippolytus can feel!’’ says the astonished Phèdre, ‘‘but not for me.’’ Mr. Stoppard’s aberrational display of sentience left me equally bereft and isolated.

The Real Thing begins with a scene from House of Cards, a love triangle written by a successful playwright named Henry, enacted by his actress wife, Charlotte, and his actor friend, Max. Brittle enough to be a genuine piece of Stoppard invention, this is nevertheless not the ‘‘real thing’’ but rather a play-within-a-play (selections from Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore later form another of these Chinese boxes) about a man exposing his wife’s adultery. After Henry’s apartment comes in on a revolving turntable, we learn that the ‘‘real thing’’ is actually about the adultery of a husband. Henry has been having it off with Max’s wife, Annie, another actress, though one with a bit of social conscience— she has befriended a young soldier arrested for arson at an antimissile demonstration. By the second act, Henry has left Charlotte and moved in with Annie.

When Max learns of Annie’s infidelity, he cries. Henry, who finds Max’s misery ‘‘in not very good taste,’’ also cries when he discovers later that Annie has betrayed him as well with a young actor. Obviously, Hippolytus can feel—but Stoppard is less interested in these lachrymose calisthenics than in demonstrating how it is possible to reveal sentiment without losing one’s reputation as a wit. For despite the intermittent weeping, the strongest emotion in the play is a passion for the construction of sentences, and Stoppard (ignoring Max’s rebuke that ‘‘having all the words is not what life’s about’’) is never more fervid than when Henry is celebrating his own verbal felicity. Defending himself against Annie’s charge that ‘‘You only write for people who would like to write like you if only they could write’’ (note that even his critics speak in carefully polished tropes), Henry replies that language is sacred, even if writers are not, and ‘‘If you get the right words in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.’’

At this point, he has been nudging the world in the direction of quietism by ridiculing soldier Brodie’s loutish effort to compose a protest play. Stoppard, whose name was recently used in an ad by British conservatives praising our invasion of Grenada, is as tone deaf before the dissonant inflections of Western political protest as Henry is in the presence of serious music (though he is profoundly sensitive to stirrings of dissent in Eastern Europe). After Annie has rewarded Brodie’s bad manners by administering some cocktail dip to his face like a slapstick pie, the play ends with a reconciliatory kiss between husband and wife, Henry writhing to his favorite rock record and Annie entering the bedroom to undress. Thus, love conquers all—even casual adulteries and messy social dissent.

Considering how few people can resist a sophisticated love story, The Real Thing is destined to be one of the big hits of the Broadway season, and, when the rights are released, a reigning favorite of middlebrow theater companies. I found it rather coldhearted in its good-natured way, a frozen trifle with little aftertaste. Stoppard has doubtless made some effort to examine his own personal and literary problems, and his writing is rarely defensive or self-serving. But despite the autobiographical yeast leavening the familiar digestible cake mix, The Real Thing is just another clever exercise in the Mayfair mode, where all of the characters (the proletarian Brodie excepted) share the same wit, artifice, and ornamental diction. Even Henry’s teen-age daughter, at the very moment that she is teasing her father for writing always about ‘‘infidelity among the architect class,’’ is fashioning sentences (‘‘Exclusive rights isn’t love,’’ she says, ‘‘it’s colonization’’) apparently designed for inclusion in a Glossary of Post-Restoration Epigrams. No wonder Stoppard has her refer to herself as ‘‘virgo syntacta.’’

I think I might be less immune to the charms of this admittedly harmless piece of trivia were it not being tarted up everywhere to pass for, well, the real thing. It comes no closer to reality than any of those other adultery plays recently exported from England— and it doesn’t even possess the mordancy of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal or the ingenuity of Peter Nichols’s Passion. Born in Czechoslovakia, Stoppard has managed to perfect an expatriate’s gift for mimicry—allied to his ear for language is his unique capacity to imitate playwriting styles. But if he began his career impersonating Beckett and Pirandello (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) or Bernard Shaw (Jumpers) or Joyce and Wilde (Travesties), he has recently, along with a large number of contemporaries in the English theater, come entirely under the influence of Noel Coward’s witty sangfroid. The question is whether this is a style more appropriate to simulating reality or creating escapism, whether, at this critical point in world history, we are more in need of rhetorical artifice— or poetic truth.

Mike Nichols’s production is as beautifully manufactured as the play and, at times, equally contrived. Nichols has always gotten the best out of good actors, and his casting instinct has not failed him here. Still, there is an element of spontaneity occasionally missing from the current production— as if the cast were being corseted in Stoppard’s language. Jeremy Irons, looking like a dissipated D’Artagnan, bearded and baggy eyed, has a plummy time with Henry’s dialogue, and commands the stage with authentic theatrical grace but Glenn Close, as Annie, tries too hard to charm us out of recognizing that this is one unpleasant lady. An attractive actress with auburn hair and sunken eyes, Miss Close seems at times too easily persuaded of her own radiance. She smiles too much, and she has a habit of hugging herself, which injects a strain of sentimental self-love into these rather hardhearted proceedings (it is also highly unlikely, though this may be a fault of the writing, that she would be playing the young Annabella opposite a considerably younger Giovanni in ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore). As for Christine Baranski as Charlotte and Kenneth Welsh as Max, they, like the rest of the cast—and like Tony Walton’s scenery, Tharon Musser’s lighting, and Anthea Sylbert’s clothes—function as well as possible to fulfill the assigned task, which is to reflect back the showy brilliance of the two leading characters, not to mention the breathtaking contrivances of their author, in his flamboyant exhibition of what it means to be ‘‘real.’’

