The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

As The Real Thing opens, the audience watches Max building a pyramidical house of cards. As he is about to add a pair of cards, a slamming door announces the return of his wife, Charlotte, and the cards collapse. With scalpel-like precision, Max begins to question Charlotte about her trip to Switzerland, finally revealing that he has discovered her passport in the recipe drawer and is now aware that many of her “trips,” like this one, never really occurred. He congratulates her on the fine touches such as the Rembrandt placemats procured for her mother when she was supposed to have been in Amsterdam, for it is “those little touches that lift adultery out of the moral arena and make it a matter of style.” They exchange acid remarks about the number of her lovers, with Max asking finally if her current lover is anyone they know; Charlotte responds that he is no longer anyone she knows.

Scene 2 reveals that what the audience has just seen was not “the real thing,” but only a scene from a play Henry has written titled House of Cards. Charlotte, who is married in real life to Henry, not Max, is complaining about the part Henry has written for her in that play. Henry is too idealistic, too much a man of words to really know women or to portray believable characters in his works; he sacrifices reality for wit. At that moment Annie (married to Max) enters, fresh from her work on the Justice for Brodie campaign. Private Brodie, after meeting Annie on a train going to an antimissile demonstration, became so genuinely committed that he assaulted two policemen and started a protest fire, using the wreath of the Unknown Soldier as kindling. For this “stupid piece of bravado and a punch up,” Brodie was sentenced to six years, and Annie has taken up his cause.

Brodie, however, is not the only man on Annie’s mind: She and Henry are having a real-life affair. Indeed, she urges Henry to make love to her on the carpet while Max and Charlotte are in the kitchen chopping turnips. Henry demurs, rejecting as a foolish, unnecessary risk what Annie regards as a concrete expression of genuine passion. They agree on a safer meeting later in Annie’s car, only to find in scene 3 that such safety is illusory. In an altercation which mirrors the play-within-the-play in scene 1, Max confronts Annie with Henry’s handkerchief, discovered in her car. She confesses that she loves Henry.

Scene 4 is reminiscent of scene 2, except that it is now Henry and Annie, married only fifteen days, who are talking, with Annie already protesting, much as Charlotte had, Henry’s preoccupation with work and his ignoring of her. “You don’t care enough to care,” she tells him, teasing him with the story...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

As a play, The Real Thing actively involves the audience in the very themes and questions it raises. Stoppard accomplishes this through the daring device of presenting at opening curtain the play-within-the-play, House of Cards. It was not the real thing, the audience discovers in the second scene, only a play. However, as they watch that second scene, which reveals the love affair of Annie and Henry and their infidelity to their spouses, they see life imitating art, though this too is only a play, as Stoppard has made them consciously aware. Thus by calling attention to the very theatricality of the work, by dealing with the drama as a form of playing, Stoppard is inviting the audience to consider how art manipulates life. The lovers are caught by the very “stagy” device of a lost handkerchief (Shakespeare’s Othello must surely come to mind), and Annie is questioned by Henry on her return from Glasgow much as was the unfaithful wife in House of Cards. The meeting in Brodie’s play becomes a “real-life” pick-up as Annie journeys to Glasgow.

The play is clearly structured as a series of interreflecting mirrors representing the poles of art and reality. Furthermore, literary references from other plays which Stoppard incorporates into his own play expand the mirror images into art reflecting art reflecting life. The rehearsed words of love from ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore spark real passion in Billy...

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Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Britain in the Early-1980s
In the 1970s Britain had been torn apart by industrial action and economic depression. Garbage men...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

The Real Thing marks a major departure in style for Stoppard: an abandonment of Absurdist styles for an exploration...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1982: The Dow Jones Industrial average, a barometer of stock market activity, tops the 1000 level for the first time.


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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

There are several possible ways to interpret the conclusion of The Real Thing. Do you believe that Annie and Henry will be happy...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

John Ford’s Tis Pity She’s a Whore (1633). This passionate seventeenth-century play is the masterpiece of Caroline theater. The...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Billington, Michael. ‘‘High Fidelity’’ in the Guardian, November 17, 1982, p. 9.


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(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

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

Billington, Michael. Stoppard the Playwright. London: Methuen, 1988.

Cameron, Lloyd. Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing.”Glebe, Australia: Pascal Press, 1994.

Corballis, Richard. Stoppard: The Mystery and the Clockwork. London: Methuen, 1984.

Corballis, Richard. “Tom Stoppard.” In British Playwrights, 1956-1995: A Research and Production Sourcebook, edited by William W. Demastes. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996....

(The entire section is 98 words.)