Tom Stoppard Tom Stoppard World Literature Analysis

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Tom Stoppard World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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Stoppard is sometimes linked by critics with his near-contemporary Harold Pinter. Both playwrights share similarities of temperament and background, though the works they produce have little in common. Stoppard and Pinter both come from immigrant families (Stoppard is, in his own phrase, a “bounced Czech”); both reject, at least in their early work, the realistic and naturalistic styles of their predecessors; both began their careers in the aftermath of the “angry young man” period stimulated by John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (pr. 1956, pb. 1957). Both Pinter and Stoppard came to playwriting almost accidentally from practical nonuniversity backgrounds, Pinter from acting and Stoppard from journalism and theater criticism. Since both men began as outsiders breaking into a clannish and traditional field of work, it is perhaps not surprising that they brought with them startlingly original points of view, perspectives from the outside that meshed smoothly with the revolution prompted by Osborne’s play. With Look Back in Anger came a new enthusiasm for realistic working-class drama, passionate works that confronted social problems and politics. It was the end of the polite drawing-room drama of the previous era. Yet Pinter and Stoppard changed not only content but also style and approach, the former with his “theater of menace,” the latter with his “high comedy of ideas.”

Perhaps as a result of its originality, Stoppard’s work has been difficult to classify. Most reviewers and commentators agree that he is a writer in love with language, a magician with verbal pyrotechnics who is unmatched in modern drama for the sheer exuberance of his style. Even the most untrained observer at a live production recognizes this gift in Stoppard—the words and phrases are so rapid and plentiful that a single viewing is never adequate.

Beyond this linguistic agility, however, there is little agreement. Stoppard has been accused by reviewers such as John Simon and Stanley Kauffmann of being facile, shallow, and pretentious. Jumpers (pr., pb. 1972), his second major play, was particularly criticized for its author’s tendency to present philosophical debate on stage without integrating it into the stage action. His refusal to be serious even about figures such as Vladimir Ilich Lenin and James Joyce has been interpreted as a refusal to take his role as a writer seriously. The more academic critics of Stoppard, on the other hand, have praised his moral vision, his refusal to capitulate to relativism, and the very frivolity of his approach, which is sometimes compared to that of Oscar Wilde. His avoidance of trendy political and social subjects has sometimes been seen as integrity. Stoppard himself claims to show conflicting characters and statements on stage without taking a personal position; like many writers, he prefers to let his work speak for itself.

Whatever the ultimate judgment of Stoppard’s seriousness or lack thereof, there can be no question about the impact of his major plays and incidental work. He has stimulated a wide range of reaction in the theater, in academia, and in the perception of the general public. He is without question one of the most significant of modern English playwrights.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

First produced: 1966 (first published, 1967)

Type of work: Play

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, minor characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, become the main characters in an absurdist drama about the interpretation and meaning of existence.

The title Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a direct quotation from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601; pb. 1603), a line delivered by the English ambassador to Horatio at the close of the play. In Shakespeare’s play it is but a minor detail, one of the many threads of the play brought to a close at the end of major events. In Stoppard’s play it is of major significance, for it marks the death of the main characters....

(The entire section is 4,223 words.)