The Play

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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 of an actor who sticks his tongue in her ear whenever he gets the chance. Henry is willing to grant other men “the odd crumb of ear wax from the rich man’s table,” for he is secure in the insularity of passion. He loves love, the way it “blurs the distinction between everyone who isn’t one’s lover.”

Act 2 opens two years later. Henry, who loves sentimental pop music, is trying to like Annie’s classical music. He is also writing superficial film scripts instead of “the real stuff” in order to meet the alimony payments due Charlotte. Though Annie will be acting in a production of John Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore (pr. c. 1629-1633) in Glasgow, she is really far more interested in performing in...

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a play that Brodie has written about his experiences as a protester. Henry reads a section from Brodie’s script in which Brodie, called Billy in the play, portrays his meeting with Annie on the train. Brodie’s use of language, he complains, is horrendous. Words are sacred and deserve respect: “If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you are dead.” Annie, by contrast, admires Brodie’s real-life commitment and accuses Henry of wanting to keep Brodie in his place and keep writing a sacred preserve for the initiated only. She would like him to rewrite Brodie’s play so it might be produced. He refuses, protesting that her concern must result from the fact that she fancies Brodie.

In two of the following scenes words from plays become real as Annie, now on her way to Glasgow, has a real-life actor named Billy approach her in much the same words as the fictional Billy in Brodie’s play. Though Billy, like Henry, sees flaws in Brodie’s play, he promises to perform in it for her sake, making a personal commitment that Henry would not. Later, rehearsing the incestuous love scene from ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Annie and Billy become lovers.

Meanwhile, as Henry visits his daughter, Debbie, Charlotte accuses him of always having used his romanticism about literature and people as an excuse for never really being involved with them beyond his own idea of them. He protests that it is not difficult to love people at their best; loving them at their worst qualifies as real love. That statement is put to the test as he discovers Annie’s infidelity—through an accident similar to the one he had written about in House of Cards—and confronts her with it. Instead of playing the guilty wife, though, Annie declares that if she has had an affair, it must have been out of her need, and she asks Henry to consider that.

Henry does, acknowledging that, as Annie charges, the pain she has caused him is “the pain of letting go of something, some idea of me which was never true.” At the same time, Annie reassures him of her love. Henry rewrites Brodie’s play, which is subsequently performed on television with Billy playing Brodie. Brodie’s play, however, is far from the real thing. Annie has broken off her affair with Billy, and now, after Brodie accuses Henry of ruining the play he put his life and guts into by making it clever, she confesses that Brodie had been on that train with no political motives whatsoever, and that all of his protests were designed simply in order to impress her. She then unceremoniously dismisses Brodie’s crude sexual advance with a bowl of dip in the face. She appeals to Henry to look after her, and he responds that he is her chap. The play closes with Henry listening to “I’m a Believer” by the Monkees.

Dramatic Devices

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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 and Annie. Where does a role end and life begin? Is there a real distinction? Similarly, at one point in the play Annie is rehearsing August Strindberg’s Fröken Julie (pb. 1888; Miss Julie, 1912), a play about the seduction of a member of the lower classes (Brodie?) by an upper-class woman (Annie?); the entire second act may even be considered Annie’s seduction of Henry from his ivory tower of idealism.

Henry’s problem as a writer reflects his problems as a person. There is too much idealism as well as too much emphasis on style for its own sake in House of Cards. Charlotte thinks taking her role was a mistake, because Henry cannot write a real woman. He confesses to Annie, “I don’t know how to write love. I try to write it properly, and it just comes out embarrassing.” By the play’s conclusion, he has learned not only to love a real woman but also to write love. His two worlds have come together.

Historical Context

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Britain in the Early-1980s In the 1970s Britain had been torn apart by industrial action and economic depression. Garbage men went on strike; milkmen went on strike; British Rail employees went on strike. Garbage piled up in the streets, milk was not delivered, and people could not rely upon the trains to arrive at work on time. Due to the OPEC boycott (a western abstention from the oil produced in the Middle East), the price of gas skyrocketed. Compounding all these problems was the undeniable fact that British industry was in decline.

Many of Britain’s economic problems in the 1970s had their origins in the Postwar period. After the end of the Second World War, great sections of London had to be re-built and strict food and supply rationing continued well into the 1950s. Although money poured in to Britain to aid the economic recovery, the government channeled much of it into retaining control of the British colonies, the parts of its vast (though soon crumbling) empire. In the long-run, this was a disastrous decision. The British Empire gradually collapsed, and the home economy continued to flounder.

