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Tom Stoppard 1937-

(Born Tomas Straussler.)

Since the mid-1960s Stoppard has been recognized as a leading playwright in contemporary theater. Like George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde, with whom he is often compared, Stoppard examines serious issues within the context of comedy, using such devices as word games and slapstick...

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Tom Stoppard 1937-

(Born Tomas Straussler.)

Since the mid-1960s Stoppard has been recognized as a leading playwright in contemporary theater. Like George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde, with whom he is often compared, Stoppard examines serious issues within the context of comedy, using such devices as word games and slapstick to address complex questions regarding authority, morality, the existence of God, the nature of art and reality, the supposed progress of science, and other issues. This mixture of the comic and the serious in Stoppard's work has led some to characterize his plays as "philosophical farce." Although some critics argue that Stoppard's theatrical devices mask their lack of real profundity, most praise him for his wit and technical virtuosity.


Stoppard was born in Zlin, in the former Czechoslovakia, the second son of Eugene and Martha Straussler. His father was a doctor employed by the shoe manufacturer Bata, which moved the family to Singapore in 1939. Soon thereafter, just prior to the Japanese invasion of Singapore, Stoppard, his mother, and his brother were evacuated to Darjeeling, India. Dr. Straussler remained behind and was killed in 1941. Five years later Stoppard's mother married Major Kenneth Stoppard, a British army officer stationed in India, and after the war the family moved to England. Stoppard left school at the age of seventeen to become a journalist with the Bristol newspaper the Western Daily Press. Two years later he became a freelance journalist and began writing plays. His first work, A Walk on the Water, was written in 1960. In the early 1960s, while continuing to work as a journalist—including a stint as drama critic for the short-lived magazine Scene in 1963—Stoppard composed radio and televisions plays, the novel Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon, and several short stories. He also wrote Tango—an adaptation of a play by Slawomir Mrozek—and "The Gamblers." In 1964 Stoppard spent five months in Berlin participating in a colloquium of young playwrights. While there he wrote the one-act verse drama "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern meet King Lear," based on a question his agent had posed whether Lear was king of England during the time period in which Shakespeare's Hamlet is set. During the next three years, the work evolved into Stoppard's first major success, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The play opened to near-universal acclaim and Stoppard received several prizes, including the Evening Standard Drama Award for most promising playwright and a Tony Award. Stoppard has continued to write for radio, stage, and screen, winning a Evening Standard Drama Award for Jumpers, a New York Drama Critics Circle Award for The Real Thing, a Tony Award for Travesties, and an Olivier Award for Arcadia.


Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead explores such themes as identity, chance, freedom, and death. It centers on two minor characters from Hamlet who, while waiting to act their roles in Shakespeare's tragedy, pass the time by telling jokes and pondering the nature of reality. These two "bit players" in a drama not of their making are bewildered by their predicament and face death as they search for the meaning of their existence. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead has often been compared with Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot for its mixture of humor and philosophic speculation on the absurdity of existence. Jumpers reinforced Stoppard's reputation as a playwright who flamboyantly examines important questions. In this play, which parodies both modern philosophy and the "thriller" genre, George Moore—a philosopher attempting to prove the existence of God and of moral absolutes—and his wife Dotty—a nightclub singer who believes in the sentimental songs she sings—are stripped of their moral ideals and romantic notions. Travesties marked a new development in Stoppard's career: the presentation of detailed political and ethical analysis. This play fictionally depicts Vladimir Ilych Lenin, James Joyce, and Tristan Tzara residing in Zurich during World War I. By juxta-posing the theories of the three men—Lenin's Marxism, Joyce's Modernism, and Tzara's Dadaism—Stoppard offers observations on the purpose and significance of art. Stoppard's next four major works are commonly referred to as his "dissident comedies." Every Boy Deserves Favour, Professional Foul, Night and Day, and the two interlocking plays Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth blend themes of art, illusion and reality, marital infidelity, the freedom and responsibility of the press, and the moral implications of political issues. The Real Thing examines art, metaphysical concerns, and political commitment, while marking Stoppard's most significant treatment of the theme of love. As with the dissident comedies, The Real Thing continues Stoppard's movement toward conventional comedy, deemphasizing farcical action while increasingly concentrating on witty dialogue and exploring human relationships. Hapgood is a comic espionage thriller that employs theories regarding the behavior of subatomic particles to explore uncertainty and the subjective nature of truth. Stoppard's two most recent works, Arcadia and Indian Ink, both possess structures that divide the action between the historical past and the present. As the scenes set in the present uncover and comment on the scenes set in the past, Stoppard explores the elusiveness of certainty, be it in human relationships, historical events, or knowledge of the universe.


Many critics rank Stoppard, together with Harold Pinter, at the forefront of contemporary British theater. The 1966 production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstem Are Dead was an immediate critical and popular success; when the play premiered in London, Harold Hobson declared it "the most important event in British professional theatre of the last nine years." Jumpers and Travesties solidified Stoppard's reputation as a major dramatist, as reviewers praised the moral and philosophical complexities presented in these plays, as well as their verbal and visual wit. While generally less well received, Stoppard's dissident comedies nevertheless have been admired for their broadening of the scope of Stoppard's art to include political themes. In Hapgood critics have detected a new note of optimism and a movement away from the absurdism of Stoppard's earlier work. Further growth has been observed in the highly acclaimed The Real Thing, which has been hailed as the playwright's most personal and autobiographical work and praised for its examination of the power of love. Arcadia has been judged a theatrical tour de force for its fusion of science, philosophy, and human emotion. Vincent Canby has pronounced it Stoppard's "richest, most ravishing comedy to date." Since 1966, Stoppard's theater has evolved from depicting the absurd view of existence to presenting artistic and philosophical attacks on absurdity. The political positions of his plays have moved from detachment to a commitment to personal and artistic freedom, while Stoppard's dominant theatrical mode has varied from farce to romantic comedy. Throughout these changes in Stoppard's career, critics have consistently extolled his wit and brilliant use of language, as well as his technical skill.

Principal Works

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*A Walk on the Water 1960

"The Gamblers" 1960 [performed 1965]

Rosencrantz and Guildenstem Are Dead 1966

Tango [adaptor; from a play by Slawomir Mrozek] 1966

Enter a Free Man 1968

"The Real Inspector Hound" 1968

"Albert's Bridge" 1969

"If You're Glad I'll Be Frank" 1969

"After Magritte" 1970

"Dogg's Our Pet" 1971

Jumpers 1972

The House of Bernarda Alba [adaptor; from play by Federico Garcia Lorca] 1973

Travesties 1974

Dirty Linen 1976

Every Good Boy Deserves Favour 1977

Night and Day 1978

Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth 1979

Undiscovered Country [adaptor; from a play by Arthur Schnitzler] 1979

On the Razzie [adaptor; from a play by Johann Nestroy] 1981

The Real Thing 1982

The Love for Three Oranges [adaptor; from an opera by Sergei Prokofiev] 1983

Rough Crossing [adaptor; from a play by Ferenc Molnár] 1984

Dalliance [adaptor; from a play by Schnitzler] 1986

Largo Desolato [adaptor; from a play by Václav Havel] 1986

Hapgood 1988

Arcadia 1993

lndian Ink 1995


"The Dissolution of Dominic Boot" 1964

"M Is for Moon among Other Things" 1964

A Walk on the Water 1965

"If You're Glad I'll Be Frank" 1966

"Albert's Bridge" 1967

"Where Are They Now?" 1970

Artist Descending a Staircase 1972

The Dog It Was that Died 1982

In the Native State 1991


A Walk on the Water 1963

A Separate Peace 1966

Another Moon Called Earth 1967

Teeth 1967

Neutral Ground 1968

Eleventh House [with Clive Exton] 1975

Three Men in a Boat [adaptor; from a novel by Jerome K. Jerome] 1975

The Boundary [with Exton] 1975

Professional Foul 1977

Squaring the Circle (documentary-drama) 1984


The Engagement 1970

The Romantic Englishwoman [with Thomas Wiseman] 1975

Despair [adaptor; from a novel by Vladimir Nabokov] 1978

The Human Factor [adaptor; from a novel by Graham Greene] 1979

Brazil [with Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown] 1985

Empire of the Sun [adaptor; from a novel by J. G. Ballard] 1988

The Russia House [adaptor; from a novel by John Le Carre] 1990

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead 1991


Introduction 2: Stories by New Writers [with others] (short stories) 1964

Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon (novel) 1966

*This work was not staged when it was first written. It was adapted for television in 1963, revised for radio in 1965, and finally produced on stage as Enter a Free Man in 1968.

†This work is an adaptation of his radio play In the Native State.

‡This work is an adaptation of his radio play "The Dissolution of Dominic Boot."

Author Commentary

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Tom Stoppard with Ronald Hayman (interview date 1974)

SOURCE: An interview in Tom Stoppard, Heinemann Educational Books Ltd., 1977, pp. 1-13.

[In this conversation, which was conducted in June 1974, Stoppard discusses his methods of composition, maintaining that the best writing is largely a "lucky accident."]

[Hayman]: Some people got the impression from Jumpers that you 'd been a student of philosophy, and in the programme for Travesties you mention your indebtedness to Lenin's Collected Works, half a dozen books about him, an illustrated history of the First World War, two books on James Joyce and two on Dada. Obviously you make your preliminary reading almost integral to the writing.

[Stoppard]: That's been true right from my journalism days. A lot of my reading has resulted from the sheer necessity of having something to deliver—a piece of writing. An article on Norman Mailer for some arts page somewhere. You read the works of Norman Mailer in fourteen days in order to write an article of 1200 words. With Jumpers I was reading stuff I'd never have dreamed of getting round to. The books on ethics and moral philosophy that went into Jumpers I found immensely enjoyable. I think I enjoyed the rules that philosophers play by. It's an extremely formal discipline… .

There's an argument about the value of art in Travesties which is almost identical to an argument in Artist Descending a Staircase—

If it's worth using once, it's worth using twice.

But is this an argument you have with yourself?

One of the impulses in Travesties is to try to sort out what my answer would in the end be if I was given enough time to think every time I'm asked why my plays aren't political, or ought they to be? Sometimes I have a complete comical reaction, and I think that in the future I must stop compromising my plays with this whiff of social application. They must be entirely untouched by any suspicion of usefulness. I should have the courage of my lack of convictions.

Structurally you seem to make more demands on yourself from one play to the next. How much do you plan in advance?

My experience is that a lot of one's work is the result of lucky accident. When you look at the body of it and see all these lucky accidents all in one go, one assumes there must be some kind of almost premeditated connection between them, but there isn't—only in so far as one might suspect the subconscious of working overtime. The plays seem to hinge around incredibly carefully thought-out structural pivots which I arrive at as thankfully and as unexpectedly as an explorer parting the pampas grass which is head-high and seeing a valley full of sunlight and maidens. No compass. Nothing.

In an ideal state all the meaningful and referential possibilities in a work of art exist in a highly compressed form in the mind of the artist, probably before he even begins, and the existence of that nucleus dictates what the tentacles do at the extremities of his conscious gift. What's wrong with bad art is that the artist knows exactly what he's doing… .

Jumpers seems to take its starting point from that moment in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern when Rosencrantz says, 'Shouldn't we be doing something constructive?' and Guildenstern asks him, 'What did you have in mind? A short blunt human pyramid?'

I did begin with that image. Speaking as a playwright—which is a category that must have its own boundary marks, because a novelist couldn't say what I'm about to say—I thought: 'How marvellous to have a pyramid of people on a stage, and a rifle shot, and one member of the pyramid just being blown out of it and the others imploding on the hole as he leaves'. I really like theatrical events, and I was in a favourable position. Because of the success of Rosencrantz it was on the cards that the National Theatre would do what I wrote, if I didn't completely screw it up, and it has forty, fifty actors on the pay-roll. You can actually write a play for ten gymnasts. I was in a fairly good position to indulge myself with playing around with quite complex—not to say expensive—theatrical effects and images, and I was taken with this image of the pyramid of gymnasts.

It's perfectly true that having shot this man out of the pyramid, and having him lying on the floor, I didn't know who he was or who had shot him or why or what to do with the body. Absolutely not a clue. So one worked from a curiously anti-literary starting point. You've simply committed yourself to giving nine hundred people in a big room which we call a theatre a sort of moment—yes? At the same time there's more than one point of origin for a play, and the only useful metaphor I can think of for the way I think I write my plays is convergences of different threads. Perhaps carpet-making would suggest something similar.

One of the threads was the entirely visual image of the pyramid of acrobats, but while thinking of that pyramid I knew I wanted to write a play about a professor of moral philosophy, and it's the work of a moment to think that there was a metaphor at work in the play already between acrobatics, mental acrobatics and so on. Actually it's not a bad way of getting excited about a play.

Somebody told me that Alfred Hitchcock has been trying to make a film which begins in a car factory in which cars are put together entirely by automation and you just dolly along these incredible gentries with mechanical arms putting wheels on, and the doors are clamped on, and at the end of this interminable process—during which the credits are rolling—down the ramp at the further end of the complex rolls this car, untouched by human hand. You open the boot and inside is a body. I'm told that as soon as he can work out how it got there he'll make the picture.

But as a playwright you can start without knowing.

Yes, that's true. Because you have other threads converging, and I suppose in the end you can just change your mind, and if you can get enough threads going for you, you can leave out the one you started with.

Did Rosencrantz and Guildenstern feel like a breakthrough? It seems as though you suddenly got fed up with trying to entertain naturalistically and gave yourself permission to take more risks.

I didn't, you know. All the way from Enter a Free Man, which was 1960, to Travesties (1974) I've written what appealed to me, and I've written it with the assumption that it would appeal to everybody else. It's surely true that if you don't actually write from that standpoint, you get into deep trouble.

Then what was new about Rosencrantz?

Four or five years had elapsed since Enter a Free Man, and when I was writing Rosencrantz I was in no sense engaged in any sort of esoteric work. It was like music-hall if anything—a slightly literate music-hall perhaps. Enter a Free Man was a play written about other people's characters. It appears to be much more about real people than Travesties, which is a huge artifice, but at least I've got a mental acquaintance with the characters in Travesties, however much, in one sense, they're two-dimensional dream people. Now Enter a Free Man looks as though it's about people as real—at least in terms of art—as the people in Coronation Street. But to me the whole thing is a bit phoney, because they're only real because I've seen them in other people's plays. I haven't actually met any of them myself. It's about upper-working-class families. They had to be a bit upper because I kept giving them extremely well-constructed speeches to speak at a high speed of knots. The main point really is that it's actually impossible to write anything at all unless you're absolutely behind it. I think that Travesties is capable of entertaining more people than Enter a Free Man. Everything I've written—at the time I've written it, I've felt 'Oh this is absolutely accessible, communicable.' To qualify that, I haven't felt that at all. One doesn't think it. One simply writes what one is impelled to write at that time, what one wants to write, what one feels one can write. Even on the single occasion when I've actually written a play for a specific occasion. I knew the boys who were going to perform it. There was one headmasterish figure that I made into a headmaster, but—all that being said—what actually emerged was something that I was absolutely behind. I was really excited by the idea of the language I was using having a double existence. One of the things I hope I'll do one day is really to make full use of that little idea I used. "Dogg's Our Pet" is an anagram of Dogg's Troupe. The play is constructed out of a vocabulary of about fifty words, all based on certain sound values.

But there must be influences. Enter a Free Man is a preBeckett play and Rosencrantz is obviously Beckettian. At the end of Junipers you actually find a way of saying thank you to him.

At the time when Godot was first done, it liberated something for anybody writing plays. It redefined the minima of theatrical validity. It was as simple as that. He got away. He won by twenty-eight lengths, and he'd done it with so little—and I mean that as an enormous compliment. There we all were, busting a gut with great monologues and pyrotechnics, and this extraordinary genius just put this play together with enormous refinement, and then with two completely unprecedented and uncategorizable bursts of architecture in the middle—terrible metaphor—and there it was, theatre! So that was liberating.

It's only too obvious that there's a sort of Godotesque element in Rosencrantz. I'm an enormous admirer of Beckett, but if I have to look at my own stuff objectively, I'd say that the Beckett novels show as much as the plays, because there's a Beckett joke which is the funniest joke in the world to me. It appears in various forms but it consists of confident statement followed by immediate refutation by the same voice. It's a constant process of elaborate structure and sudden—and total—dismantlement. In Travesties, when John Wood is saying Joyce was this without being that, each sentence radically qualifies the statement before it until he ends up with 'a complex per sonality'. That sort of Beckettian influence is much more important to me than a mere verbal echo of a line or a parallelism at the end of Jumpers. That, if you like, is an open, shy bit of tribute-making, whereas the debt is rather larger than that.

There's an element of coincidence in what's usually called influence. One's appetites and predilections are obviously not unique. They overlap with those of countless other people, one of whom—praise be God—is Samuel Beckett. And it's not surprising if there are fifty writers in England who share in some way a predilection for a certain kind of intellectual or verbal humour or conceit which perhaps in some different but recognizable way is one which Beckett likes and uses.

From play to play Beckett's stage directions progressively give less freedom to the director and actors. How do you feel about that?

I think, truth be told, that were there a language one could do it in, like musical notation, I'd like to notate my plays so that there's only one way of doing everything in them. That's not to say that that would produce the best result. I know from past experience that I've been quite wrong about the way things ought to look and how lines ought to be spoken. One ought to be there for the first production and chance the rest. The first production in France of Rosencrantz was a nonsense and I haven't been done in France since.

What about T. S. Eliot and Prufrock?

There are certain things written in English which make me feel as a diabetic must feel when the insulin goes in. Pruf-rock and Beckett are the twin syringes of my diet, my arterial system.

How much did you change the text of Rosencrantz after the Edinburgh production?

I added a scene. Laurence Olivier pointed out that the section in which they're asked by Claudius to go and find Hamlet after he's killed Polonius ought to be in the play. So I went off and wrote that. Otherwise it's the same. There was one speech that was cut at the National which went back in later, but on the whole the Edinburgh text was shorter.

Is there ever a conflict between literary and theatrical pressures?

I realized quite a long time ago that I was in it because of the theatre rather than because of the literature. I like theatre, I like showbiz, and that's what I'm true to. I really think of the theatre as valuable and I just hope very much that it'll remain like that as an institution. I think it's vital that the theatre is run by people who like showbiz. 'If a thing doesn't work, why is it there in that form?' is roughly the philosophy, and I've benefited greatly from Peter Wood's down-to-earth way of telling me, 'Right, I'm sitting in J 16, and I don't understand what you're trying to tell me. It's not clear.' There's none of this stuff about 'When Faber and Faber bring it out, I'll be able to read it six times and work it out for myself.' Too late.

What happens in practice is that after a certain number of weeks elapse I can't see the play any more. I've lost my view of it, and I'm at the mercy of anybody who nudges me. That can work to my disadvantage because it can make the play unnecessarily broad, when I should have kept faith with the delicacy of it. At the same time, it's meant that Peter has actually saved the play. The speech in which Joyce justifies his art wasn't in the text of Travesties that I gave to Peter. It was he who said it was necessary, and I now think it's the most important speech in the play. It's showbiz, but the speech is there because of its place in the argument.

What about Cecily's lecture at the beginning of Act Two? Surely you're not expecting the audience to digest so much information so quickly?

There are several levels going here, and one of them is that what I personally like is the theatre of audacity. I thought, 'Right. We'll have a rollicking first act, and they'll all come back from their gin-and-tonics thinking "Isn't it fun? What a lot of lovely jokes!" And they'll sit down, and this pretty girl will start talking about the theory of Marxism and the theory of capitalism and the theory of value. And the smiles, because they're not prepared for it, will atrophy.' And that to me was like a joke in itself. But the important thing was that I'd ended the first act with what at that stage was a lengthy exposition of Dada. I wanted to begin the second with a corresponding exposition of how Lenin got to Zurich, not in geographical but political terms. I chose to do that from square one by starting from Das Kapital, Marxian theory of profit, theory of labour, theory of value, and then to slide into the populist movement, the terrorism, Ulyanov's brother and so on. If I could have brought that off, I'd have been prouder of that than anything else I'd ever written. There wasn't a joke in it but I felt I could get away with it because it was going to be a new set—to start with, we weren't going to begin in the library—a new character and a new scene after the interval. I overplayed that hand very badly, and at the first preview I realized that the speech had to be about Lenin only. The second act is Lenin's act really, and I just blue-pencilled everything up to the mention of Lenin. So now it was one page instead of five.

In my original draft I took the Lenin section out of the play far more radically than in the version you saw. I actually stopped the play and had actors coming down to read that entire passage from clipboards or lecterns, because I felt very strongly—and now I believe I was right—that one thing I could not do was to integrate the Lenins into the Importance scheme. Irving Wardle said he'd have liked to see Lenin as Miss Prism, but that would have killed the play because of the trivialization. It would have been disastrous to Prismize and Chasublize the Lenins, and I believe that that section saves Travesties because I think one's just about had that particular Wilde joke at that point. I wanted the play to stop—to give the audience documentary illustration of what Lenin felt about art and so on, and then carry on with the play. Peter Wood's objection was unarguable: the whole thing is within the framework of Carr's memory except this bit. How do you get back people's belief if you interrupt it?

What I was trying was this. What I'm always trying to say is 'Firstly, A. Secondly, minus A.' What was supposed to be happening was that we have this rather frivolous non-sense going on, and then the Lenin section comes in and says, 'Life is too important. We can't afford the luxury of this artificial frivolity, this nonsense going on in the arts.' Then he says, 'Right. That's what I've got to say,' and he sits down. Then the play stands up and says, 'You thought that was frivolous? You ain't seen nothin' yet.' And you go into the Gallagher and Shean routine. That was the architectural thing I was after.

What's altered is the sympathy level you have with Lenin. When you read the words on the page there's a sense in which Lenin keeps convicting himself out of his own mouth. It's absurd. It's full of incredible syllogisms. All the publishing and libraries and bookshops and newspapers must be controlled by the Party. The press will be free. Anybody can write anything they like but anybody who uses the Party press to speak against the Party naturally won't be allowed to do it. And then you go back to the first proposition that everything's controlled by the Party, and you're going round in circles. It's sheer non-sense. And at the end he says, 'I can't listen to music. It makes you want to pat people's heads when you really have to HATE them without MERCY. Though ideally we're against doing violence to people.'

In the text one's trying to demonstrate that he was in an impossible position. The ethics of necessity syndrome was operating. But in theatrical terms Frank Windsor and Barbara Leigh Hunt are 98.4 degrees from top to bottom. They're just blood heat, they're so human. When they walk on the stage you don't really think that man has contradicted himself throughout and condemned himself out of his own mouth. You think he really had a burden to carry, and Ashkenazy is doing his bit in the loudspeaker, playing the Apassionata. The equation is different, and even I am seduced by it.

Generally speaking, are long speeches dangerous?

I always think that they're the safe parts of the play, and they've proved to be so. With Jumpers a certain amount of boggling went on when they saw the script. Michael Hordern was worried; Peter was worried. In practice the monologues played themselves, and all the conventionally easy bits—the dialogue—were very difficult indeed to get right. In Travesties John Wood, who has the grave disadvantage of being about four times as intelligent as it's good for an actor to be, came in when we were talking about the monologue and he simply said, 'I've looked at it at home. There are no problems in it.' And we didn't rehearse it—just went through it a few times when we were doing the run-throughs and I think I spent two hours with him one day talking about little details of inflection.

What about this question of increasing architectural complexity? It must have the effect of multiplying the unpredictables and the variables and the points where balance will change from one performance to the next.

Yes, I really have a deep desire not to get involved in that kind of play for a long time. It's wonderful that Peter brought Travesties off in theatrical terms, but it's like an egg-and-spoon race. As he says. It could have dropped off in previews at any moment. One's energy as a writer is going into theatricality, and that's okay, but one doesn't want to do that each time, and ideally what I'd like to write now is something that takes place in a whitewashed room with no music and no jumping about, but which is a literary piece—so that the energy can go into the literary side of what I do. I'd like to write a quiet play.

Jumpers and Travesties are very similar plays. No one's said that, but they're so similar that were I to do it a third time it would be a bore. 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.

I can see they have that in common, but the relationship between the abstract ideas and the concrete characters seems different.

Yes, and there are senses in which Travesties is a great advance on Jumpers, but it's the same kind of pig's break-fast, and I'd really like to abandon that particular paintbox and do a piece of literature for three voices and a dog. One is playing a double game with a play like Jumpers and Travesties: one is judged as a writer on the strength of what one manages to bring off theatrically, and I'm afraid, with respect to those critics whom I feel to be perceptive, that the chances of a play being judged in isolation from what is done to that play are not great. I was the beneficiary of that happening once, in the case of Ronald Bryden's review of Rosencrantz. The play was done in a church hall on a flat floor so that people couldn't actually see it. There was no scenery, student actors. The director didn't show up. Someone else filled in. I turned up for thirty-six hours and tried to put a few things right. It went on in some kind of state or other, and Ronald Bryden, writing for the Observer, just saw straight through to the text. But if Peter had got Travesties wrong, he would have been said to have failed as a director and I would have been said to have failed as a writer, with the same text with which Peter succeeded. It's a nonsense. There's an equation to be got right and there are a number of variables in it. It's not a question of something being right or wrong, it's a question of the variables adding up to the right answer. Things are so interrelated.

Overviews And General Studies

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Philip Roberts (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "Tom Stoppard: Serious Artist or Siren?" in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 3, Autumn, 1978, pp. 84-92.

[Attempting to assess Stoppard's view of drama, Roberts notes the playwright's ambiguous pronouncements about his own work.]

Tom Stoppard's writing career is a remarkable one. Since 1963, when his play A Walk on the Water was transmitted on television a few days after the assassination of President Kennedy 'as a substitute for a play deemed inappropriate in the circumstances', he has had performed some eleven stage plays (including two adaptations), seven television plays, six radio plays and one music piece ('Every good boy deserves favour'). There have also been some short stories and a single novel. He is said by his agent to have 'grossed well over £300,000' from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead alone. He is the most consistently eulogised dramatist of our time. Only Beckett and Pinter, significantly, are able to match his glowing reviews, which is possibly why, in the midst of wittily decrying critics in general, he has a good word for reviewers: 'I hope it is obvious that generally I am not referring to theatre-reviewers, who are performing a useful public service [the Times Literary Supplement, 13 October 1972]. He has been praised, albeit with a few reservations by Bigsby, deified pedantically by Hayman, championed aggressively by James and mythologised unctuously by Tynan. His critical cup runneth over, and although what is said about his plays is not his fault, what he says about his plays should make one wonder why the accolades are so fulsome, and why his particular brand of theatre should have drawn quite so much attention over the last fifteen years.

Stoppard is never less than articulate about his position. In 1968, he stated that he had 'very few social preoccupations … Some writers write because they burn with a cause which they further by writing about it. I burn with no causes. I cannot say that I write with any social objective. One writes because one loves writing [Sunday Times, 25 February 1968]. The statement is one of many in which the terms of the antithesis set up are disguised as mutually exclusive. The inference is that those whose medium is the theatre who are judged to have something to say are lesser writers who merely employ the theatre. Any other medium would do as well. Again, those with social preoccupations are defined as writers who 'burn with a cause'. In order to take the position that a love of writing is the only reason for so doing, it becomes necessary to denigrate those who apparently work differently. Elsewhere, Stoppard confesses himself

deeply embarrassed by the statements and postures of 'committed' theatre. There is no such thing as 'pure' art—art is a commentary on something else in life—it might be adultery in the suburbs or the Vietnamese war. I think that art ought to involve itself in contemporary social and political history as much as anything else, but I find it deeply embarrassing when large claims are made for such an involvement: when, because art takes notice of something important, it's claimed that the art is important. It's not [quoted by C. W. E. Bigsby, in Tom Stoppard: Writers and Their Work, 1976].

What is being said here amounts to a refusal to believe in the efficacy, in any sense, of theatre to affect anything, including an audience. It is perfectly reasonable to feel embarrassed about 'committed' theatre but to equate it with 'pure' art and then to feel embarrassed when 'large claims are made' for it is to attribute non-Stoppardian theatre with an arrogance which might make even the hardest of hard-line 'political' groups wince. In another context, Stoppard goes so far as to pronounce the theatre 'valuable, and I just hope very much that it'll remain like that as an institution. I think it's vital that the theatre is run by people who like showbiz' [interview with Stoppard in Tom Stoppard by Ronald Hayman, 1977]. He does not, however, define in what sense the theatre is valuable. There is a consistent jokiness to Stoppard's sayings about the theatre and himself. In a second interview with Hayman, he confessed that 'I never quite know whether I want to be a serious artist or a siren'. It is the case that watching the plays at least reflects a comparable unease, especially if one's doubts are reinforced by (they may be deliberately provocative) such airy notions as 'I'm not actually hooked on form. I'm not even hooked on content if one means message. I'm hooked on style' and 'For me the particular use of a particular word in the right place, or a group of words in the right order, to create a particular effect is important; it gives me more pleasure than to make a point which I might consider to be profound … ' [interview with Stoppard in Behind the Seenes: Theatre and Film Interviews from the Transatlantic Review, ed. J. F. McCrindle, 1971]. What is peculiar about this is the supposition that writing is about one thing or the other.

What Stoppard has resisted steadily both in his plays and in his opinions expressed in interviews is any idea of the theatre as an agent of change, as a form of art which is in any sense expressive of and contributory to the nature of the society of which it is a part. In order to do this, he uses a definition of the term 'political' which excludes what he does, and thereby begs the question as to the status of his own work. Stoppard comfortably acquiesces in the status quo: 'I lose less sleep if a policeman in Britian beats somebody up than if it happens in a totalitarian country, because I know it's an exceptional case. It's a sheer perversion of speech to describe the society I live in as one that inflicts violence on the underprivileged [quoted by Kenneth Tynan in the Sunday Times, 15 February 1978]. It might be thought that the perversion of speech resides more in Stoppard's deliberate restriction of the word 'violence' to physical beating so as to enable him to assert smugly that the underprivileged in Britain are not done any violence. Consequently, he becomes exasperated at those who dissent and whose writing reflects such dissent. In an interview in 1974, Stoppard attempted to stretch the term 'political' into meaninglessness:

there are political plays which are about specific situations, and there are political plays which are about a general political situation, and there are plays which are political acts in themselves, insofar as it can be said that attacking or insulting or shocking an audience is a political act … The Term 'political play' is a loose one if one is thinking of Roots as well as Lear—I mean Bond's—as well as Lay By. So much so that I don't think it is meaningful or useful to make that distinction between them and Jumpers—still less so in the case of Travesties … Jumpers obviously isn't a political act, nor is it a play about politics, nor is it a play about ideology … On the other hand the play reflects my belief that all political acts have a moral basis to them and are meaningless without them [Theatre Quarterly 14, May-June 1974].

In other words, there are just plays and no label works for all of them. Or, perhaps, could it be that all plays are political? The stance is that of the liberal humanist with a corresponding belief that mankind will sort itself out eventually, without anyone prodding it in any particular direction. Stoppard recently put this very plainly: 'I believe in the perfectibility of society, and the concomitant of that belief is a recognition of its imperfections. That's why I am not a revolutionary person. I don't believe that the painful progress towards the perfect society happens in revolutionary spasms. I think it is a gradualist thing of growing enlightenment. I believe in the contagious values [interview with Stoppard by Marina Warner in Vogue, January 1978].

It is curious that someone whose approach is gradualist should continue to demonstrate the chaos in the world via, initially, a series of characters out of Prufrock, Beckett (the novels), Flann O'Brien, Ulysses and Sterne, and that, as far as he is concerned, the great liberator theatrically was Waiting for Godot. His initial heroes, as Bigsby has well annotated, are all trapped within a hostile mechanistic world which is at odds with individual aspiration. The telephonist who is the speaking clock in "If You're Glad I'll Be Frank" (radio 1966; stage 1969) cannot prevail. Albert in "Albert's Bridge" (radio 1967; stage 1969) finds order in the structure of the bridge which is not available on the ground. George in Enter a Free Man (television 1963 as A Walk on the Water; stage 1968) defends his eccentricity as a means of surviving in the face of an illogical world. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1966) shows two figures entirely outdistanced by the few facts of their situation and forced into the Beckettian situation of playing theatre games. If the world is the true Beckettian one as delineated by Stoppard, then there seems little sense even in a gradulist optimism. There is to date nothing written about the play that made Stoppard famous which shows how it is essentially different from its equally famous parent. All that appears to have happened is that Vladimir and Estragon have been moved up-market. The two plays which followed were "The Real Inspector Hound" and "After Magritte" (1968 and 1970), both of which Stoppard accurately describes as 'an attempt to bring off a sort of comic coup in pure mechanistic terms. They were conceived as short plays' [Theatre Quarterly]. In both, what appears to be central is the opportunity for wit, parody and metaphysical dalliance to do with the nature of perception. The plays reel away from seriousness as from a contagious disease.

Only in the two most recently available full-length plays does Stoppard confess himself entangled with more disturbing matters, and again the questions are severely diffused by the shifting insistence upon farce which both feather-beds and suffocates them. Out of the fashionable Beckettian context of the early sixties emerged Stoppard's preoccupation with 'the points of view play' so that he could assert in 1974 that 'there is very often no single, clear statement in my plays. What there is, is a series of conflicting statements made by conflicting characters, and they tend to play a sort of infinite leap-frog. You know, an argument, a refutation, then a rebuttal of the refutation, then a counter-rebuttal, so that there is never any point in this intellectual leap-frog at which I feel that is the speech to stop it on, that is the last word [Theatre Quarterly]. The structure and way of proceeding given here are accurate descriptions of both Jumpers (1972) and Travesties (1974). George, a professor of Moral Philosphy, attempts to establish the validity of God and morality via a lecture which he is composing throughout Jumpers. He does so in the face of a world and society which is busily engaged in doing precisely the opposite. As before in Stoppard's plays, there is the little man or the eccentric contra mundum. He is the lonely figure holding out against overwhelming pressure, whether from his retired show-business wife, his all-purpose Vice-Chancellor, or the irrestible march to power of the radical liberal party (a deliberate contradiction in terms?). The play is pessimistic despite its acutely clever portrayal of certain aspects of the academic life, for George never engages with the real world, and can struggle with metaphysics only on the luxurious level of a private study. While he wanders in abstractions, the world gets on with its business. George is Stoppard's hero, someone who despite the odds, the self-contradictions, even the topical fallacies, and especially despite the realities of the situation, insists upon the existence and survival of values other than the ones which rule. The fact that George is shown to be hopelessly adrift is what makes him so attractive to Stoppard, for in his confusions he is said to represent essential man. Conceptually, George's rational means advance him no further than Watt [in Beckett's Watt] confronted with the problem of Mr Knott's leftovers who, having found 'the solution that seemed to have prevailed', furnishes the household with hordes of famished dogs, each in their turn to eat Mr Knott's food and numbers of families to supply the dogs and 'For reasons that remain obscure Watt was, for a time, greatly interested, and even fascinated, by this matter of the dog … and he attached to this matter an importance, and even a significance, that seems hardly warranted. For otherwise would he have gone into the matter at such length.

