Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4251
Tom Stoppard’s dramaturgy reveals a cyclical pattern of activity. He tends to explore certain subjects or techniques in several minor works, then creates a major play that integrates the fruits of his earlier trial runs. Thus Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead explores the dialectic of individual freedom opposed to entrapment,...
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- Critical Essays
Tom Stoppard’s dramaturgy reveals a cyclical pattern of activity. He tends to explore certain subjects or techniques in several minor works, then creates a major play that integrates the fruits of his earlier trial runs. Thus Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead explores the dialectic of individual freedom opposed to entrapment, which such earlier plays as A Walk on the Water had rehearsed.
Stoppard’s major theatrical work in the late twentieth century, Hapgood, Arcadia, Indian Ink, and The Invention of Love show a depth to his characters and ideas that did not exist in his earlier work. Unlike his early plays, which were often described by critics as being too academic, his later work demonstrates Stoppard’s discovery of lyricism. Although just as complex intellectually, these later plays are equally about ideas and emotions and present fully realized characters, rather than the witty, though ultimately shallow ones that populate his work before The Real Thing. Despite greater emphasis on developed characters, these late plays still manage to tackle concepts as diverse and complex as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle (in Hapgood), chaos theory (in Arcadia), colonialism (in Indian Ink), and classicism (in The Invention of Love). Stoppard has already earned an honored place in the ranks of England’s playwrights. Like Wilde, his ferocious wit and intellectual acuity dazzle audiences; like Shaw, he stylishly explores intellectual and emotional dilemmas; and like Beckett, his comedy is sometimes bathed in pain and sadness. Altogether, Stoppard is an immensely talented, uniquely unclassifiable writer who invites his public to discover the humaneness of plays and the glory of the English language’s density and richness.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Stoppard assumes the audience’s close knowledge of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601, pb. 1603). In the Elizabethan tragedy, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two former schoolmates of Hamlet who have been summoned to Elsinore by King Claudius to probe the puzzling behavior of the prince. Hamlet soon intuits that they have become Claudius’s spies. When Claudius has them accompany Hamlet on the ship to England, Hamlet discovers the King’s letter ordering his execution. He coolly substitutes his escorts’ names for his in the letter and shrugs off their consequent deaths as resulting from their dangerous trade of espionage.
From a total of nine scenes in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark involving Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Stoppard incorporates six, omits two, and distributes the other in scenes wholly devised by him. Stoppard’s Ros and Guil know that they have been summoned to Elsinore but can remember nothing more of their past. They are two bewildered young men playing pointless games (such as coin flipping) in a theatrical void, while the real action unfolds off stage. They are adrift in a predetermined plot, bumbling Shakespeare’s lines on the occasions when the palace intrigue sweeps their way. Just as Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon engage in mock-philosophizing disputations and vain recollections as they await Godot, so Ros and Guil pursue frequent speculations about their past, their identity, and the baffling world around them.
Stoppard has here constructed an absurdist drama that owes its largest debts to Franz Kafka and Beckett. His Ros and Guil are unaccountably summoned to a mysterious castle where, between long periods of waiting, they receive cryptic instructions that eventually lead to their deaths. They remain uncertain whether they are the victims of chance or fate, mystified by events that are within the boundaries of their awareness but outside the circumference of their understanding.
Like Beckett’s Vladimir, Ros is the one who worries and protects; like Beckett’s Estragon, Guil is the one who feels and follows. Beckett’s world is, however, considerably bleaker than Stoppard’s. He offers no comforting irony behind his characters’ somber metaphysical flights, while Stoppard’s buffoonery is humane. He presents his coprotagonists as likable though confused and frightened strangers in a world somebody else seems to have organized.
Stoppard’s literary borrowings include a generous slice of Eliot’s poetry, as Ros and Guil imitate Prufock in their roles as attendants and easy tools, playing insignificant parts in a ferociously patterned plot featuring mightier powers. This sympathy for the ineffectual underdog is a constant in Stoppard’s dramatic world, as he demonstrates, over and over, his compassionate concern for decent people shouldered aside and manipulated by more brutal peers. Is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead an immensely entertaining but ultimately shallow exercise, or is it a brilliant transposition of Shakespeare’s universe to Beckett’s absurdist world? Most critics and large audiences have cast their votes in favor of this erudite, witty, crackling clever drama.