In 1979, after a period of immense social and political turmoil, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s conservative Tory party took power in Britain. Mrs. Thatcher promised to end social disruption and to improve industry profitability. The Tory party retained control of Britain for fifteen years and dramatically altered the fabric of British society.

In 1982, Britain and Argentina’s dispute over the Falkland Islands, an obscure island group off the coast of Argentina, escalated into full-scale war. Britain’s victory over Argentina seemed puny in the international scheme of things, but the war galvanized nostalgia for British imperial might and encouraged many people to feel, as Thatcher proclaimed, that ‘‘Great Britain is great again.’’ Nonetheless, within Britain there was a small, vocal group of people who opposed the war.

In the same year, Prince Charles’s wedding to Lady Diana Spencer provided the public with a fairy-tale spectacle that brought the monarchy’s popularity to an unprecedented height.

However, not everyone was happy with the direction in which Britain was moving. The eighteen- month long coal-miners’ strike in this same period brutally reminded both British and international observers that economic change had come at great social cost. Homelessness became common in Britain’s major cities, and the low-cost housing estates in the inner-city that had been built in the Postwar period became notorious poverty traps. Racism, too, was a constant problem, as Britain struggled to integrate recent immigrants into a sometimes hostile society. The period in which Stoppard wrote The Real Thing was a mixed bag of goods and attitudes towards the tremendous social and economic change depended very much upon whether one was benefiting or suffering as a result of them.

The British Artistic Tradition of Social Criticism British artists have a venerable tradition of combining social criticism with artistic innovation, and many people who were unhappy in Thatcher’s Britain looked to the theater and to film for critical representations of contemporary society. Film was a popular medium for the British artistic tradition of social criticism. Screenwriter Hanif Kureshi’s film My Beautiful Laundrette laid bare the racist cancer at the heart of the inner-city, and Richard Attenborough’s Ghandhi presented the Indian perspective on British colonialism and empire building.

In the dramatic realm, John Osborne protested against middle-class convention and brought working-class characters onto the stage in his decadedefining drama, Look Back in Anger (1956). A decade later, Edward Bond, a working-class playwright, attracted enormous controversy with his play Saved (1965), a grim depiction of urban violence and social decay in which a baby is stoned to death in its pram. Harold Pinter, in plays such as The Birthday Party (1958) and The Caretaker (1960), chose not to speak the language of the people but to create his own rhetoric to express the fractured reality he perceived. Stoppard, too, contributed to the British tradition of social criticism with plays such as Professional Foul (1977), which is set in Czechoslovakia and focuses on political dissidents living in a totalitarian society, and Night and Day (1978), which takes place in a fictionalized Africa and examines the role of the press under a dictatorship.

However, at first glance, The Real Thing seems removed from contemporary controversy. But after a more thoughtful examination, it becomes clear that the play takes issue with two pressing social items. In his presentation of Henry and Annie’s relationship, Stoppard touches upon the changing status of marriage, and in the sub-plot about Brodie’s imprisonment, he attacks segments of the anti-war movement.

Attitudes towards divorce have changed greatly in the second half of the twentieth century. In the 1950s and early-1960s, it was a social taboo to divorce one’s spouse. Times have changed, and the play’s imagined ‘‘society’’ can accept Henry and Annie’s decision to leave their respective spouses with a degree of understanding. But the price of such social change, Stoppard suggests, is that the post-divorce unions are frequently plagued by uncertainty and distrust.

The other important social issue Stoppard explores in The Real Thing is the British anti-war movement, which focused upon the presence of American bases on British soil and upon Britain’s involvement in the manufacturing and sale of nuclear missiles. One of the most famous anti-war protests during this period was the permanent womenonly demonstration outside the Greenam Common missile base. The women’s movement and the antiwar movement often shared the same umbrella, and it is upon this loose alliance that Stoppard turns his rhetorical guns.

In The Real Thing, Annie is active in the antimissile movement. She meets Brodie, a soldier, when she is on her way to a demonstration. He tries to impress her by lighting a fire on the Cenotaph but is promptly arrested. Annie and Max interpret his action sympathetically: Brodie is ‘‘an ordinary soldier using his weekend pass to demonstrate against their bloody missiles.’’ To them, the bases are reprehensible both because they demonstrate society’s commitment to war and because they are evidence of American imperialism.