It is true that Stoppard remarks that he believes 'all political acts must be judged in moral terms, in terms of their consequences. Otherwise, they are simply attempts to put the boot on some other foot' [Theatre Quarterly]. What is equally true is that any sense that George provides moral judgements has to be mediated both through the bones of a murder enquiry and through the technique of argument and counter argument which is Stoppard's main structural device. He heads unerringly for the joke, the parodic moment, the visually witty contrast to a degree which makes one doubt whether anything of what George struggles with, albeit in a vacuum, is able to locate itself solidly in such a texture. The confusions engendered lead to bizarre criticism. Thus Lucina P. Gabbard argues [in Modern Drama XX, No. 1, March, 1977] that Stoppard 'daringly weaves a serious philosophical dialectic in and out of this Absurdist drama', as if the debate in George's lecture is a complex one. She concludes that 'Absurdism, usually so depressing to audiences, emerges in a new configuration with entertainment', which suggests she has only read and not seen Beckett, Ionesco et al. The same writer is sufficiently entranced to instance the use of a screen and a slide projector as examples of 'Brechtian technique'.

Stoppard himself has pointed out the similarity between Jumpers and Travesties. They are 'very similar plays. Noone's said that … 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 [interview with Hayman]. His sense of the two plays is that 'A lot of things in Jumpers and Travesties seem to me to be the terminus of the particular kind of writing which I can do'. Once again, what Stoppard may have to say is, perhaps defensively, insulated via the recollections of Henry Carr and by the other clever weaving of Carr's memories with The Importance of Being Earnest. Carr's origins, once again, are Beckettian: 'My memoirs, is it, then? Life and times, friend of the famous … Joyce… a liar and a hypocrite, a tight-fisted, sponging, fornicating drunk not worth the paper, that's that bit done … (He makes an effort) … (He gives up again).' What he does is to summon up the occasion when Joyce, Tzara and Lenin were all in Zurich in 1918. They are all three engaged in revolution in one form or another. Other than that and the historical fact that Carr was involved with Joyce in a production of Wilde, there seems no good reason why connections should be apparent between them. Except that Stoppard appears to want to endorse the farce and the frivolity at the expense of Lenin, because of the implications of the ideology represented by Lenin. The play is broken backed and oscillates between farce figures jumping through comic hoops and Lenin's ostensibly dour reality. Characters pirouette around a situation which they do not advance, and of which they are not the product. They observe the situation as wittily as possible. Most of the speeches are not dialogue but elegant reflections upon a general theme. Each of the central characters makes pronouncements upon himself and the others, scores points, and is in turn rebuffed by another character. When at a loss, they move into pages of limericks or adaptations of music-hall songs. They as characters hardly exist. What is paramount is the shape of the remark, the delicacy of the wit. The play concentrates upon its own hermetic premise. Tzara and Joyce are created as mad and eccentric, exaggerated so as to provide a focal point for the sparks which can be struck. Carr is equally concerned only with his own cleverness and disdain. And then there's Lenin.

Stoppard has said that Travesties 'puts the question in a more extreme form. It asks whether an artist has to justify himself in political terms at all', 'whether the words "revolutionary" and "artist" are capable of being synonymous or whether they are mutually exclusive, or something in between'. His three main figures represent aspects of this curious question, on the one hand Joyce, on the other Lenin and in between Tzara. The question is never seriously debated, however. It is stated dogmatically in three forms, and the fact that Joyce and Tzara are joined with Carr means that they all perform a manic dance, mouthing belief but not substantiating it. Joyce in fact is absent from the play for long stretches at a time. Where the scheme falters is with the introduction of Lenin himself and Stoppard, as ever, is sensitive to the problem. He had ended Act One with an exposition of Dada and

I wanted to begin the second with a corresponding exposition of how Lenin got to Zurich, not in geographical but political terms. I chose to do that from square one by starting with Das Kapital… I over-played that hand very badly, and at the first preveiw I realised that the speech had to be about Lenin only. The second act is Lenin's act really, and I just bluepencilled everything up to the mention of Lenin. So now it was one page instead of five [interview with Hayman].

The unease shows in the text at the beginning of Act Two where it is stated that 'The performance of the whole of this lecture is not a requirement, but is an option. After "To resume" it could pick up at any point, e.g. "Lenin was convinced …" or "Karl Marx had taken it as an axiom", but no later than that'. The opening series of Act Two may thus begin with the statement that the beginning of the war caught Lenin and his wife in Galicia and that they came eventually to Zurich: 'Here could be seen James Joyce … and here, too the Dadaists were performing nightly … '. Now there is nothing objectionable in worrying away at those speeches of Lenin which are selfcontradictory and in turn pondering the situation of the artist. Yet when the form and procedure of the play is such as in Travesties, it is the case that Lenin's massive historical presence in the play creates a boomerang effect with regard to Joyce and to Tzara. If the only seriousness in the play is of the self-regarding kind, then Lenin's pronouncements must inevitably carry weight, since the others are busily absorbed in playing Wildean antics. Consequently, the targets are easy to aim at. Cecily's passionate defence of Lenin is ridiculed suavely by Carr who insists on viewing her as a sexual object. The sequence closes with Cecily in Carr's mind's eye dancing on a table to the tune of 'The stripper' and Carr's roaring 'Get 'em off!'. It is true that this is Carr and not Stoppard. It is also true that her passion is ridiculed and that she is made to love Carr because she wants to reform him. The centre of the play is not a debate about the artist and revolution. It is contained more obviously in Carr's remark to Tzara: 'You're an artist. And multi-coloured micturition is no trick to those boys, they'll have you pissing blood.' Lenin, in spite of the author in the end stands as a critical comment on the rest of the characters.

At the moment, Stoppard's work is beloved by those for whom theatre is an end and not a means, diversionary and not central, a ramification and not a modifier of the status quo, a soother of worried minds and not an irritant. He is the wittiest of our West End playwrights and his plays assure the reactionary that theatre was and is what they always trusted it was, anodyne and anaesthetising. It is difficult to know whether Stoppard at present takes himself too seriously enough. The novelist Derek Marlowe suggests that 'He's startled by the smallest minutiae of life. But the grand events, the highs and lows of human behaviour, he sees with a sort of aloof, omniscient amusement. The world doesn't impinge on his work, and you'd think after reading his plays that no emotional experience had ever impinged on his world' to which Stoppard characteristically and ambiguously replied, 'That criticism is always being presented to me as if it were a membrane that I must somehow break through in order to grow up …' [Tynan]. It remains to be seen whether the serious writer or the siren triumphs.

Andrew K. Kennedy (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Tom Stoppard's Dissident Comedies," in Modern Drama, Vol. XXV, No. 4, December, 1982, pp. 469-76.

[In the following essay, Kennedy discusses Stoppard's moral and political satire in Jumpers, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, and Professional Foul.]

To thy own self be true
One and one is always two.

How many readers and theatre-goers would find the hall-marks of Tom Stoppard's verbal wit in those Peer Gyntian lines from Every Good Boy Deserves Favour? The lines are spoken rapidly by Alexander, the political prisoner detained in a "hospital," to his absent son; every word is meant, without ambiguity or irony either in the phrasing or in the situation; and the verse is a mnemonic, in case the prisoner is not allowed writing material "on medical grounds." This is only a local example of the remarkable change in Stoppard's comedy from a relativistic and parodic universe of wit to a new kind of comedy that combines moral and political commitment with a newly stable satire of real/absurd worlds, recognizably located in Russia and Czechoslovakia. It is an interesting transformation of comic vision, strategy and language.

Stoppard's comedy has, until this new direction, been most notable for the creation of a "pan-parodic" theatre. We were right to stress the vertiginous interplay of two kinds of theatre (Renaissance and Modernist) in the tragical-comical-farcical-melodramatic Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and the cross-weaving of style parodies from Dada and Joyce, caught in the threads of Wilde's famous farce, in turn misperformed by the British Consul's decaying memory, in Travesties. In that kind of comedy—with its rapidly shifting perspectives, surrealistic quasi-encounters, and self-breeding verbal games—a "centre of gravity" was not to be looked for too gravely. That comedy did release vision, but no stable point of view. When a committed spokesman does appear amid the whirling worlds and words—George meditating on the meaning of God and morality in Jumpers, and Lenin's speeches on art and revolution in Travesties—critics complain that the comedy is all but undone: "his footing slips in his play-long parody of philosophy … polysyllables are dull weapons with which to cut at logical positivism" [Ruby Cohn in Contemporary English Drama, ed. C. W. E. Bigsby, 1981] and the "authentic speeches" of Lenin dislocate the "baroque farce" in the play [C. W. E. Bigsby, in Tom Stoppard, 1976]. Cecily's lecture on the origins of the Russian Revolution at the opening of act two of Travesties was judged to be so anti-comic by a French director that he procured, if that is the word, an actress who was willing to deliver the tedium-risking speech in the nude, slowly getting dressed as she went on speaking the unwitty lines (Stoppard's anecdote). In sum, the universal parody, the instability of focus, and the sometimes indulgent but nearly always theatrically well-timed verbal wit have created a comedy-farce in which the importance of being serious was a risky ingredient.

Every Good Boy Deserves Favour and Professional Foul are relatively modest in scope; they also differ in genre and style, preserving only a family resemblance with the universal parody of the earlier plays. It may well be that we have been given a wholly new kind of political comedy, still to be defined. Placing these two short Stoppard comedies on the generic map may be provisional; but before we turn to the plays themselves, it is worth recalling that there has been a certain poverty of political comedy in contemporary (English) drama. Some of the most interesting plays by roughly "New Left" dramatists (plays like Howard Brenton's Weapons of Happiness and David Hare's Fanshen) border on the ponderously solemn. A generation of dramatists has found it difficult to combine didactic purpose—including a feeling for ideological subtleties and contradictions—with anything resembling full-blooded comic vision. Traces of the robust Shavian and Brechtian political comedy—with its fusion of theatricality and ideology, comedy and ideas, the direct use of plat-form, stage, arena and circus, from Major Barbara to Arturo Ui—are now rare, or rarefied. When a bolder kind of political comedy is attempted, it often leads to a catastrophe of pity and terror, deliberately and didactically contrived, as in Trevor Griffiths's fine Comedians and Edward Bond's recent Restoration (in which the triumphant pastiche comedy suggested by the title is pushed towards a melodramatic execution through aristocratic villainy).

Stoppard's combination of "lightness of touch" in comedy and a new political purpose is in itself noteworthy; and if we decide that he is successful in keeping the balance between intermirroring theatre worlds and recognizable real worlds, then he has achieved something rare in our time. Shaw tried something comparable in one line of development from Androcles and the Lion to The Apple Cart—a pantomime comedy of belief and political extravaganza. But Stoppard's scale is smaller, and his control arguably greater, more concentrated. There may be another point of affinity between the two dramatists. In the plays under discussion, Stoppard (who once created university wits who had dined on Beckett) seems to be governed by a non-absurd vision of absurdity. By this I mean the relatively stable exposure of the lunacies and brutalities of a political system; the multiple irrationality is seen rationally enough to let the audience watch from a stable standpoint. The worlds which persecute a Bukovsky and a Havel are shown to be grotesquely dislocated in their pursuit of absolute "rationality" and power, and the audience is made to perceive the madness; yet the foundations of the theatre and its language are not shaken in this kind of committed comedy.

Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1977) is serio-comic from the opening scene on. The confusion of roles and planes of action—between Ivanov's insane musical hallucinations and Alexander's state-fabricated "hallucinations"—is situational wit developed with great economy. The scene serves as a prelude and shorthand exposition to the whole play. Ivanov's manic mime, as he conducts his imaginary orchestra, involves the audience in "listening" to the un-heard music first, and then to the audible orchestra, seemingly dominated by the mad Ivanov's wonder-working triangle. Since Ivanov assumes that his fellow-prisoner is a fellow-musician, he proceeds to cross-examine his musical credentials in a way that is at once comic and menacing:

IVANOV … Let me put it like this: if I smashed this instrument of yours over your head, would you need a carpenter, a welder, or a brain surgeon?

ALEXANDER I do not play an instrument. If I played an instrument I'd tell you what it was. But I do not play one. I have never played one. I do not know how to play one. I am not a musician.

IVANOV What the hell are you doing here?

ALEXANDER I was put here.

IVANOV What for?

ALEXANDER For slander.

IVANOV Slander? What a fool! Never speak ill of a musician!—those bastards won't rest. They're animals, to a man.

ALEXANDER This was political.

IVANOV Let me give you some advice. Number one—never mix music with politics. Number two—never confide in your psychiatrist. Number three—practise!

ALEXANDER Thank you.

The dark overtones of this comic opening provide the key to the mode and the mood of this dark comedy. Apart from the delightful yet sinister mixing of music and politics, we get an early inkling of the orchestra being used as a central play-metaphor, going well beyond "musical accompaniment" or "melo-drama" in the old sense. For the fantasy of conducting a kind of cosmic orchestra, letting a triangle dictate its perfect concord, is itself a totalitarian fantasy which mirrors the ideologue's dream of universal order. No discord in the music, no dissent in the state. Beating in measure is all. Meanwhile, the miserable plight and the incongruous collisions of Ivanov and Alexander mock the human desire for perfect order and hegemony, from the start.

In the play's design, the two cell-mates do not, however, interact to any great extent. It is possible to see this as an underexplored possibility, probably due to the limited scope of the play. Furthermore, Stoppard must have wanted to avoid the relatively mechanical pattern of a comedy of errors. Instead, he modulates into his darkest key by scene two: Alexander delivers a long speech to the passive Ivanov, expounding the crazy ABC of justice in the police state. In a later cell-scene (scene five), Alexander is given a solo speech addressed to his absent young son Sacha, in which he describes the horrifying effects of being on hunger-strike, when the flesh starts to smell of acetone, nail varnish. All this sounds and is authentic (some of it taken directly from an eyewitness account by Victor Fainberg in Index on Censorship). And since such speeches form the centre of the play's political protest against the abuses of psychiatry for political ends, they are an integral element of Stoppard's strategy. But they are directly didactic—not parable, not comic; they resemble the Lenin speeches in Travesties in tilting the play away from its comic-satirical moorings. It is possible that an Ionesco—or Mrozek or Havel, who had been directly submerged in the Kafka world of East European totalitarianism—would have handled even such scenes on the level of absurdist gallows humour, still within the frame of a comic political parable.

The comic potential of the play is developed in lateral scenes, away from the cell, in the other two acting areas: the school where Sacha is being taught and indoctrinated, and the hospital office where bizarre interviews take place. Much of the comedy of confused levels hinges on the triangle, now both a musical instrument and a geometrical figure calling out for absolute definition. Thus is a pun transmuted into a multilevel comedy of ideas. One particularly effective scene shows the boy Sacha parroting the axioms of Euclid (which he has to copy ten times, as his father has to copy political slogans a million times). The teacher men matches each axiom with some doctrine considered axiomatic in the Soviet state:

SACHA 'A point has position but no dimension.'

TEACHER The asylum is for malcontents who don't know what they're doing.

SACHA 'A line has length but no breadth.'

TEACHER They know what they are doing but they don't know it's anti-social.

SACHA 'A straight line is the shortest distance between two points.'

TEACHER They know it's anti-social but they're fanatics.

SACHA 'A circle is the path of a point moving equi-distant to a given point.'

TEACHER They're sick.

SACHA 'A polygon is a plane area bounded by straight lines.'

TEACHER And it's not a prison, it's a hospital.


This Orwellian scene is intensified into further satire in the second schoolroom scene, when Sacha twists the absolutes of geometry into strange home-made formulations like "A triangle is the shortest distance between three points" and "A circle is the longest distance to the same point." Stoppard, a master of verbal distortion, is here letting a dissident geometry make its point against pseudo-Euclidean politics.

Later in the hospital office, as in distorting mirrors, the axiom-drill of the schoolroom is twisted into still more grotesque shapes. Ivanov, the madman, happens to be in the office when Sacha arrives, and the boy is at once subjected to a manic and intimidating music lesson:

SACHA I can't play anything, really.

IVANOV Everyone is equal to the triangle. That is the first axiom of Euclid, the Greek musician.

SACHA Yes, Sir.

IVANOV The second axiom! It is easier for a sick man to play the triangle than for a camel to play the triangle.

All these episodes are threaded on a plot of sorts, which is itself broadly comic, involving as it does a doctor who plays the violin (in the "real" orchestra) and the Colonel in charge of the psychiatric hospital who is said to be an expert in semantics. The final scene modulates into a formal "happy ending" as the Colonel descends theatrically, deus ex machina of our time, to sort out the bitter confusions of mere mortals. The Colonel confuses Alexander and Ivanov (or, rather, confuses Alexander Ivanov with Alexander Ivanov), and in his genius discovers that Ivanov does not believe sane people are put in mental hospitals while Alexander does not hear music of any kind. Evil is averted—as in the finale of a tragicomedy like Measure for Measure—the patients/prisoners are released. Comic release follows.

Professional Foul is lighter in texture than Every Good Boy, with a fine balance between comedy, ideas, and the personal drama of a dissident and his family. That balance brings this small-scale play near to Stoppard's "perfect marriage between the play of ideas and farce or even high comedy" [Stoppard, in Theatre Quarterly 4, May-July 1974]. It is, however, very much a television play, to be judged partly for its success in using the medium: the rapid succession of scenes, the comedy of close-ups (e.g., the philosopher caught by the camera reading a girlie magazine in the aeroplane), and, above all, the ingenious variations played on stock character and situation. Ordinary muddles and misunderstandings gradually crystallize into the cruel farce of the Prague secret police chasing and bugging a gentle and philosophical dissident. Popular topics, like football and an absent-minded professor, are woven into an ongoing argument over the rights of the individual in the state. The criss-crossing of three fields—philosophy, football, and politics—is as amusing as any of Stoppard's galleries of interreflecting mirrors.

Like Jumpers, the play is structured around a central character, at first a caricature: the liberal, vague, and seemingly gutless Oxford philosopher, Professor Anderson, whose hidden motive for travelling to a colloquium on ethics in Prague is to watch football there. The surface comedy begins with the opening scene, set in the aeroplane, where Anderson in his vagueness unintentionally creates the impression of being condescending to a junior academic from a provincial university, and also casts some doubt on the nature of the "extra-curricular activities" he has in mind for the Prague conference—politics, football, or an amorous adventure could all be meant. It is essential to Stoppard's purpose to establish this elegantly world-weary Oxbridge don "type" early in the play. For the gentlemanly manner and the well-meaning detachment bordering on inanity ("A cleaner? What is that?", he asks Hollar, the Czech philosophy student now compelled to do menial work) exhibit the weaknesses of liberal/noncommittal/Anglo-Saxon attitudes. Anderson appears to have reduced ethics to good manners and so casts himself for the role of the innocent abroad in a comedy of manners.

Asked by Hollar to take back with him to England the only copy of his doctoral thesis on correct behaviour—a dangerous topic in Prague—Anderson responds first with inbred evasion:

ANDERSON … Oh, Hollar … now, you know, really, I'm a guest of the government here.

HOLLAR They would not search you.

ANDERSON That's not the point. I'm sorry… I mean it would be bad manners, wouldn't it?

HOLLAR Bad manners?

ANDERSON I know it sounds rather lame. But ethics and manners are interestingly related. The history of human calumny is largely a series of breaches of good manners.

Anderson's hypercorrect attitude is gradually, and serio- comically, transformed into cunning. He becomes a political fox who can perform a minor breach of "manners"—a breach of the law in a police state—by first rousing himself to make an impermissible speech in favour of individual rights at the conference, and then deciding after all to hide Hollar's thesis (in a colleague's brief-case). "It's not quite playing the game is it?", growls the pseudo-committed colleague as they fly out of Prague, with the undetected thesis, in the final scene.

It is a comedy of conversion—let us call it the liberal's progress from fatuousness to commitment—worked out in scenes of personal confrontation, flanked by scenes of hilariously overlapping fields. In the dark core-scenes of the dissident's drama (scenes six and seven), Anderson is accidentally made to participate in a police raid on Hollar's flat, witnessing the slick brutality of the procedures, the panic of wife, son and other residents. He is indignantly protesting because he has to miss England playing (though allowed to listen to a radio report, in Czech, by courtesy of the secret police). The ordinary confusion of who is doing what for what purpose is dovetailed into the larger confusion of a police state apparatus that is efficient in function but "absurd" in purpose. And Anderson, the disconnected philosopher, is learning to connect things. In the second personal scene, Hollar's son (called Sacha again, as if to underline the link with Every Good Boy) movingly acts as the interpreter, in halting English, between Mrs. Hollar and the increasingly moved Anderson. Even this scene has a comic point of entry, as Anderson's suspicious colleague thinks he has his hypothesis concerning certain "extracurricular activities" confirmed when he spots an attractive woman waving to Anderson in the hotel dining-room—it is Mrs. Hollar come to ask for help ("Bloody hell, it was a woman. Crafty old beggar").

The overlapping fields accommodate Stoppard's characteristic picnic of speech-styles. The title itself is taken from a footballer's intentional foul to stop a goal; and, clearly, Anderson is about to commit "a professional foul," in the light of his own professional etiquette. Then there are the local puns, for instance, the confusion of "left wing" in its political and footballing contexts. The most successful verbal comedy is the barrage of football reports being telephoned by assorted British journalists who all seem to have a flair for parodying their particular style ("Only Crisp looked as if he had a future outside Madame Tussaud's—a.u.d.s.—stop"). The parody of linguistic philosophy (scene eight) is more laboured and more superficial than the parody of Anderson's earlier liberal-human-ist wishy-washiness. (The parody of linguistic philosophy has, of course, a bearing on Stoppard's general post-Wittgenstein openness to situational "language games"—but that is another point.) Nor is the political centre-piece, Anderson's committed speech in defence of freedom and individual rights at the conference, quite as effective as it is probably intended to be. Here television may be a handicap, for a fragmented Western television audience (I am speaking from experience and observation) cannot quite recreate for itself the force of hearing such a speech in an East European assembly. Further, it is not at all easy to integrate a "straight" and resounding defence of values into the structure of a comedy, as even Chaplin found when he marred the ending of his superbly controlled Hitler satire in The Great Dictator by shouting the truths of the gospel at the audience in the final episode of the film. However, having said that, I may add that Stoppard himself is not always at ease in handling a tirade of ideas—he is no Shaw in this respect (witness sections of Jumpers).

The play of ideas is much more successfully handled in shorter spurts, where an idea is aired and then left to float back into the main body of the play at a later stage. Such an idea is the "audacious application" by McKendrick of the "catastrophe theory" to ethics—roughly the view that '"Morality"' and '"Immorality"' represent not opposite planes, but rather two lines running along the same plane until at a certain point—the catastrophe or breaking-point—"your progress along one line of behaviour jumps you into the opposite line; the principle reverses itself …". McKendrick is carried away by waves of enthusiasm, uses a knife and a hand for emphasis, and then directly (argumentum ad hominem) accuses Anderson of wanting to treat values he knows to be fictions as if they were "God-given absolutes": "So you end up using a moral principle as your excuse for acting against a moral interest. It's a sort of funk—."

The over-ingenious argument gathers strength and point when we see Anderson, as it were, having learnt the lesson of a reversed principle—though he is really acting under the direct impact of the emotional scene with Mrs. Hollar and Sacha—in promising to "do everything I can" to help the persecuted dissident. And Anderson has the last word too, when he defends his act of having placed Hollar's suppressed thesis in McKendrick's brief-case, with a practical application of the same catastrophe theory: "I'm afraid I reversed a principle." Committed action has grown out of non-absolutist ethics for Anderson. And committed comedy has grown out of political catastrophe, through Stoppard.

Joseph J. Feeney (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Fantasy in Structure: Layered Metaphor in Stopparci," in Forms of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Third International Conference on the Fantastic in Literature and Film, edited by Jan Hokenson and Howard Pearce, Greenwood Press, 1986, pp. 233-39.

[The following was first presented at a 1982 conference. Feeney contends that the seeming spontaneity of Stoppard's imagination obscures the careful craftsmanship of his plays, which, he claims, are structured around set of "parallel metaphors. "]

Tom Stoppard has an imagination that feeds on analogies. "Things are so interrelated," he once commented in an interview [in Ronald Hayman's Tom Stoppard, 1979]; and in writing his plays Stoppard frequently finds himself discovering (often to his own surprise) various "convergences of different threads," "structural pivots," and points of "cross reference." In these plays, the themes, characters, plots, language, and setting somehow become curiously linked and, through multiple metaphors, end up standing parallel to each other. In Jumpers, for example, philosophy resembles gymnastics, which is like casual sex, which resembles academic politics, which … And so the metaphor-making sparkles along in the Stoppard imagination. These metaphors, furthermore—often bizarre and fantastic ones—then get built into the very structure of a Stoppard play.

For the casual theatergoer, the Stoppard imagination seems only a near-bottomless source of fantastic puns, incongruities, plot twists, and verbal surprises. Critics, too, often concentrate on Stoppard's absurdity and celebration of irrationality. But underneath the surface of Stoppard's plays—and of his imagination—is an intelligence and a dramatic craft that are carefully ordering those diverse elements that only seem to be so spontaneous, arbitrary, and chaotic. The real Stoppard, however, is a supreme organizer, a craftsman who knows that his plays "hinge around incredibly carefully thought-out structural pivots which I arrive at as thankfully and as unexpectedly as an explorer parting the pampas grass which is head-high and seeing a valley full of sunlight and maidens."

This "structural pivot" is very frequently a set of parallel metaphors whose points of similarity Stoppard works out as carefully as a seventeenth-century metaphysical poet. Through metaphor after metaphor Stoppard links together bizarrely diverse elements, and this metaphor—or, more accurately, series of metaphors or layers of metaphor—provides structure, form, and shape for the play. These layers of metaphor continue for the full length of the play, and each layer of the comparison illuminates and is illuminated by the others. Thus, Stoppard's dreamiest flights of fantasy are reined in, through metaphor, by his mind and his imagination. He sees similarities, works out continuing points of comparison, and builds these metaphors into his plays in such a way that the parallels are fantastic yet consistently coherent. Fantasy becomes structured through metaphor. And this rare combination of wild fantasy and clear structure becomes a Stoppare trademark that forms a potentially centrifugal play into a coherent unit. A number of his plays demonstrate this characteristic of Stoppard's imagination; here I consider three of them: Jumpers, Every Good Boy Deserves Favor, and Professional Foul.

A preliminary clarification may help on the question of structure. Each of these plays, to be sure, has a traditional plot structure; the traditional urge of suspense drives each play forward: Who murdered the gymnast, and what will happen to George Moore? What will be Alexander's fate for speaking the truth about Russia's political freedom? Will Hollar's philosophical essay be successfully smuggled out of Czechoslovakia? These questions, and the plots they spawn, propel each play forward and provide its basic structure. But Stoppard adds his layers of metaphor as an alternate structure. This layered metaphor, with its multiple levels of similarities, adds its own form, unity, and structure to each play. These fantastic metaphors also provide much of each play's brilliance, its tour-de-force quality; the metaphors—together with Stoppard's verbal pyrotechnics—also give the play its sense of fun.

Junipers (1972) is a play whose major conflict is a dispute between philosophies, and all the other conflicts in the play—about sex, gymnastics, academic appointments, murder, even the astronauts on the moon—are merely metaphoric parallels for the central philosophical dispute. On one side is George Moore, a philosopher, who generally follows the philosophical positions of the English philosopher G. E. Moore (1873—1958) (whose name, of course, is also George Moore). The philosophical hero (like Stoppard I will call him "George") is, at the beginning of the play, preparing a lecture for a university symposium that very evening. Opposing recent developments in English philosophy and ethics, he comments that he "hoped [that evening] to set British moral philosophy back forty years, which is roughly when it went off the rails." Following what he, and historians of philosophy, call the "intuitionist philosopher" G. E. Moore, George holds that there is an absolute metaphysical base for affirming what is good and what is bad; goodness, he maintains, is a fact that, by intuition, is recognized when it is seen. Moreover (and unlike G. E. Moore), George, arguing as a philosopher, actually affirms that there is a God. Standing in the long tradition of Aristotle, Aquinas, and the Judeo-Christian philosophical heritage, he affirms a God of Creation and a God of Goodness "to account for existence and … to account for moral values".

On the other side of the philosophical dispute stand the more recent English philosophers—the current "orthodox mainstream" according to George—who are represented in the play by Sir Archibald Jumper ("Archie," says Stoppard) and his followers, including the recently murdered Professor McFee. These contemporary philosophers are, at one point, catalogued and lumped together as "logical positivists, mainly, with a linguistic analyst or two, a couple of Benthamite Utilitarians … lapsed Kantians and empiricists generally … and of course the usual Behaviourists." This group holds, according to George, that "things and actions … can have any number of real and verifiable properties. But good and bad, better and worse … are not real properties of things … just expressions of our feelings about them." The play's question, then, becomes this: Can goodness and badness be objectively grounded (at least by intuition), or are they only subjective feelings without any objective philosophical foundation? This is the play's philosophical conflict and the crux of its plot.

In Jumpers, however, this cerebral dramatic conflict, itself enfleshed in George and Archie, is further expressed in a series of bizarre metaphors; Stoppard finds parallels of this philosophical disagreement in the realms of gymnastics, sex, academic power, national politics, murder, astronauts on the moon, and human feeling. And while these metaphors at first seem fantastic and strange, on examination they make full sense and provide a complex structural network for the play. Archie (Sir Archibald Jumper, the philosopher without metaphysical foundation) is himself a gymnast—physically and philosophically—and also the manager of a group of gymnasts whom he hires out to perform at parties; these jumpers are young and "relevant," physically skilled, technically brilliant at somersaults, but have no solid foundation. In contrast, George is physically dull, boringly stable, but grounded on the firm, solid earth. Furthermore, Archie—the jumper—also leaps from bed to bed and has seduced George's own wife; George, his marriage shaky, is troubled—both morally and sexually—by Archie's actions, but is himself moral enough to refrain from such sexual acrobatics. Archie, further, is a man of academic power, vice-chancellor of George's university and the professor in charge of academic appointments; George, seeker of truth and man of moral integrity, is totally powerless and holds the lowly reputed chair of moral philosophy. In politics (to go the next metaphor), the jumpers are Radical-Liberals; George holds a more traditional position. In life, the jumpers, since they hold no moral position as absolute, are willing to resort even to murder; George, recognizing moral limits, could not imagine himself murdering anyone. The characters' habits, too, differ: During the play the jumpers are enjoying a free-flying party in George's living room and bedroom while George is in his study preparing his lecture in isolation from others. Even the lunar astronauts take part in Jumpers' multilayered metaphor. On television the American astronauts are seen walking on and violating the moon, and when they take off for the return to earth, one astronaut chooses self-preservation at the cost of the other's life; George and even his wife prefer altruistic courage and also mourn the loss of the old romantic, stable view of a distant and lovely moon. The jumpers, finally, see their bodies as only brilliant machines, are always coolly in control of a situation, but care little about love; George, though he cannot express his love to his wife, still cares about her, and even about his tortoise, Pat, and his hare, Thumper. Yet George, isolated but still holding to objective morality, even at play's end, remains a victim of slapstick and a philosopher in a pratfall.

On this set of incongruous metaphors, then, is the play built: philosophy = gymnastics = sex = academic chairs = national politics = murder = parties = astronauts = love = slapstick = George and Archie. Stoppard has chosen such fantastic linkings to dramatize his worries about order, reason, morality, and responsibility in the modern world. The play Jumpers, then, while funny and sparkling, is also very serious and—most to the point—very carefully structured.

Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1977) and Professional Foul (1977) are equally funny and equally serious; they are both also structured with great care. Dealing with political repression and with freedom of expression, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour shows a political prisoner kept in a Russian mental hospital, and Professional Foul is a television play about free expression in Czechoslovakia. Both plays, like Jumpers, are built on parallel layers of metaphor carefully linked together.

The title of Every Good Boy Deserves Favour puns on the musical notation E, G, B, D, F (the play's title is the British version of our "Every Good Boy Does Fine"), and the work is described [by Stoppard in the Hayman interview] as "a piece for actors and orchestra." André Previn wrote the music, and both actors and orchestra share the stage. On the stage two men are confined in a Russian mental hospital; Alexander, a political prisoner because he criticized the repression of dissent, and Ivanov, a certified madman who believes he has an orchestra in his head (he thinks the cellos are rubbish!). At issue in the play is the difference between clinical madness and the human sanity-political madness of dissent in a repressive society. The play, as it progresses, jokes about Ivanov's imaginary orchestra, shows Alexander's determination to be honest and to speak the truth frankly, and dramatizes his young son's desire to free him. The plot—such as it is—is resolved crazily when a colonel enters and unwittingly confuses the two men; he asks Alexander whether he hears an orchestra in his head ("No," he says) and Ivanov whether the Soviet government puts sane men in lunatic asylums ("I shouldn't think so," he says). Both men are sent home and the play ends happily.

Despite the ghastly political and human situation, the play is funny. Many of the lines and situations are zanily comic; Ivanov is a humorous character; even the musical score is a parody of modern Russian music. Stoppard adds to the humor and incongruity with layers of incongruous metaphors. In Russia any statement about government repression—statements that are morally right and as obvious as geometry and logic ("To thine own self be true. / One and one is always two.")—somehow means political dissent. Such dissent is treated as madness and as a refusal to play one's part in the orchestra of the State (here, ironically, existing only in the mind of a madman). These political themes and conflicts appear in the lines of the characters, in the logic or illogic of their utterances, in the mental-hospital setting, and in the orchestra's music. On one side stands the sane, dissenting Alexander: frank in politics, morally truthful, logically and mathemetically accurate (one and one do make two), quite sane, possessing no imaginary orchestra, forthright in word, honest to his opinions; on the other side, the madman and good Communist Ivanov: amoral in his madness, inventing an unreal world of relations and even a new orchestra in his mind, crazy in word, with opinions unconnected with reality. Like Russian Communism he lives within a crazy, closed system. And even the State-as-orchestra is not very competent and plays music that is a parody. Thus, Stoppard builds up the incongruous but clear metaphors on which the play's structure stands: Alexander and Ivanov = politics = morality = logical mathematics = sanity = madness = music = verbal style = character = society. The play's richness as well as its humor and irony are all based on these layers of metaphor.

