Themes and Meanings

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The Real Thing is above all else a play about the thin line between language and life, ideals and reality. Like Tom Stoppard himself, Henry is a writer, and Stoppard admitted in an interview with Mel Gussow in The New York Times Magazine (January 1, 1984) that the play contains many self-referential jokes. As a writer, Henry recognizes that human fictions and the language which embodies them do indeed shape one’s consciousness. If human love is talked about only as biology in boiler-room, four-letter language as Henry’s daughter, Debbie, suggests, then the reality created by such perception will differ significantly from one in which human relationships are romanticized and idealized. Life and love do indeed often imitate people’s fictions.

On the other hand, precisely because human fictions are neat, self-contained, and sometimes antiseptic, it is also possible for them to become a refuge from reality. This is what Charlotte means when she calls Henry virginal; in her view, he lives securely untouched in his world of words and romantic ideas, never making genuine contact with any human person. Women are initially attracted by his romantic attitude only to realize later, as she does, that it is a form of indifference. Indeed, The Real Thing may well be considered a debate between the creative and limiting powers of romantic language. Which is “the real thing”?

To this extent, Stoppard’s work may also be viewed as a “testing-play” in the grand tradition of a work like William Shakespeare’s As You Like It (pr. c. 1599-1600), in which Rosalind realizes that Orlando’s traditional romantic rhetoric, learned by the book, must be tested by his acts. This is what Annie wants when she asks Henry to rewrite Brodie’s play; she is in a sense testing his words about total commitment by requiring that he leave his safe preserve and descend, simply because it is important to her, into the soiled world of causes and compromise. Having failed to make such contact with his first wife, Henry finally recognizes Annie as a person in her own right apart from his picture of her, and he acts in terms of the needs of this real, contradictory woman, not his own. At the same time, his ability to act unselfishly is sustained by that very romanticism. The “real thing,” then, exists neither wholly in words nor wholly in life but in the interplay between the two.

In a larger context, The Real Thing may also be viewed as a caustic attack on the vulgarization of language and the subsequent vulgarization of human life that follows from it. The artist who cares about words can never regard them simply as a means to an end; care about language fosters concern for truth and accuracy.


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Real Life vs. Art
The title of The Real Thing and its subject matter appear to lay bare Stoppard’s particular preoccupation in this play: he is characteristically investigating an ethical issue (adultery) and questioning its philosophical partner, the nature of true love. As Richard Corliss stated in a review in Time, ’’The Real Thing announces itself as just that: a real, straightforward play about matters of the heart.’’ These are the central preoccupations of The Real Thing, but Stoppard’s investigation of these issues is broad enough to sweep other topics under his microscope: he also explores the nature of reality and perception.

The play’s title describes, firstly, the protagonists’ search for ‘‘real love.’’ Henry, for all his sarcasm and irony, is at heart an idealist and a romantic, and when he says ‘‘I do’’ he means...

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it. But he does not allow for the presence of doubt and insecurity in his loved one’s heart and, consequently, does not provide the reassurance that his partners crave. To him, such gestures and words are unnecessary, he sees the desire for them as irrational and incomprehensible. Real love simply exists, it needs no artifice to prop it up.

Henry climbs a learning curve in love when he realizes that the fictions created by the imagination, however false, nonetheless impact the real experience of love—and adultery. Love may be ‘‘knowing and being known,’’ but that knowledge depends upon curbing the imagination’s sometimes crippling powers of speculation, doubt, and suspicion. As Jack Kroll argued in Newsweek: ‘‘For Stoppard, the most human urgency is the need to know, and the highest comedy is the breakdown of this process in an epic bewilderment.’’

Deepening the central exploration of Henry’s changing understanding of love is Stoppard’s exploration of the nature of reality itself. Stoppard unhinges the audience’s uncertainty about what is real and fictional in the first two scenes of the play: ‘‘real life’’ and representations of real life collapse in the contrast between House of Cards, the playwithin- a-play, and the ‘‘real’’ play, The Real Thing. The distinction between reality and art appears to unravel further when Stoppard mixes extracts from plays by his own fictional character Brodie with those by real playwrights John Ford and August Strindberg. These extracts blur the boundaries between reality and art by establishing closer connections between each realm. The extract from House of Cards, for instance, alerts the audience to the impending collapse of Henry and Charlotte’s marriage, while the extract from Strindberg’s Miss Julie signals to them that Annie’s affair, like Miss Julie’s, degrades her.