Source: Robert Brustein. ‘‘Hippolytus Can Feel’’ in the New Republic, Vol. 190, no. 4, January 30, 1984, pp. 28–29.

All Done with Mirrors

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1799

The playwright hero of Noël Coward’s story ‘‘The Wooden Madonna’’ has been called by critics ‘‘a second Somerset Maugham,’’ ‘‘a second Noël Coward,’’ and ‘‘a second Oscar Wilde.’’ I am sure that Tom Stoppard has been hailed as all that and more, and with some justification, even though unlike those three he is heterosexual. Surely his new play, The Real Thing, is as literate (barring the occasional grammatical lapse), witty, and dizzyingly ingenious as anything you will have seen in a long time, except for Noises Off, which, however, is farce rather than high comedy. In fact, Stoppard is as clever a playwright as you can find operating today in the English language. Therein lies his strength and also, I am afraid, his weakness. But do not let anything I am about to say deter you from seeing the play happily, profitably, gratefully.

In Stoppard’s novel, Lord Malquist & Mr. Moon, there was a question so urgent that it had to be italicized: ‘‘That’s what I’d like to know. Who’s a genuine what?’’ In the intervening seventeen years, things have become more complicated, and the question is not only who but also what is a genuine what. It is as if The Real Thing took place entirely between two facing mirrors, Life and Art, reflecting what they see back and forth to infinity (mirrors playing an endless game of Ping-Pong), except that one cannot be quite sure which mirror is which. And in trying to establish what they are reflecting with any certainty, one is forced to keep turning one’s head from one mirror to the other; yet the final answer resides in the last image, the one in infinity, to which neither the dramatis personae nor the audience will ever penetrate. So both have to settle for accepting one uncertainty as a working hypothesis. But which one?

I am giving away an open secret when I say that the play begins with a scene of marriage and infi- delity. Or, rather, illusory marriage, for this is a scene from House of Cards, a play by Henry Boot, the hero of The Real Thing—and illusory infidelity, for the adultery in question, we later learn, was merely putative. The actors are Charlotte, Henry’s real-life wife, and Max, their real-life friend, who is married to Annie in real life (I am speaking, of course, as if The Real Thing were real life, and as if real life existed), who, however, is in love with Henry, as he is with her. But ‘‘real life’’ is also a house of cards, and soon marriages collapse— painfully for some, happily for others—to re-form in different configurations. Will they last?

For example, Annie, likewise an actress as well as a militant pacifist, has, after her marriage to Henry, met on a train from Scotland a simple soldier called Brodie—himself, it seems, an ardent pacifist. Upon setting fire to a wreath on a militaristic monument, he gets six years in jail for arson. To help release him sooner, Annie persuades him to write a play about what happened, a play that, being plain reality, is so bad that the extremely reluctant Henry has to be argued into rewriting it, i.e., putting enough illusion into its bare, rude truth to make it artlike, performable, real. (‘‘I tart up Brodie’s unspeakable drivel into speakable drivel,’’ Henry says.) Aside from being debated acrimoniously enough to break up a marriage, this train ride with Brodie will be seen, at least in part, enacted as it might have happened, as Brodie wrote it, as Henry rewrote it, and as, presumably further revised, it was done on TV. And this isn’t even the main plot of The Real Thing, though it impinges on it, or vice versa. Which mirror are we looking at? The events of life are reflected, somewhat distorted, in art; the events of art, somewhat travestied (or more tragic?), are echoed by life. And, of course, affairs and adulteries and marriages are everywhere, but which, if any, are real? Not necessarily the real ones.

Even the recorded music, classical or popular, that gets played on phonographs or radios extends this state of reflections, echoes, multiple bottoms on and on. A trio from Cost fan tutte comes from an opera about infidelity that proves not infidelity— unless, of course, semblance or intention equals reality. Also there’s a bit of La Traviata on the radio, about a formerly light woman who now pretends to be unfaithful—actually is unfaithful— but only because she believes it will benefit the one man she adores and keeps adoring. All of which comments on the action of the play. And so on. If this makes your head spin, rest assured that in watching The Real Thing, the head-spinning is greatly assuaged by spectacle and mitigated by wit—more wit than you can absorb, but what you can is amply sufficient. There is also something from time to time approaching real drama, real feeling, but this is not quite the real thing. Never mind, though; it, too, fascinates.