Even a play as seemingly—and actually—realistic as Pro fessional Foul is based on similar fantastic parallels structured through metaphor. The play, one of Stoppard's rare pieces for television, dramatizes a lesson in applied ethics as learned by Professor Anderson, a Cambridge ethicist and rabid soccer fan. This ninety-minute drama begins as several British philosophers are flying to Prague to deliver papers at an international philosophical congress. Anderson, who has always carefully kept his philosophy separate from his life and politics, has prepared a lecture on "Ethical Fictions as Ethical Foundations." (The treatment of ethics as a fiction, incidentally, recapitulates Archie Jumper's position.) But if truth were to be told, Professor Anderson is really going to Prague to catch the World Cup qualifier soccer match between England and Czechoslovakia, which will be played in the Czech capital at the time of the congress. But when Anderson reaches his Prague hotel, he is unexpectedly visited by his former Czech student, Pavel Hollar, who asks Anderson to carry his thesis—on human rights—to England for publication. Anderson, unwilling to offend his Czech hosts by such smuggling and "bad manners," refuses. But the next day, on his way to the soccer match, Anderson finds that Hollar has been arrested; angered, he then presents to the international congress not his own paper on "ethical fictions" but Hollar's strong views on human rights and on their real, objective foundation. Anderson, then, chooses to speak out in place of the imprisoned Hollar and even decides to smuggle Hollar's thesis to the English printers. The play ends as Anderson smuggles the thesis out of Czechoslovakia in the brief-case of an unsuspecting British philosopher—a relativist in moral theory—who unreasonably complains that a "principle" has been violated. Anderson counters that since for the relativist philosophy is merely a "game" anyway, how could an alleged non-real "principle" be violated? (Hollar, a traditional objectivist in moral theory, with philosophical consistency was willing to be imprisoned for his opinions and principles.) In any case, says Anderson, the smuggling was merely a "professional foul" or "necessary foul"—an action similar to England's tackle in the soccer game as the Czech player was driving to the goal. And why should an English relativist complain in such a case?

In Professional Foul, then, Stoppard once again creates a very odd, layered metaphor: in this case soccer = politics = philosophy = academic life = Anderson and the other characters. The soccer foul is necessary for England to prevent a Czech goal; similarly, it is necessary to hide the thesis to protect (from the Czech police) Hollar's statement on political freedom and individual rights. Hiding the thesis in a relativist's briefcase (unknown to the relativist) is furthermore just part of the philosophical game for a man who holds to no objective principles. Whether such a concealment is "foul," then—much less immoral—is seen to depend on one's ethical theories and principles. Thus, at the drama's end, the relativist's complaint—"It's not quite playing the game is it?"—sets Anderson up for the play's brilliant final lines: "Ethics is a very complicated business. That's why they have these congresses." All five levels of the play—soccer/politics/ philosophy/acdemics/characters—come together beautifully and ironically in the play's closing words. The comparisons generated in Stoppard's imagination have been organized and controlled through the play's structure of metaphor. Through the ironies of the metaphor, the reader comes to see that philosophy, politics, and the commitment involved in both cannot be called games in any sense at all.

Tom Stoppard has frequently shown himself willing to discuss the creative process behind his plays, and in many interviews he offers glimpses of how his imagination works. A few of his comments, when read together, clarify the metaphor-making typical of his imagination. In 1979 he said, for example, that he "enjoys writing dialogue but has a terrible time writing plays" [Mel Gussow, "Stoppard's Intellectual Cartwheels Now with Music," New York Times, 29 July 1979]. It is at this "terrible time," one might speculate, that Stoppard surprises himself by discovering the "convergences of different threads," the "cross references," and "structural pivots" that characterize his plays [Hayman interview]. At such moments, it seems, Stoppard sees new similarities and proceeds to construct the complex interlinkings that constitute his plays. He characteristically catches those interrelations he talked of through a series of metaphors.

Stoppard himself once described the joining of these interrelations in a play as "carpet-making" with its "different threads" [Hayman interview]. But this particular metaphor of crosshatching, though offered by the playwright himself, does not fully catch the great clarity and parallelism of Stoppard's metaphor-making. Rather, Stoppard seems to express his clearly perceived parallels by clearly designed metaphors that overlie and enrich each other like the layers of a French petit-four, a Viennese torte, or even, perhaps, an English trifle. Or again, in less gustatory terms, Stoppard's imagination is as rich, as analytically clear, and as enticing as the imagination of a Donne, of a Herbert, or of some medieval exegete or allegorist.

Joan F. Dean (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Unlikely Bedfellows: Politics and Aesthetics in Tom Stoppard's Recent Work," in Tom Stoppard: A Casebook, edited by John Harty, III, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1988, pp. 243-59.

[Dean explores the interrelation of politics and playwriting throughout much of Stopparci's work.]

Throughout Stoppard's plays questions concerning the artist, his responsibilities, and his work frequently surface. His characters are often painters, writers (including poets, journalists, and dramatists), musicians, or actors. Some are based on historical personages; some cut from whole cloth; one or two even suggest a close connection with Stoppard himself. Many of these characters are directly concerned with the creative, artistic process. Others, notably the many actors who populate his plays—Dorothy Moore in Jumpers (1972) and the players in Rosencrantz (1967)—are not primarily imaginative, but interpretive artists. Still others, like the journalists in Night and Day (1978), are marginally connected with art itself: first, because like other writers, they work in the medium of language and, second, because they share similar responsibilities with imaginative artists who deal with political questions.

Stoppard's own recent works also address political issues. Especially since Jumpers, his characters inhabit well-defined social and historical contexts—hyperbolic and futuristic as they may be—rather than timeless, abstract, or universal realms. Travesties (1974), like Artist (1972), is set in Zurich during World War I just before the Russian Revolution. Night and Day deals with a political situation in Africa in a specific phase of post-colonial development Professional Foul (1977), Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1977), Cahoot's Macbeth (1979), and Squaring the Circle (1984) all examine the plight of those trying to work under the oppression of totalitarian governments in the late twentieth century. These four all rely heavily upon specific situations in Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, or Poland in the very recent past. Among Stoppard's works, these are his most explicitly political. The Real Thing (1982) is set in present-day England against a backdrop of anti-nuclear, anti-Establishment agitation. In each case, the social and political backdrop is essential to the thematic concerns—specifically those regarding the nature of playwrighting—in a way that is not at all characteristic of the plays before Jumpers.

Over the past decade, these two recurrent themes, politics and playwrighting, have become curiously interrelated. Stoppard's efforts to sway what Henry in The Real Thing calls "that axis of behaviour where we locate politics or justice" focuses on communist repression in no fewer than five works: Professional Foul, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, Cahoot's Macbeth, Squaring the Circle, and, to a lesser extent, Travesties. The immediate concern with the affairs and responsibilities of the artist appear in Artist, Travesties, and The Real Thing; Night and Day deals with journalists rather than artists.

Despite critical charges that his early characters were subordinate to the ideas they represented, Stoppard's more recent characters often face the same challenges as the playwright himself. They take up questions that Stoppard as a journalist, a playwright, an individual has addressed in interviews, non-fictional articles, and lectures. A dramatist, to be sure, has many more options open to him than a journalist, but the dramatist has the additional responsibility of creating art. Insofar as the playwright concerns himself with political matters, he can, as Stoppard often does, disseminate information and shape opinion. Moreover, in Night and Day, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, Cahoot's Macbeth, and Squaring the Circle, freedom of artistic expression and freedom of the press are portrayed as dual manifestations of the same basic liberty. Those freedoms of expression are critical for Stoppard. Speaking before the National Press Club 1979, Stoppard asserted: "A reasonable litmus test for any society in my view [is] is it a society where you can publish within the law?" Ultimately, in Stoppard's works the responsibilities of the political playwright are not unlike those of the political reporter.

In his recent works, on the one hand, Stoppard's characters persistently encounter problems related to the nature of drama—specifically, those pertaining to the relationship between dramatic representation and reality, between life and art. On the other hand, artists and others (journalists, the narrator in Squaring the Circle, et al.) are often forced to account for or to justify themselves and their work. While these two questions are distinct, they are hardly unrelated. This is especially true for those works that deal directly with specific political situations. The possibilities for oversimplifying or misrepresenting a political situation are strong; the consequences of such distortions are potentially disastrous.

The pitfalls of the intentional fallacy are particularly troublesome in evaluating Stoppard's characters. There are no straw men in his plays and few characters, like Brodie in The Real Thing, who elicit an immediate dislike. The creation of villainous or even unsympathetic characters would undermine one of the foundations of Stoppard's dramatic technique: what he himself has referred to [in Theatre Quarterly 4, May-July 1976] as a "kind of infinite leapfrog." Characters with diametrically opposed views are pitted against one another, but both sides of the argument are given strong voices. Jumpers provides the best example in the contrast between the dapper though unctu ous Sir Archibald Jumper and the sincere but hapless George Moore. Whereas Archie is powerful, successful, and thoroughly cynical ("At the graveside, the undertaker doffs his hat and impregnates the prettiest mourner. Wham, Bam, thank you Sam"), George succeeds neither in marriage nor in academe. Yet, as Kenneth Tynan observes [in Show People, 1979], George's ineffable faith in man's spirit and the existence of a moral order approximates Stoppard's own convictions:

In that great debate there is no question where Stoppard stands. He votes for the spirit—although he did not state his position in the first person until June of this year [1977], when in the course of a book review, he defined himself as a supporter of "Western liberal democracy, favouring an intellectual elite and a progressive middle class and based on a moral order derived from Christian absolutes."

Yet though it may be helpful to link Moore and Stoppard on this point alone, to identify Stoppard and Moore is patently foolhardy.

Moreover, the fact that Stoppard writes comedy rather than tragedy presents another obstacle to examining the playwright's aesthetic and political position. Aristophanes and all who followed him not withstanding, comedy, especially in post-WWII British drama, is too often seen as escapist entertainment rather than politic commentary. As Catherine Itzin amply demonstrates in her study Stages in the Revolution: Political Theatre in Britain Since 1968 [1980], the British stage has frequently and forcefully been used as a political platform for issues ranging from gay rights to government funding of the arts, from anti-war and anti-nuclear views to the I.R.A. But the vast majority of these political plays are overtly polemical and decidedly mirthless—two characteristics that immediately distinguish them from Stoppard's works. Their single-mindedness and dreariness are implicitly mocked in The Real Thing by Brodie's dogmatic television script.

In Artist, a radio play, and its full-length theatrical descendent, Travesties, Stoppard focuses on questions concerning the artist and his relationship to society that he had only touched upon in earlier works. While none of the characters in Artist reappear in Travesties, the former is clearly a preamble to the latter in its themes, setting, and comments about the artist in society. Both plays deal with characters who as artists find that global conflict ranging about them and who, to varying degrees, attempt to ignore it by seeking refuge in Switzerland. In Artist the aural images of the war are all too obvious: the discussions concerning art are punctuated by "a convoy of rattletrap lorries," explosions, the thundering hooves of the German cavalry. In Travesties the reminders of war appear in Carr's personal experience in the trenches, Lenin's exile in Zurich, and Joyce's insistence that "[a]s an artist, naturally I attach no importance to the swings and roundabout of political history."

Whereas Artist is principally focused on a story of unrequited love and the difficulty of expressing that love in art, Travesties more pointedly confronts the relationship between art and politics and the artist's responsibility to his society. As I have shown elsewhere [in Tom Stoppard: Comedy as a Moral Matrix, 1981], Travesties pits the proponents of socialist realism (Lenin), Dadaism (Tzara), art for art's sake (Joyce), and conventional bourgeois art (Carr). Among these views, Lenin's view of art is the one most discredited in Travesties because it is contradicted by Lenin's own response to art. The appropriate, doctrinaire response on art is learned rather than felt by Lenin. He initially prefers the bourgeois Pushkin to the revolutionary Mayakovsky; Beethoven's "Appassionata" "makes [him] want to say nice stupid things and pat the heads of those people who while living in this vile hell can create such beauty."

Yet the most substantial hinge between Artist and Travesties lies in the repetition of two statements concerning art and the artists. [In Artist] Donner, the artist in love with Sophie who ultimately commits himself to realistic painting, and Henry Carr [in Travesties] both offer definitions of the artist: "An artist is someone who is gifted in some way that [which] enables him to do something more or less well which can only be done badly or not at all by someone who is not thus gifted." That definition anticipates Henry's comparison of those who craft cricket bats and those who write plays in The Real Thing. Donner, an artist capable of realistic painting, Carr, and Henry agree that the prerequisite of the artist is the mastery of his medium; what is often simply called talent.

Travesties also shares with Artist nearly identical statements appearing in very different contexts concerning the artist's standing in and responsibility to society. As Can-says in Travesties: "What is an artist? For every thousand people there's nine hundred doing the work, ninety doing well, nine doing good, and one lucky bastard who's the artist." Carr is suspicious of, if not hostile to, art. He distrusts art because he fears that he may not understand it, that it may be a ruse perpetrated by artists. Stoppard's Squaring the Circle and The Real Thing also present characters who distrust art, often for political reasons.

Squaring the Circle follows the pattern of Professional Foul (both television plays), Cahoot's Macbeth, and Every Good Boy Deserves Favour in focusing expressly on a specific political situation. Unlike Jumpers and Night and Day, Squaring the Circle does not distance the work in an imaginary setting, but directly addresses a political reality as well as the problems involved in presenting that situation. In the course of Squaring the Circle Stoppard communicates an enormous amount of purely factual information: the history of Poland since 1720, the reason Poland is less likely to receive loans from Western governments than other equally economically imperiled countries, why moral leadership in Poland has been in the hands of the Church, the fact that 70 per cent of Polish agriculture is privately owned. This is no mean feat. At a time when most of the media coverage, at least in America, depicted the conflict between the Polish unions and the country's communist government in highly charged emotional terms, Squaring the Circle approaches its subject with an even-handedness. The play's approach to its sub ject seems predicated on the conviction that before the audience can undertake political action, it must factually and objectively understand the situation. As much as the image that General Jaruzelski presents to the Western world may fit the caricature of a Communist puppet dictator, complete with sinister tinted glasses, overbearing demeanor, and Fearless Leader uniform, and Lech Walesa may appear as his perfect foil—with his work clothes, unkept mustache, and insistent family—these are not the basis on which Stoppard draws their characters. Both are far more complex because they are presented not just as symbols, but as individuals. Audience expectations are continually reversed, for Squaring the Circle does not focus on the charismatic personality of Walesa, but rather on the complexities and ambiguities of the situation in Poland. Here, perhaps more convincingly than in any other play, Stoppard demonstrates how thoroughly he has researched his subject.

In some ways Squaring the Circle contains Stoppard's most "Brechtian" dramaturgy. (Ironically, its politics are decidedly anti-Brechtian or at least anti-communist.) The dramatic progress of the work expediently guided by the direct address of the Narrator. But that progress is repeatedly thwarted, qualified, or interrupted by the voice of the Witness who objects to or criticizes the dramatization of a particular situation. Despite its didacticism, Squaring the Circle, like all of Stoppard's political plays, does not intend to galvanize the audience to action.

The difficulty of accurately reporting or recreating a political situation becomes a thematic concern, just as it had in Night and Day. Stoppard's attention is expressly focused on the problem of presenting the words and deeds of actual people with honesty. His preface to Squaring the Circle confirms his sensitivity to this inherent dilemma:

Documentary fiction, by definition, is always in danger of seeming to claim to know more than a film maker can know. Accurate detail mingles with arty detail, without distinguishing marks, and history mingles with good and bad guesses.… It was the fear of just such imponderables and just such confusion between large speculation and small truths … that led me to the idea of having a narrator with acknowledged fallibility.

Technically, this is not an innovative device in Stoppard's dramaturgy. The most obvious precedent is Henry Carr, the "narrator" as well as a character in Travesties. Carr's memory, the stage directions record, "occasionally jumps the rails and has to be restarted at the point where it goes wild." Stoppard's own work employs other analogous dramatic devices, many of which evoke Pirandello's manipulations of dramatic reality. For Stoppard, as for Pirandello, multiple perspectives or renditions are not only stylistic devices, but because of their very nature and tacit commentary on drama itself, they become an important thematic component of these works.

As early as Rosencrantz, characters concerned themselves, often in an alarmingly disinterested way, with various explanations or interpretations of events. Rosencrantz, for instance, offers a "list of possible explanations" for his run of incredibly bad luck at coin-tossing. In "After Magritte" (1970) various characters, all eyewitnesses, provide radically different descriptions of the identical event. But in the works since Jumpers, those that are more directly concerned with political or aesthetic issues, Stoppard moves through different planes of dramatic reality to indicate how restricted any single perspective on a political situation must be.

Stoppard's solution to the dilemma of this limited perspective in Squaring the Circle was the creation of the Witness who periodically interrupts the narrator to challenge his authority. The very presence of the witnesses raises the question of "the qualified reality" which is all any account, whether it aspires to the status of art or claims to be wholly documentary, can achieve. Any perspective is necessarily limited—be it by camera position (in the case of a film documentary), by editing, or by inherent if inadvertent bias—and the best, the most objective and fair-minded solution for Stoppard is to acknowledge that fact.

Consequently, in Squaring the Circle the exchanges between the narrator and the Witness make explicit the problem Stoppard as a playwright and commentator confronted.

The Narrator is closer to Stoppard than virtually any of his earlier characters. Like the playwright, the Narrator operates from a position of presumed authority. Throughout most of the history of drama, until very recently in fact, one of the conventions governing the use of direct address (soliloquies, asides, choric statements, etc.) was that the character speak the truth, or at least what he perceived to be the truth at that moment. But Stoppard, through the Narrator, not only acknowledges but also exploits that assumption.

Much of the humor in Squaring the Circle lies in the conscious manipulation of the dramatic conventions governing veracity in direct address and awareness of the clichés of television journalism or its "docu-dramas." The Narrator often explains or tries to justify the interjection of literary images, such as a chess game or a game of cards, as a matter of artistic license. When the party bosses appear dressed as gangsters, the Witness objects:

Witness: What's all this gangster stuff?
Narrator: It's a metaphor.
Witness: Wrong. You people—
Narrator: All right.

The Witness is not about to allow the imposition of simplistic or clichéd images, no matter how convenient, on his reality. He resists all attempts of the Narrator (and author) to reduce the political circumstances to an easily accessible, tidy scenario. During the confrontation of General Jaruzelski, Walesa, and Cardinal Glemp, which is portrayed as a card game, the Narrator admits: "Everything is true except the words and the pictures."

Stoppard meticulously develops the ironies inherent in the political situation in Squaring the Circle. The play opens, for example, with the striking contrast between the official, public language that Leonid Brezhnev might have addressed to Edward Gierek ("Comrade! As your friends and allies in the progress towards the inevitable triumph of Marxist-Leninism, we are concerned, deeply concerned, by recent departures from Leninist norms by Polish workers manipulated by a revisionist element of the Polish Intelligentsia!") and what is closer in tone to, but certainly not exactly, the actual words uttered by Brezhnev: "What the hell is going on with you guys? Who's running the country? You or the engine drivers? Your work force has got you by the short hairs because you're up to your neck in hock to the German bankers, American bankers, Swiss bankers—you're in hock to us to the tune of … is it millions or billions… ?"

In Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, the incompetence of the authorities and their desperate attempts to conceal that incompetence, forces the play's action to the borders of farce. Bureaucrats posing as doctors struggle to disguise their bungling just as Feydeau's philanderers fought to safeguard their illicit liaisons. Only the stupidity and hypocrisy of the authorities assure the nominal, momentary (and hollow) happy ending of Every Good Boy Deserves Favour. Similarly, the ending of Professional Foul, recalling the recovery of Miss Prism's long-lost handbag and, in its self-conscious artificiality, obliquely suggests that such contrived happy endings are not about to resolve the oppression depicted. But in Squaring the Circle there is not only a more sustained, methodical delineation of the political issues, there is far less of the frenetic action of farce, very little of the intricate wordplay and wit so often identified with Stoppard, and none of the sleight-of-hand happy endings found in Professional Foul or Every Good Boy Deserves Favour. Squaring the Circle ends when the political situation reaches an impasse, not a resolution.

Thematically, Squaring the Circle deals with the political reality in Poland as well as the difficulty of writing about that situation. Stoppard's The Real Thing considers the difficulty of writing not only about politics, but also about love.

The Real Thing moves between the illusive and the real, the impersonal and the personal, the false and the true. Its opening scene initially lures the audience into mistaking House of Cards for the real thing, or The Real Thing. Conflating Henry's play and Stoppard's play is as natural and as dangerous as conflating Henry and Stoppard, the character and his creator. This is not the only opportunity the audience has to conflate art and life. In The Real Thing Stoppard again interpolates scenes from other works as a play-within-a-play much as Hamlet is used in Rosencrantz or Earnest in Travesties. The intimate conversations of Stoppard's characters flow into the rhetorical formality of Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore or Strindberg's Miss Julie.

Life, of course, does imitate art. When in The Real Thing Annie and Billy drift into the dialogue taken from Ford's Tis Pity She's a Whore, Billy, at least, is sincere in bor-rowing from a character to express his own feelings. In the next scene in The Real Thing, Henry's first wife, Charlotte, reminds Henry that she lost her virginity to the actor playing Giovanni to her Annabella, fuelling Henry's suspicions about Annie's infidelity.

Moreover, House of Cards establishes the image of a suspicious husband searching through his wife's possessions for evidence of adultery that is twice replayed in the course of The Real Thing. First, Charlotte, Henry's ex-wife, reports that her affair with an architect (a profession shared with the jealous husband in House of Cards) ended when he was unable to find her diaphragm in their home while she was away. Later, Henry himself ransacks Annie's belongings, presumably with the same goal in mind, while she is in Glasgow playing Annabella to Billy's Giovanni. The crucial difference is that in a highly emotional state, the razor-sharp wit of the characters in House of Cards yields to the untidy and unliterary anger of characters who present themselves as more real, or at least more human. As Hersh Zeifman observes, "the reaction of the 'real' husband to his wife's betrayal is, in both cases, utterly opposite to the graceful wit under pressure displayed by the theatrical husband in House of Cards" [Modern Drama XXV, No. 2, June, 1983].

The ambivalence of the play's title, referring both to true love and true art, is indicative of not only the play's structure, but its subject as well. Those subjects—love and art—are approached with a reverence anomalous in Stoppard's canon. Rarely does Stoppard treat his subject with such vulnerable sincerity and without the detachment of witty barbs.

The Real Thing contains some of Stoppard's most direct statements concerning love as well as the nature of the artist and his creation. In Henry, Stoppard has created a character who suggests not just tangential but direct comparison with his author. Among all Stoppard's characters, Henry offers the most tempting invitation to identify a character as the spokesman of his creator. Beside age, profession, and an interest in cricket, Henry and Stoppard share similar if not identical notions of play writing. Out-side of his interviews, the most forthright statements from Stoppard concerning playwrighting come from Henry. None of Henry's ideas on art in general or playwrighting contradict or are at variance with what Stoppard has said about playwrighting in interviews. Moreover, Henry's comments on drama are unrefuted, even unqualified by any other character in The Real Thing. The only possible opposition to Henry's ideas on playwrighting lies with Brodie, a singularly dislikable character, who ends with dip rather than pie on his face.

Yet Henry is hardly a self-serving idealization of the playwright. Unlike what Tynan has said of Stoppard's meticulous preparation, Henry "doesn't like research." Certainly, the little of what we know of House of Cards suggests Stoppard's characteristic wit and wordplay, but its subject, self-knowledge through pain, is hardly typical of his work. Although Henry respects language to the point of twice correcting his friend's grammar, he is not above writing a hack screenplay to earn the money to pay his alimony. He does, in fact, eventually doctor Brodie's play for television production. But he never manages to write the play he has promised Annie, largely because, as he says, "Loving and being loved is unliterary. It's happiness expressed in banality and lust." As tempting as it is, identifying Stoppard and Henry is as misguided as mistaking House of Cards for The Real Thing.

For Henry the real thing is as illusive and rare in love as it is in art. Just as he doesn't "believe in debonair relationships," he objects to the single-mindedness of Brodie's dramatic effort. Henry, in fact, despises Brodie as "a lout with language," and Brodie's play as invective drivel. In regard to "politics, justice, patriotism," Henry believes:

There's nothing real there separate from our perception of them. So if you try to change them as though there were something there to change, you'll get frustrated, and frustration will finally make you violent. If you know this and proceed with humility, you may perhaps alter people's perceptions so that they behave a little differently at that axis of behaviour where we locate politics or justice; but if you don't know this, then you're acting on a mistake. Prejudice is the expression of this mistake.

What Henry here suggests is precisely what Stoppard's political works, especially and most successfully Squaring the Circle, attempt to do. Polemical works are likely only to polarize already divided groups. But if properly used, words "can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos". For both Henry and Stoppard political action is wedded not to a particular ideology or cause, but to moral intelligence and sensibility. Without that fusion, political statement can easily become, as it does for Brodie, violence.

Moreover, if political statement is to be expressed artistically, both Henry and Stoppard would argue that precision with language and talent are necessary. Henry's already famous comparison of writing and crafting a cricket bat recall what Donner in Artist and Carr in Travesties say about the artist's talent:

This thing here, which looks like a wooden club, is actually several pieces of particular wood cunningly put together in a certain way so that the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor… . What we're trying to do is to write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might … travel… .

In the ability to make an idea "travel" lies the possibility of quickening the moral and political sensibilities of the artist's audiences. And therein lies the power as well as the genius of Stoppard as a dramatist.

The dramatic device most characteristic of Stoppard's approach to both political and aesthetic problems is to establish a dramatic reality on one plane and then to qualify, deny, or undercut it by introducing a higher plane which announces itself as closer to the Truth. The structure of his recent works, especially those which address political or aesthetic questions, reflects the games of leap-frog played by characters who offer "an argument, a refutation, then a rebuttal of the refutation, then a counter-rebuttal…" [Theatre Quarterly].

Established, fixed texts—the official party line in the case of Squaring the Circle, Shakespeare's Hamlet, Wilde's Earnest—only partially illuminate a given situation. Yet another perspective is provided by the vastly more personal, intimate and individualized portraits of Stoppard's characters.

The introduction of multiple perspectives on a single situation is hardly a recent development in Stoppard's work; "After Magritte" provides a much earlier example as various characters attempt to report what they saw. But in Squaring the Circle and The Real Thing this device effectively interpolates alternative versions of reality specifically to indicate the ambiguities and complexities of human situations that variously deal with art, love, or politics. In earlier works, this same device was used but to vastly different ends: the text of Shakespeare's Hamlet was interpolated into Rosencrantz and fragments of Wilde's Earnest appeared in Travesties. In Squaring the Circle and The Real Thing Stoppard's deft manipulation of dramatic realities and interpolated scenes has realized a new maturity in suggesting the limits of art and the complex relationship between art and life.

In 1975, Stoppard told Charles Marowitz:

I'm not impressed by art because it's political. I believe in art being good art or bad art, not relevant or irrelevant art. The plain truth is that if you are angered or disgusted by a particular injustice or immorality, and you want to do something about it, now, at once, then you can hardly do worse than write a play about it. That's what art is bad at [New York Times, 19 October 1975].

Despite the political content in the works since Jumpers, there is nothing in any of Stoppard's works that contradicts this statement. His sights have always been on the "axis of behaviour where we locate politics or justice"; his concern for the integrity of art has always preceded his political statements. Political commitments are matter left for the audience to discover in their own moral sensibility.

Mary A. Doll (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Stoppard's Theatre of Unknowing," in British and Irish Drama since 1960, edited by James Acheson, The Macmillan Press Ltd., 1993, pp. 117-29.

[In the essay below, Doll provides an overview of Stoppard's drama, noting the use of paradox, ambiguity, and humor, which characterize his work as "post-Absurdist. "]

It should come as no surprise, given his background, that Tom Stoppard should be a playwright of paradox. His personal as well as professional life speak of a penchant for double, not stable, coding. Born in Zlin, Czechoslovakia, 3 July 1937, Tom Straussler became a child without a country, fleeing the effects of World War II by living with his family in Singapore, then in India, and finally in England—all before the age of nine. When his mother remarried after his father was killed, his name changed to Stoppard and his life changed from that of an immigrant—he called himself a 'bounced Czech'—to that of a privileged student in English preparatory schools. Stoppard began his career as a journalist and theatre reviewer, although his real interest was in creating, not critiquing, plays. When at the age of twenty-nine he achieved world fame with his first play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, he became known as a university wit—without yet having attended university.

Such contradictions in Stoppard's personal life helped shape his multifaceted career. Unlike most of his artistic contemporaries, Stoppard has produced work in all media and in all genres, including critical articles in journals and newspapers; short stories; one novel; radio, television, and film scripts; and, of course, stage plays (twenty-four: sixteen original, eight adaptations) for which he is best known. True to his sensibility Stoppard demonstrates that any attempt to name, point, place, picture or record any event as fact is completely ironic—irony being his chosen mode since it puts the point beside the point. Stoppard presents serious issues—like war, death, love, art, deceit, and treachery—with a light touch. His intention is to divest us of certainty, which he sees as an arrogant attitude inherited from the postures of logical positivism and classical science.

The nearest attempt to categorise Stoppard has been made by Martin Esslin, who places the playwright beyond the Absurd in what he calls the post-Absurdist tradition [The Theatre of the Absurd, 1961]. Post-Absurdists go even farther than Absurdists in dispensing with unities of plot, character, and action, together with the illusion of certainty such unities assume. Esslin's word replacing 'unity' is 'mystery' or 'mystification'—the latter a word Stoppard uses. Another word for Absurdism, 'paradox', Stoppard also employs to suggest the doubling quality inside his drama. 'Paradox and tautology', he once said. 'They don't have to mean anything, lead anywhere, be part of anything else. I just like them' [quoted by Stephen Shiff, Vanity Fair, May, 1989]. In a Stoppard play doubling is a recognisable feature, including motifs of doubletiming, coincidence, and doublecrossing. There are—and this is a Stoppard hallmark—plays-within-plays; characters who are twins; characters who are different characters with the same names; and characters who are at the same time spies and counter-spies.

A second post-Absurdist trait of Stoppard's work is ambiguity. 'My plays', he has said, 'are a lot to do with the fact that I JUST DON'T KNOW; such not-knowing he calls the "definite maybe'" [Author 78, Spring, 1967]. He often features a detective, a philosopher, a sleuth or a spy who, in the spirit of Isaac Newton or Sherlock Holmes, applies cause-and-effect logic to any problem at hand. Newton's postulate—from same beginnings will follow same ends—is ludicrously explored by Stoppard s detectives. Instead of a Newtonian universe, where problems can be solved, Stoppard ascribes to what post-modern science calls 'chaos theory'. Gaps, punctures and breaks in sequence sabotage every logical attempt to formulate a hypothesis. Indeed, Stoppard's greatest contribution to theatre may be his concept of the indeterminacies of what it is 'to know' as a hired professional, a spectator, or even as an ordinary human being.

A third quality of Absurdist drama is its plumbing of comedy for the presentation of serious themes. Where Stoppard clearly departs from the Absurdist tradition is in tone. Stoppard's tone is paradoxically both lighter—'English high comedy' as Esslin puts it—and weightier. Important issues are presented elegantly, often in the guise of gaming, including everything from bridge and billiards to ping pong, charades and cricket. But these games are re-ally stylised rituals, meant to be seen as the games people play against two parts of themselves, against others, or against some higher ethical code.

Stoppard's first play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1967) earned him deserved world-wide recognition. A comic-tragedy, it proposes a theme that runs through all his work—that what we witness is unrelated to reality or truth—and sets forth his post-Absurdist use of doubling, ambiguity, and elegant play. Doublecoded here, of course, is Shakespeare's Hamlet, which, like Stoppard's later Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth (1979), places traditional theatre with its expectations of top-down authority and elevated blank verse alongside post-Absurdist theatre with its confusion in rank ordering and idiomatic speech. Stoppard thus deconstructs Shakespeare. 'Ros' and 'Guil'—mere functionaries in Shakespeare's world—enter Stoppard's world centre stage. It is they, not Hamlet, who ponder the serious issues of death, probability, relationship. It is they, not Hamlet, who emphasise the metaphor of theatre as a place where one can 'come to know'—but only in play time; for while Ros and Guil play-act their Shakespeare lines, we watch them watch the king watch the Players play the role of Hamlet's father ghosting the play. No one 'comes to know' with an assured Aristotelian sense.

Stoppard's second play, Enter a Free Man (1968), takes the existential themes of being and the impossibility of knowing into a new situation. The essence of being, Stoppard suggests, consists in playing ourselves as different people when we enter different situations. We are never 'free' since within our seemingly stable orders lie strange attractors luring us into other trajectories. The play concerns the underhanded schemes of George (he would like to escape his average home life) and daughter Linda (she would like to marry her motorcycle boyfriend), both of whom seek adventure outside the realm of the wife-mother Persephone (whose real home, we know from myth, is in the underworld, the realm of the hidden other self). To have an identity that stays the same in all situations is to engage in myth; but myth, Stoppard suggests, is a reality of sorts.

In "The Real Inspector Hound" (1968) Stoppard again takes up the issue of reality, this time inside the context of the whodunnit. What better character type to illustrate the indeterminacies of problem solving than an inspector and a spectator? The play is ostensibly about two drama critics reviewing a production, but the play-within-a-play motif provides a frame for Stoppard's borrowings from chaos theory. Indeed, as the philosopher of science Steven Toulmin comments, Stoppard has put to death the whole notion of what it is to be a spectator, since would-be spectators are transformed into agents, making us all agents in what we observe [Steven Toulmin, The Return of Cosmology: Postmodern Science and the Theology of Nature, 1982]. Stoppard plays with the idea of 'the death of the spectator' on two levels, both in terms of plot (one of the drama critic spectators, drawn into the living room whodunnit, gets murdered) and in terms of the spectator's role.