Henry does not agree. To him, Brodie is an ignorant, thoughtless ‘‘vandalizer of a national shrine,’’ and his character—and his ‘‘cause’’—is further damaged by his loutish stupidity and goggleeyed leering at Annie. Stoppard paints Brodie in the most unsympathetic light. He also does an injustice to the movements that Annie espouses: her quick cancellation of a political appointment for sex with Henry, her championing of Brodie because of his infatuation with her, and her ill-conceived idealism, all suggest that her politics are founded on vanity and egoism more than upon carefully reasoned beliefs. Thus some of the play’s central characters, and much of the conflict and the relationships in the play, depend upon Stoppard’s depiction of the antiwar movement; not incidentally, Stoppard actively opposed the Falklands War during the period in which the play debuted.

Literary Style

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RealismThe Real Thing marks a major departure in style for Stoppard: an abandonment of Absurdist styles for an exploration of Realist technique. Stoppard’s move from Absurdism to Realism is apparent in the first scene, when Max speaks at length, and apparently without purpose, about the difference between Japanese and Swiss watches. It is a funny, albeit baffling, speech. A moment later, however, the audience realizes that the digression has real meaning. The ‘‘utterly reliable’’ Swiss watches are losing out to the ‘‘snare’’ and ‘‘delusion’’ of Japanese watches, just as solid, stable marriages are being replaced with no-strings-attached affairs.

Later, when Henry and Annie’s embrace is interrupted by the impatient beeping of Henry’s wrist-watch, Stoppard humorously reminds the audience of his earlier metaphor—a thoroughly modern one for time’s intrusion into love. It is a metaphor that melds modern context with eternal themes.

The characters are concerned with ‘‘real life’’ dramas, such as adultery, money, and family trouble, and the action takes place in living rooms and train carriages, not court yards and throne rooms. Just as the setting is realistic and contemporary, so too is the language. Henry’s cricket bat speech, in Act II, scene 1, is a good example of Stoppard’s attempt to show his audience the poetry and drama of everyday life in everyday language. ‘‘What we’re trying to do is write cricket bats, so that we when throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might . . . travel. . . .’’

Perhaps Stoppard’s departure from the chaos and incomprehensibility that is characteristic of Absurdism to the making sense of the everyday that is characteristic of Realism is best seen in the character of Henry. His dependence upon humor and word-play suggests that he is alienated from ‘‘real’’ language and incapable of expressing his emotions without being ironic.

This conundrum is most clear in a conversation Henry and Debbie have about love. ‘‘Well, I remember, the first time I succumbed to the sensation that the universe was dispensable minus one lady—.’’ Debbie, interrupting, tells him that he should ‘‘speak’’ rather than ‘‘write’’: he should be serious rather than ironic, truthful rather than flippant. Unexpectedly, he responds from the heart. ‘‘What lovers trust each other with,’’ he tells her, is ‘‘knowledge of each other . . . knowledge of self, the real him, the real her, in extremis, the mask slipped from the face.’’ Real language, contemporary language, can express universal dilemmas as eloquently as elevated Shakespearean verse can, and real life can be as powerful an experience as hyperbolic representations of it in art.

The Play-within-the-Play In The Real Thing, Stoppard uses a favorite theatrical device, the play-within-a-play. His most notable and extensive use of this technique is evident in his landmark Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, which centers around two minor characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and employs the classic as its backdrop (in this case Stoppard’s play is actually the ‘‘play within’’ that is contained within the universe of Shakespeare’s ‘‘play’’). In The Real Thing, Stoppard carries this device to a new level. There are not one but four plays-within-the-play: Henry’s House of Cards, a fictional play; John Ford’s Tis Pity She’s A Whore; August Strindberg’s Miss Julie; and Brodie’s unnamed TV drama, another fictional play. Stoppard’s use of them profoundly affects the play’s meaning.

The device of the play-within-a-play works to trigger events in the play—the ‘‘Mousetrap’’ in Hamlet, for instance—or to comment satirically on events within the play—the figures of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, for example. The device also allows the playwright to emphasize certain themes. The opening scene in The Real Thing, for instance, prefigures the revelation of Henry’s adultery, the disintegration of his marriage, as well as his characteristic over-reliance on irony and wit to control his emotions.

The device of the play-within-a-play in The Real Thing has other functions, too, most noticeably the creation of ironic and humorous contrasts. The sophisticated bedroom drama House of Cards, and Brodie’s crude TV play that book-end The Real Thing are qualitatively a gulf apart. Henry’s language does not tell, it reveals: Henry’s mind is analytic and subtle. Brodie’s language not only tells, it hammers home the obvious and destroys any drama in the process: Brodie’s thinking is crude and simplistic. The plays demonstrates the difference between the two men’s perception of the world and their vision of art. The dramatic works also create a clearer contrast between the two men to whom Annie devotes herself.