This blurring of reality and art is intensified by the characters’ occupations: they are all paid to create fictions, either onstage or on the page. Charlotte, Max, and Annie are consummate actors, and Annie in particular uses her talents in everyday life, concealing her adultery from Max and then Henry. In a different way, too, Charlotte is aware of the carry-over from her profession into her private life: when Max appears at her home, she complains playfully, ‘‘Don’t I get a day off?’’ then later, more seriously, complains that she’s the ‘‘victim’’ of Henry’s ‘‘fantasy.’’ Henry, of course, is the consummate blurrer of real life and art: he fantasizes in stage dialogue about the possibility of his wife having an affair, but, just as he cannot imagine that possibility in real life, so too in House of Cards the imagined affair is revealed to have not taken place. As Charlotte says, ‘‘if Henry caught me out with a lover . . . his sentence structure would go to pot, closely followed by his sphincter.’’

Reality, however unpleasant, invariably catches up with those who ignore it, and this is precisely what happens to Henry: art is no longer the receptacle of impossible imaginings but rather the mirror that reflects reality. Stoppard’s repetition of certain scenes (Act I, scenes 1 and 3; Act II, scene 5) suggests that life can imitate art in uncanny ways, and confirms, in the play’s structure, the overarching theme of Henry’s painful realization that art and reality cannot be kept separate from each other.

Language and Meaning
Stoppard believes that language and meaning are open to interpretation. Words in themselves are ‘‘innocent,’’ but they can have dangerous effects. Both Charlotte and Annie find Henry’s incessant word-play oppressive at times, particularly when he becomes sarcastic. His tendency to rely upon irony and sarcasm becomes a mis-use of language when he uses these registers of humor to contain emotion and to create emotional distance—a habit that is exposed by Henry’s daughter. Henry’s ‘‘growth’’ in the play hinges upon finally being able to express emotions in the everyday language of the heart. As Frank Rich said in the New York Times, Henry struggles to ‘‘find the language that celebrates love.’’

Despite the primary focus on matters of the heart, the sub-plot about Brodie’s play constitutes the most significant discussion of language and meaning in the play. Stoppard begins this penultimate scene in Act II with an apparently frivolous discussion. Henry says that he cannot distinguish between different classical composers and prefers pop music to opera. Annie is horrified that he does not appreciate Beethoven, but she herself cannot distinguish between the Everly Brothers and the Andrews Sisters. This seemingly inconsequential discussion is actually very telling.

Henry’s preference for pop music and Annie’s preference for classical music are an ironic contrast to their beliefs about writing. Henry believes that words are sacred. They ‘‘build bridges across incomprehension and chaos’’ and ‘‘they deserve respect.’’ Annie, in contrast, is suspicious of attaching any literary or aesthetic value to language. She locates the value of language in its effect upon the world. However, her argument is undercut by the fact that she pleads with Henry to re-write Brodie’s crude script. She recognizes, but will not admit, that writing must be well written if it is to have any social or political impact, if it has the power to, in Henry’s words, ‘‘nudge the world a little.’’

By placing this discussion at centerstage, Stoppard encourages the audience to make up their own minds about an issue that was and still is very controversial. The audience have experienced the skill and power of Henry’s writing and have listened to Henry and Annie’s reading of Brodie’s play. They can thus evaluate Henry and Annie’s arguments. Should people distinguish between ‘‘good’’ and ‘‘bad’’ writing, and if so, how? They can also evaluate Henry and Brodie’s writing. Which writer is more persuasive and which is more moving? Thus Stoppard intervenes in a controversial discussion about literature and politics while leaving the question unresolved and encouraging the audience to think through the issue themselves.