The play is not about drama critics but about perception. If classical theatre, like classical science, depended on a stable order, then the study of chaos, like a Stoppard play, depends on dynamic orders. Perception shifts, disequilibrium ensues, and the part-whole relationship of observer to thing-observed—once considered fixed—erupts. Chaos theorists call the eruption of these new patterns 'fractals' or structures which are self-similar at different levels. Fractal patterns arise spontaneously and engage in activity that doubles, echoes, and mirrors—producing thereby an irregular order that does not depend on individual components. Stoppard spectators similarly must relinquish their role, classically defined as objective observers.

Part of the erupting order in this play is Stoppard's parodies of criticisms levelled at his work. The two critics, Moon and Birdboot, comment on the play they are viewing, which concerns a drawing room murder at Muldoon Manor. The play, they say, is a trifle; the characters are ciphers; the second act fails to fulfil the promise of the first act; there is hardly a whiff of social realism. More to Stoppard's point, however, is his fascination with the possibilities afforded art by non-linear dynamics. At issue is a storm, a house party, an intruder, a murder. A cosy order is disrupted by a murdered body. The statement about killing Simon Gascoyne seems to be a clue to the murder but is attributed to every suspect, making conclusion impossible. This particle of information loops and repeats, embedding layers of complexity. Like the manor house set apart in the storm with no roads leading to it, the observed problem cannot be 'gotten at' by traditional channels of thinking. We spectators are in the midst of a chaotic situation, adrift from tradition.

"After Magritte" (1971) contains a similar comment on methods of logical deduction leading to smug conclusions—falsely, of course. Matters which appear to the senses defy eye witness accounts and 'private eye' ratiocinations. Not only is Stoppard critiquing again the spectator theory of knowledge—where what one sees is what one knows—but he is also presenting issues concerning non-mimetic art, which in Travesties (1975) and Artist Descending a Staircase (1973, 1989) become central foci.

René Magritte (1898-1967) is a natural model for Stoppard since, like Stoppard's, Magritte's work multiplies ambiguities. In what Michel Foucault [in This is Not a Pipe, 1982] describes as a 'calligram', Magritte's painting 'aspires playfully to efface the oldest oppositions of our alphabetical civilisation: to show and to name; to shape and to say; to reproduce and to articulate; to imitate and to signify; to look and to read'. Art's role is not to name, signify, shape, or show; it is to be insouciant, to celebrate difference. Magritte names his paintings wrongly in order to focus attention upon the very act of naming. But, as Foucault observes, 'in this split and drifting space, strange bonds are knit'. Just as Foucault's writing about Magritte is a cornucopia of wisecracks meant to draw attention to absurdities, so too are Stoppard's plays.

Overlaps with Stoppard and Magritte are instructive. In "After Magritte" the stereotype detective Foot (flat-footed, literal) and police constable Holmes (after Sherlock) formulate a false hypothesis based on simple sensory data and mere shreds of evidence. Stoppard employs the metaphor of a light bulb—there are numerous references to Thomas Edison, inventor of electricity—to indicate ironically that with such reliance on ratiocination there can be no light, no sudden inspiration, and certainly no real seeing. 'Eye' witness accounts all prove wrong, and details which 'speak volumes to an experienced detective' speak the wrong volumes loudly. The situation in this play is of witnessing a bizarre spectacle—Mother lying on her back on an ironing board—presuming she is dead; witnessing the strange behaviour of Harris and Thelma—Harris dressed in thigh-length waders, Thelma dressed for ballroom dancing—and presuming there has been a crime. The absurdity of the situation might seem merely derivative of Magritte were it not for the fact that a similar incident actually occurred in the United States, when a museum guard observed through a museum window a grey-haired woman seated in a chair, not breathing; he called the fire depart ment, which rushed to the rescue—of an art exhibit of a woman in a chair.

Ambiguities of naming and knowing are centrally shown in Jumpers (1972), which features a professor/philosopher, George Moore, named after George Edward Moore (1873-1958). The real George Moore's preoccupation, expressed in Principia Ethica (1903), had to do with questions of ethical theory (the meaning of 'good', 'right', and 'duty'), the theory of knowledge, and the nature of philosophical analysis. Of Stoppardian interest is Moore's obsession with the verb 'to know': how the act of 'knowing' relates to observation, to perception, and to expression. In the tradition of logical positivism, Moore attempted to define 'to know', endowing knowledge with qualities of certainty above and beyond what can be discovered through the five senses or articulated through imprecise language. George Edward Moore's leaps of logic become the ironic metaphor of Jumpers, where eight amateur acrobats form the backdrop against the speechifying character George Moore.

George is attempting to pinpoint the existence of God by examining data, looking for logical inferences, putting two and two together, and coming up with God. His mental gymnastics—spoofed by the somersaultings of gymnasts—only prove that 'the point' will not stand its ground. The positions of the acrobats shift—we learn they are trying to hide a corpse. So too does the position of George shift as he tries to hide his logic behind such philosophical corpses as those of Plato, Newton, and Russell. His jargon recalls the speech of Lucky, a slave to a tyrannical master in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, where phrases like 'established beyond all doubt' are positioned against phrases like 'for reasons unknown'. Dorothy, George's wife, is 'dotty': she sings stereotypical moon songs and needs therapy because her fantasies about the moon, thus about love, have been invaded either by technological moon landings or by her husband's excessive rationalism. While Stoppard's satire is clever, if overworked, a more serious theme runs through the play: the yearning for carnal knowing and for another kind of mind-knowing.

Stoppard continues to raise issues inside high comedy with Travesties (1975). The play takes its energy from a little-known event in literary history—a travesty of seriousness—and Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest—a travesty of earnestness, the first event intersecting with the second. Amused by the anti-art Dada movement, Stoppard cheerfully seeks to dislocate his audience. Henry Carr, for instance, is the improbable fringe catalyst of chaos who remembers his time in war chiefly through recollecting what he wore (war/wore)—twill jodhpurs, silk cravats—war a metaphor for fashion. The first act introduces historical and fictional characters, who play with issues of art (Tristan Tzara, the Dadaist, is a character), history (Karl Marx is a character), and literature (James Joyce is a character). The first act, however, is parodied by the second act when a pretty girl delivers heavy speeches on Marxism and the theory of value—undercutting, thereby, the clever speeches of the fashionable first-act men.

Travesties shares many of the same concerns as the radio play Artist Descending a Staircase (1973), later turned into a stage play (1989). In both, art—not history or philosophy—conveys insight (to those who are not blindsighted), since the necessary 'fall' artists must make from the literal staircase of rationalism opens up the province of imagination. Tristan Tzara becomes perhaps the first Stoppard mouthpiece to articulate a clear position on the seriousness of play. Not only does he insist on the right of the artist to delude audience expectation but he insists on the ethical function of such denunciation, noting that wars are really fought for words like 'oil' and 'coal', not for words like 'freedom' and 'patriotism'. Dada art, like post-Absurdism, is thus committed to the serious enterprise of exposing the sophistry within every rational argument.

Stoppard has been criticised for trivialising serious issues or for being too neutral in the exposition of political ideas. Such indeterminacy, the critics argue, reduces the author's intent. Rather than answering his critics, Stoppard utilises their thinking to his own post-Absurdist effect. Switzerland, a neutral ground with its reassuring air of permanence, becomes in Travesties the centre of flux; a little- known event becomes the raw material from which the story draws its energy; uncertainty and confusion are like the cuckoos of Swiss clocks. It is not that chaos is chaotic, but that order has a false sense of security dressed in fancy clothes (travesties).

Dirty Linen and New-Found-Land (1976), a 'knickers farce', were reviewed negatively as 'undergraduate satire' or as 'altogether intolerable' [see Thomar R. Whitaker, Tom Stoppard, 1983]. While Stoppard's post-Absurdism here leans toward panache, it nevertheless reflects a serious Orwellian point about politics and the English language that the critics seemed to have missed. Spoofed in Dirty Linen is Parliamentary procedure, instituted to safe-guard government from corruption, but in fact safeguarding government from the people's right to know. Similar to other social rituals, government committee proceedings provide gaming situations where politicians can 'score' with Maddie Gotobed (an unsubtle name), and journalists covering committee deliberations can 'win' readers. 'Public trust', which must 'air its dirty linen', becomes just a meaningless phrase like che sara sara, c'est la vie, or quel dommage. Stoppard suggests that the devaluing of democratic principles is as universally accepted as the degeneration of plain talk. This concern about democracy and language is mirrored in the second play, where America, the supposed new-found-land, is exposed as merely a trite idea propped up by stereotypes. The character Arthur takes us on a Whitmanesque celebration of 'America' coast to coast. But poetry dies inside bombast, as does meaning inside politics. Doublespeak leads to adultery in the private sphere and disinformation in the public sphere, and what mediates the lie in each is the noble-sounding word.

Every Good Boy Deserves Favour: A Piece for Actors and Orchestra (1977)—André Pre vin conducting—places Stoppard's comedy squarely inside a post-Absurdist frame-work, where the really serious issues of our time can no longer be discussed seriously (we have lost the capacity to hear) and so a new strategy must be found. One of Stoppard's new strategies is music, which speaks to the soul, not the mind. The setting, a mental institution inside a Soviet totalitarian regime, offers Stoppard yet another occasion to critique the logics that uphold institutions, be these 'democratic' or 'communist', and to show these logics as false. But with music as a background to the grim themes of torture, political prisoners, repressive regimes and mental illness, Stoppard softens his attack; and by exposing interrogation methods as bizarre, he shows the craziness of logic.

Recognisably Stoppardian is the situation of two men with the same name, Alexander Ivanov, one 'sane', the other 'insane'. Both characters rebel against the norm, but for different reasons. The case of the 'insane' Alexander reveals the validity of Greek culture, which saw a harmony between music and math. Deluded by the notion that his body contains an orchestra, Ivanov the lunatic brings back the wisdom of the Greeks, which in Euclidean geometry proclaimed two fascinating axioms: first, everyone is equal to the triangle; second, a point has position but no dimen sion. The first axiom warns against dichotomous, either/or rigidities. Accordingly, the lunatic plays a triangle, an instrument he uses to sabotage rigid regimes; he 'plays' against two-sided oppositional thinking with the triangle. His delusion, therefore, is ludic, a gaming protection against absolutes. The second axiom applies to the other Ivanov, the political prisoner, whose protest against totalitarianism has given him his public 'point' but has denied him his private 'dimension' with his son, Sacha. This character is thus a prisoner inside a belief system that excludes the middle: life lived among and between other people, like sons. That he is imprisoned by a totalitarian regime is symbolic of a frozen relationship with his son, a touching sub-theme.

In Night and Day (1978) the focus is again on language and politics and the war between the two. Set in a fictional black African country, Kambawe, the play concerns a nation faced with an internal revolution caused by conflicting economic and political systems. But of greater interest than the revolution is the attitude of the two journalists covering the war, their at-war viewpoints about reporting and factuality. Milne and Wagner are like night and day: the former a cynic, a self-seeking capitalist and a scab; the latter an idealist who believes that his profession is the Fourth Estate, capable of correcting the lies of politicians.

The play is also about colonisation: how not just countries or journalists but ordinary people like Ruth Carson can be occupied by foreign forces. Ruth engages inner speech, delivered outwardly, to suggest her contrast to the double-talk of politicians; hers is the speaking back and forth from one 'country' of the self to another, in clear recognition that she has been colonised. In a particularly dramatic moment Ruth rails against the cant for which people die. Speaking between her two selves, she comes to see that winning wars is not for the liberation of Kambawe but for the ownership of Kambawe's resources: King Solomon's Mines played for 'reel'.

Stoppard continues language considerations in Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth (1979), where in the preface he suggests that the play is an answer to Ludwig Wittgenstein's philosophical investigation proposing that different words describe different shapes and sizes. Ever fascinated with systems of thought, Stoppard exposes the assumption within the assumption, playfully and hilariously. In Dogg's Hamlet the language system to be learned is Dogg talk. Professor Dogg, to whom the play is dedicated, has his own set of words which Abel, Baker, and Charlie, in fine military fashion, understand. These three schoolboys are erecting a stage for a performance, but to put all the planks in place they need to know the lingo. The audience watches as they place planks on cue by a single command, much as dogs perform for masters. Spectators, not understanding the language, must themselves become doglike, trying to master tricks. The first thirty pages of playtext are, subsequently, Dogg talk, followed by the last fourteen pages, which derive from Shakespeare's Hamlet, including Hamlet's loaded line, 'Words, words, words', and Polonius' response, 'Though this be madness, yet there is method in it'.

Doublecoded within this situation is another situation, that of another Shakespeare play, Macbeth, dedicated to the Czechoslovakian playwright Pavel Kohout. Stoppard has instructed his audience sufficiently in the first part of his production so that when Easy enters, speaking only Dogg language, he becomes easily understood. The point of the nonsense seems to be this: plays within plays illustrate political situations; the Czech revolution, with its accompanying censorship of artists like Pavel Kohout, 'ghost' every attempt by Tom Stoppard, born in Czechoslovakia, to write in the free world. Both Macbeth and Hamlet have at their dramatic centres a ghost; so does Stoppard have at his centre a ghost—his own dead father and the censored artist from his fatherland. While British audiences are well schooled in understanding such rituals as parlor games and tea, these same audiences have no way of dealing with the black holes of totalitarianism. Stoppard brings forth spectres of his 'checkered' past (represented through Shakespeare) so that British ears may acquire new hearing, British eyes deeper seeing.

With The Real Thing (1982) Stoppard further engages serious themes. Like his first play, it won a Tony Award, deservedly so; it is a gem of a play, raising all of Stoppard's issues of the sixties and seventies with a new eighties elegance. The problem of language, the question of art's role in politics, the question of reality: these comprise the concerns which have almost become Stoppard hallmarks. Less familiar is Stoppard's treatment of 'knowing' as a carnal, not just an intellectual concern. Knowing—the yearning to be known without the mask—becomes a powerful theme because an impossible reality.

Two members of the writing profession, Brodie and Henry, are professional antagonists with different ideas of their trade. Brodie, committed to politics, believes that art should make a point about public policy; his language is unequivocal but trite. Henry believes that art is not 'about' anything: it is the thing itself. His play House of Cards is a metaphor for his theory of aesthetics as a house decked to fall. The spectator must acquire the skill to see that false claims or noble words are flimsy frames for truth. With its emphasis on the title word 'real', this play addresses the impossibility of knowing—in relationships, particularly—when truth is obscured by language.

Of central interest is Henry's desire to find for himself the undealt card of carnal knowledge. Knowing the flesh in extremis is stripping off the public mask, becoming finally naked to one's lover, one's self. But carnal knowing offers no guarantee of fidelity. In this play everyone carnally loves everyone else's spouse. Stoppard once again double codes Shakespeare—this time Othello—to show the tragic ends to which logical proofs can lead. A mere handkerchief 'stands' for more than it can define—betray-al—a reality which can never be defined to satisfy the condition of pain.

The Real Thing is central to Stoppard's aesthetic intention. Through a mix of doubling, ambiguity, and playfully elegant wit, Stoppard makes his post-Absurdist point. Not only is it impossible to equate the thing 'named' or shown to the thing 'experienced', it is wrong, ethically and morally, so to do. In an impassioned speech for the function of paradox in language, Henry (speaking for Stoppard), says this:

Words don't deserve … malarkey. They're innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other, so if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos. But when they get their corners knocked off, they're no good any more… .

Words have corners, just as truth does: shades of meaning, opposite definitions, different parts of speech. The terrible irony is that words standing for 'this' while describing 'that' invite lying, publicly as well as privately. The solution is not to make ever more precise the terms of our knowing; the solution is to open up our ability to see the dead ends to which big words can lead when their corners get knocked off.

Hapgood (1988) is the most recent of Stoppard's work to advance the post-Absurdist motifs of mystification, ambiguity, and playfulness—this time with overt reference to spectator notions borrowed from scientific chaos theory. According to David Bohm, no continuous motion such as that presupposed by Newtonian cause-and-effect logic actually exists in nature. Instead, an examination of the dual role of both matter and energy reveals that things can be connected any distance away without any apparent force to carry that connection [See The Reenactment of Science, ed. David Ray Griffin, 1988]. Rather than parts organising wholes—deduction's code of reasoning—it seems that parts are wholes. It seems, too, that discrete individual units (called 'the quantum' in science, 'the spectator' in theatre) are constantly attracted by turbulence and self-contradiction. How we know is a mystery based on an overall interrelatedness of things—a statement which chaos theorists readily accept. An interesting irony here is that Stoppard may ultimately appeal more to scientists schooled in chaos theory than to literary critics schooled in Aristotle.

Hapgood is a play about a character who is unable to pinpoint the truth she is seeking, either in her professional life as chief intelligence officer (called Mother) or in her private life as a single parent (also called Mother). No matter how Elizabeth Hapgood figures it, her seeing always eludes reality. The pivotal character is a Russian physicist, Joseph Kerner, who, like Barley Blair of the Stoppard-scripted movie, The Russia House (1990), has defected to the West to continue his research but who feeds back to the Soviet Union information that will mislead the Soviet scientists. That Kerner, Hapgood's lover, has a twin complicates the problem Hapgood has in trying to 'see' who he is (she, however, also plays at twinning). This doubled situation demonstrates the scientific proper ty of electrons, which in quantum mechanics can be in two places at the same time.

While something subversive pervades Stoppard's post-Absurdist perspective, it is also curiously liberating. Stoppard shows us that every ordered system has rituals, which he delights in stylising so that we can see their mannered form. To consider any code as single-layered is totally to misrepresent reality. Reality seen through a Stoppard lens is always ambiguous; but its pain, though real, is not tragic. Stoppard's sharp wit cuts through the nonsense, giving us the grace to accept unknowing when confronted with such axioms as these: I am not who you think I am; the games we play are more serious than we think they are; the wars we fight are not for the causes they tell us they are.

Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 16765

R. H. Lee (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "The Circle and its Tangent," in Theoria, Pietermaritzburg, Vol. XXXIII, October, 1969, pp. 37-43.

[In the essay below, Lee employs the image of a circle and a line tangential to it—representing the world in Stoppard's play in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstem are "people" and its intersection with the world of Hamlet, in which they are "characters"—to elucidate the structure of Stoppard's drama and its relation to Shakespeare's tragedy..]

Almost every critic or reviewer who has written on Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstem are Dead has paid tribute to the dramatist's "brilliant idea" in linking his play about two supporting actors with the play in which they act their parts. But once they have shown that they understand that a "brilliant" and even audacious idea is involved, they stop without doing justice either to the full brilliance of the idea, or to the detail in which it is worked out. In this article I want, first, to explain what I think the idea is, and how the structure and intention of the play should be seen; and, secondly, to analyse some parts of the play to show that the dramatist embodies this idea in the substance as well as the structure of the play.

When Rosencrantz and Guildenstem first meet the Player on the way to Elsinore, this exchange takes place:

Rosencrantz: What is your line?

Player: Tragedy, sir. Deaths and disclosures, universal and particular, denouements both unexpected and inexorable, transvestite melodrama on all levels including the suggestive. We transport you into a world of intrigue and illusion … clowns, if you like, murderers—we can do you ghosts and battles, on the skirmish level, heroes, villains, tormented lovers—set pieces in the poetic vein; we can do you rapiers or rape or both, by all means, faithless wives and ravished virgins—flagrante delicto at a price, but that comes under realism for which there are special terms. Getting warm, am I?

It has already been established that one of the primary verbal modes of the play is punning, and so we are not surprised to find that "line" can mean "special interest or concern" or "the long narrow mark linking two or more points". The Player thus performs tragedies as his special interest or concern, and his specialisation as a form of drama is also described as a line. Tragedy as a literary form is predominantly linear, and this fact suggests to me that a helpful way of looking at the structure of the play is to see it as a circle with a tangent to it. The circle is the world of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as people, and the tangent is the world of Hamlet, and Hamlet, play and character. The tangent touches the circle in the lives of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, at the very point where we see them as people (expressed, in dramatic terms, by their being characters in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead) and at the same time as characters in Hamlet. Their confusion arises from the intermittent and, to them, inexplicable movements from one kind of world to another.

The diagram of the circle and its tangent is helpful also in suggesting the nature of the two worlds touching each other. We have already discussed the pun on the 'line' of tragedy linking Hamlet with the tangent. In the action and image of spinning coins, and in the plain allusions to Waiting for Godot, we see the nature of the other world—the circular, repetitive experience of Beckettian comedy. In his play, Stoppard provides us with the point of contact of seventeenth and twentieth century views of the world, as these are crystallised in the drama of each century. Let us look at each separately.

The understanding of and response to tragedy as a literary form depends upon the acceptance of the idea of causality: that certain events will have certain consequences which, in turn, become the causes of certain events which have their own consequences. One could go further and say that belief in tragedy also involves acceptance of the belief that the whole linked chain of events has a purpose, and is therefore theoretically explicable by someone in possession of all the necessary information. The two central elements of tragedy are indicated in the terms "inevitability" and "understanding"; or to quote Northrop Frye [in his Anatomy of Criticism]:

tragedy shows itself to be primarily a vision of the supremacy of the event or 'mythos'. The response to tragedy is 'this must be', or, perhaps more accurately, 'this does happen': the event is primary, the explanation of it, secondary and variable.

In our own lives, the possibility of seeing clearly the full course of the linked chain of events, and understanding its inevitable end, is limited. It is limited by our individual participation in the event which colours our view of them, and by physical death, which cuts off our participation in the sequence at the moment it reaches its conclusion, and the moment before we can understand it. The fact and prospect of death also complicates and confuses our necessary emotional acceptance that this is where the whole tragic sequence is leading. We are thus in our own lives partially unable and partially unwilling to contemplate the straight line of tragedy to death.

And therein lies the great satisfaction and arguable moral value of dramatic tragedy. The tragic play compels us to see a tragic sequence, and, because we are not involved in it, and because the dramatist can give us all the information for understanding, we cannot flinch from the inevitable end—death. This is what Aristotle means in his theory of the cathartic value of tragedy—it enables us to contemplate through art a vision of life too horrifying to contemplate at first hand. In fact, artistic death is the only death most of us can contemplate—as the Player argues to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, when they object that stage deaths are unbelievable:

Guildenstern: Actors! The mechanics of cheap melo-drama! That isn't death! You scream and choke and sink to your knees, but it doesn't bring death home to anyone—it doesn't catch them unawares and start the whisper in their skulls that says—" One day you are going to die". You die so many times; how can you expect them to believe in your death!

Player: On the contrary, it's the only kind they do believe. They're conditioned to it. I had an actor once who was condemned to hang for stealing a sheep—or a lamb, I forget which—so I got permission to have him hanged in the middle of a play—had to change the plot a bit but I thought it would be effective, you know—and you wouldn't believe it, he just wasn't convincing! It was impossible to suspend one's disbelief—and what with the audience jeering and throwing peanuts, the whole thing was a disaster!—he did nothing but cry all the time—right out of character—just stood there and cried … Never again … Audiences know what to expect, and that is all that they are prepared to believe in.

A tragic drama, then, focusses our attention on and, as Aristotle's theory suggests, helps us to come to terms with what is assumed by the dramatist to be the situation in real life. Whether this theory actually describes the effect, desired and actual, of tragedy is hotly disputed, and modern critics tend not to accept these wide claims. Frye, for instance, narrows them considerably, but still indicates belief in the "line" of tragedy when he writes:

The machinery of fate (in tragedy) is administered by a set of remote invisible gods, whose freedom and pleasure are ironic because they exclude man, and who intervene in human affairs chiefly to safeguard their own prerogatives. They demand sacrifices, punish presumption, and enforce obedience to natural and moral law as an end in itself. Here we are not trying to describe, for instance, the gods in Greek tragedy: we are trying to isolate the sense of human remoteness and futility in relation to the divine order which is only one element among others in most tragic visions of life, though an essential one in all.

Stoppard's "brilliant idea" consists essentially in using the actual tragic play Hamlet (to which we already attach feelings of "human remoteness and futility") as an image of "the machinery of fate" in the lives of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern themselves. A tragedy becomes the vehicle for a sense of tragedy in another play. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are caught up in it "without possibility of reprieve or hope of explanation".

The Player and the tragedians (we notice that though they are usually called the Players, Stoppard chooses to focus upon their playing of tragedy alone) are given many opportunities of describing this view of life. The central example, perhaps, is this:

Player: There's a design at work in all art—surely you know that? Events must play themselves out to aesthetic, moral and logical conclusion.

Guildenstern: And what's that, in this case?

Player: It never varies—we aim at the point where everyone who is marked for death dies.

Guildenstern: Marked?

Player: Between "just deserts" and "tragic irony" we are given quite a lot of scope for our particular talent. Generally speaking, things have gone about as far as they can possibly go when things have got about as bad as they reasonably get. (He switches on a smile.)

Guildenstern: Who decides?

Player (switching off his smile): Decides? It is written. (He turns away. GUIL. grabs him and spins him back violently.) (Unflustered) Now if you're going to be subtle, we'll miss each other in the dark. I'm referring to oral tradition. So to speak.

(GUIL. releases him.)

We're tragedians, you see. We follow directions—there is no choice involved. The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means.



(The TRAGEDIANS have taken up positions for the continuation of the mime: which in this case means a love scene, sexual and passionate, between the QUEEN and the POISONER/KING.)

Player: Go!

Death is the goal of the design of all tragic art, and the actor can manoeuvre only in the determining of the kind of death, and the moral attitude to death. Once we have established those, we can begin. Wittily, as he explains this theory, the tragedians take their places and begin. This is the world into which Rosencrantz and guildenstern are dragged initially by the messenger, uncomprehending of its causes or consequences, barely understanding the minute parts they have to play, and thus carried along to their deaths. There is a small growth of self-awareness, expressed in their attitude to being on the boat in Act III. Though they disbelieve in their destination, they do realise that they are being carried somewhere:

Guildenstern: Where we went wrong was getting on a boat. We can move, of course, change direction, rattle about, but our movement is contained within a larger one that carries us along as inexorably as the wind and current …

Rosencrantz: They had it in for us, didn't they? Right from the beginning. Who'd have thought that we were so important?

Guildenstern: But why? Was it all for this? Who are we that so much should converge on our little deaths? (In anguish to the PLAYERS.) Who are wel

They do develop slightly, moving away from the world they begin in, into the Hamlet world. Their original world is caught at once for us, in the play, in the action and image of spinning coins, and especially in the remarkable run of heads with which the play has opened. Around this phenomenon, which the simpler and more satisfied Rosencrantz finds simply "luck", Guildenstern nervously erects certain pertinent philosophical dilemmas. For our purpose, the most important is that it suggests a world in which all causality is absent, and presents us with the notion that the sequence of eighty-five heads is both amazing and expected:

Guildenstern: It must be indicative of something, besides the redistribution of wealth. (He muses.) List of possible explanations. One: I'm willing it. Inside where nothing shows, I am the essence of a man spinning double-headed coins, and betting against himself in private atonement for an unremembered past. (He spins a coin at ROS.)

Rosencrantz: Heads.

Guildenstern: Two: time has stopped dead, and the single experience of one coin being spun once has been repeated ninety times … (He flips a coin, looks at it, tosses it to ROS.) On the whole, doubtful. Three: divine intervention that is to say, a good turn from above concerning him, cf. children of Israel, or retribution from above concerning me, cf. Lot's wife. Four: a spectacular vindication of the principle that each individual coin spun individually (he spins one) is as likely to come down heads as tails and therefore should cause no surprise each individual time it does.

The final explanation is statistically accurate, and presents us with a world of total unreliability—an amazing combination of phenomena simply cannot be made to yield either a sequence or a precedent. The eighty-sixth spin is totally undetermined by the previous eighty-five. Facts remain isolated, refuse to form chains, and explanations remain forever "possible", the nature of circumstances determining the run being beyond our comprehension.

Guildenstern himself specifically draws the comparison between the two kinds of world:

Guildenstern: The equanimity of your average tosser of coins depends upon a low, or rather a tendency, or let us say a probability, or at any rate a mathematically calculable chance, which ensures that he will not upset himself by losing too much nor upset his opponent by winning too often. This made for a kind of harmony and a kind of confidence. It related the fortuitous and the ordained into a reassuring union which we recognized as nature. The sun came up about as often as it went down, in the long run, and a coin showed heads about as often as it showed tails. Then a messenger arrived. We had been sent for. Nothing else happened. Ninety-two coins spun consecutively have come down ninety-two consecutive times … and for the last three minutes on the wind of a windless day I have heard the sound of drums and flute …

The messenger summons them from the endless cycle of fortuitous, repetitive facts, to a world which proceeds in an ordained linear, sequential manner to a pre-determined goal. The use of Waiting for Godot is balanced by the use of Hamlet, and in the play the seventeenth century world view (focussed in its drama) touches the absurd universe (focussed in its drama). The Rosencrantz and Guildenstern exits from Hamlet become "entrances somewhere else", "which is a kind of integrity"; but I think Stoppard goes beyond this, to suggest that there is no end to the futile round of the absurd universe, unless we seize again on tragedy. Guildenstern says in the play: "We need Hamlet for our release", and we feel that Stoppard is obliquely telling us that modern drama needs some infusion of the attitudes behind Hamlet for its release from being forever waiting for Godot.

Normand Berlin (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead: Theater of Criticism," in Modern Drama, Vol. XVI, Nos. 3-4, December, 1973, pp. 269-77.

[Berlin argues that, rather than encouraging active involvement in the play's events, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead promotes a distanced, critical response. Stoppard, he asserts, "forces us to be conscious observers of a play frozen before us in order that it may be examined critically. "]

Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead entered the theater world of 1966-67 with much fanfare, and in the ensuing years it has acquired a surprisingly high reputation as a modern classic. It is an important play, but its importance is of a very special kind up to now not acknowledged. The play has fed the modern critics' and audiences' hunger for "philosophical" significances, and as absurdist drama it has been compared favorably and often misleadingly with Beckett's Waiting for Godot. However, its peculiar value as theater of criticism has received no attention. To help recognize this value I offer the following discussion.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a derivative play, correctly characterized by Robert Brustein [in the New Republic, November 1967] as a "theatrical parasite." It feeds on Hamlet, on Six Characters in Search of an Author, and on Waiting for Godot. Stoppard goes to Shakespeare for his characters, for the background to his play's action, and for some direct quotations, to Pirandello for the idea of giving extra-dramatic life to established characters, to Beckett for the tone, the philosophical thrust, and for some comic routines. The play takes Shakespeare's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—timeservers, who appear rather cool and calculating in Shakespeare, and whose names indicate the courtly decadence they may represent—and transforms them into garrulous, sometimes simple, often rather likable chaps. Baffled, imprisoned in a play they did not write, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern must act out their pre-arranged dramatic destinies. Like Beckett's Vladimir and Estragon, they carry on vaudeville routines, engage in verbal battles and games, and discourse on the issues of life and death. However, whereas Beckett's play, like Shakespeare's, defies easy categories and explanations, and remains elusive in the best sense of the word, suggesting the mystery of life, Stoppard's play welcomes categories, prods for a clarity of explanation, and seems more interested in substance than shadow.

Stoppard's play is conspicuously intellectual; it "thinks" a great deal, and consequently it lacks the "feeling" or union of thought and emotion that we associate with Waiting for Godot and Hamlet. This must be considered a shortcoming in Stoppard's art, but a shortcoming that Stoppard shares with other dramatists and one that could be explained away if only his intellectual insights were less derivative, seemed less canned. To be sure, plays breed plays, and it would be unfair to find fault with Stoppard for going to other plays for inspiration and specific trappings. In fact, at times he uses Shakespeare and Beckett ingeniously and must be applauded for his execution. But when the ideas of an essentially intellectual play seem too easy, then the playwright must be criticized. Whenever Stoppard—his presence always felt although his characters do the talking—meditates on large philosophical issues, his play seems thin, shallow. His idiom is not rich enough to sustain a direct intellectual confrontation with Life and Death. Consider, for example, Guildenstern's question: "The only beginning is birth and the only end is death—if you can't count on that, what can you count on?" Put in this pedestrian way, the idea behind the question loses its force. Or take Guildenstern's remarks on Death: "Dying is not romantic, and death is not a game which will soon be over … Death is not anything … death is not … It's the absence of presence, nothing more… the endless time of never coming back… a gap you can't see, and when the wind blows through it, it makes no sound… ." Examples of this kind of direct philosophical probing can be found throughout the play. We hear a man talking but do not feel the pressure of death behind the words. The passage seems false because the language does not possess the elusiveness and the economy that are essential if a writer wishes to confront large issues directly.

But there are indirect ways to deal with life and death, and here Stoppard is highly successful. And here we arrive at the heart of the discussion of Stoppard's art. According to Stoppard himself [in an article by Tom Prideaux in Life, February, 1968], his play was "not written as a response to anything about alienation in our times.… It would be fatal to set out to write primarily on an intellectual level. Instead, one writes about human beings under stress—whether it is about losing one's trousers or being nailed to the cross." Stoppard's words run counter to our experience of the play and indicate once again that writers are not the best judges of their own writing. Like all writers of drama, Stoppard wishes to present human beings under stress, but he does so in the most intellectual way. In fact, there is only one level to the play, one kind of stance, and that level is intellectual. The audience witnesses no forceful sequence of narrative, since the story is known and therefore already solidified in the audience's mind. One could say that the audience is given not sequence but status-quo, and status-quo points to a "critical stance"—a way of looking at the events of the play as a critic would, that is, experiencing the play as structure, complete, unmoving, unsequential.

In the act of seeing a stage play, which moves in time, we are in a pre-critical state, fully and actively engaged in the play's events. When the play is over, then we become critics, seeing the play as a structural unity and, in fact, able to function as critics only because the play has stopped moving. In the act of seeing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, however, our critical faculty is not subdued. We are always observing the characters and are not ourselves participating. We know the results of the action because we know Hamlet, so that all our references are backward. Not witnessing a movement in time, we are forced to contemplate the frozen state, the status-quo, of the characters who carry their Shakespearean fates with them. It is during Stoppard's play that we function as critics, just as Stoppard, through his characters, functions as critic within the play. It is precisely this critical stance of Stoppard, of his characters, and of his audience that allows me to attach the label "theater of criticism" to the play, thereby specifying what I believe to be Stoppard's distinctiveness as a modern dramatist.