A second group of Stoppard’s plays dramatizes the conflict between a protagonist’s wish to know and the many difficulties that frustrate this desire, such as the limitations of human perceptions, the frequent deceptiveness of one’s senses, and the complexity of ethical choices in a world in which guidance is either uncertain or unavailable. Plays belonging to this category include such one-acts as After Magritte and the radio play Artist Descending a Staircase (1972), as well as Stoppard’s two most ambitious, full-length dramas, Jumpers and Travesties.
Jumpers is a kaleidoscopic work, part bedroom farce, part murder mystery, part political satire, part metaphysical inquiry, and part cosmic tragedy, creating new configurations of ideas and themes from each angle of vision. Stoppard’s hero is George Moore, a work-obsessed, seedy, middle-aged professor of moral philosophy, whose name is identical with that of the great English thinker who wrote Principia Ethica (1903). George’s career has ground to a halt because his adherence to absolute values—beauty, goodness, God—makes him odd man out in a university dominated by logical positivists who hold that value judgments cannot be empirically verified and are therefore relative and meaningless.
George’s main adversary is Sir Archibald Jumper, vice chancellor of the university, who is authoritative in a staggering number of roles: He holds degrees in medicine, philosophy, literature, and law, and diplomas in psychiatry and gymnastics. He is organizer of the Jumpers—a combination of philosophical gymnasts and gymnastic philosophers—all members of the Radical Liberal Party that Archie also heads. The Radical Liberals embody Stoppard’s satiric vision of socialism in action. Having just won an election—which they may have rigged—they have taken over the broadcasting services, arrested all newspaper owners, and appointed a veterinary surgeon Archbishop of Canterbury.
The female principal in the George-Archie struggle is represented by George’s beautiful but aptly named wife, Dotty. She is a neurotic musical-comedy star, many years younger than her husband, who retired from the stage after having suffered a nervous breakdown because she believed that the landing of a human being on the Moon had eliminated that planet as a source of romance and thousands of songs. In an ironic reversal of the selflessly heroic British Antarctic Expedition of 1912, Dotty sees, on her bedroom television set, a fight for survival between the damaged space capsule’s commander, Captain Scott, and his subordinate officer, Oates. To reduce the weight load, Scott kicks Oates off the capsule’s ladder, thereby condemning him to death. Pragmatism has sacrificed moral values—an indictment of logical positivism’s slippery ethics. George and Archie are not only philosophic but also erotic rivals. While Dotty has barred her husband from her body—and he makes little effort to overcome her resistance—she is available at all hours to Archie, who visits her in the mornings in her bedroom and is her doctor and psychiatrist and presumably her lover, leaving her room “looking more than a little complacent.”
In the first scene, as the Jumpers tumble in the Moores’ apartment to celebrate the Rad-Lib victory, a bullet suddenly kills one of them. He turns out to be Duncan McFee, a logical positivist who was scheduled to debate with George at a symposium the next day. Dotty is left whimpering with the corpse, while George, concentrating on composing his lecture, knows nothing of the killing, so that he and his wife talk at cross-purposes while the body hangs behind her bedroom door, always unseen by him. Stoppard parodies the whodunit formula by having Inspector Bones bumble the murder investigation. The resourceful Archie persuades Bones to drop the case by having Dotty trap him in an apparently compromising position. At the close of act 2, McFee is revealed as probably the victim of George’s vengeful secretary, who had been McFee’s mistress and had learned that he was married and planned to enter a monastery.
Holding together the frequently delirious action is the shabby but lovable person of George, shuffling distractedly between his study and Dotty’s bedroom, preparing his case against Archie’s cynical materialism, which insists that observability has to be a predicate of all genuine knowledge. He does his best—and clearly advocates Stoppard’s position—to defend a God in whom he cannot wholly bring himself to believe, so as to support his adherence to moral and aesthetic standards, which he considers a necessary basis for civilization.
The condescending Archie dismisses George as no more than the local eccentric: “[He] is our tame believer, pointed out to visitors in much the same spirit as we point out the magnificent stained glass in what is now the gymnasium.” George is less mocked by Stoppard as bumbler and clown than he is admired as a fragmented culture’s last humanist, clinging with mad gallantry to lasting values.
In Jumpers, Stoppard has written his best play. It is not only a swiftly paced farce and mystery but also a brilliantly humane comedy about the only animal in the cosmos trapped in the toils of an overdeveloped consciousness: the human being. The ultimate mystery, Jumpers suggests, is the meaning of life. The work constitutes Stoppard’s richest and most brilliant exploration of ethical concerns.
Artist Descending a Staircase
In Artist Descending a Staircase, a radio play, Stoppard undertook what he has called “a dry run” of Travesties. Artist Descending a Staircase uses a continuous loop of recording tape to involve the audience with three artists engaged in an inquiry into the meaning of art. A more striking bond, between Jumpers and Travesties, has been summarized by Stoppard in an interview:Jumpers and Travesties are very similar plays. . . . You start with a prologue which is slightly strange. Then you have an interminable monologue which is rather funny. Then you have scenes. Then you end up with another monologue. And you have unexpected bits of music and dance, and at the same time people are playing ping-pong with various intellectual arguments.
Travesties is aptly named. In one of those travesties of probability, the writer James Joyce, the Romanian poet Tristan Tzara, and the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov (who assumed the name of Lenin) were all living in Zurich in 1917: the Irishman working on Ulysses, the Romanian helping to set off the Dadaist explosion, and the Russian planning the Armageddon of the Bolshevik Revolution. Stoppard uses his literary license to have the trio interact, and adds, as his protagonist, a British consular official, Henry Carr, historically a minor clerk but promoted by the author to head the British consulate, while the name of the real consul in Zurich—Bennett—is assigned to Carr’s butler. Old Carr, like Beckett’s Krapp, replays the spool that contains his past.
The play’s plot is both a pastiche and a travesty of Oscar Wilde’s great comedy The Importance of Being Earnest (pr. 1895, pb. 1899). Stoppard discovered that Joyce had been the business manager of an amateur theatrical company that had staged Wilde’s work in Zurich in 1918 and had cast Carr in one of the leading roles as Algernon Moncrieff. This prompted Stoppard not only to have his Carr also echo Algernon but also to double Tzara as Wilde’s Jack Worthing, Bennett as Wilde’s manservant Lane, and to name his romantic interests Gwendolen and Cecily to mirror Wilde’s Gwendolen and Cecily. Rather surprisingly, Joyce intermittently becomes Lady Bracknell; after all, his middle name, Augusta, corresponds to Bracknell’s first.
Travesties is a tour de force of spirited language and convoluted situations that fuses Wilde’s high comedy of manners with Shavian dialectic, Joycean fiction, Epic theater, Dadaist spontaneity, music-hall sketches, and limerick word-games. Underneath the bouncy mattress of witty farce is a hard board: Stoppard’s lust for ideas. He takes a piercingly cross-eyed look at those movers and shakers of everything that is not nailed down: artists and revolutionaries. The drama revolves four views on art through its ironic prism: Tzara represents Dadaist antiart; Joyce advocates the formalist tradition of art that emphasizes its long-meditated artifice; Lenin subordinates art to an instrument of state policy; and Carr holds a Philistine suspicion of the artist as an ungrateful drone.
In an interview, Stoppard declared himself particularly pleased with a scene, late in act 1, in which Tzara and Joyce confront each other on several levels: Joyce quizzes Tzara along the lines of the catechism chapter involving Bloom and Dedalus in Ulysses; Lady Bracknell quizzes Jack about his eligibility for her niece’s hand; Tzara informs the audience about the nature of Dadaism; and Joyce affirms the mission of art to shape the ephemeral fragmentation of life into quasi-eternal objects.
Tzara may be the play’s most attractive personality. He is not only a Romanian eccentric but also a sardonic social critic and an irreverent deconstructionist of platitudinous slogans. Stoppard has Tzara demand the right both to create a poem out of words jumbled in his hat and to urinate in different colors. Stoppard’s Joyce is eloquent in his devout allegiance to the religion of art but less convincing as a shamrock-jacketed spouter of limericks and scrounger of money.
The characterization of Lenin, encountered in the public library but never in Carr’s drawing room, proves most problematic. While the artists and bourgeoisie play, he acts, preparing to depart for Russia. His admirer, the librarian Cecily, opens the second act with an earnest lecture on Marxism, interrupted only by Carr’s wooing of her. Lenin does not participate in any parallel pairing with Wilde’s play—his political weight negates travesty except, perhaps, that his role as Cecily’s instructor faintly resembles Miss Prism’s. Theatrically, Stoppard’s shift from the high-spirited merriment of act 1 to the solemn opening of act 2 is audacious and controversial; some critics have demurred at the drastic undercutting of comic momentum, since it upsets the audience’s assumption that the play is made up of the blurred and unreliable recollections of a senile Henry Carr.
Carr is shocked by Tzara’s and Lenin’s demands that society should be transformed. He tells Tzara, who has expressed sympathy for Lenin’s ideas, “You’re an amiable bourgeois . . . and if the revolution came you wouldn’t know what hit you. . . . Multicoloured micturition is no trick to these boys, they’ll have you pissing blood.” Yet Carr, while inveighing against artists as self-centered and hostile, also insists that an individual artist’s freedom is the most reliable test of a society’s freedom.
In the play’s coda, old Carr concludes that he learned these lessons from his Zurich experiences: One should be a revolutionary; if not, one should be an artist; and then there is a third lesson—which he cannot recall. Carr may well be a travesty of the sentiments of the public at large, trying to make sense of the meaning of history and the nature of art—and usually failing to do so.
In Travesties, Stoppard has composed a witty test whose laughs may outweigh the moral force of its ideas. “In the future,” he told Ronald Hayman in June, 1974, “I must stop compromising my plays with this whiff of social application. . . . I should have the courage of my lack of convictions.” Yet most of Stoppard’s plays after Travesties show a marked increase in his political concerns and the deepening of his social conscience.
Dirty Linen and New-Found-Land
In Dirty Linen and New-Found-Land, Stoppard for the first time takes an unequivocal political stance, opposing any absolute right of the press to wash any and all linen in the glare of trash journalism’s exposures. Even politicians, the play contends, are entitled to their confidential lives, as long as their private conduct does not handicap their public performance.
Starting in 1975 with his participation in a protest march against the mistreatment of Soviet dissidents, Stoppard has consistently voiced, both on and off the stage, his outrage at totalitarian violations of human rights. He has particularly befriended and championed the Czech playwright and later statesman Václav Havel, who is in significant ways his mirror image: Havel was born nine months before Stoppard, shares Stoppard’s perspectives of absurdism and penchant for wordplay as well as Czech nativity, but he has consistently committed his work as well as his person to social causes, while Stoppard’s recognition of social responsibilities has been intermittent. Both playwrights value as their highest goods freedom of expression and individualism.
Every Good Boy Deserves Favour
In Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, Stoppard created what he termed “a piece for actors and orchestra.” With music by André Previn and a setting in a psychiatric prison in the Soviet Union, the work uses for its title a mnemonic phrase familiar to students of music because the initial letters, EGBDF, represent in ascending order the notes signified by the black lines of the treble clef. This play-oratorio is a sharply ironic, point-blank attack on the ways in which Soviet law is perverted to stifle dissent. The work is unfortunately flawed by Stoppard’s and Previn’s self-contradictory uses of the orchestra: On one hand, it evokes a totalitarian society based on a rigid notion of harmonious order in which improvisation and nonconformity are forbidden; on the other hand, the orchestra seeks to offer a lyrical and humane commentary on the action. The text fails to resolve these opposing purposes.
A far more accomplished attack on the suppression of individual freedom is Stoppard’s teleplay Professional Foul (1977), dedicated to Havel. The text explores the same ethical problems posed in Jumpers and is one of Stoppard’s most impressive works.
Night and Day
Although Every Good Boy Deserves Favour and Professional Foul represent ambitious advances in Stoppard’s dramaturgy, Night and Day is a disappointing sidestep into a naturalism that none of Stoppard’s previous plays has embraced. He does continue his new role as a didact, opposing any force that might inhibit the untrammeled passage of information, whether it be a union-closed shop or venal media tycoons or a totalitarian state. The drama takes place in a convulsed African country, possibly Uganda, which is agitated by a rebellion against a despotic government led by equally despotic officers. The play’s serious concerns, however, are often obscured by stylish posturing and excessive verbal sparks that subvert the serious circumstances of the action. As a result, the text toys with difficult subjects, trivializing them in a manner reminiscent of Noël Coward’s flip cleverness.
The Real Thing
In The Real Thing, Stoppard again harks back to Coward (as well as Wilde) for an exercise in love among the leisured classes, in which aristocrats of style spend their time polishing epigrams and tiptoeing into one another’s penthouse souls. This play, however, also has a heart, throbbing with the domestic passion to which even an intellectual playwright, the protagonist Henry, can succumb. Henry has an affair with his good friend’s wife, Annie; they fall in love, divorce their spouses, and marry. They are happy for two years, but Annie takes Henry’s complaisance for complacence and has trysts with other men. Henry discovers howling-wolf pain in his cuckoldry before he and Annie realize that their marriage is, for better and worse, the real thing.
As so often in his dramatic practice, Stoppard mines his play with parallel phrases and repeated allusions. Yet this time his characters do more than skate on brittle surfaces. They suffer recognizable pain in the throes of romance, sharp darts of regret and ardor, frustration and anguish as they find themselves betrayed and rejected by those they love. This time, Stoppard has created recognizable people as well as flashed the laser beams of his intellect.
More than five years after The Real Thing, and after a series of adaptations, Stoppard wrote Hapgood, first performed in London in 1988 and subsequently revised for its American tour. Stoppard was inspired by quantum mechanics and the discovery that light consists of particles and waves. He took his fascination with physics’ duality and applied it to Hapgood, in the form of dual human nature, that is, double agents and double dealings—or, more specifically, espionage. The principal character, Hapgood (also code-named Mother), is a female spy who has been ordered by the Central Intelligence Agency to get rid of a double agent who has been serving the Soviet government. The kind but at the same time merciless Hapgood carries out her mission amid thrilling scenes of kidnappings that are not exactly what they seem to be, double agents who may actually be triple or even quadruple agents, and sexual delusions, in a cerebral drama unequivocally demonstrating its author’s love of paradox.
Between screenplays, adaptations, and original dramas, Stoppard wrote perhaps one of his best works, the 1991 radio play In the Native State, which he later adapted for the stage as Indian Ink. Like other writers fascinated with British imperialism and India, such as E. M. Forster, Stoppard deals here with the ambiguous theme of India’s gaining of independence or, as it can also be seen, India’s losing its status as a territory of the British Empire. In the Native State is also about the Anglo-Indian taboo of sexual relations between British women and Indian men.
While on a visit to India, the young poet Flora Crewe has her portrait painted by Nirad Das, an Indian artist. Das, however, has painted two portraits of Crewe: a “proper” one and a nude, the latter remaining in the possession of his son. The nude represents the “more Indian” side of Nirad Das, which is exactly how Crewe wants him to be, for if he anglicized himself she would despise him, since he would be attempting to bring the bloodlines closer together and eventually erase the distinction between ruler and ruled.
Although after The Real Thing Stoppard began devoting most of his time to screenplays and to adapting other writers’ dramas, his 1993 play Arcadia, which was produced after a break of five years, was greeted with enthusiasm among theater critics, who saw the play returning Stoppard to the stage world.
In Arcadia, Stoppard again manages to throw his audience into confusion with sudden shifts from one time period to another; he also continues his experiment of borrowing authentic literary figures, such as Lord Byron, whom spectators find here involved in a murder mystery, one requiring a certain level of intellectual gymnastics on their part.
Arcadia is set in 1809 in the garden room of a beautiful country house in Derbyshire, England. The play’s two principal characters, Thomasina Coverly, a thirteen-year-old pupil of Lord Byron’s contemporary Septimus Hodge, and Bernard Nightingale, a detective/academic, are separated in time by 180 years. Nightingale, who visits the Coverly house in the 1990’s, has as a motive a desire to expose a scandal that occurred in the country house and that involved Lord Byron. According to Nightingale, the fictional poet Ezra Chater, whom Byron criticized in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, is shot following an erotic meeting in the country house. The supposed shooting of Chater, his fictitiousness (as viewers discover that he is Nightingale’s invention), and the insinuated quarrel between him and Lord Byron are only some of the mysteries that engage spectators into becoming detectives.
The Invention of Love
Stoppard’s last play written in the twentieth century, The Invention of Love, is also one of his most ambitious. The play is a memory play again based on a real-life writer: A. E. Housman, poet and classics scholar of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It begins with Housman’s arrival in Hades upon his death in 1936. As he travels down the river Styx with Charon, the ferryman, he remembers/encounters/relives important moments in his life, particularly those that involve Moses Jackson, the man Housman loved unrequitedly throughout his entire life. Here again Stoppard plays with the audiences’ perception of time, showing both the young Housman and the old, even allowing them to interact at the ends of both acts.
Stoppard parallels the life of Housman with the life of Oscar Wilde, his contemporary. Where Wilde acted on his homosexual tendencies, ultimately leading to his imprisonment, Housman repressed his own leanings. Rather than simply being a play about denial of love, Stoppard uses Housman to question the nature of many types of love, including brotherly, scholarly and physical. When Housman encounters Wilde in Hades the two discuss the differences between artist and scholar, as well as the two types of love that can be created by these two types of men. The Invention of Love is Stoppard’s most complex musings on the nature of love, time, life, and death. It is arguably his densest, and most rewarding, work at the time of its first performances.