Yet, undeniably, there is loss. Cleverness, when it is as enormous as Stoppard’s, can become a bit of an enormity, especially when it starts taking itself too seriously—either because it is too clever or because it is, after all, not clever enough. Wilde, you see, had the cleverness in The Importance of Being Earnest (from which an earlier Stoppard play, Travesties, takes off) not to take anything in it remotely in earnest. Congreve, in his differently but scarcely less clever The Way of the World, which does have serious overtones, had the good judgment not to make all the characters, situations, and speeches clever or funny. There is genuine dumbness, oafishness, evil in it. Conversely, Pirandello, the grand master of illusion, often isn’t being funny at all. But Stoppard’s hurtlingly, and sometimes hurtingly, funny cleverness is an avalanche that sweeps away even the chap who started it.

In The Real Thing, the semiautobiographical Henry Boot and, in life, the unavoidably autobiographical Tom Stoppard state or have stated their inability to come to grips with and write about love. Yet here, even more than in Night and Day, a less successful work, the subject is largely love, and though Stoppard has some pertinent things to say about it, his pertness militates against the pertinence. Take a woman’s complaint that so much has been written about the misery of the unrequited lover ‘‘but not a word about the utter tedium of the unrequitee,’’ where, as so often here, the very diction undercuts the cri de coeur, sometimes, but not always, intentionally. These characters go about their infidelities—really testimonials of love meant to make the other person feel—in a jokey context, with anguish ever ready to melt into epigrams. In Peter Hall’s Diaries, Sir Peter attends a performance of Shaw’s Pygmalion with Tom and Miriam Stoppard, and carps that this play is ‘‘love without pain.’’ In its more serious moments, The Real Thing seems to be pain without love and, finally, pain without pain.

And remarkable as the wit is, one gasps for respite. Must even a very young girl have adult wit? Must even a common soldier be a laughing philosopher? Must one wife be more clever than the next? And though much of the wit is golden, e.g., ‘‘You’re beginning to appall me—there’s something scary about stupidity made coherent,’’ there is much that is merely silver and tarnishes in the open air. Thus there is rather too much of what I’d call the joke of the displaced or vague referent. For example, a wife says she deplores all this humiliation, and when the husband says he regrets its being humiliating to her, she rejoins, ‘‘Humiliating for you, not for me.’’ If her father worries about daughter Debbie’s being out late in a part of town where some murders have been committed, Mother quips that Debbie is not likely to kill anyone. The archetypal form of this occurs in: ‘‘I’m sorry.’’ ‘‘What for?’’ ‘‘I don’t know.’’

Still, it is all civilized and much of it scintillating, even if Stoppard’s heart seems mostly in the unfeeling jokes such as the diatribe against digital watches—a long tirade whose every barb works like clockwork—than in the more feeling ones such as ‘‘Dignified cuckoldry is a difficult trick, but I try to live with it. Think of it as modern marriage.’’ (I may have got this slightly wrong, but so has Stoppard.) The play has been greatly rewritten since it left London and is, I am told on good authority, much improved here. Certainly the production could scarcely be bettered. Any laugh that Stoppard might have missed, Mike Nichols, the ingenious director, has quietly but dazzlingly slipped in, and Tony Walton’s sets are charming and suggestive, and can be changed with a speed that redounds to their glory and the play’s efficiency. Anthea Sylbert’s costumes look comfortably lived in, and Tharon Musser’s hardedged lighting matches the author’s wit.

I have never before liked Jeremy Irons, but here his wimpy personality and windy delivery work wonders for him in creating a Henry who can rattle off jests at breakneck speed, then put on the brakes to achieve heartbreaking slowness. Weakness of aspect and personality become touching, and there is throughout a fine blend of shrewdness and fatuity, irony and vulnerability. Despite his musical illiteracy and assorted pip-squeakeries, this man, in Irons’s hands, makes you believe that he is an artist of talent, and that under the flippancies, deep down in his flibbertigibbety soul, he cares about something.

As his two wives, Glenn Close and Christine Baranski are both highly accomplished comediennes, who can get under the skin of comedy as easily as under that of another character. Close’s English accent is better, but both look very much like English actresses, which is both apposite and aesthetically unfortunate. As Debbie, Cynthia Nixon manages to be precocious without being obnoxious. Kenneth Welsh is a marvelous Max, wonderfully different on stage and on stage-within-stage. As the young actor Billie, Peter Gallagher slips superbly from difficult accent to accent, and combines pliable ease with solid manliness. In the only somewhat underwritten role of Brodie, Vyto Ruginis nevertheless creates a fully fleshed character.

The one problem with the play is that those two mirrors are so damned clever they can reflect away even with nothing between them. That would make Stoppard another Wilde—not bad. Now how about trying for another Molière?

Source: John Simon. ‘‘All Done with Mirrors’’ in New York, Vol. 17, no. 3, January 16, 1984, pp. 64–65.


Critical Overview