We recognize and wonder at those points in Shakespeare's plays where he uses the "theater" image to allow us to see, critically, the play before us from a different angle, where, for example, we hear of the future recreations of Caesar's murder at the very point in the play where it is recreated, or where we hear Cleopatra talk about her greatness presented on stage "i' th' posture of a whore" at the moment when it is presented in that posture. At these moments Shakespeare engages us on a cerebral level, forcing us to think, stopping the action to cause us to consider the relationship between theater and life. These Shakespearean moments are expanded to occupy much of Stoppard's play, just as Shakespeare's minor characters are expanded to become Stoppard's titular non-heroes.

I have indicated Stoppard's shortcomings when he wishes to express truths about Life and Death. However, as critic discussing Hamlet and Elizabethan drama, he is astute, sometimes brilliant, and his language is effective because it need not confront head-on the large issues that only poetry, it seems, is successful in confronting directly. In a New Yorker interview [4 November 1967] with actors Brian Murray and John Woods, who played Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the New York production of Stoppard's play, Murray says: "I have been an actor most of my life, and I've played all kinds of parts with the Royal Shakespeare Company, but I never realized how remarkable Shakespeare is until I saw what Tom Stoppard could do with a couple of minor characters from Hamlet." This fleeting statement in a rather frivolous interview pinpoints what Stoppard does best: what he can "do with" Shakespeare's minor characters to help us realize "how remarkable Shakespeare is." That is, Stoppard helps us to see more clearly not "human beings under stress" but Shakespeare. The actor Murray is applauding a critical function, and as we thread our way through the play Stoppard must be praised for precisely that function. …

Stoppard, a drama critic before turning playwright and in this play a playwright as drama critic, crisply pinpoints the characteristics of Greek and Elizabethan tragedy and, enlarging the range of his criticism, uses these tragic characteristics to indicate what "we"—players and audience—do.

I am arguing that Stoppard is most successful when he functions as a critic of drama and when he allows his insights on the theater to lead him to observations on life. He is weakest, most empty, when he attempts to confront life directly. Stoppard is at his artistic best when he follows the advice of Polonius: "By indirections find directions out." This is as it should be, I think, because Stoppard's philosophical stance depends so heavily on the "play" idea, the mask, the game, the show. Not only is the entire Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead a play within a play that Shakespeare has written, but throughout Stoppard uses the idea of play. Rosencrantz and Guilden-stern, and of course the Player, are conscious of themselves as players, acting out their lives, and baffled, even anguished, by the possibility that no one is watching the performance. All the world is a stage for Stoppard, as for Shakespeare, but Shakespeare's art fuses world and stage, causing the barrier between what is real and what is acted to break down, while Stoppard's art separates the two, makes us observers and critics of the stage, and allows us to see the world through the stage, ever conscious that we are doing just that. The last is my crucial point: Stoppard forces us to be conscious observers of a play frozen before us in order that it may be examined critically. Consequently, what the play offers us, despite its seeming complexity and the virtuosity of Stoppard's technique, is clarity, intellectual substance, rather than the shadows and mystery that we find in Hamlet or the pressure of life's absurdity that we find in Waiting for Godot. Of course, we miss these important aspects of great drama, and some critics and reviewers have correctly alluded to the play's deficiencies in these respects, but we should not allow what is lacking to erase what is there—bright, witty, intellectual criticism and high theatricality.

I present one final example, taken from the end of the play, to demonstrate Stoppard's fine ability to make criticism and theater serve as a commentary on man. In this incident—"Incidents! All we get is incidents! Dear God, is it too much to expect a little sustained action?!"—Guildenstern, who all along has shown contempt for the players and for their cheap melodrama in presenting scenes of death, becomes so filled with vengeance and scorn that he snatches the dagger from the Player's belt and threatens the Player:

I'm talking about death—and you've never experienced that. And you cannot act it. You die a thousand casual deaths—with none of that intensity which squeezes out life … and no blood runs cold any where. Because even as you die you know that you will come back in a different hat. But no one gets up after death—there is no applause—there is only silence and some second-hand clothes, and that's—death

He then stabs the Player, who "with huge, terrible eyes, clutches at the wound as the blade withdraws: he makes small weeping sounds and falls to his knees, and then right down." Hysterically, Guildenstern shouts: "If we have a destiny, then so had he—and if this is ours, then that was his—and if there are no explanations for us, then let there be none for him—" At which point the other players on stage applaud the Player, who stands up, modestly accepts the admiration of his fellow tragedians, and proceeds to show Guildenstern how the blade of the play dagger is pushed into the handle.

Here we seem to witness, for the only time in the play, an act being performed, a choice being made, not dictated by the events of Shakespeare's play—only to discover that we have witnessed playing, theater. Guildenstern and Rosencrantz are taken in by the performance of a false death, bearing out the Player's belief, stated earlier in the play, that audiences believe only false deaths, that when he once had an actor, condemned for stealing, really die on stage the death was botched and unbelievable. What we have in Guildenstern's "killing" of the Player, therefore, is a theatrical re-enforcement of the earlier observations on audiences by the Player as critic. As we spectators watch the event—Rosencrantz had remarked earlier that he feels "like a spectator"—we intellectually grasp the fact that we had no real action, that no choice was made, Stoppard thereby making his philosophical point indirectly and with fine effect. In Stoppard a condition of life is most clearly understood, it seems, only when reflected in a critical, theatrical mirror.

In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead we do not have the kind of theater characterized by such phrases as direct involvement, emotional, pre-critical, theater of the heart, but rather a theater of criticism, intellectual, distanced, of the mind. In a very real sense, Stoppard is an artist-critic writing drama for audience-critics, a dramatist least effective when he points his finger directly at the existential dilemma—"What does it all add up to?"—and most effective when he confronts the play Hamlet and Elizabethan drama and theatrical art, thereby going round-about to get to the important issues. Stoppard's play, because it feeds on both an Elizabethan tragedy and a modern tragicomedy, gives us the opportunity to consider the larger context of modern drama, especially Joseph Wood Krutch's well-known and ominous observations [in The Modern Temper, 1957] on the death of tragedy and his prediction of the devolution of tragedy from Religion to Art to Document. Krutch finds an interesting answer, I believe, in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Using Krutch's words, but not in the way he uses them, we can say that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is art that studies art, and therefore serving as a document, dramatic criticism as play presenting ideas on Hamlet, on Elizabethan drama, on theatrical art, and by so doing commenting on the life that art reveals. That is, Stop-pard's play is holding the mirror of art up to the art that holds the mirror up to nature.

This double image causes the modern audience to take the kind of stance often associated with satire. And yet, Stoppard's play cannot be called satirical, for it makes no attempt to encourage the audience into any kind of action, as do Brecht's plays, or to cause the audience to change the way things are. The play examines the way things are, or, more precisely stated, it intellectually confronts and theatricalizes the condition of man the player and the world as theater. By the pressure of its critical energy, the play awakens in the audience a recognition of man's condition, not in order to change that condition, but to see it clearly. In short, by presenting a theatrical, artistic document, Stoppard makes us think—the words "document" and "think" pointing to the modernity, the impoverishment, and the particular value of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The play presents not revelation but criticism, not passionate art—Hamlet in the graveyard—but cool, critical, intellectual art—Hamlet playing with the recorders. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, in its successful moments, brilliantly displays the virtues of theater of criticism, and perhaps shows the direction in which some modern drama will be going—"times being what they are."

William E. Gruber (essay date 1981-82)

SOURCE: '"Wheels within Wheels, etcetera': Artistic Design in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," in Comparative Drama, Vol. 15, No. 4, Winter, 1981-82, pp. 291-310.

[In the following essay, Gruber maintains that Rosen-crantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is not merely a pastiche of elements of Hamlet; rather it is a technically innovative play that mirrors classical tragedy.]

Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead ought to cause us to acknowledge some inadequacies in the vocabulary we currently use to discuss plays, and the nature of our shortcoming can be demonstrated, I think, with some representative summaries of Stoppard's art. Ruby Cohn, for example, suggests that Stoppard proved "extremely skillful in dovetailing the Hamlet scenes into the Godot situation" [Modern Shakespeare Offshoots, 1976]; Ronald Hayman writes that "Stoppard appeared at the right moment with his beautifully engineered device for propelling two attendant lords into the foreground" [Tom Stoppard, 1977]; Charles Marowitz comments that "Stoppard displays a remarkable skill in juggling the donnees of existential philosophy" ["Confessions of a Conterfeit Critic"]; and Thomas Whitaker argues that "the raisonneur of this clever pastiche is of course The Player … [who] knowingly plays himself" [Fields of Play in Modern Drama, 1977].

Such language—"skillful in dovetailing," "beautifully engineered," "clever pastiche"—condemns while it praises, subtly labeling Stoppard's play as a derivative piece of workmanship. We tend to mistrust anything which is not obviously new, not wholly original; yet surely our modern bias here obscures crucial differences between Stoppard's play and, say, the Ha/n/ci-collages of Marowitz and Joseph Papp. These latter works may be summarized accurately as examples of skillful joinery. But Stoppard's drama does not simply "fit" together different pieces of theater. His play has no clear theatrical precedent, and a workshop vocabulary proves unable to explain what occurs when the script of Hamlet mingles with the script of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Decid.

Part of the reason this subject has not been clarified is that it is impossible to assess accurately the extent to which the audience will recognize allusions to Hamlet. Even one of Stoppard's stage directions poses insoluble problems: "Hamlet enters upstage, and pauses, weighing up the pros and cons of making his quietus." Is this a reference which only readers who are familiar with Hamlet's soliloquy can pick up? Or can the actor who mimes Hamlet's actions somehow call the audience's attention to a specific portion of an unspoken soliloquy? Or, to cite a related problem, what is the audience to make of references to Hamlet which occur out of immediate literary context? For example, Guildenstern, on board the ship for England, suddenly speaks portions of Hamlet's "pipe-playing" speech, a speech he had heard (yet can we really assume this?) during an earlier scene from Shakespeare's play which Stoppard does not reproduce. Is it possible that Stoppard here intends to show that Guildenstern ironically is locked into the text of Hamlet? But if this is Stoppard's intent, how many viewers, in passing, could make the necessary connections between the two plays? Because of these and other similar instances, it is clear that different kinds of audiences are going to experience significantly different responses to the various allusions to Hamlet. Those who read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead are more acutely aware of the numerous subtle references to Hamlet; and, of course, those readers and viewers who are thoroughly familiar with Shakespeare's drama will recognize many more interactions between the two plays than those members of the audience who know Hamlet only as a famous old tragedy.

The key to Stoppard's design, however, cannot be found by wrestling with ambiguities such as these, and there is no point in laboring to answer what percentage or what audience catches which Hamlet allusion. Instead, it will be more profitable to speculate regarding the general expectations of one who comes to see or to read the play. It would be a mistake to underestimate the pervasive influence of Shakespeare's most famous tragedy, even among those whose interest in the theater is minimal. Our belief that Hamlet is the central drama of our culture has been growing since late in the eighteenth century, so that the language of the play shapes our idiom, governs the way we think on certain critical matters. Indeed, the play's status is mythic. Stoppard can assume of every member of his audience an almost religious attitude toward Hamlet, a belief that this play comes closer than any other to capturing the mystery of human destiny. The audience does not expect Hamlet itself, and this is an important distinction. Stoppard's audience is not prepared for any specific response to the Hamlet material; and the great secret of his method is that he offers us a wonderfully suggestive way of seeing human action performed simultaneously in several modes.

If one assumes that Stoppard is using Hamlet as ancient playwrights used myth—and not for irony or for plot line or for laughs—one sees his play in ways which are wholly invisible to those who mistakenly treat it as a "worm's eye" view of tragedy, or as a witty experiment in Absurdist drama, or as a clever Shakespearean pastiche. From this perspective, I plan to review three noteworthy features of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. My aim is to correct a number of misconceptions regarding the play, misconceptions which have persisted for so long that they are in danger of becoming accepted as facts.

The first thing that impresses one about the play is its peculiar "literariness." So marked, in fact, is this quality that no one seems able to avoid mentioning it. Though there has been no agreement as to its effect, it is generally taken to be more-or-less undesirable. Robert Brustein, for example, once called the play a "theatrical parasite" [New Republic, November 1967]; Normand Berlin has dissected the play into specific borrowings from Shakespeare, Beckett, and Pirandello, concluding that the play exists exclusively on an intellectual level rather than an emotional one [Modern Drama 16, 1973]; Andrew Kennedy believes that "the real pressure in the play comes from thought about the theater rather than from personal experience" [Modern Drama 11, 1969]; and almost every other commentary on review of Rosencrantz and Guilden-stern Are Dead stresses Stoppard's indebtedness to Absurdist dramatists, Beckett in particular. Clearly, Rosen-crantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is so consciously a distillation of literature and literary method that, to para-phrase Maynard Mack's point about Hamlet's mysteriousness, the play's literariness seems to be part of its point. We feel this literariness in numberless ways. We feel it in the particular use of the Shakespearean materials: in the characters, certainly, and in the numerous scenes or part-scenes from Hamlet, in the broad sweep of the action, and in the incessant probing of familiar questions as to Hamlet's madness, his motives, his ambitions, fears, loves. And we feel it in a less specific sense, too: partly because of The Player, of course, who points the thought of the play with his frequent discussions of tragedy, of melodrama, and of the significance of playing and acting; but partly, too, because of the general bookish consciousness which seems to be diffused evenly throughout the play, manifest in a score or more of literary or linguistic biases: syllogisms, puns, rhetoricians' games, pointed repetitions, along with a host of allusions to literature and literary topics that at times threaten to make the play into an exclusively literary epistemology, shifting our attention from pictorial to verbal theater.

In this respect, in fact, the play is remarkably exploratory. "Like a Metaphysical poet," Hayman writes, "or a dog with a bone, Stoppard plays untiringly with his central conceit, never putting it down except to pick it up again, his teeth gripping it even more firmly." One feels here enormous pressures of language operating through the characters, pressures which, say, in the work of Ionesco or Beckett, are distinguished only in a negative sense, as they are in the broken discourse of Lucky in Godot or in the ludicrous absurdities of The Bald Soprano. Here, however, language is not an imperfect instrument, a thing to be scorned. There is so much conscious experimentation with language, it is as if Stoppard were permitting his characters the freedom to strive for the linguistic combination, so to speak, that will unlock their mystery. Ros and Guil often exchange banalities, to be sure; but sometimes, too, their words frame truths, as when they analyze the history of Hamlet's condition (end of Act I), or when they discover (on board ship in Act III) the purpose of their voyage to England.

For these reasons, the dramatic power of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead involves more than skillful juggling or witty commentary, and Stoppard has done more than to dovetail his story with an older one in the manner, for example, that Eugene O'Neill created Mourning Becomes Electra. The staged events of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in fact have little in common with the events of Hamlet; they are not the same play, but different plays, jostling for the same space. And the out-come of the duel, so to speak, between the respective plots of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Hamlet is hardly a foregone conclusion. Stoppard's play is not an "interpretation" of Hamlet, if by "interpretation" one refers merely to a modern rendering of a fixed text. The real technical innovation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead can be understood only when we see that, for Stoppard, the text of Hamlet is potentially invalid, or at least incomplete—something to be tested, explored, rather than accepted without proof, just as a myth may generate endless versions of itself, some contradictory. Hence Stoppard is not using Hamlet as a script; rather, the script of Hamlet forms part of the material for a discursive experiment, a literary exercise, as it were. In this most superficial sense, Stoppard's play may be considered simply an honest effort to clarify some matters of Hamlet's story that Shakespeare for unknown reasons ignored. Thus Brian Murray [quoted by Cohn] commented of the play: "This strikes a blow for everyone who was ever puzzled by a minor Shakespeare part."

In a more profound sense, however, the play does not clarify mysteries, only multiplies them. Yet this does not mean that Stoppard equivocates, teases his audience with a methodical changing of signs. Like its famous Elizabethan predecessor, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead attempts to close with the fact of meaninglessness, to enfold it with words. Here we touch the core, I think, of the play's literariness, perceive the motive behind its experimentation with a variety of scripts. What, this play asks again and again, is valid dramatic language, and what is its relationship to the modes of human action? Is that relationship heroic? or is it comic, a poignant statement of our own insignificance? Two possible and variant texts, one willed and one predicted, here compete for the same stage in a contest which is mediated by the figure of The Player, who moves easily between the heroics of Hamlet's court and the anterior world of Ros and Guil. It is important when experiencing Stoppard's play to be alive to its rich variety of contrasts. We must wince at the jolt, so to speak, whenever the play shifts from one mode to another, from one cast and its story to its alternate, and back again. Iambics and prose, vigor and lassitude, seriousness and silliness, skill and ineptitude, all coexist, alternately and repeatedly testing the efficacy and theatrical appeal of each. We must not hold up one mode at the expense of the other, but must be sensitive to each of the two as an element in an ongoing dialectic. Moreover, we ought not to see these incompatible elements as an experiment in Absurdist drama, either in philosophy or in form. For the play does not advance a simplistic philosophy by means of its constantly shifting perspectives, but develops a debate: Do we wish our drama in meter, or in prose? Do we prefer silly gaming, or coherent action? Do we, like Ros, want a "good story, with a beginning, middle and end"? Or do we, like Guil, prefer "art to mirror life"? And finally, are these ancient classical directives of any relevance nowadays, times being what they are?

Thus the literariness of Stoppard's play is pervasive, total. Its significance cannot be grasped simply by documenting the numerous specific echoes of earlier plays and playwrights, "intellectualizing" the play and its author, assigning them the appropriate thematic and technical camp, or postcamp. Not a failure of words, which proves the playwright's lack of originality or demonstrates his place in the Absurdist ranks, but a bold assertion of language's worth: for all the theatrical and literary elements, it turns out, are not ends in themselves, but help clearly to frame deeply personal considerations of human action, its motives and limitations and values. From its earliest moments, Stoppard's play reopens a number of very old questions related to the meaning of the simple event, questions which Waiting for Godot had effectively closed. The play begins by posing such questions: a coin falls "heads" almost ninety times in succession. It must, as Guil says, be "indicative of something besides the redistribution of wealth. List of possible explanations. One: I'm willing it. … Two: time has stopped dead. … Three: divine intervention. … Four: a spectacular vindication of the principle that each individual coin spun individually is as likely to come down heads as tails and therefore should cause no surprise each individual time it does."

Since the operations of their world lie generally beyond their comprehension, it is not surprising that critics, used to modern theater, have found in Ros and Guil's plight yet one more image of humans' bafflement as to their proper roles. Ros and Guil have usually been seen (in Thomas Whitaker's words) as "two characters in search of an explication de texte, two muddled players in reluctant pursuit of the roles they already play." It is in this respect, of course, that the play seems most closely to resemble Beckett's Godot. For we hear echoes of Vladimir and Estragon in the repetitious emptiness of Ros and Guil's conversations as they, like Beckett's clowns, wait to play their parts: "Where's it going to end?" "That's the question." "It's all questions." "Do you think it matters?" "Doesn't it matter to you?" "Why should it matter?" "What does it matter why?" "Doesn't it matter why it matters?" "What's the matter with you?" "It doesn't matter." "What's the game?" "What are the rules?" Whether or not Ros and Guil's bewilderment suggests the play's essential kinship with the work of Beckett is a matter I would like to take up later. One final point concerning the two courtiers: it is clear that their essence—hence their character—is conceived in terms of emptiness: "Two Elizabethans [establishes the opening stage direction] passing the time in a place without any visible character."

Concomitant with this emptiness of act and motive, of course, is a second important feature of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, an emphasis on play and playing. Like Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead examines human acts and acting within a variety of contexts ranging from practical to the metaphysical to the theological. Central to Stoppard's play are the figures of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of literature's most unimportant people, mere concessions to the expediencies of plot. Shakespeare jokes about the courtiers' lack of individuality by playing on their metric interchangeability. And Stoppard, as did Shakespeare, first conceives his creations as broadly comic. That there should exist two persons with a corporate identity, as it were, mocks some of the fundamentals of human order both on stage and off. The world may well be a stage; if so, however, the metaphor requires identities to be unique: each must play his part. Hence the concept of identical twins—two actors playing one role—is inherently chaotic, traditionally comic. In fact, we may trace the dramatic lineage of Ros and Guil back much further than Beckett and the music hall, back at least to Roman Comedy, and even further to the primitive notion that there is something downright foolish in two people who compete for a single identity.

But if the actions of Ros and Guil seem foolish and aimless, it is equally true that divine secrets seem to govern their madness. There is no doubt that the various collisions of identity and motive that occur in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead—taken singly—are humorous. Yet here, as is true of the comic elements that are characteristic of mature Shakespearean tragedy, what is funny and what is serious seem interchangeable—or, rather, seem independent analogues of a grim reality. We realize very soon, for example, that the Fool's witticisms in Lear are "no play." Something similar conditions our appreciation of Stoppard's drama: grappling with the concept of death as a state of negative existence, for example, Guildenstern concludes that, "You can't not-be on a boat," a statement which is mocked immediately by Ros's foolish misinterpretation, "I've frequently not been on boats." Yet the courtiers' inept mishandling of language does not long remain a comic malapropism, but bends, to use Robert Frost's image, with a crookedness that is straight. Both twisted syntax and twisted logic are appallingly true: wherever they are—on boats, on the road, within a court—it is the fate of Ros and Guil never to be.

The play returns us, then, to thoroughly familiar territory, to a consideration of some of the fundamental perplexities that gave shape and lasting meaning to Hamlet. We of this century do not know with any greater clarity what it might require for a man "to be." Nor are we any closer to the secret which resolves the separate meanings of "play," whereby we fill empty time with arbitrary activity, and "play," that art which defines for us human time endowed with maximum meaning, maximum consequence. Here it has seemed to many that Stoppard's answer lies with The Player: always in character, always in costume, The Player's essence is his abiding changeability. The simple fact of his endurance argues for his wisdom. At the play's end, corpses litter the stage. Yet The Player, like Brecht's Mother Courage, seems infinitely adaptable, infinitely resourceful. Although his numerous "deaths" are impressive and even credible, he inevitably returns to life for his next performance. In a world in which everyone is marked for death, The Player's survival capabilities seem especially significant.

Because of the apparent emphasis Stoppard places on "play," it has been frequently suggested that Stoppard wants us to believe that mimesis fosters understanding. In Act I, for example, Ros and Guil deepen their awareness of Hamlet's transformation through an act of role-playing, whereby Ros questions Guil, who pretends to be Hamlet:

Ros (lugubriously): His body was still warm.
Guil: So was hers.
Ros: Extraordinary.
Guil: Indecent.
Ros: Hasty.
Guil: Suspicious.
Ros: It makes you think.
Guil: Don't think I haven't thought of it.

Even more important is their playing in Act III, in which they act out a possible script for their arrival in England. Here Ros, who is taking the part of the King of England, becomes so convinced of the reality of his situation that he tears open their letter of instructions and discovers the order for Hamlet's execution. Suddenly, unexpectedly, Ros and Guil are illuminated by moral crisis; "Their playing," Robert Egan writes [in Theatre Journal 31, March, 1979], "has made available to them the opportunity to define significant versions of self through a concrete moral decision and a subsequent action, even if a useless action."

It is inevitable, perhaps, in this shadow world made of parts of old plays that one of the largest roles should be that of the Player. And it is also inevitable that in such a shifting and offtimes morally weightless world the advice of The Player should carry the negative equivalent of weight. Regarding the question of how to act in their situation, for example, he advises Guildenstern to "Relax. Respond. That's what people do. You can't go through life questioning your situation at every turn." Or, later, his professional comments seem universally applicable: "We follow directions—there is no choice involved. The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means." And, finally, it is The Player who convinces Guil (and us) of the impressive efficacy of mimetic understanding. Indeed, for a time it seems as if mimesis represents the only valid mode of knowing: the play's closing scenes forcefully demonstrate that what we considered a "real" stabbing and a "real" death was merely competent acting, merely the fulfillment of the bargain between actor and audience. "You see," The Player explains to the dumb-founded Guildenstern, "it is the kind they do believe in—it's what is expected." And the truth of this seems to be reinforced a few lines later, when we truly witness "real" deaths as merely an actor's casual exit. Ros simply disappears, disappears so quietly that his friend does not notice his passing. And Guil makes death into a game of hideand-seek: "Now you see me, now you—."

There is a series evident here, of course: Hamlet is to Ros and Guil as Ros and Guil are to Alfred. And naturally this projects an engulfing form, an engulfing dramatist for Hamlet, and so for Stoppard's audience. Yet we ought not to presume to have uncovered the message of the play within this problematical series of regessions. The mind wearies of such esoteric speculations; and Stoppard's aim here may well be to cause us eventually to reject any fancies regarding our own wispy theatricality. Indeed, the line of argumentation which makes play the only reality can be pursued too far, resulting at best in empty theatricality, at worst in excessively sophisticated dogma. It is, in Horatio's words, "to consider too curiously." This is not to deny the concept of playing an important place in Stoppard's work. Nevertheless, to make The Player exclusively into a source of affirmation betrays the meaning of the remainder of the characters, ultimately of the entire drama. "Do you know what happens to old actors?" inquires The Player, setting the context for still one more joke about occupations. Ros, here playing the comic-hall straight man, obediently asks "What?" "Nothing," replies The Player, "They're still acting." Here, in a single word, is focussed the whole of the play's chilling analysis of human freedom and providential design. Actors are nothing. As The Player admits elsewhere, actors are the opposite of people. It is not a matter of how we take the sense of "nothing"; for in a play whose deepest levels of meaning concern the minimum essentials for human action and human identity, "nothing" can refer only to a waste of being, the squandering of human potential through cowardice. Perhaps the play's literariness may help clarify this crucial point: to be "nothing," in literary terms, has been considered the most terrible fate of all. Recall, for example, the horde of lost souls whirling endlessly out-side Dante's Hell, desperately pursuing all banners, any banner that might ultimately give them human shape, human meaning.

As is true of so much of the superficial horseplay in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, then, words here turn on their user, twisting themselves into enigmatic truth. The Player, because his role is eternally to be someone else, is thus no one in particular. Free of every human limitation, he exists wholly within the sphere of play. Thus nothing happens to the actor because nothing can: he is wholly amorphous, wholly uncertain, without identity, feeling or meaning apart from that conferred on him by his audience, without—and this is most important—responsibility for who he is. What The Player espouses is that a person should "act natural." That is, he argues that one should merely respond to circumstances, secure in the belief that in the end all one can do is to follow one's script. This is of course an acceptable concept to propose to explain human activity, but let us acknowledge it for what it is: fatalism. And there is little evidence in this play—less in later plays—that Stoppard holds such a view. The point is this: in this play, as in most of the important tragic statements of Western theater, there is no single perspective that hits the mark.

We are left, then, with a third problem, possibly the most intriguing: what sort of play is Rosencrantz and Guilden-stern Are Dead? To call the play a burlesque or a parody betrays one's insensitivity to its rich and manifold significances; and "tragicomedy" is a term grown so vague as to be almost without meaning. Clearly, Stoppard has surrealist longings in him ("After Magritte"; Travesties; Artist Descending a Staircase), but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, despite its veneer of gimmickry, proves instead the lasting power of straightforward theater. There is a small measure of truth in Brustein's term for the play—"theatrical parasite"—for it is obvious that Stoppard needs Hamlet if his play is to exist at all. Stoppard's play seems to vibrate because of the older classic, as a second tuning fork resonates by means of one already in motion.

Nevertheless, the tone of the modern play is distinct. Properly speaking, Stoppard has not composed a "play within a play," nor has he written a lesser action which mirrors a larger. The old text and the new text are not simply "joined"; they exist as a colloidal suspension, as it were, rather than as a permanent chemical solution. Or, to change metaphors to illustrate an important point more clearly, the texts of Hamlet's play and Ros and Guil's play form two separate spheres of human activity which, like two heavenly bodies, impinge upon each other because of their respective gravitational fields. The history of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern swings into line the scattered chunks of Hamlet; and the courtiers' story in turn is warped by the immense pull of Hamlet's world. Even though we cannot see much of that world, we may deduce its fulness. Though it exists largely offstage, or on another stage, we nevertheless sense that world's glitter, its nobility, and its grandeur, and we feel its awesome power.

This is not to imply that the sum of the two texts results in determinism, or that we leave the theater pitying Ros and Guil for being victimized. To the contrary: Helene Keysson-Franke [in Educational Theatre Journal 27, No. 1, March, 1975] speculates that the juxtaposition of Hamlet scenes and invented scenes "creates a sense of the possibility of freedom and the tension of the improbability of escape." Such is Stoppard's economy of technique that he chills us with Fate's whisper without a single line of exposition, without an elaborate setting of mood or of theme. Immediately the play begins our attention is mesmerized, as the two courtiers spin their recordbreaking succession of coins. The atmosphere is charged with dramatic potential, tense with impending crisis. The coin which falls "heads" scores of times in succession defines what has been called a "boundary situation"; the technique is notably Shakespearean, reminding one of the tense, foreboding beginnings invoked by the witches of Macbeth, or, of course, by the ghost of Hamlet. Ros and Guil's playing is not the aimless play of Beckett's tramps, with which it has been compared, but a play obviously freighted with imminent peril. We are impressed not by the absurdity of their situation, but by its terrible sense; one senses the chilling presence of Hamlet, waiting menacingly in the wings.

But Hamlet, as is true of all myths, is what is predicted, not what is ordained. The two courtiers are not sniveling, powerless victims of time and circumstance, and their story does not illustrate the baffling absurdity or the blind fatality that has sometimes been said to arrange their lives. This is the conclusion which many who comment upon the play have reached, guided, in part, by the anguish of Guil: "No—it is not enough. To be told so little—to such an end—and still, finally, to be denied an explanation—." We are wrong here to view events wholly through the eyes of the characters, and our pity for them must be conditioned with a little judgment. It is necessary to recognize that the Ros and Guil whom we see in the final scene are in no important way different from the Ros and Guil of the opening scene, and that such implied insensitivity to their world—puny though that world may be—bespeaks a deeper, mortal insensitivity to humanity and to themselves. Facing death, speaking his final lines of the play, the burden incumbent upon him to touch the shape of his life and so give it meaning, Ros one last time chooses to evade responsibility: "I don't care. I've had enough. To tell you the truth, I'm relieved." Nor is the more speculative Guil alive to his context: "Our names shouted in a certain dawn," he ponders; "… a message … a summons. … There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said—no. But somehow we missed it."

The context of men's action remains forever a mystery. It was a mystery for Hamlet, it is a mystery for Ros and Guil, it is a mystery for us. Yet between the two plays there exists an important difference in the quality of the characters' responses to what must remain forever hidden from their sight. We do not here—as we did in the closing scenes of Hamlet—discover new men. Hamlet, it is true, submits to his world with weary resignation. But Hamlet acknowledges human limitations without lapsing wholly into despair. The difference is between Hamlet, who accepts an ambiguous world while yet believing in the need for human exertion at critical junctures in time, and Ros and Guil, who quail before their world's haunting mysteries, wishing never to have played the game at all. Guil despairs, groping for his freedom "at the beginning," when he might—so he reasons—have refused to participate. He wishes—there is no other way to put it—to avoid human responsibility. Thus his undeniably moving cry must be understood in the light of our clearer knowledge that his real opportunity came not at the beginning, but near the end of the play, when he accidentally discovered that his mission was to betray Hamlet. He misunderstands, in other words, the nature of his freedom, misunderstands as well the meaning of his choice. Too, we must not over-look the fact that Guil's misreading of his life provokes one final confusion of names: unaware that Ros has silently departed—died—Guil asks, "Rosen—? Guil?" In a play in which the floating identities of the two central characters has steadily deepened in seriousness, this final misunderstanding is especially important. Guil's fate is never to know who he is. Ultimately, as Robert Egan has pointed out, "Guildenstern does die the death he has opted for."

To insist on Ros and Guil's freedom, and therefore on their responsibility, may seem wrongheaded, particularly because one is reluctant to condemn them for being confused by a script which they have not read. The courtiers are baffled by offstage events; hence it is not surprising that critics and playgoers have been tempted to draw parallels between this play and Waiting for Godot. Yet in truth the dramaturgy of Stoppard does not simply grow out of the theater of Beckett. True, Stoppard employs elements of that theater; but the effect of this is to call the validity of Absurdist theater into question. Stoppard uses Absurdist techniques, as he uses the Hamlet material, to frame questions concerning the efficacy and significance of these diverse ways of understanding human action.

Evidence for this may be found by examining Stoppard's handling of the Hamlet material, and by noting how this handling varies over the course of the three-act structure of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Act I first poses the dilemma, defining, as it were, the conflict of the play as a struggle between two plots, between the story an individual (here, two individuals) wills for himself and the story the myth tells about him. Here the two texts seem most at odds, for Hamlet intervenes in two large chunks, each time unexpectedly, almost forcing its way on stage. In the second Act, however, the composi tional pattern shifts: here Shakespeare's text intrudes more frequently, and in shorter bits, as if the completed play were being broken down and assimilated by—or accommodated to—the play in the making. In this second Act we feel the maximum presence of Hamlet, the increased pull of the myth. Structure here may be clarified by reference to classical terminology: in this Act we witness the epitasis, the complication, or the tying of the knot. Between the growing design of Hamlet and the intertextual freedom of Ros and Guil's discussions there develops maximum tension, maximum interplay between what Keysson-Franke calls "the possibility of freedom and the improbability of escape." Then, in the final Act, the process whereby Hamlet is accommodated to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead seems completed. Here is staged the famous sea voyage of Hamlet, for which no dramatic precedent exists. No lines from Shakespeare's play can here intrude, for none is available. In Hamlet, we learn of the events of the voyage only in retrospect, during a subsequent conversation between Horatio and Hamlet. So, even though those of us who know the play remember what happened at sea, we know nothing of the causes of that action. Even knowledgeable playgoers, then, assume that the events at sea had resulted from chance, or, as Hamlet later suggests, from heaven's ordinance. This is an important point: most of Act III of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead exists between the lines, as it were, of Hamlet, in what has always represented an undefined, unwritten zone. Stoppard here invites his characters to invent their history according to their will. He offers them alternatives, if not absolute choice. This is confirmed by the courtiers' imaginings concerning their arrival in England. Ros mourns:

I have no image. I try to picture us arriving, a little harbour perhaps … roads … inhabitants to point the way … horses on the road … riding for a day or a fortnight and then a palace and the English king. … That would be the logical kind of thing. … But my mind remains a blank. No we're slipping off the map.