Additionally, much of the play’s humor derives from the contrast between theatrical representations of life in The Real Thing (the extracts from Miss Julie and House of Cards) and Stoppard’s representation of real life in The Real Thing. In Act II, scene 2, Billy and Annie rehearse a love scene from ’Tis Pity She’s A Whore. Annie stops rehearsing when Billy becomes ‘‘less and less discreet,’’ but he continues to read from the script. The contrast between her colloquial language and his elevated language, between him continuing to rehearse and her ceasing to, intensifies both the humor and the passion of the scene. The device of the play-withinthe- play is thus central to the overall development of themes and characters.

Compare and Contrast

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

Today: In 1999 the Dow Jones Industrial average tops the 10,000 level for the first time, reflecting a booming American economy, record low unemployment, and stable interest rates.

1982: President of the Soviet Union Leonid Brezhev, ruler for eighteen years, dies. He is replaced by former KGB chief Yuri Andropov (who dies the following year).

Today: After the introduction of ‘‘peristroika’’ by President Mikhail Gorbachov, the Soviet Union abandoned communism and centralization in favor of market capitalism and devolution. The current leader of Russia is Boris Yeltsin, whose initially charismatic presidency has since become characterized by erratic behavior and an inability to control economic chaos and endemic corruption.

1982: Britain goes to war against Argentina over a territorial dispute involving the Falkland Islands. British forces defeat Argentina after a tenday battle. Margaret Thatcher declares that ‘‘Great Britain was great again.’’ In Argentina, the defeat leads to mass demonstrations and rioting that eventually topples the military government.

Today: Britain maintains an active military presence in the Falklands. It is also heavily involved in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) military actions in the former Yugoslavia, including Serbia and Kosovo.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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

Corliss, Richard. ‘‘Stoppard in the Name of Love: The Real Thing Brings Romantic Comedy Back to Broadway’’ in Time, Vol. 123, no. 3, January 16, 1984, pp. 68-9.

Delaney, Paul. ‘‘Cricket Bats and Commitment: The Real Thing in Art and Life’’ in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 27, no. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 45-60.

Kroll, Jack. ‘‘Lovers and Strangers’’ in Newsweek, Vol. CIII, no. 3, January 16, 1984, p. 83.

Nightingale, Benedict. ‘‘Stoppard As We Never Dreamed He Could Be’’ in the New York Times, January 15, 1984, pp. 5, 26.

Rich, Frank. ‘‘Stoppard’s Real Thing in London’’ in the New York Times, June 23, 1983, p. C15.

Rich, Frank. ‘‘Tom Stoppard’s Real Thing: Love Lost and Found’’ in the New York Times, January 6, 1984, p. C3.

Sauvage, Leo. ‘‘Where Stoppard Fails’’ in the New Leader, Vol. LXVII, no. 2, January 23, 1984, pp. 21-22.

Trussler, Simon. Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Theater, Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Wardle, Irving. ‘‘Stoppard’s Romance in a Cold Climate’’ in the London Times, November 17, 1982, p. 16.

Zozaya, Pilar. ‘‘Plays-within-Plays in Three Modern Plays: Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, and Alan Ayckbourn’s A Chorus of Disapproval’’ in Revista Alicantina de Estudios Ingleses, November, 1988, pp. 189-201.

Further Reading Billington, Michael. One Night Stands, Nick Hern Books, 1993. This collection of the Guardian’s famous theater critic contains a good selection from two decades of criticism.

Brook, Peter. The Empty Space, London, 1968. Brook was one of the most influential theater directors in Britain in the Postwar period. He was long associated with the Royal Shakespeare Company. His directorial style showed the influences of Antonin Artaud and Bertolt Brecht. His essay collection analyses the basic problems facing contemporary theater and in- fluenced many British and foreign directors.

Gordon, Robert. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Jumpers, and The Real Thing: Text and Performance, Macmillan, 1991. This series focuses upon the plays in performance and is a useful guide to students of performance studies.

Trussler, Simon. Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Theater, Cambridge University Press, 1994. Trussler’s well-informed and forthright history of British theater from the Roman period through to the present is a very readable source book.


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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.

Delaney, Paul. Tom Stoppard: The Moral Vision of the Major Plays. London: Macmillan, 1990.

Rusinko, Susan. Tom Stoppard. Boston: Twayne, 1986.

Zeifman, Hersch. “Comedy of Ambush: Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing.” Modern Drama 26 (June, 1983): 139-149.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide