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...
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