The passage chills us, and invites us to recall that for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern there will be no future. Yet does it not invite us equally to reflect upon the courtiers' imaginative shortcomings, their own sinful—not too strong a word—despair? Indeed, soon afterwards they are graced with the opportunity to devise their own script, but they fail to do so because they cannot transcend their own banality, cannot for one moment rise out of their slough. Upon reading the letter which discloses the King's intent to have Hamlet executed, Guil lapses into an empiricism so bland, so callous as to lack utterly moral context:

Assume, if you like, that they're going to kill him. Well, he is a man, he is mortal, death comes to us all, etcetera, and consequently he would have died anyway, sooner or later. Or to look at it from the social point of view—he's just one man among many, the loss would be well within reason and convenience. And then again, what is so terrible about death? As Socrates so philosophically put it, since we don't know what death is, it is illogical to fear it. It might be … very nice. Certainly it is a release from the burden of life, and, for the godly, a haven and a reward. Or to look at it another way—we are little men, we don't know the ins and outs of the matter, there are wheels within wheels, etcetera—it would be presumptuous of us to interfere with the designs of fate or even of kings. All in all, I think we'd be well advised to leave well alone. Tie up the letter—there—neatly—like that.—They won't notice the broken seal, assuming you were in character.

Only by considering Guil's comments in full can we appreciate their slowly deepening repulsiveness. They are spoken, recall, while our hearts are yet moved by Ros' intuitive reaction to the letter ordering Hamlet's death: "We're his friends." As Guil speaks, the stage grows quiet, empty: we feel the crisis, feel the awful pressure of a thing about to be done, feel that (in Brutus' words) "between the acting of a dreadful thing and the first motion, all the interim is like a hideous dream." Given the opportunity for meaningful action, Guil (and thus, by way of tacit compliance, Ros) refuses to act. Given suddenly—one is tempted to say beneficently—ample room and time to define their selves, the courtiers cannot swell to fit their new roles. For a moment, Hamlet is swept away, suspended powerless; for a brief interim we sense that the fate of the prince and his play rests in Ros and Guil's hands. That interim is theirs alone; it does not belong to Hamlet. And they refuse to act. To choose not to choose, of course, is a manner of choosing. Ros and Guil fill their moment of time, their season, with emptiness—until the text of Shakespeare's Hamlet rushes back to fill the vacuum. Scarcely has Ros concluded, "We're on top of it now," than Shakespeare's text looms to meet them.

In this light, then, Guil's desperate attempt to slay The Player who brings the courtiers the news of their deaths seems triply ironic. Guil is wrong about death, in that it can be counterfeited by a successful actor. And he is wrong about the shape of his life, too, and about the meaning of human action. No one—not Fate, not Shakespeare, and not Tom Stoppard—"had it in for them." Where Guil and Ros erred was not in getting on a boat; they failed when they chose freely to be cowards, chose freely, that is, to be themselves. Stoppard stresses their cowardice, not their ignorance, and his irony here flatly contradicts those who see Ros and Guil as powerless victims. And Guil is wrong, finally, in his desperate attempt to murder The Player. Guil seems here to hope to win dramatic stature by an act of violence, to gain identity from a conventionally heroic act of will. In fact, Stoppard seems to be saying, such conventional heroism is not necessary; all that was required of Guil was the destruction of a single letter.

Thus it is inevitable that the stage lights dim on Ros and Guil's play and shine in the end on Hamlet: "immediately," Stoppard directs, "the whole stage is lit up, revealing, upstage, arranged in the approximate positions last held by the dead tragedians, the tableau of court and corpses which is the last scene of Hamlet." The text of Shakespeare's play suddenly appears to overwhelm its modern analogue, as the old play and the new play here converge in a genuine coup de théâtre. Yet the point here is more than mere theatrics, more, too, than weary fatalism or anguish at the absurdity of human life. The sudden sweeping reduction of Ros and Guil completes Stoppard's play at the same time it affirms unconditionally the morality of Shakespeare's. On this crucial point, Stoppard is unequivocal: in rehearsals, and in all published editions of the play after the first, Stoppard excised a bit of action which brought his drama full circle, so that it ended with someone banging on a shutter, shouting two names. Stoppard's alteration moves his play away from the cultivated theatricality and ambiguity one finds often in Absurdist drama; and we are left with the clear knowledge that Ros and Guil, despite their being given an entire play of their own, have not advanced beyond the interchangeable, nondescript pair who took the boards more than three hundred years ago. Just as he disappears from view, Guil quips, "Well, we'll know better next time." But the evidence from two plays, now, suggests that they won't. Oddly, Stoppard is here not following Shakespeare's script so much as he is redefining and reasserting its tragic validity: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead proves that Shakespeare had it right after all. For this reason, Ros and Guil are not permitted to "die" on stage; they merely disappear from view. Is this not one final demonstration of Stoppard's consistent dramatic technique?—for he merely whisks the courtiers off the stage, lest their corpses—visible proof that they had lived—convince an audience of their dramatic substance.

Wheels within wheels: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is deeply ironic, yet the irony is not at all the mocking, ambivalent irony we have come to expect of the modern theater. To be sure, to rank the orders of reality in this haunting play is to invert mimesis, for here the admitted fiction—the world of Hamlet—possesses most substance. It turns out, in fact, that even The Player is more real, that is, of more worth, than Ros and Guil. But this does not mean that The Player—whose essence is his artifice—forms the play's thematic center. Like Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead brings into conjunction a number of states of being, examines from a variety of perspectives some modes of human action. What the play means, it means largely by virtue of these numerous contrasts and resulting tensions. No one perspective is so broad as to embrace the whole; each, by itself, is faulty, both intellectually and morally. Nevertheless, together they assert a view of human activity that stresses men's ultimate responsibility—whether prince or actor or lackey—for what they do, and so for who they are.

It is simply incorrect, for this reason, to call Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead an example of Absurdist drama, even to call it "post-Absurdist" drama (in all but the literal sense). In the first place, we do not find here a "sense of metaphysical anguish at the absurdity of the human condition," a theme which Martin Esslin long ago defined as central to Absurdist playwrights [The Theatre of the Absurd, 1961]. Certainly, Ros and Guil die without knowing what their lives were all about. But the whole point of the Hamlet material is to define for the audience—if not for Ros and Guil—a knowable logic that shapes men's fortunes, even as it permits them a part in the process. We must distinguish here the difference between two varieties of offstage material, such as one finds, say, in Waiting for Godot or in The Birthday Party, on the one hand, and in Oedipus Rex and in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, on the other. In the former plays, the offstage material functions exclusively to deepen the audience's awareness of human ignorance; it is mockingly obscure, purposely baffling to characters and to spectators. But in the latter plays, the offstage material functions both as mystery and as myth, the myth with its powerful implications of logic, design, even—in the right circumstances—knowability.

In other ways, too, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead rejects much of the Absurdist canon. It is not "anti-literary"; it does not "abandon rational devices and discursive thought," but instead depends upon them; and finally, it does not lament the loss of opportunities for meaning, even for heroism, because Ros and Guil enjoy, albeit briefly, such potential. This play, as has been said of Stoppard's "The Real Inspector Hound," is "comfortingly classical" [Kennedy]. It testifies to the informing aesthetic power even today of a tragic dramatic form far older than the Elizabethan play which inspired it. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead offers its audience the vision of two characters caught in the agony of moral choice. At a moment when they least expect it, and in a place they had never forseen, they must decide the shape of their lives. To be sure, the information upon which they must base their decision comes to them in the form of riddles, half-truths, things only partly-known; but when has it ever been otherwise? Like other tragic protagonists before them, Ros and Guil must choose, and they choose in error. Leading up to and away from this moral crisis which forms the dramatic center of his play, Stoppard constructs a linear plot, set in time, and moved by a group (or, if you will, two groups) of characters who are consistent in both motive and response. Behind the play stands an ancient way of ordering experience, a way which is both mythic and ritualistic. And for his theme, Stoppard (with the aid of Hamlet) offers a version of justice: all the characters get what they deserve. So simple, so moving, so regrettable, but, finally, so consoling: what, in the end, could be more like classical tragedy than that?


Lucina P. Gabbard (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Stoppard's Jumpers: A Mystery Play," in Modern Drama, Vol. 20, No. 1, March, 1977, pp. 87-95.

[In this essay, Gabbard categorizes Jumpers as a meta-physical detective story.]

Tom Stoppard's Jumpers is a many-splendored mystery play—so many-splendored that it is, metaphorically, a kaleidoscope. Bright fragments of many forms and many themes make new configurations with each twist of the dial. The most obvious ingredients are rollicking comedy and metaphysics. This combination recalls the mystery plays of medieval times which mixed morality and Bible stories with humorous and grotesque details. Stopping there, however, would misrepresent and over-simplify the generic classification of Jumpers for the kaleidoscope contains bits of many genres assembled in the overall design of a "whodunit."

Applied to form, the mystery is not "whodunit?" but "whatisit?" Some critics call the play a farce, and it does employ many farcical techniques. It makes beautiful mischief with mistaken identity. George assumes that Dotty's casserole is made from his missing rabbit, Thumper. So he tells Crouch, the porter: "Do you realize she's in there now, eating him?" Crouch, thinking George refers to the murdered Professor McFee, replies: "You mean—raw?" Compounding Crouch's horror, George answers crossly: "No, of course not!—cooked—with gravy and mashed potatoes." The play is alive with broad comic action. McFee's corpse swings in and out of sight on the back of the bedroom door. Nobody drops his pants, but Dotty drops her robe, revealing a lovely body naked from the thighs up. Traditionally, however, farce is devoid of profundity, whereas Jumpers is not. Stoppard's slapstick takes place in the midst of cosmic tragedy and metaphysical inquiry. Astronaut Oates has been abandoned on the moon, and George addresses himself to the question, "Is God?" More-over, the play ridicules man's institutions—education, justice, morality—thereby taking on the weight of a satire.

Intermingled with these ancient forms are all the cultural features of twentieth century drama. The two astronauts on the moon represent Space Age technology; their fight for the single berth on the crippled space capsule depicts the Darwinian commonplace of survival of the fittest. The image of Astronaut Oates "waving forlornly from the featureless wastes of the lunar landscape" objectifies man facing the existential void. Dotty's analyst is a Freudian. The Jumpers, flipflopping between political and philosophical roles while Archie calls the tune, suggest the Marxian masses controlled by society. The amorality of Archie and his acrobats is typical of the Absurdist's world which Richard Corrigan describes well: "There are no value judgments or distinctions in values in the world of the Absurd. In Admov's Ping Pong, the aesthetic, economic, and philosophic implications of pinball machines are discussed with religious fervor. In Ionesco's Jack or the Submission the whole action is to convince Jack to accept the family's chief value: 'I love potatoes with bacon'" [Richard Corrigan, The Theatre in Search of a Fix, 1973]. Another example in Corrigan's elaboration might well have been George's analogy between McFee's beliefs about good and bad and "the rules of tennis without which Wimbledon Fortnight would be a complete shambles."

Brechtian technique also contributes to this kaleidoscope. In his description of the set, Stoppard calls for a screen forming a backdrop for film and slide projections. But the farce, the satire, the contemporary milieu—even the Brechtian screen—are all elements of Absurdism; and to this accumulation, Stopparci adds his and the Absurdists' principal method—the use of concrete images to convey meaning. In Endgame, Beckett places Nagg and Nell in giant garbage cans to represent the discarding of old and useless parents. Stoppard makes a pyramid of acrobats out of the university's Philosophy Department, bodying forth the intellectual's mental gymnastics. The Coda, a full-fledged dream, adds still another Absurd ingredient.

Other nondramatic literary forms also claim mention in Jumpers. Titles of novels and songs constitute the charades which are the basis of Dotty's relationship with George. Overt allusions to classic poets—Milton, Keats—mingle with covert references to modern masters like Eliot and Beckett. The tortoise and the hare recall an oft-told fable—as do Dotty's cries of "Wolf!" A large portion of the play, however, is devoted to George's preparations for the symposium. Thus, Stoppard daringly weaves a serious philosophical dialectic in and out of this Absurdist drama; the whole is thinly wrapped in the Londoner's favorite genre—the detective story. Inspector Bones and the characters of Jumpers are confronted with three obvious mysteries: who killed McFee? where is Thumper? does God exist? Analysis of the play soon reveals, however, that these three questions are only starters. The kaleidoscope is as full of posers as of forms.

Thus, the emphasis of this "whodunit" shifts from "what-isit?" to "whatsitsay?" To investigate this mystery requires examination of the play's inseparable mixture of images and characters. Like the fragments in the kaleidoscope, the images, when juxtaposed, create meaningful designs; they all deal with man's problems—with himself, his beliefs, and his institutions. The people within these images have dual roles. On the one hand, they reveal the personal problems and relationship of the characters in the murder mystery; and on the other hand, they represent differing facets of the troubled Space Age.

At the center of the design are George and Dorothy Moore and Sir Archibald Jumpers. George Moore is a professor of Moral Philosophy, but his identity is diminished by his namesake, the famed author of Principa Ethica. George is totally absorbed in preparing a paper to be presented at the university's symposium on "Man—good, bad, or indif ferent?"; his paper poses the question—"Is God?" George's eccentricity is captured in the image he presents opening the door to Inspector Bones. Brandishing a bow and arrow in one hand, holding a tortoise in the other, George appears with his face covered in shaving foam. The effect is appropriate to his later self-description: "… I cut a ludicrous figure in the academic world … largely due to my aptitude for traducing a complex and logical thesis to a mysticism of staggering banality." George is also central to the "whodunit," even though for a long time he seems unaware of the tragedy. Nevertheless, the murder occurred at a party at George's house; George summoned the police by an anonymous complaint about the noise; the victim, Professor McFee, was George's philosophical adversary; and finally, the discovery of George's absent-minded murder of Thumper presents the possibility that he may also have unwittingly killed McFee.

George is married to Dotty, "a prematurely-retired musical-comedy actress of some renown." Dotty is dotty: "unreliable and neurotic," she calls herself. She can no longer distinguish one moon song from another. Nevertheless, her fans enthusiastically await her comeback. At the party, scene of the murder, they applaud despite her inability to remember her song. She has withdrawn into the darkness before the shot is fired; afterwards she steps into the light only to have the dying man pull himself up against her legs. The others quickly depart, and Dotty is left, whimpering under the weight of the corpse. Her frock stained with his blood, she is the image of the prime suspect. She calls out to George for help, and he, unaware of the murder, responds indifferently. To gain his attention she makes an offer which reveals the emptiness of their marriage: "Georgie!—I'll let you." He replies: "I don't want to be 'let.' Can't you see that it's an insult?" Their only communication seems to be through charades. Finding Dotty nude and despondent on the bed, George responds quickly—"The Naked and the Dead!" On the contrary, Archie comforts Dotty by removing the corpse and visiting her every day—in her bedroom. He claims to be her doctor-psychiatrist, but evidence indicates a love affair. The nature of Archie's relationship with Dotty is another of the mysteries with which George wrestles.

Sir Archibald Jumpers is a man of many talents? roles?—all of them authoritative. Near the opening of the play, he stands in a white spot as his voice barks out: "And now!—ladies and gentlemen!—the INCREDIBLE—RADICAL!—LIBERAL!!—JUMPERS!! As the music swells and eight Jumpers come somersaulting in, Archie is the image of the ringmaster of this whole circus. And indeed he is! He is Vice-Chancellor of the university, thereby George's boss. He is organizer of the Jumpers—"a mixture of the more philosophical members of the university gymnastics team and the more gymnastic members of the Philosophy School." As chief Jumper, he is also head of the Radical Liberal Party which is celebrating its victory at the polls. When he signs the report on the cause of McFee's death, he insists he is coroner. He is not only Dotty's psychiatrist but also her legal adviser. He explains: "I'm a doctor of medicine, philosophy, literature and law, with diplomas in psychological medicine and P.T. including gym." Archie is totally amoral and prag matical. He solves his problems by lies, bribery, black-mail, or whatever is necessary. In short, he is George's opposite—in temperament and belief. Archie is very much involved with the murder. The victim, Professor McFee, was one of the Jumpers—holder of the Chair of Logic. Archie disposes of the body and attempts to defend Dotty. He also makes himself a suspect by admitting that McFee, his faithful protégé, was threatening to become "St. Paul to Moore's Messiah."

Also involved in the murder mystery are three other characters: Inspector Bones, Crouch, and a nameless secretary. Inspector Bones, like all the others, displays Cognomen Syndrome; he is a detective, a rattler of skeletons in closets. (He also has a brother who was an osteopath!) Bones has been summoned to the scene by two anonymous telephone calls, but he comes, flowers in hand, as one of Dotty's ardent fans. He hopes for her autograph, perhaps even "the lingering touch of a kiss brushed against an admirer's cheek. …" Nevertheless, if he discovers the allegations to be true, he will let her feel "the full majesty of the law." Upon seeing Dotty, however, he is struck dumb by infatuation and desires only to protect her. He suggests an eminent psychiatric witness might get her off. Although incorruptible by Archie's attempted bribery, he is easy prey to a blackmail scheme. While he is alone in the bedroom with Dotty, she cries "Rape!" Archie enters to find Bones—a frozen image pleading with a smile: "It's not what you think." Archie moves in quickly to "tsk tsk" at the "tragic end" of "an incorruptible career." To George, it is all another mystery: "How the hell does one know what to believe?" In any event, the investigation is ended, and the "whodunit" is unsolved.

Crouch is the porter. As his name suggests, he maintains a servile posture. He carries out the rubbish and serves drinks at the party. In this latter capacity, he was at the scene of the crime. In fact, he made the second anonymous report to the police. His involvement is deepened by his friendship with the deceased. He used to converse with McFee when the learned professor called for his girl—George's secretary. As a result of these conversations and "a bit of reading," Crouch has become something of a philosopher himself. He demonstrates his knowledge by pointing to a flaw in George's treatise. But when George rebuts his point, Crouch, true to his name, withdraws humbly: "I expect you're right, sir. I mean, it's only a hobby with me."

The secretary is nameless and wordless. At the party she strips while swinging from a trapeze. Through the rest of the play she sits silent and grim, taking George's dictation. Only at the close of Act II is her involvement revealed: she was secretly betrothed to McFee, who was already married. Just before his death, McFee had "to make a clean breast and tell her it was all off because he was going into the monastery. Thus, the failures of modern marriage are reaffirmed, and the secretary joins the list of suspects with a motive for murdering McFee. This last message is transmitted vividly by the image of the secretary turning to reveal blood on her back.

Two other characters, appearing only on Dotty's giant television screen, are too crucial to be omitted—the astronauts Scott and Oates. Their images are seen stalking the surface of the moon, and the announcer reports their private drama. Only one man could return in the crippled space capsule. While the world of viewers watched, the astronauts—the twentieth century's heroes—struggled until Oates was knocked to the ground by Scott, the commanding officer. Dotty's word image speaks the rest: "Poor moon man, falling home like Lucifer." Later she adds: "it certainly spoiled that Juney old moon." It also caused Dotty's breakdown and, according to Crouch, McFee's reversal. So the moon men are indirectly responsible for the course of events.

A twist of the kaleidoscope and all these private characters assume an almost allegorical significance. Each becomes a symbol of some segment of society; each becomes a fragment in a new configuration showing the topsyturvy world of the Space Age and the mind-defying mystery of life. Through all time man has sought to right the world and solve the mystery of his presence on this planet. All of his systems and institutions have been devised to approach one or the other of these problems.

For centuries man's solution was belief in God and the morality of man. George is the defender of these beliefs, but his progressive deterioration represents their precarious position. From the outset George explains: "There is presumably a calender date—a moment—when the onus of proof passed from the aetheist to the believer, when, quite suddenly, secretly, the noes had it." This tenuous state is magnified when George, elevated to the symbolic level, becomes the universal representative of theology and ethics. This ineffectual, pedantic little man stands alone against the swollen tide of Jumpers—"Logical positivists, mainly, with a linguistic analyst or two, a couple of Benthamite Utilitarians … lapsed Kantians and empiricists generally … and of course the usual Behaviourists. …" George himself admits his bottom rank: "I was lucky to get the Chair of Moral Philosophy. … Only the Chair of Divinity lies further below the salt, and that's been vacant for six months. …" Furthermore, even with this lone defender, God's position is eroding, for George has turned Him into "a philosopher's God, logically inferred from self-evident premises." Consequently, God has fallen victim to the tricks of language—another failure among man's inventions. George confesses that "words betray the thoughts they are supposed to express." By George's own semantic twists, God becomes "a theological soubriquet" for the "first Cause"; or, as "the first term of the series," George explains, "God, so to speak, is nought." At the height of his frustration, George cries out: "How does one know what it is one believes when it's so difficult to know what it is one knows. I don't claim to know that God exists, I only claim that he does without my knowing it, and while I claim as much I do not claim to know as much; indeed I cannot know and God knows I cannot." However despondent, George's words ring with atrophying heroism when juxtaposed with Dotty's admission: "And yet, Professor, one can't help wondering at the persistence of the reflex, the universal constant unthinking appeal to the non-existent God who is presumed dead."

Morality suffers from the same confusion. How can the world of Jumpers right its wrongs when no one can agree on what is wrong? George is the solitary spokesman for moral absolutes; he summarizes the culture's dilemma while stating his agreement with his namesake: "… by insisting that goodness was a fact, and on his right to recognize it when he saw it, Moore avoided the moral limbo devised by his successors, who are in the unhappy position of having to admit that one man's idea of good is no more meaningful than another man's. …" A principal cause of this moral confusion is again—language. George says that every year the symposium's subject is the same, "Man—good, bad, or indifferent?" but "there is enough disagreement about its meaning to ensure a regular change of topic." Unfortunately, George's egocentric and unfeeling reactions to Dotty and the others indicate that his own morality is smothered by pedantry.

At the end of Act II, theology and ethics seem bereft of their last defender. George discovers that he, not Dotty, has killed Thumper—with the arrow shot to prove God's existence. In the shock of realizing himself a killer, George steps backward, and "CRRRRRRRRUNCHU!!" he kills his tortoise, Pat. His sobs are amplified and blend into the Coda, where the prostrate George is gripped by a bizarre dream. Has George suffered a total collapse? Or has he merely found escape?

Even in George's dream, Archie is in charge. Symbolically, Archie is leadership—the repository of man's hopes and abdicated responsibilities. And Archie has led all segments of society down the path of expediency and amorality. Archie's intellectuals—education—are corrupt and ineffective, jumping from one pose to another at Archie's convenience and command. According to George, they are all as mad as McFee, who thinks lying and murder are merely antisocial, not inherently wrong. The general acceptance of such beliefs is witnessed by their philosophical classification—"Orthodox mainstream." The ineptitude of all these thinkers is exposed when Archie reveals the basis of their selection. For the new chairman of the Philosophy Department, he wants "someone of good standing; he won't have to know much philosophy."

As leader of the Radical Liberals, winners of the recent election, Archie also represents politics—the foundation of man's self-government. But like morality, "Democracy is all in the head," Archie has told Dotty. In fact, Dotty explains, the election was actually a coup d'état. When George protests that he voted, she retorts: "It's not the voting that's democracy, it's the counting." Language plays its tricks again. As a result of this "election," the Church Commissioners were dispossessed, the Newspaper properietors found themselves in a police car, Clegthorpe—agricultural spokesman and agnostic—has been appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, and early next week "the Police Force will be thinned out to a ceremonial front for the peacekeeping activities of the Army." The image of the failure of politics is intensified by recalling that the Rad Libs are "a mixed bunch," more than just party workers and academics. Moreover, in the first scene the whole pyramid of Rad-Lib Jumpers has been seen to collapse under the removal of logic—the death of McFee. In the Coda the pyramid is rebuilt with Archbishop Clegthorpe, "The highpoint of scientism," as its pinnacle. But once more a gunshot—violence—intervenes. Clegthorpe is toppled, and the pyramid disintegrates. Are Archie's Jumpers like a pile of dominoes, doomed to fall each time Someone somewhere gives a nudge?

Dotty, of course, stands for escapism. She is sex, show business, and romance—rolled into one. Her songs about Juney moons, her millions of undaunted admirers, her flirtations and infidelities speak of man's wishes—his fantasies of beautiful bodies and perpetual love-making under a spangled moon. But this symbol too has collapsed. Dotty faltered in the middle of her act and addressed herself to the mystery of another absolute: "… why must the damned show go on anyway?"

Summoned by fearful anonymity is Bones—symbol of law, order, and justice. He is supposed to be evenhanded and incorruptible, able to detect the evil-doers and empowered to right their wrongs by punishment. Alas! Bones, the implacable law, is also human. Victimized by Dotty's charms, Bones instructs Archie to temper justice with romantic illusion, dirty tricks, and prejudice: "Put her in the box and you're half-way there. The other half is, get something on Mad Jock McFee, and if you don't get a Scottish judge it'll be three years probation and the sympathy of the court." Finally, made vulnerable by his fantasies, Bones—the full majesty of the law—is frightened into retreat by Dotty's blackmail. But the mystery remains: who killed McFee? And the criminal is still at large. Is there no protection under the law?

The secretary and Crouch, of course, represent the mute, lowly ones who only watch and serve. That American Jumper, Richard Nixon, might have called them the silent majority. But they are victims too. Stripping on the flying trapeze, the secretary symbolizes man swinging between the darknesses of ignorance and false hopes, from the innocence of the womb to the reality of the tomb. The moments of light in between represent those flashes of insight which strip him, little by little, of his beliefs and illusions. Crouch, representing the servile ones, is so blinded by his workaday world that he doubts neither his own inferiority nor the Jumpers' expertise. Unseeing, he "backs into the path of the swing and is knocked arse over tip by a naked lady." He never knows what has hit him until he is blacked out and broken in the crash. But in the Coda, Crouch has become Chairman of the Symposium. Do the meek inherit the earth?

Catalysts to it all are the moon men—science and technology raised to the ultimate power. The scientific method was intended to provide the objectivity that would unlock the secrets of the universe. Instead it unloosed an invasion by machines—television cameras exploring the surface of the moon and the skin of Dotty's body. Can external coverings reveal the soul—of Dotty or the moon? It unloosed astronauts in goldfish bowls violating God's heaven, landing their amorality on the moon. In the Coda, Archie puts rationalizations into Captain Scott's mouth. He orders Scott to explain his "instinctive considerations" with "special reference" to his "seniority" over Oates, their "respective usefulness to society," and his responsibility to himself. Captain Scott has only to answer, "That's it." The spectacle of these astronauts fighting on the moon caused McFee to doubt himself. Before his murder, he confided to Crouch: "I am giving philosophical respectability to a new pragmatism in public life, of which there have been many disturbing examples both here and on the moon." Perhaps the most far-reaching effect was on Dotty: the moon was no longer fantasy land, no longer Juney or spooney or crooney. For Dotty it was all over once man set foot on the moon and could see us "whole, all in one go, little—local" with all our absolutes looking like "the local customs of another place." Dotty's final declaration paraphrases into an awesome interrogative: What is going to happen when the people on the bottom discover that the truths they have taken on trust now have edges?

Dotty's concern adds to the principal accumulated questions: Is God? Is man good, bad or indifferent? What do good and bad mean? And, of course, who shot McFee? Stoppard lets Archie give the answer: "Unlike mystery novels, life does not guarantee a denouement; and if it came, how would one know whether to believe it?" Thus, the play states that life is a mystery no one can solve. Stoppard's advice seems to be—dream! look on the better side!—because the Coda ends on an optimistic note. Dotty sings again, perched on "a spangled crescent moon." George exclaims that even disbelievers agree that "life is better than death, that love is better than hate." And Archie revives an extended version of the old paradox that the half empty cup is also half full. He sanctions: "Do not despair—many are happy much of the time. …" Or does the Coda merely suggest that life, like this play, is one bizarre dream after another?

One thing is clear: Stoppard's Absurd "Whodunit" about the multiple mysteries of life is an almost perfect blend of form and content. Moreover, in production the fast pace and overlapping images of Jumpers create a three-ring circus effect. The swinging trapeze, the songs, the jokes, and the nudity mix bits of vaudeville, musical comedy, and burlesque into this legitimate stage play. The result is that Absurdism, usually so depressing to audiences, emerges in a new configuration with entertainment.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2790

Carol Billman (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "The Art of History in Tom Stoppard's Travesties," in Kansas Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 4, Fall, 1980, pp. 47-52.

[In the essay below, Billman explores the connection between art and history in Travesties: "Through his characterization of Carr, Stoppard yokes the roles of artist and historian … , affirming through Carr the importance of history and the individual 'making' it."]

In his profile of Tom Stoppard for the New Yorker [December 19, 1977] Kenneth Tynan, pursuing a biblical distinction, divides contemporary British dramatists into two camps:

On one side were the hairy men—heated, embattled, socially committed playwrights, like John Osborne, John Arden, and Arnold Wesker, who had come out fighting in the late fifties. On the other side were the smooth men—cool, apolitical stylists, like Harold Pinter, the late Joe Orton, Christopher Hampton … , Alan Ayckbourn … , Simon Gray … , and Stoppard.

Stoppard himself said in 1974, "I think that in future I must stop compromising my plays with this whiff of social application [found in Jumpers]. They must be entirely untouched by any suspicion of usefulness. I should have the courage of my lack of convictions." This is not to say that Stoppard's stylistically dazzling plays are devoid of substance or lack themes. Indeed, one of his favorite issues in Travesties as well as a number of his preceding works is the definition of art and of an artist's social obligations. But Travesties is also a history play, a fact that may seem surprising given the playwright's avowedly asocial, therefore ahistorical, perspective. As historical drama the play is not unlike such other contemporary works as Weiss's Marat/Sade, Camus' Caligula, or Kopit's Indians—each represents history as a random and mysterious course of events rather than as a logical, easily understood narrative. Nor is Travesties out of line with Stoppard's earlier plays, for it extends the discussion of art and the artist's social responsibilities to include history, first defining the subject and ultimately determining the historian's function.

The absence of absolutes has been another longstanding concern for Stoppard. In the plays before Travesties the relativity of everything from word meaning to political stances and philosophical arguments is illustrated dramatically. The way one looks at things is always a question of point of view, an idea expressed first by Stoppard in the 1967 radio play "Albert's Bridge," in which the character Fraser suddenly finds life tolerable when he joins the painter Albert atop the Clufton Bridge:

… So I climb up again and prepare to cast myself off, without faith in angels to catch me—or desire that they should—and lo! I look down at it all and find that the proportions have been reestablished. My confidence is restored, by perspective.

Stoppard relates this theme to the subject of art and its legitimacy. For him the products of his profession, literary works, are not inviolable, as he shows when he rewrites Hamlet from the perspective of two minor characters in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and when he parodies the convolutions of British detective stories in "The Real Inspector Hound." In Travesties, too, Stoppard works in the tradition of literary imitation. Beyond echoing great modern dramatists from Ionesco and Beckett to Brecht, the obvious source for imitation is Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. Travesties contains a play within a play in that four of Stoppard's characters act out (without knowing it) the roles of the confused quartet in Wilde's comedy: Henry Carr is Algernon; Tristan Tzara, Jack Worthing; Cecily and Gwendolen, their namesakes.

The dialogue in the play includes, moreover, travestied limericks and Shakespearean sonnets. And Stoppard parodies less poetic but nonetheless well-known word groups: Carr repeatedly turns clichés on end—e.g., "my art belongs to dada" and "post hock, propter hock." As this last snippet of rewritten Latin illustrates, the playwright does not stop with parodies of English. By choosing more than one way of saying something—"Pardon! … Entschuldigung! … Scusi!…Excuse me!"—Stoppard makes Ionesco's point about the arbitrary relationship of word form and meaning. What is more, Stoppard dramatizes the fact that word meaning is relative; even when speaker and listener use the same language, the meanings they assign a word vary, a point demonstrated by Carr and Tzara's argument over the meaning of the word artist. Responding to Tzara's loose construction of the term, Carr counters:

If there is any point in using language at all it is that a word is taken to stand for a particular fact or idea and not for other facts or ideas. … Don't you see my dear Tristan you are simply asking me to accept that the word Art means whatever you wish it to mean; but I do not accept it.

Carr's diehard absolutism notwithstanding, he cannot convince others to abide by his (belief in) precise denotation; they have their own points of view.

It should come as no surprise that works of literature and their medium, language, are presented as malleable in a play that has Dadaism as one of its central concerns, since the absence of absolute or rational explanation is what Dada is all about: "Dada! down with reason, logic, causality, coherence, tradition, proportion, sense and consequence." What is more extraordinary is the application of the tenets of this artistic and literary movement to historical events. Tzara acts out the Dadaist credo when he creates a poem by arbitrarily pulling lines out of a hat. Significantly, he extends the theory of random choice: "To a Dadaist history comes out of a hat too."

A sign of Stoppard's own attention in Travesties to larger historical patterns is the long monologue delivered by Cecily at the beginning of Act II. "Cecily's Lecture," as it is termed in the text, is a Brechtian newsreel of the historical events providing the backdrop against which the action of the play takes place. This indication of conventional historical narrative aside, events are reviewed in a piecemeal fashion that disorients audiences used to thinking of history along such orderly lines as chronology or progression. The play provides no linear design allowing for easy assimilation of historical fact. It moves forward by fits and starts and often circles back to one event time and again—e.g., the repeated allusions to Carr and Joyce's dispute over the cost of the trousers the former wore in Joyce's Zurich production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Travesties does provide, however, if not a readily understandable presentation of historical fact, a lesson about the recapitulation of history. Stoppard's point, of course, is that the unorthodox, convoluted structure of his play is more mimetic than the tidily sequential and causally related chain of events in which historical records are frequently served up.

But the playwright's point of departure—a questionable occurrence, the meeting of Joyce, Lenin, and Tzara while they were in Zurich concurrently—makes it clear that he, too, is shaping an historical account. Again, it is a subjective question of point of view. Speaking of his own dramatic piecing together of Shakespeare's personal history, Stoppard's contemporary, British playwright Edward Bond, writes [in his introduction to Bingo, 1974]:

Of course, I can't insist that my description of Shakespeare's death is true. I'm like a man who looks down from a bridge at the place where an accident has happened. The road is wet, there's a skid mark, the car's wrecked, and a dead man lies by the road in a pool of blood. I can only put the various things together and say what probably happened.

Likewise, Stoppard's history play dramatizes a view from the bridge, as his earlier "Albert's Bridge" did literally. Somebody stands back and plays the role of investigator or detective, whose job it is to reconstruct the events. History, then, does have a pattern, not one rising naturally from events under scrutiny but one imposed inevitably by the person recounting what happened.

A minor character in most accounts, including Joyce's Ulysses, in which he is found in a footnote, Henry Carr becomes in Travesties the reconstructer through whom the stories of three great men are channeled. Drama does not require an onstage narrator of events, but Stoppard has provided one and in so doing has found a visual means of underscoring the creativity of the history-teller. Beyond being a conspicuous raconteur, Carr is a conspicuously eccentric source of information. His recollections of the way things were in Zurich include not only remembrances of public events and great men but also those of a distinctly personal nature, and he makes no attempt to integrate the two. For example,

You forget that I was there, in the mud and blood of a foreign field, unmatched by anything in the whole history of human carnage. Ruined several pairs of trousers. Nobody who has not been in the trenches can have the faintest conception of the horror of it. I had hardly set foot in France before I sank in up to the knees in a pair of twill jodhpurs with pigskin straps handstitched by Ramidge and Hawkes. And so it went on—the sixteen ounce serge, the heavy worsteds, the silk flannel mixture—until I was invalided out with a bullet through the calf of an irreplaceable lambs-wool dyed khaki in the yarn to my own specification. I tell you, there is nothing in Switzerland to compare with it.

The reader of Travesties is told directly that Carr's account is idiosyncratic: Stoppard explains in a stage direction at the outset of the play that "the story (like a toy train perhaps) occasionally jumps the rails and has to be restarted at the point where it goes wild." He then gives these railments a name, "time slips," and makes suggestions for their staging. The viewer of the play also knows that Carr's perception of the past is not always lucid or concise. By the character's own admission in the dialogue: "… I digress. No apologies required, constant digression being the saving grace of senile reminiscence."

Moreover, Stoppard structures his work so that it is obviously a memory play, even though he resorts to no such apparent device as the tape recorder used by Beckett in Krapp's Last Tape. Aside from the parody of Wilde's play, Travesties contains in a second sense a play within a play, the inner performance equaling the psychodrama of Carr's retrospection. Carr, in fact, splits into two on-stage characters, Old and Young Carr. At the conclusion Stoppard moves forward to the present time of the play as Old Carr and Old Cecily argue about how things went:

Old Cecily: And I never helped him write Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. That was the year before, too. 1916.

Carr: Oh, Cecily, I wish I'd known then that you'd turn out to be a pedant! (getting angry) Wasn't this—Didn't do that—1916—1917—What of it? I was here. They were here. They went on. I went on. We all went on.

This exchange nicely points up how stories are influenced not just by personal interests but by less conscious factors as well, such as forgetfulness and the inability to sort out what is important.

Carr's manner of speaking further emphasizes the fact that a person is in control of the history he tells. First, the pace of Carr's story is noticeably uneven. Sometimes he so deletes or compresses information that the audience is left behind; sometimes he is circumlocutory to the point that the narrative virtually comes to a halt. His language, too, draws attention to itself as in this passage:

'Twas in the bustling metropolis of swiftly gliding trams and greystone banking houses, of cosmopolitan restaurants on the great stone banks of the swiftly-gliding snot-green (mucus mutandis) Limmat River, of jewelled escapements and refugees of all kinds, e.g. Lenin, there's a point … Lenin As I Knew Him. … To be in his presence was to be aware of a complex personality, enigmatic, magnetic, but not, I think, astigmatic, his piercing brown (if memory serves) eyes giving no hint of it.

Here he relies on the stock formulas of the oral storyteller ('"Twas in the …") as well as his own uniquely additive syntactic patterns and ability to turn a phrase ("mucus mutandis").

Despite his own acknowledgment that he digresses, Carr believes that his "memory serves." As his debate over semantics with Tzara illustrates, Carr believes, most fundamentally, in objectivity and absolutes. And he believes in order; throughout his reminiscences, for example, he resorts to labels as a device to give structure to his discourse: "Memories of James Joyce," "The Ups and Downs of Consular life in Zurich During the Great War: A Sketch," "Lenin As I Knew Him." Of course, all that he does and says belies his principles—he is a living reminder of the erratic subjectivity of the history-teller and the relativity of his product.

Accordingly, audiences cannot take all that Carr recounts and preaches seriously. But Stoppard means for the man himself to be taken seriously, and he is. Carr's idiosyncrasies and ways of putting things are arresting, and even his sartorial obsession is, after all, a humanizing vanity. Finally, he—not Tzara, Lenin, or Joyce—is the focal character of the play. His arguments negating Tzara's nihilism are more persuasive than the pontifications of the Dadaist, and he can effectively counter the Marxist rhetoric and Joycean banter when in the situation to do so. In short, Stoppard leads audiences to support Carr and his story; Old Cecily's nitpicking attention to correcting details at the end of the play is silly. Since history comes "out of a hat," Carr might as well be doing the pulling. His account is as good as any … and better than many, for as we have seen, it implicitly but strongly points up the fact that creation is involved in marshaling historical facts into narrative.

Old Carr sums up his documented legal battle with Joyce over Carr's theatrical costume and concludes:

I dreamed about him, dreamed I had him in the witness box, a masterly cross-examination, case practically won, admitted it all, the whole thing, the trousers, everything, and I flung at him—"And what did you do in the Great War?" "I wrote Ulysses," he said. "What did you do?"

In this passage Joyce, sounding like Stoppard demanding the courage of his lack of convictions, cooly asserts art pour l'art, a position Carr would condone despite personal squabbles with the writer. But elsewhere, in a speech whose importance Stoppard now dwells on, Joyce defends the artist against Tzara's attacks on the grounds that he is the recorder and shaper of history:

An artist is the magician put among men to gratify—capriciously—their urge for immortality. The temples are built and brought down around him, continuously and contiguously, from Troy to the fields of Flanders. If there is any meaning in any of it, it is what survives as art, yes even in the celebration of tyrants, yes even in the celebration of nonentities. What now of the Trojan War if it had been passed over by the artist's touch? Dust. A forgotten expedition prompted by Greek merchants looking for new markets. A minor redistribution of broken pots.

Even though Carr would not be quick to second this opin ion, Joyce's comment in effect sums up what the bit play er dramatizes in Travesties, for Carr performs the function Joyce assigns to the artist. Through his characterization of Carr, Stoppard yokes the roles of artist and historian: he goes beyond the travesty of existing histories, affirming through Carr the importance of history and of the individual "making" it.

In much of his subsequent work Stoppard shows that he learned the lesson his history play teaches. The plays that immediately follow Travesties—Dirty Linen and New-Found-Land—are social comedies in that they both de-pict the practices of bumbling British politicians, in the House of Commons and a local Home Office respectively. But his more recent works—the television drama Foul Play, Every Good Boy Deserves Favor, and Night and Day—are plays that truly represent social engagements on Stoppard's part: these plays face squarely such issues as governmental restriction of individual freedom. In characteristic fashion Carr lists at the conclusion of Travesties the things he learned in Zurich:

I learned three things in Zurich during the war. I wrote them down. Firstly, you're either a revolutionary or you're not, and if you're not you might as well be an artist as anything else. Secondly, if you can't be an artist, you might as well be a revolutionary …

I forget the third thing.

What he has forgotten but Stoppard has learned is that the two categories are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and thus the playwright has gone on to show he has the courage to state his social convictions on stage.

The Real Thing

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Paul Delaney (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Cricket Bats and Commitment: The Real Thing in Art and Life," in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 45-60.

[In the essay below, Delaney explores the intersection of life and art, genuine and ersatz love, in The Real Thing.]

That Tom Stoppard's plays are neither imprecise nor obscurantist, that his ambiguities are intended neither to dazzle nor confuse but 'to be precise over a greater range of events', was perhaps the most signal contribution of Clive James's [November] 1975 Encounter article: 'It is the plurality of contexts that concerns Stoppard: ambiguities are just places where contexts join'. And in The Real Thing (1982) the interstices come between art and life. Stoppard's attempt, a breathtakingly ambitious one, is to deal at once with what is real in life, what is real in art, and what the real differences are between art and life. The Real Thing endeavours to indicate what constitutes a more real life as opposed to the glib, the trendy, the ersatz; what endures as a living reality in an age that demands disposable relationships, pragmatic alliances. In art, The Real Thing endeavours to distinguish the authentic from propagandistic imitations, the liveliness of the right words in the right order from the ham-fisted butchery of language, what endures as the marbled reality in an age that demands the polystyrene, what endures as alabaster when the age demands plaster. But if the real thing exists in life and the real thing exists in art, the differences between life and art remain no less real. Indeed the very form of The Real Thing, opening as it does with a play within a play serves to dramatise the differences between reality and imaginative reality.

The contrast between the real and the imaginative accounts for the genesis not only of the play's form but for the emergence of a playwright as its protagonist. 'I've just finished a play', Stoppard told an American audience [at a lecture] in March 1982, 'which is about a playwright—not for reasons of autobiographical megalomania'. Rather, Stoppard continued, 'I wanted to write a play in which the first scene turns out to have been written by one of the characters in the second scene and consequently he had to be a playwright of course.'

As the curtain rises on that first scene, The Real Thing seems the direct opposite of Stoppard's earlier plays. Whereas Jumpers and Travesties begin with a 'pig's break-fast' of incongruous, seemingly random images, The Real Thing opens on a seemingly straightforward domestic scene. At second glance, the plays appear to be mirror images of each other. In Jumpers and Travesties we gradually learn that the seemingly unreal opening scene is in fact real; in The Real Thing we gradually learn that the seemingly real is in fact imaginative, is a play within a play. But eventually we should come to see—whether we begin with the seemingly unreal and then learn that it is the real thing or whether we begin with the seemingly real and then subsequently encounter the real thing—that Tom Stoppard has been writing about real things for quite some time now.

Even Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1967) springs, as James told us, from "the perception—surely a compassionate one—that the fact of their deaths mattering so little to Hamlet was something which ought to have mattered to Shakespeare." If such art is unarguably self-referential, what it is arguing for is for a greater sympathy, and that in the sublimest of works, for ordinary ram-shackle humanity. At the heart of the extraordinary Rosencrantz and Guildenstern we find a celebration of the merely ordinary. Just so, the bounding wit of Jumpers (1972), endlessly cartwheeling us from George's study to Dottie's bedroom, finally leads us to see—as an urbane sophisticated world does not—the validity of the insights of the ploddingly pedestrian George who affirms the inherently moral nature of experience in the real world; and to see—as George does not—the loneliness and anguish of the pathetically real Dottie. In the intricately erudite Travesties (1974) we find the ordinary decent consul Henry Carr at the centre not only of the play's structure but of the play's sympathy. If Joyce is celebrated, as he is, it is because his art deals with the likes of Henry Carr, his art emerges from, even immortalises, the real. Even more clearly, the more recent plays deal with ordinary humanity in all their creatureliness: husbands and wives, fathers and—again and again—sons. Just as George in Jumpers may offer moral affirmations which are valid in theory but which need to be demonstrated in practice, the tensions in Professional Foul (1977) involve the disjunction between the realms of Professor Anderson's abstract philosophising and the real world of Pavel Hollar's wife and son. Stoppard has described the play as an education by experience. Although Anderson may have 'a perfectly respectable philosophical thesis', Stoppard says, 'what happens is something extremely simple … he just brushes up against the specific reality of the mother and the child, especially the child' [interview in Gambit 10, No. 37, 1981]. But in the disjunction between precept and practice, between moral abstractions and moral applications, there is not the absurdist assertion of a chaotic universe, nor the aesthete's withdrawal into sublimely stylish siren song, nor the obscurantist's perverse or inadvertent confusion. From the first, Stoppard's plays have depicted real people in real time and space rather than offering a sur-realistic or absurdist vision of unreality.

The Real Thing's primary connection with the earlier plays is not just its verbal felicity (which many reviewers have noted) nor the naturalistic form which the play shares with Night and Day (1978). The Real Thing—as remarkable for its emotional richness as for its wit—extends, deepens, and refines the concerns with which Stoppard has been dealing at least since Jumpers. Like Jumpers, The Real Thing depicts human experience as inherently, fundamentally moral. With equal clarity, Stoppard's most recent play affirms that the real thing exists in the realm of art and thus continues Travesties' concern with the difference between genuine and bogus art. Further, The Real Thing extends and deepens the concern in Travesties and Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth (1979) over the connection between art and politics. If such plays as Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1977) and Professional Foul narrowed the focus of the universal moral values adumbrated in Jumpers to an examination of the body politic and affirmed that 'the ethics of the State must be judged against the fundamental ethic of the individual'—that is, 'one man's dealings with another man'—The Real Thing narrows the focus still further precisely to the arena of one person's dealings with another person. Thus, the affirmation in Jumpers of moral absolutes; the apologia commenced in Travesties and continued in Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth for art as a moral matrix; the application in Every Good Boy Deserves Favour and Professional Foul of moral judgement to the political arena; the assertion in Night and Day that corruption in language is connected with corruption in moral vision; all coalesce in The Real Thing with a deepened concern for the inherently moral commitment made between a man and a woman who know and are known by each other in the most intimate and most real of human relationships. Perhaps what The Real Thing most fundamentally shares with Stoppard's earlier plays is its assumption that reality exists, that life is meaningful, that the universe is not random or chaotic, that the difference between the real and the unreal, between the genuine and the artificial is knowable and that the real thing can be recognised.

Thus, if the opening causes the audience to experience disorientation, it also allows the audience to experience the shock of recognition. Hersh Zeifman's observation that the form of the play involves the audience viscerally in the questions being dealt with is undoubtedly correct [Modern Drama 26, 1983]. We are taken in by that first scene. Indeed, it is not until some way into the second scene that we recognise the opening as having been a play within a play. But the point, surely, is that we can recognise the real thing when it comes along. If the play shows that appearances can be deceiving, that we may momentarily mistake the imaginative construct for actual reality, it also shows that we can recognise appearances for what they are—appearances. If it is sometimes difficult to tell the real from the ersatz, if the artificial can sometimes deceive us into believing it to be real, that in no way suggests that the real thing does not exist and cannot, upon discovery, be recognised.

The form of the play does not mystify, baffle, or confuse; it does not—as it is possible for a different sort of play to do—leave us up in the air as to which is the imaginative realm and which is actual experience, which is waking reality and which is the dream. Actually, in performance the play is surprisingly straightforward and easy to follow. Even the least sophisticated member of the audience would not emerge from Stoppard's play wondering if the opening scene about an architect were 'real' and the remaining two and a quarter hours constituted an elaborate play within a play. Perhaps, however, it must be ruefully noted that more sophisticated viewers may be taken in either by the play's form or by the sophistries which the play refutes. One of the things which complicates argument at the moment, as Stoppard has remarked elsewhere, 'is that people are so clever that, paradoxically, they can be persuaded of almost anything' [interview in the Wall Street Journal, 1 February 1980]. Given the general level of academic twaddle about Stoppard as an 'absurdist', 'post-absurdist', or 'pan-parodist', we may yet encounter sophisticated academic nonsense about this play. Nevertheless, to emerge from The Real Thing with a sense that it is impossible to tell what is real and what is unreal within the play, one must be clever indeed.

Although disclaiming any autobiographical impulse behind the selection of a playwright as the protagonist for his play, Stoppard nevertheless reports [in the 1982 lecture] that 'in the course of writing it, I found this man expressing some of the notions I have about writing', notions, he continued, 'which I probably will not disown in the near future.' Indeed, less than a week after finishing the play, Stoppard offered Henry's statements on writing to an American audience with the explanation that he would be 'reading them out as though they are mine.' The Real Thing's affirmation of art is rooted in a celebration of language, a celebration which extends Stoppard's previ ous concern that language not be subjected to the abuse of pedestrian cliché, political cant, or totalitarian obfuscation. Henry's role as guardian of the language at times takes the form of mere grammatical finickiness, the 'professional fastidiousness' of a playwright who corrects his guests' use of the gerund. However, when Henry objects to describing a conviction for arson as being 'hammered' by an emotional 'backlash', he is not merely being pedantic. He is objecting to jargon which misrepresents real events, as well as objecting to the misuse of words in a mixed metaphor.

Such a concern for language extends the denunciation in Night and Day of both journalistic and political jargon, both the 'Lego-set language' of the London tabloids and the political cant of the labour unions. '"Betrayal" … "Confrontation" … "Management" … My God, you'd need a more supple language than that to describe an argument between two amoebas', says Jacob Milne as he mimics the debased language which evicts 'ordinary English' when the 'house Trots' speak of a strike. More sweepingly, when the arsonist Brodie attempts to take up writing, Henry exposes the vacuity of his revolutionary rhetoric in what Roger Scruton rightly calls a 'masterly and devastating criticism of the radical butchery of language' [Encounter, February 1983]: 'I can't help somebody who thinks, or thinks he thinks, that editing a newspaper is censorship, or that throwing bricks is a demonstration while building tower blocks in social violence, or that unpalatable statement is provocation while disrupting the speaker is the exercise of free speech … Words don't deserve that kind of malarkey'. Eventually, however, Henry's celebration of words as 'innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other' not only affirms a connectedness between the word and the thing named but emerges as a sacramental view of language: 'I don't think writers are sacred, but words are.'

Just as Travesties celebrates the 'immortality' of art 'that will dance for some time yet', The Real Thing celebrates the sacredness of words which can grant a form of immortality: 'If you get the right ones in the right order, you can … make a poem which children will speak for you when you're dead.' Indeed, like Travesties, The Real Thing celebrates a non-propagandistic art, praises art which 'works' aesthetically whether or not it 'works' in terms of social utility, by, for example, securing the immediate release of prisoners. The two conceptions of art collide in the play's last scene in which Brodie sees a videotape of his own play in a version completely revised by Henry. When Annie, who had requested her husband Henry to rewrite Brodie's fumbling dialogue, says of the television play, 'It did work', Brodie—with no conception of how a play could 'work' aesthetically—asks uncomprehendingly, 'You mean getting me sprung?' 'No', Annie replies, 'I didn't mean that.' The difference between writing well and writing rubbish, between art which 'works' and plays 'which go "clunk" every time someone opens his mouth', springs not from the social or political importance of the subject ('something to write about, something real') or from the immediate social or political effect ('getting me sprung'), but from the liveliness or loutishness in the use of language, the carelessness or precision in putting words together.

The writer can 'get it right' or can fail to get it right. And the difference between the two is, in one of the memorable images of the play, as great as the difference between a cricket bat and a cudgel. 'This thing here', Henry says of the real thing, 'which looks like a wooden club, is actually several pieces of particular wood cunningly put together in a certain way so that the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor.' Both Henry's explanation of the intricate composition of the cricket bat (metaphorically 'well chosen words nicely put together') and his association of it with the dance recall Joyce's apologia in Travesties for art. By contrast, the turgid prose of Brodie's dialogue is a cudgel, 'a lump of wood of roughly the same shape trying to be a cricket bat, and if you hit a ball with it, the ball will travel about ten feet and you will drop the bat and dance about shouting "Ouch!" with your hands stuck into your armpits'. To demonstrate that the difference between the two (metaphorically the difference between 'good writing' and writing that is 'no good') is not just a matter of opinion, Henry points to Brodie's script and suggests that Annie try for herself: 'You don't believe me, so I suggest you go out to bat with this and see how you get on. "You're a strange boy, Billy, how old are you?" "Twenty, but I've lived more than you'll ever live." Ooh, ouch!' What Henry is suggesting, basically, is an education by experience. What he affirms, he argues, is not contingent on his skill in arguing, but is verifiable by experience, is—quite simply—true: 'This isn't better because someone says it's better. … It's better because it's better.'

Although The Real Thing continues to celebrate language, continues to associate complexity in composition and liveliness in writing with the dance, nevertheless implicit in the image of the cricket bat is a significant departure from some of Stoppard's previous descriptions of the genesis and purpose of art. If a cricket bat is 'for hitting cricket balls with', what, we may ask, is art 'for'? 'What we're trying to do', Henry explains, 'is to write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might … travel.' Art, as Henry explains it, is for launching ideas. Such a conception of art differs substantially from the much-quoted epigram Stoppard coined some years ago that 'plays are not the end-products of ideas, ideas are the end-products of plays'. More recently, however, when the quote came bouncing back to him from yet another interviewer, Stoppard tossed it aside as having 'the over-statement of most epigrams'. Indeed, that quip, Stoppard continued, 'of course … stopped being applicable round about the time I started writing Jumpers. There the play was the end-product of an idea as much as the converse' (Gambit). Just so, as Henry explains it, the idea seems to be preexistent, to be already rolled up into, well, a ball, which the artist—if he wields his art lightly, forcefully, and well; if he avoids ham-fisted bludgeoning—can send soaring.

If Henry's explanation of the lofting of ideas demonstrates development in Stoppard's perspective on the genesis of art, Henry's reflections on the effect of art more profoundly clarify Stoppard's position from his treatment in previous plays of the connection between art and politics. Just as Tzara, in Travesties, could not change art into something it was not simply by abusing the word 'art', so in The Real Thing an artist cannot change 'politics, justice, patriotism' by trying to stick labels on them. However, Henry continues in clarification of what the artist can change, 'if you know this and proceed with humility, you may perhaps alter people's perceptions so that they behave a little differently at that axis of behaviour where we locate politics or justice.' Art, that is, can in some way effect social change toward justice. However, art is not useful in some kind of immediate way that gets Brodie free from prison next month. Rather, art is a civilsing force, a humanising force, a 'moral matrix' as Stoppard told an interviewer in [Theatre Quarterly IV, No. 4, May-July 1974], 'from which we make our judgements about the world'.

If Joyce in Travesties affirmed art for art's sake, art completely removed from any kind of social or political obligation, art which exists in a separate realm where it 'will dance for some time yet and leave the world precisely as it finds it, Henry in The Real Thing affirms art which can both teach and delight, art which exists both in the realm of time and the timeless, the power of words with which an artist 'can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you're dead'. Henry's climactic statement on art continues Travesties' affirmation that art need not be social, continues to see art as gratifying 'a hunger that is common to princes and peasants' or, even, children. However, the acknowledgement that art can 'nudge' the world, significantly, if modestly, extends Stoppard's claims for art. Social impact may not be art's major purpose; and art may not accomplish social change with immediate effect. Nevertheless, art need not leave the world precisely as it finds it; art can move the world, at least fractionally; and that movement can be in the direction of justice. Henry's climactic statements on art thus conflate a number of themes from the play. The world that is there to be nudged is real; a world in which people need to act with justice is inherently moral; and art, by faithfully reflecting the real world, can enable people to see the real world and their own actions with greater precision, to act with greater comprehension and clarity.

Thus, however distinct the plane of imaginative reality may be from reality, there are, finally, interconnections between them. There are points at which the aesthetic intersects the epistemological and even the ethical. Distortions in one plane can lead to distortions in the other planes. Abuse of words in writing can lead to a warped vision of the real world, a bent toward seeing justice as fraud, property as theft, patriotism as propaganda, religion as a con trick. And such skewed perception of the real world can lead to the acting out of prejudice, to behaviour in the ethical plane which is likewise skewed. Thus clarity of artistic vision is not, finally, divorced from accuracy of epistemological perception or even from Tightness of ethical action. Writing aright can lead, or can help lead, or—to put it as modestly as possible—can 'nudge' human beings 'a little' toward acting aright in the real world.

Stoppard's vision of the intersecting planes of the aesthetic, the epistemological, and the ethical may be intricate—and intricacy may characterise the art which bodies forth such complexity—but what it is not is chaotic. To abandon precision in epistemological perception of the real world is to make a 'mistake'; to abandon precision in moral vision is to manifest 'prejudice'; and to abandon precision in writing is to create works which do not square with the real world, works which do not even square with themselves, architectural follies which should be 'bridges across incomprehension and chaos' but which are in fact 'jerry-built', 'rubbish', incapable of supporting even their own clumsy weight.

If Stoppard's plays grow, or apparently grow, from the demand that Art should be its own subject, they inevitably break through this new and alien and artificial turf and sink their roots into the timeless truth that the evanescent beauty of art can only blossom from the ordinary mun-dane soil of real life. Stoppard eschews the example of committed playwrights who 'grapple' with 'weighty' issues, argues James, 'not because he can't do what they can do, but because he can do what they can do so easily' (Encounter, November 1975). Having demonstrated his mastery of the form, Stoppard finally leaves behind the inherently circular world of art which is merely self-referential for much the same reason.

Stoppard's is a paradoxical art. He writes cavortingly clever plays which wittily expose as effete the merely clever. He writes exuberantly risqué plays which ruefully reflect on human experience as ineluctably moral. He writes disarmingly stylish plays which expose the danger of mere style. He writes extraordinary plays which celebrate ordinary mundane human beings. He writes seemingly surreal plays that affirm the existence and the value of the real. In a farrago of words he affirms that the essential truths are simple and monolithic and precede language. And in one of the surpassing ironies of his paradoxical plays, Stoppard creates a self-referential art which celebrates only that art which is not merely self-referential, celebrates that art which is numerically rooted in its representation of ordinary human experience, art which eschews the surreal for the real.

Having established the contrast between real life and art in the juxtaposition of scene one with scene two, having celebrated the existence of the real thing in art in Henry's memorable contrast of cricket bats with cudgels in the middle of the second act, what remains as the ultimate concern of the play is the contrast between the ersatz—however alluring or deceptive or temporarily misleading—and the real thing in human relationships. 'Does the world "love" mean anything at all?' a character asks in Harold Pinter's most recent play ['Family Voices']. Stoppard's play asks a much harder question. The Real Thing asks if commitment, fidelity, trust have meaning even in an age which insists that relationships are negotiable commodities, even in a hedonistic environment which is as surfeited with sensuality as 'this poncy business' of the theatre, even—indeed—in a relationship which has its very inception in an adulterous affair. The Real Thing asks if there can be affirmation of commitment, fidelity, trust between lovers who were themselves brought together by infidelity, the breaking of commitments, the betrayal of trust.

Just as the play opens with two quite different scenes both of which—initially—appear to be real; just as we are presented with two characters who embody different views of writing; just so The Real Thing presents us with characters who embody several different views of love and different views of the nature of human relationships. Charlotte, Henry's first wife, discounts the significance of love—romantic, marital, or even parental—from her first appearance. Although she is primarily trying to insult Henry's plays as unreal, there is also undisguised condescension toward the whole notion of fidelity in Charlotte's assertion that if Henry were to catch her with a lover his 'sentence structure would go to pot, closely followed by his sphincter'. Indeed, in some of the coarsest language of the play. Charlotte describes fidelity in a wife as merely a matter of having 'a stiff upper lip, and two semi-stiff lower ones'. She even jeers at Henry's love for his daughter and describes parental love as abnormal, saying that 'normal is the other way round'—normal, that is, is the response of one who 'just can't stand the little buggers'. Ultimately Charlotte's view of relationships is articulated in mercantile metaphors. 'There are', she asserts, 'no commitments, only bargains'. If Charlotte dismisses relationships as 'bargains', Debbie puts a different price on relationships in her advocacy of 'free love'. Like her mother, Debbie contemptuously dismisses the necessity or significance of fidelity. Infidelity is 'a crisis only if you want to make it' one, Debbie reasons, arguing that her boiler room trysts had shown her that sex is not 'secret and ecstatic and wicked and a sacrament' but, merely, 'turned out to be biology after all'.

Whereas Charlotte and Debbie demonstrate a pragmatic devaluing of relationships, Annie—who marries Henry after both have divorced their first spouses—values commitment but sees it as negotiable. Certainly she is more willing than Henry to jettison a first marriage. However, she is intense in her affection, her love, for Henry and she sees their subsequent marriage as something more than a bargain, as a relationship involving a measure of commitment. But she does not equate love or commitment, necessarily, with fidelity. Having embarked on an adulterous affair with the actor Billy, Annie endeavours nevertheless to assert her continuing love for Henry. She says she has learned not to care about the affairs she had suspected Henry of having, and that while her affair with Billy may continue, it is quite separate from her relationship with Henry: 'You weren't replaced, or even replaceable.'

As opposed to such denials of the possibility of love, or of the need for love to be accompanied by marriage, or of the need for marriage to be accompanied by fidelity, Henry from the first affirms the insularity of passion, the significance of commitment, the value of fidelity. While Henry the playwright confesses that he does not 'know how to write love' because 'loving and being loved is unliterary', Henry the man can turn to Annie at the peak of an argument and say, however unliterarily, 'I love you so.' In performance the chemistry between Roger Rees and Felicity Kendal, the unselfconscious physical affection they share, may provide compelling emphasis to Annie's response, 'I love you so, Hen.'

At least in part, however, the resonance of such an exchange is established precisely by the dialogue's unpolished simplicity. Scruton's description of Stoppard's dialogue as 'an exchange not of feelings, but of epigrams' (Encounter, February 1983), might well apply to the play within the play, the scene from 'House of Cards' written by Henry. But applied to The Real Thing Scruton's charge simply leaves out more than it includes. To fail to distinguish the verbal veneer of that first scene from the emotional richness of much of the rest of the play is to call attention only to the discussion of art and miss the immediate personal experience of love and betrayal, the offering of commitment and the discovery of infidelity which undergirds the fabric of the play, One of the most moving speeches of the play, Henry's anguished cry, restrained until after Annie has already departed for another adulterous rendezvous, 'Oh, please, please, please, please don't' is scarcely aphoristic. Indeed, precisely what we do not get at the play's most emotional moments is what Henry and Charlotte identify as 'badinage', 'smart talk', sitting around 'being witty about place mats'. Even Henry's first act curtain speech, 'I love love', although—perhaps—impassioned, can scarcely be described as eloquent: 'I love having a lover and being one. The insularity of passion. I love it. I love the way it blurs the distinction between everyone who isn't one's lover. Only two kinds of presence in the world. There's you and there's them.' Indeed, by having the climactic speech of act one couched in sentence fragments, Stoppard is deliberately undercutting the rhetorical possibilities of the moment.

While it may be true, as [Zeifman] has observed, that in Stoppard's play 'love speaks in many different tongues, with many different accents', it does not necessarily follow that it is impossible to tell 'which of them, finally, is "the real thing". Such a view offers the sophisticated interpretation that while a stoppard play might engage in elaborate theatre games, might recount the process of trying to define the real thing, it surely would not do anything quite so simplistic as to define the real thing, well at least—dear me—not in terms of the morality of sexual relationships.

Despite such critical reluctance to recognise anything but relativity, Stoppard asserts that when his characters speak on various sides of a question, one may be voicing a position which is not just more persuasive or more eloquent or more generally accepted, but is, quite simply, true. Of Night and Day Stoppard asserts, 'Ruth has got a gift for sarcastic abuse, but what Milne says is true'. 'I mean', Stoppard continues somewhat insistently, 'it is true … I believe it to be a true statement. Milne has my prejudice if you like. Somehow unconsciously, I wanted him to be known to be speaking the truth' (Gambit). And such truths just might be surprisingly simple. A moment later Stoppard offers a blunt assessment of Professional Foul: 'it's to do with the morality between individuals.' 'Something which has preoccupied me for a long time', he continues, 'is the desire to simplify questions and take the sophistication out. A fairly simple question about morality, if debated by highly sophisticated people, can lead to almost any conclusion.' When Stoppard takes the sophistication out, when he cuts through the sophistries and gets down to the real thing, what he finds is a question of 'the morality between individuals'.

Similarly, when The Real Thing cuts through the sophisticated badinage that 'little touches' can 'lift adultery out of the moral arena and make it a matter of style' the play leads us to a question about morality between individuals, a question about one person's dealings with another person in the most intimate of human relationships, a question that remains squarely in 'the moral arena'. But this matter of morality, the sophisticated observer may ask, it is still a question, n'est-ce pas? It is, how you say, an 'intellectual leap-frog' [Zeifman]. Skewering those who continue to find leap-frogging in his plays, Stoppard declares 'I can say that in the last few years I haven't been writing about questions whose answers I believe to be ambivalent. In Every Good Boy and Professional Foul, the author's position isn't ambiguous' (Gambit). Nor is it in The Real Thing.

Whatever Charlotte's gift for sarcastic abuse, whatever Debbie's gift for verbal sophistry, whatever Annie's gift for persuasive nonsense, we should eventually recognise the difference between the real thing and the bogus imitation as being as great as, well, the difference between a cricket bat and a cudgel. Indeed, like Brodie's attempt at playwriting, Charlotte's pronouncements on fidelity are undercut by their own 'crudity'. We discover, subsequently, that while married to Henry, Charlotte had embarked on an adulterous tour of the Home Counties with no fewer than nine different 'chaps'. 'I thought we'd made a commitment', Henry says in surprise, evoking Charlotte's disparaging comment that there are no commitments, 'only bargains'. Indeed, after Henry's marriage to Annie, we discover Charlotte is 'shacked up' with a real-life architect, has other affairs alongside that affair, and gives the architect the elbow when he objects. Charlotte may be an entrepreneur; but she's no bargain.

More persuasive, perhaps, is Debbie's advocacy of free love. If sex is mere biology, relationships need make no pretense of even aspiring to fidelity: 'That's what free love is free of—propaganda.' Brodie's prose may be ham-fisted, whereas Debbie's phrase-making is 'flawless', 'neat'. But Henry faults both of them for using language to falsify reality: 'You can do that with words, bless 'em.' What Debbie does with words is create 'sophistry in a phrase so neat you can't see the loose end that would unravel it. It's flawless but wrong. A perfect dud.' Henry demonstrates the ease of spinning out such phrases with a neat epigram of his own: 'What free love is free of is love.' Later in the conversation Debbie unpops another pithy pronouncement: 'Exclusive rights isn't love, it's colonisation.' Though he dismisses such a cleverty as 'another ersatz masterpiece', Henry's affection for his daughter is clear—as is his disapproval of her misuse of her gift for language—in saying she is 'like Michelangelo working in polystyrene'. The scene does not, however, merely offer a battle of wits, a mock-epic exchange of epigrams. 'Don't write it, Fa', Debbie interrupts, 'Just say it.'

So Henry just says it. His daughter's glib devaluing of commitment prompts Henry's climactic statement on the nature of relationships—a statement which lacks eloquence or gloss or polish, but which for all that carries far greater weight than Debbie's 'polystyrene' philosophising: 'It's to do with knowing and being known. I remember how it stopped seeming odd that in biblical Greek knowing was used for making love. Whosit knew so-and-so. Carnal knowledge. It's what lovers trust each other with. Knowledge of each other, not of the flesh but through the flesh, knowledge of self, the real him, the real her, in extremis, the mask slipped from the face.' Against such a standard Debbie's burblings about free love and non-exclusive rights seem sophomoric, as, indeed, they are. Her glib sophistries are finally faulted, much as Charlotte's sardonic crudities, not merely as glib or wrong-headed or reductivist—though they are all of those—but because they are unreal. They lack reality.

Affirming a knowledge 'not of the flesh but through the flesh' Henry asserts that there is more to sex than just biology, more to a human being than meets the microscope, more to human actions than amoral glandular functions. Henry, that is, affirms human interaction, intimacy between 'the real him' and 'the real her' as inherently, ineluctably moral. Writing in 1977 on the ubiquitous attacks of relativists on objective truth and absolute morality, Stoppard declared his own belief in 'a moral order derived from Christian absolutes' [Times Literary Supplement, 3 June 1977]. Just so, more than Henry's language is derived from biblical Greek. Henry's view of relationships is derived from a biblical view of relationships: 'in pairs we insist that we give ourselves to each other. What selves? What's left? … A sort of knowledge. Personal, final, uncompromised. Knowing, being known. I revere that.' From a sacramental view of language to a reverential view of relationships, The Real Thing continues to depict both life and the language which faithfully represents life as meaningful.

In contrast both to Charlotte's sardonic pragmatism and the trendy promiscuity that Debbie so glibly espouses, Annie demonstrates some degree of commitment. Even amid her affair with Billy, Annie maintains that she loves Henry, and tries to assure him that Billy is not a threat. However, her expectations that Henry should manifest 'dignity', should learn 'not to care', should 'find a part of yourself where I'm not important' are shown to be unrealistic. Just as Professional Foul shows a professor 'being educated by experience beyond the education he's received from thinking' (Gambit,), The Real Thing shows a playwright's education by experience when, after having written about infidelity in his plays, he has to experience the real thing in his own life. Just as reality can cut through the seemingly seamless tissue that philosophers or professors are able to spin, so reality can cut through the fanciful figures that playwrights can weave. As a playwright, Henry has written about the discovery of infidelity and shown the cuckolded husband continuing to run on a witty line of banter. But when Henry the man discovers the infidelity of his own wife, he disclaims privacy, dignity and stagey sophistication: 'I don't believe in debonair relationships. "How's your lover today, Amanda?" "In the pink, Charles. How's yours?" I believe in mess, tears, pain, self-abasement, loss of self-respect, nakedness. Not caring doesn't seem much different from not loving.' Rejecting the brittle stage banter of Noel Coward sophisticates, Henry also explodes Debbie's dicta on free love as simply sophisticated masks for indifference. What free love is free of is love because not to care is not to love.

Henry can swallow his pride; he can resist being 'pathetic' or 'tedious' or 'intrusive', but he cannot learn to 'not care'. The reviewer who came away with the impression that Henry 'comes to realise that exclusive rights to a person is not love' got it, rather spectacularly, wrong [John Barber, The Daily Telegraph, 17 November 1982]. Henry quotes his daughter's epigram but does so with bitter irony. 'We have got beyond hypocrisy, you and I, Henry says, wryly hypocritical: 'Exclusive rights isn't love, it's colonisation.' 'Stop it—please stop it', Annie interrupts, unable to endure the irony in Henry's voice. 'The trouble is', Henry continues more straightforwardly, 'I can't find a part of myself where you're not important. I write in order to be worth your while and to finance the way I want to live with you. Not the way you want to live. The way / want to live with you.' However eloquent Henry may be in defence of art, he is quick to deny that his commitment to his art in any way supercedes or is even separable from the commitments he makes to relationships in real life. He is even willing to 'tart up Brodie's unspeakable drivel into speakable drivel' if Annie wants him to. We see in what sense this is a 'committed' playwright. Henry's is a commitment not to causes or ideologies but to a person. Although his memorable image of the cricket bat may be the springboard for an articulate apologia for the real thing in art, what finally matters to Henry more than art or even articulacy is love—the genuine article, the real thing, however haltingly expressed—in real life.

Despite Scruton's charge that Stoppard 'does not portray characters, who develop in relation to each other', the play finally hinges precisely on the transformation, the development, the growth we see in Annie. Even if Annie's espousal of commitment without concomitant fidelity seems a more formidable position than either Charlotte's or Debbie's, the play does not leave such a view as just another option alongside Henry's conception of love. In a series of crucial revelations in the play's final scene Annie abandons such a position along with a number of other falsehoods. We learn, first of all, that Brodie's ostensibly revolutionary offense had been wholly apolitical in motivation, had been performed, Annie says, with 'not an idea in his head except to impress me'.

Thus, for at least the second time in his career, Stoppard has written a play in which a shadowy Scot proves of pivotal significance. Just as Jumpers springs from George's attempts to compose a response to the philosophically radical McFee, so the putative political radical Brodie prompts Henry's response from the first scene. In both plays the off-stage Scot serves as the catalyst for an entire line of argument by the protagonist throughout the play, and then, at the penultimate moment of the play is discovered to be radically unlike what we had thought him to be. Further, such a radical alteration in our perception of him has the effect not of undercutting what the protagonist has been saying throughout the evening but of supporting, underscoring, reinforcing it. The posthumous revelation that McFee had rejected moral relativism, abandoned a materialist view of humankind, experienced a religious conversion, broken off an affair, and made plans to enter a monastery, does not go much further to support the theist affirmations of the moral absolutist George than Henry's position is supported by the revelation of Brodie, in the last scene, as a hooligan whose 'political' act of setting a fire on the Cenotaph had been prompted by a wholly apolitical desire, using the only means such an inarticulate lout had at hand, to impress a girl.

If the penultimate revelaton of Brodie reaffirms all that Henry—as playwright—has said about writing, the ultimate revelation of a transformation in Annie reaffirms what Henry—as a lover—has said about love. The two long arcs of the play—the concern with writing and the concern with loving—thus meet and are resolved in the play's final scene. However much weight Henry's impassioned plea for commitment may have carried during the preceding scenes the play's affirmations are not, finally, based on Henry's words alone. In the closing scene, Annie, sick of the freedom—the licence—of her extramarital experimentation, rejects her adulterous involvement, recoiling from the prospect of another contact with Billy with a vehement 'No'. Moments later she turns to her husband and speaks six words. If Henry and Annie's reconciliation is almost 'wordless', as Scruton pejoratively describes it, we should recall, as Anderson says in Professional Foul, that 'the important truths are simple and monolithic. The essentials of a given situation speak for themselves, and language is as capable of obscuring the truth as of revealing it.' The simple and monolithic truth here is that the relationship of a husband and wife, a relationship bent to the breaking point, has been restored. The words are, merely:

Annie: I've had it. Look after me.
Henry: Don't worry. I'm your chap.

But what has been exchanged is a world of feeling. And if the utter simplicity of Annie's words, if the expressiveness of her embrace, if the significance of her smile as she turns out the lights, if all this is not compelling, would it have been more compelling if they had discussed it? As the curtain descends on that luminous bedroom portal, the play ends not—as in Shakespearean comedy—with marriage as restoration, but—having attained the more mature vision of Shakespearean romance—with a restoration within marriage.

Just as we can tell the difference between a cricket bat and a cudgel, just as we can tell the difference between conscious artistry and the political hack-writing of Brodie, so we can tell the difference between ersatz pronouncements on love and the real thing, the difference between the real thing and bogus imitations in life. The real thing is real life as opposed to imaginative reality, actual experience rather than art. The real thing is love rather than, just, sex. The real thing is the word rather than the sophistry, the faithful use of language rather than the corrupt abuse of language into jargon. The real thing is art rather than its propagandistic imitation, writing that grows out of authentic human experience rather than doctrinaire pos-turing, the right words in the right order rather than ham-fisted rubbish. The real thing is the clear-sighted perception of politics, justice, patriotism rather than the obfuscation of prejudice. The real thing is the recognition of a relationship as a commitment rather than a mere bargain, the willingness to accept commitment in relationship rather than casualness in affairs, the fulfilment—and sometimes pain—of promise rather than the mere pleasure of promiscuity; costly love rather than free. And in facing the fact of infidelity, the real thing is the pain and nakedness of caring rather than the debonair front of witty repartee or the indifference of not caring.

The measure of Stoppard's achievement is not that he is able to depict the ecstatic passion of love, or the sweet pangs of unrequited love, or the attractiveness of illicit love, or—finally—even the agonies of betrayed love, though The Real Thing does all that. The measure of Stoppard's achievement is that he is able to depict and vivify and make compelling the enduring happiness—deeper than ecstasy if less spectacular, more satisfying than illicit love if sometimes less attractive, more profoundly moving than free love if more painful—of loving and being loved, knowing and being known, the giving and receiving of commitment, fidelity. If Jumpers, as Kenneth Tynan aptly observed, is unique in the theatre as 'a farce whose main purpose is to affirm the existence of God' [The New Yorker, 19 December 1977], The Real Thing has its own uniqueness as a West End comedy of adulterous alliances—a play about 'infidelity among the architect class. Again'—whose main purpose is to affirm the vital importance of fidelity, yes even the vital importance, in the commitment which love entails, of being earnest. And if it seems even less likely in our time than in Wilde's that a playwright could affirm the importance of being earnest and be in earnest about it, could affirm fidelity and not be ironic or cynical or, merely, flippant about it, that too is a measure of Stoppard's achievement. Stoppard has the unmitigated audacity, the perfectly scandalous nerve—simply washing one's clean linen in public—to dedicate the text of his adulterous comedy to his wife; and while that sort of thing may not be enormously on the increase in London, Stoppard sends his audience streaming out into the West End night—the lyrics 'I'm a Believer' ringing in their ears—convinced that such dedication, 'For Miriam', just might, after all, be the real thing.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9671

Hersh Zeifman (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "A Trick of the Light: Tom Stoppard's Hapgood and Postabsurdist Theater," in Around the Absurd: Essays on Modern and Postmodern Drama, edited by Enoch Brater and Ruby Cohn, The University of Michigan Press, 1990, pp. 175-201.

[In this essay, Zeifman focuses on Hapgood to uncover a note of optimism which distinguishes Stoppard's plays from works by Samuel Beckett and other writers of absurdist drama.]

In a 1974 interview with the editors of Theatre Quarterly, Tom Stoppard was questioned about the genesis of his playwriting career [Theatre Quarterly IV, No. 4, May-July 1974]. A Walk on the Water, written in 1960 (but not staged in England until 1968, as Enter a Free Man), was considered "an unusual kind of first play" by the interviewers, containing little that was "autobiographical or seminal." Stoppard responded:

I don't think a first play tends to be that—it tends to be the sum of all the plays you have seen of a type you can emulate technically and have admired. So A Walk on the Water was in fact Flowering Death of a Salesman. … I don't think it's a very true play, in the sense that I feel no intimacy with the people I was writing about. It works pretty well as a play, but it's actually phoney because it's play written about other people's characters.

The "other people's characters" Stoppard was referring to were abducted, as he himself pointed out, from Robert Bolt's Flowering Cherry and Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman: a strange theatrical amalgam that perhaps explains the play's uncertain tone. For his second play Stoppard turned to an entirely different source: "The next play I wrote, "The Gamblers," was over-influenced by Beckett, set in a condemned cell with only two people in it" [quoted by Charles Marowitz, in the New York Times, 19 October 1975]. While this imitation of Beckett was originally likewise "a kind of feint," it has proved to be of more lasting significance: Samuel Beckett has remained an important influence on Stoppard's drama.

Stoppard has expressed his intense admiration of Beckett on numerous occasions. "There's just no telling," he has written [in the Sunday Times, 25 February 1968], "what sort of effect [Waiting for Godot] had on our society, who wrote because of it, or wrote in a different way because of it… . Of course it would be absurd to deny my enormous debt to it, and love for it. Precisely what Stoppard loved in Beckett was, first of all, the structure of Beckett's humor: "There's Beckett joke which is the funniest joke in the world to me. It appears in various forms but it consists of confident statement followed by immediate refutation by the same voice. It's constant process of elaborate structure and sudden—and total—dismantlement" [quoted by Ronald Hayman in his Tom Stoppard, 1977]. Stoppard was also heavily influenced by the poetic cadences of Beckett's language, especially the stichomythia characteristic of much of Gego's and Didi's dialogue. But his greatest "debt" was to Beckett's absurdist vision (hence his ironic description of "The Gamblers" as "Waiting Godot in the Condemned Cell"). As he [in the Theatre Quarterly interview] wrote while still a theater critic in a review of Jack MacGowran's Beckett compilation End of Day: "[Beckett's] characters vacillate in a wasteland between blind hope and dumb despair… . Everything is canceled out; Beckett (see Martin Esslin's The Theatre of the Absurd) is much impressed by St. Augustine's words, 'Do not despair—one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume—one of the thieves was damned" [Scene 7, 25 October 1962].

The characters of Stoppard's next stage play similarity "vacillate in a wasteland between blind hope and dumb despair." Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the work that established Stoppard's fame (and fortune), is a deeply Beckettian play—as almost every critic who has analyzed it has acknowledged. (That acknowledgement has not always been a positive one. Robert Brustein, for example, labeled the play "a theatrical parasite" and dismissed its author as a mere "university wit," offering audiences "a form of Beckett without tears" [New Republic, 4 November 1967]. But whether positive or negative, Beckett's influence on the play is clearly evident.) Mirroring "the Beckett joke," the structure of Rosen-crantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a series of comic "statements" constantly refuting themselves, playing in effect "a sort of infinite leap-frog" [Stoppard, Theatre Quarterly]. ("I write plays," Stoppard has noted, "because dialogue is the most respectable way of contradicting myself [quoted by Jon Bradshaw in New York Magazine, 10 January 1977]. Further, the stichomythic exchanges changes of the title characters eerily echo the language of Godot's tramps; what Stoppard wrote in a 1963 review of James Saunders's Next Time I'll Sing To You—"Some of his dialogue is so Beckettian as to be pastiche" [Scene 18, 9 February 1963]—proved to be prophetically applicable to Stoppard's own play, not yet written. And the play's central conceit—two shadowy courtiers on the fringes of Hamlet, trapped in the margins of a "text" about which they know nothing, adrift in a world that makes no sense—embodies the heart of a Beckettian endgame, the quintessence of Camus's definition of the absurd [in The Myth of Sisyphus]:

A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the. memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.

Beckett's absurdist influence is equally strong in Jumpers, Stoppard's next full-length work for the theater. The argument of the play has been neatly summarized by the philosopher A. J. Ayer [in the Sunday Times, 9 April 1972]: it is "between those who believe in absolute values, for which they seek a religious sanction, and those, more frequently to be found among contemporary philosophers, who are subjectivists or relativists in morals, utilitarians in politics, and atheists or at least agnostics." (It was mischievous of the Sunday Times to commission this review from Ayer, the preeminent logical positivist [i.e., relativist] of his generation, whose first initials just "happen" to be reflected in the name of the play's "arch-villain," Archibald Jumper.) Although many of the play's characters "seek," however, they do not find: nothing in Jumpers appears certain, least of all absolute values. As I have argued elsewhere [Yearbook of English Studies 9, 1979], Jumpers is a parodic mystery play, in both senses of the term. There are in fact two linked mysteries at the core of the play: (a) Who killed Duncan McFee? and (b) Does God exist? The play's central character, a professor of ethics named George Moore, thinks he knows the answers, but in neither instance can he prove his case: the physical mystery and the metaphysical mystery remain equally unsolved (and unsolvable). (As the prisoner wryly informs the jailer in "The Gamblers": "I think you may have stumbled across the definition of divine will—an obsession with mystery.") The world of Jumpers is thus maddeningly, absurdly ambiguous, with both the earth and the heavens refusing to divulge their secrets.

The metaphysical absurdism of Jumpers is dramatized not simply in the play's theme but in its structure as well: if the world is "divested of illusions and lights," if it no longer makes sense, why then should plays that attempt to reflect that world? In absurdist theater, as Martin Esslin proclaimed in his seminal study [Theatre of the Absurd], form mirrors content: "The Theatre of the Absurd has renounced arguing about the absurdity of the human condition; it merely presents it in being—that is, in terms of concrete stage images." One of the first stage images we encounter in the play's bizarre prologue sets the tone for everything that follows: a (progressively) naked lady is seen swinging from a chandelier. "Like a pendulum between darkness and darkness, the Secretary swings into the spotlight, and out… , in sight for a second, out of sight for a second, in sight for a second, out of sight for a second… ." Now you see it, now you don't; the audience is in effect "ambushed" from the play's opening moments. Reflecting the play's theme in a maze of mirrors, the structure of Jumpers is rife with ambiguity, a conjuror's trick that has the audience echoing George's baffled "How the hell does one know what to believe?" Just when we think we "know" where we are, just when the picture finally seems to come into focus, the angle suddenly shifts and we are left once more with a blur.

Take, for example, the first postprologue encounter between George and his "dotty" wife Dotty. From the darkened space of her bedroom, Dotty has been uttering piteous, and increasingly urgent, cries for help: "Murder—Rape—Wolves!" George, feverishly attempting to "invent" God in his study, is convinced she is merely "crying wolf ("Dorothy, I will not have my work interrupted by these gratuitous acts of lupine delinquency!"), but he finally breaks down and decides to look in on her. As he enters the bedroom, the lights come up to display Dotty's nude body "sprawled face down, and apparently lifeless on the bed." Dotty appears to be dead, and the audience is allowed a brief interval to register the shock of that fact. But even as we are jumping to that conclusion, George's reaction to the scene puzzles us: "George takes in the room at a glance, ignores Dotty, and still calling for Thumper goes to look in the bathroom." Is this professor so absent-minded that he fails to notice the nude corpse of his wife? Is he so indifferent that he doesn't care? While we are pondering, George returns from the bathroom and suddenly addresses the "corpse":

George: Are you a proverb?
Dotty: No, I'm a book.
George: The Naked and the Dead.

An audience invariably laughs at this point, partly in relief that Dotty is alive and partly in embarrassment at having been so easily misled: Dotty was simply "acting out" a charade, as she will continue to do throughout the play. Now you see it, now you don't: the whole play is, structurally, a series of "charades" that constantly challenges our perceptions of "truth."

And yet, though the truth in Jumpers proves to be elusive, though the world appears meaningless and absurd, there is a significant counterthread of optimism running defiantly through the fabric of the play. On the surface, the absurdist vision originally "inherited" from Beckett is brilliantly sustained, but under the surface that vision is continually being eroded and sabotaged. The source of the play's optimism is George's heartfelt belief that, whether he "knows" it or not, God does exist, that moral absolutes are valid. Camus would have argued that George is suffering from what he termed "the fatal evasion" of hope: "Hope of another life one must 'deserve' or trickery of those who live not for life itself but for some great idea that will transcend it, refine it, give it meaning, and betray it." It is an evasion practiced by almost all of Beckett's characters as well, desperately attempting to wrest meaning out of the very heart of meaninglessness. ("How one hoped above, on and off," comments the speaker of one of Beckett's "Texts for Nothing" from beyond the grave. "With what diversity.") The crucial difference is that everything in a Beckett play conspires to invalidate that hope: in a circular text reflecting the unattainability of desire, Godot will never come. Unlike his characters, Beckett has no illusions; the absurdity of his dramatic world continually denies man's "pernicious and incurable optimism." Stoppard, on the other hand, shares George's faith: "Our view of good behaviour must not be relativist.… I wanted to write a theist play, to combat the arrogant view that anyone who believes in God is some kind of cripple, using God as a crutch" [quoted by Oleg Kerensky in The New British Drama: Fourteen Playwrights since Osborne and Pinter, 1977].

The faith expressed by George (and Stoppard), however, is never allowed to wrench the play completely out of its absurdist framework. Stoppard is careful not to sentimentalize George, to "vindicate" him: despite his faith, George is frequently buffoonish and ineffectual, and his values by no means triumph. George's belief in moral absolutes, for example, cannot save Thumper and Pat from their spectacularly absurd deaths, deaths that George himself, however unwittingly, causes. Thus the play comes full circle, ending as it began with the anguished cries of "Help! Murder!" ringing in our ears. Nor—in spite of Stoppard's attempts to "soften" George's inertia in his latest revision of the play's coda—is George's belief translated into the kind of action that might prevent (or, at the very least, try to prevent) the murder of Clegthorpe. And finally, although George's closing argument in the coda is emotionally moving, it is Archie who not only scores points (literally) for his intellectual "bounce," but, in the debate between relativism and absolutes, is given the last word:

Do not despair—many are happy much of the time; more eat than starve, more are healthy than sick, more curable than dying, not so many dying as dead; and one of the thieves was saved. Hell's bells and all's well—half the world is at peace with itself, and so is the other half; vast areas are unpolluted; millions of children grow up without suffering deprivation, and millions, while deprived, grow up without suffering cruelties, and millions, while deprived and cruelly treated, none the less grow up. No laughter is sad and many tears are joyful. At the graveside the undertaker doffs his top hat and impregnates the prettiest mourner. Wham, bam, thank you Sam.

As many critics have noted, there is something deeply cynical and offensive about Archie's Beckettian/Augustinian parody, especially as it immediately follows the shooting of Clegthorpe. Previously Archie employed the phrase "do not despair" as a prelude to bribery; now it serves as a cover under which to dismiss murder. If the "Wham, bam, thank you Sam" refers to Sam Clegthorpe, the saying is hideously apt, for Clegthorpe has indeed been screwed—royally (note the coda's ironic allusions to the murders commissioned by Richard III and Henry II) and briskly.

But there is also a strange sense in which Archie's closing words are meant to be taken "straight," as a kind of consolation. Jumpers clearly dramatizes metaphysical anguish, the anguish underlying Beckett's absurdist view of the world; at the same time, however, it suggests that, despite that absurdity, there are genuine grounds for optimism, for not giving in to despair. If Beckett sums up existence in haunting images of death [in Waiting for Godot] (Pozzo's mournful "They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more," later expanded by Vladimir: "Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave-digger puts on the forceps"), Stoppard focuses instead on life: "At the graveside the undertaker doffs his top hat and impregnates the prettiest mourner." Archie's "Wham, bam, thank you Sam" is directed, then, more at Sam Beckett than at Sam Clegthorpe, but the acknowledgment is double-edged. While the "thank you" is obviously sincere—Stoppard has much to thank Beckett for—it also denotes a leave-taking: Stoppard's salute to Beckett is both a hail and a farewell. Jumpers thus marks a demarcation point in Stoppard's drama, his reluctant parting of the ways from the all-encompassing absurdism of Beckett's vision. The metaphysical optimism felt so insistently as an undercurrent in the play, pulsing faintly but tenaciously beneath its absurdist surface, produces a powerful tension. And it is out of this tension—a manifestly absurd "text" just as manifestly subverted by its own subtext—that Stoppard has created what is in effect a distinctively postabsurdist theater.

Hapgood, … which opened in London in the spring of 1988, brilliantly exemplifies his unique brand of postabsurdist theater. On the surface, the play is filled with all manner of dazzling absurdist trappings, but the tension produced by the play's subtext continually undermines that surface. Like its radio predecessor The Dog It Was That Died, Hapgood is, on the most obvious level, a play about espionage. (Stoppard frequently uses short media plays as "trial runs" for his longer and more complex stage plays: thus Jumpers derives from the earlier television play Another Moon Called Earth, while much of Travesties was anticipated in the radio play Artist Descending a Staircase.) In The Dog It Was That Died, the absurdities of the espionage world are instantly evoked by the play's title, an allusion to Goldsmith's "An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog":

The dog, to gain some private ends.
Went mad, and bit the man.

The man recovered of the bite—
The dog it was that died.

As the radio play opens, a dog indeed has died—an unfortunate mutt that just happened to be lying on a barge that just happened to be passing under Chelsea Bridge at the precise moment Purvis, a double agent who no longer knew which side he was spying for, decided to jump off it in a suicide attempt. Purvis recovered; that dog it was that died. Like the comic reversal of Goldsmith's elegy, there is thus something immediately topsy-turvy about the play and the world it is dramatizing, a world so absurd that the whole concept of espionage ultimately becomes meaningless.

Hapgood opens in a similar absurdist vein: what Stoppard once said of Jumpers and Travesties—"You start with a prologue which is slightly strange" [quoted by Hayman in Tom Stoppard]—is true of all his full-length stage plays. Set in the men's changing room of an old-fashioned municipal swimming-bath, the opening scene of the play resembles a Feydeau farce peopled by the characters of a John LeCarré novel on speed. In a totally confusing "ballet" impossible to make sense of (and choreographed, in Peter Wood's production, to the limpid strains of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto), spy chases counterspy chases countercounterspy in and out of slamming cubicle doors and all around the Burberry bush (for the still center of this storm is the raincoat-clad Elizabeth Hapgood, code-named "Mother," waiting patiently in the men's shower under a pink umbrella). Adding to the bewilderment are identical briefcases, identical towels, and—crucial to the plot but impossible to detect at this point—identical twins. The confusion of this opening scene is deliberate; there is no way an audience can possibly follow all those comings and going, and Stoppard knows that. We are thus immediately made to experience, structurally, what the play's characters are suffering from thematically: an inability to figure out what's going on, to determine precisely who is the traitor in their midst.

For it turns out that the mayhem of the opening scene is the result of a complicated espionage operation designed to trap that traitor, a "mole" who is passing sensitive scientific data to the Russians. The "prime" suspect (a word we shall return to later) is the defector Joseph Kerner, a physicist and double agent: a Soviet "sleeper" apparently spying for the KGB, he is in fact, unbeknownst to the Russians, a British "joe" who has been "turned" by Hap-good and is working for British Intelligence. Or is he? Could he be, unbeknownst to the British, a triple agent? Hapgood is convinced he is loyal—"Kerner is my joe!"—but Blair, a senior colleague, and the American Wates, representing the CIA, have their doubts. As the action of the play progresses, a second major suspect emerges in the figure of Ridley, another member of the intelligence unit. Ultimately, however, everyone in the unit becomes suspect. "How are you at telling lies?" Wates asks Hap-good at one point; "I make a living," she replies. When lying is a part of the job description, how does one know whom to believe? And what if the problem is not about lying per se (which implies that there is a specific truth deliberately being obscured), but rather about the very nature of "truth" itself?

This difficulty in determining the truth is emphasized in the play through an analogy with physics (specifically, quantum mechanics)—an analogy continually pointed out by Kerner, who, as both spy and physicist, is uniquely qualified to make the connection. During an early "interrogation" scene set at the zoo, Blair confronts Kerner directly about his suspect allegiances, expecting the Russian to provide him with an unequivocal answer. Despite his professed ignorance of physics, Blair has, paradoxically, a "scientific" perspective on life: obviously Kerner must be working for one side or the other.

Blair: One likes to know what's what.

Kerner: Oh yes! Objective reality.

Blair: I thought you chaps believed in that.

Kerner: "You chaps?" Oh, scientists. (Laughs) "You chaps!" Paul, objective reality is for zoologists. "Ah, yes, definitely a giraffe." But a double agent is not like a giraffe. A double agent is more like a trick of the light.

In the London production, Kerner's point was cleverly underlined by Carl Tom's witty set design: this conversation at the zoo occurred directly in front of an enormous giraffe—or, rather, a pair of giraffes, positioned in such a way that we seemed to be seeing a two-headed giraffe emanating from a single body. "Ah, yes, definitely a giraffe"—but nothing is definite in this play when even a giraffe appears to be a "double agent."

Kerner then proceeds to clarify what he meant by the phrase "a trick of the light," launching into a minilecture on whether light is wave or particle. Confused by this apparent digression, Blair tries to return to the ostensible subject, "Joseph—I want to know if you're ours or theirs, that's all," only to have Kerner reply, "I'm telling you but you're not listening." Kerner is answering Blair's question, but by analogy:

[We scientists] watch the bullets of light to see which way they go… . Every time we don't look we get wave pattern. Every time we look to see how we get wave pattern, we get particle pattern. The act of obser ving determines the reality… . Somehow light is particle and wave. The experimenter makes the choice. You get what you interrogate for. And you want to know if I'm a wave or a particle.

There is a conundrum here: light appears to have the mutually exclusive properties of both wave and particle. As the physicist Richard Feynman has written, in a passage Stoppard selected as the epigraph to the play, "We choose to examine a phenomenon which is impossible, absolutely impossible, to explain in any classical way, and which has in it the heart of quantum mechanics. In reality it contains the only mystery… ." If light is both wave and particle (depending on who's looking, or not looking), then can a double agent be both "sleeper" and "joe"? The "mystery" within the espionage plot is as baffling as the "mystery" in physics: both are explicitly referred to as a "puzzle," and both seem impossible to solve.

The analogy in the play between espionage and physics depends—and becomes even more disturbing—as Kerner goes on to describe the strange behavior of electrons ("Electrons," Feynman notes [in The Feynman Lectures on Physics: Quantum Mechanics, 1966], "behave just like light"):

The particle world is the dream world of the intelligence officer.… An electron… is like a moth, which was there a moment ago, it gains or loses a quantum of energy and it jumps, and at the moment of the quantum jump it is like two moths, one to be here and one to stop being there; an electron is like twins, each one unique, a unique twin.

A true double agent, then, like an electron, defeats surveillance because he's a "twin," seemingly in two places at the same time: now you see it, now you don't. Kerner, for example, appears to be both "sleeper" and "joe"; but which is the "mask" and which the "face"? Or, to phrase the question in slightly different terms that are more familiar to students of Stoppard's drama, which is "the real thing"? Does "the real thing" even exist? And can we ever hope to plumb the depths of so complex a mystery?

Although Stoppard has great fun immersing himself (and us) in the unsettling world of quantum mechanics, the analogy between particle physics and espionage in Hapgood extends far beyond espionage specifically to embrace a much more general concept: the "puzzle" of human identity itself. Confronted once more with Blair's accusations near the end of the play, Kerner responds, "So now I am a prime suspect":

A prime is a number which cannot be divided except by itself… . But really suspects are like squares, the product of twin roots… . You … think everybody has no secret or one big secret, they are what they seem or the opposite. You look at me and think: Which is he? Plus or minus? If only you could figure it out like looking into me to find my root. And then you still wouldn't know. We're all doubles… . The one who puts on the clothes in the morning is the working majority, but at night—perhaps in the moment before unconsciousness—we meet our sleeper—the priest is visited by the doubter, the marxist sees the civilizing force of the bourgeoisie, the captain of industry admits the justice of common ownership.

Like electrons, like espionage agents, all human beings are "doubles": "squares," not primes; "the product of twin roots," each of us embodying our own "sleeper." And of no one is this more true than the enigmatic eponymous heroine of Hapgood. Kerner recalls, significantly, that he never saw Hapgood sleeping: "Interrogation hours, you know. She said, 'I want to sleep with you.' But she never did. And when I learned to read English books I realized that she never said it, either." Yet Hapgood, too, is a "sleeper," a "double agent"—not in terms of the espionage plot but in the ontological sense for which espionage (and physics) acts as a controlling metaphor in the play.

Who and what is Hapgood (that all our swains commend her)? In the "technical," macho world of espionage, she is Mother: a crack shot with both a gun and a quip, a coolly intelligent and efficient executive who plays chess without a board and is fiercely protective of her "joes." But at the same time she is also a mother with a conflicting set of "Joes": her eleven-year-old son Joe, and Joseph Kerner. (Kerner is not only Hapgood's agent, he is also the father of her son; not only, then, one of her "joes" but also, as he explicitly reminds her, "one of your Joes.") Hapgood's "schizophrenic" existence is neatly dramatized structurally in our first glimpses of her. In scene 1 she is Mother anxiously watching her espionage joe (Kerner) deliver a possibly incriminating briefcase to his Russian contact; in scene 3, the next time we see her, she is mother anxiously watching her son Joe play a rugby game at his school. This "personal" Hapgood is both deeply attached to her son ("He's the handsome one with the nicest knees") and deeply guilty that her demanding work consigns Joe to a boarding school, alienating her from the day-to-day activities of his life.

The two "worlds" of Hapgood—mother and Mother—wage a constant battle throughout the play: in order to accommodate the former, she must repeatedly jeopardize the latter, thereby blurring the boundaries and breaking all the rules. But this collision course between the split sides of her character is only one sense in which Stoppard dramatizes the enigma of her identity. For Hapgood is many different things to many different people, a multiple personality reflected in the various names by which other characters address her; if one's name is the "key" to one's identity, then Elizabeth Hapgood is truly protean. To agents Ridley and Merry weather, she is "Mother"; Blair refers to her as "Elizabeth"; Joe calls her "Mum" or "Mummy"; her secretary Maggs says "Mrs Hapgood"; Wates calls her "ma'am"; her "sister" Celia speaks of "Betty"; and Kerner uses the Russian form of her first name, "Yelizaveta," along with various endearments derived from it: "Lilya," "Lilitchka."

The question of Hapgood's identity becomes even more complex with the appearance of Celia Newton, the "twin sister" she fabricates in order to expose Ridley as the unit's traitor. Hapgood's impersonation of Celia links her with all the other "reflectors" in the play, scientific and human—decoys designed to deceive. Having been informed by Kerner that the only logical solution to the apparent contradictions of the opening scene is to posit twin Ridleys, Hapgood sets out to trap him (them?) with the aid of her own "twin." She thus makes a quantum jump, "impossibly" present in two places at the same time: as Ridley will discover to his peril, "she's here and she's not here." In terms of personality and behavior, Celia and Hapgood are as different as (to allude to yet another Stoppard play title) night and day. To cite just one example: prim and proper Hapgood never swears, as Blair for one points out both directly—"Do you never use bad language, never ever?"—and indirectly, in his constant teasing: "Oh, f-f-fiddle!"; pot-smoking, "bohemian" Celia, on the other hand, swears a blue streak (indeed, the first word out of her mouth is scatological).

Faced with a physically identical Hapgood who is nothing like Hapgood, Ridley is dumbfounded. On one level, this non-Hapgood in Hapgood's body excites him. Earlier in the play, having been rebuffed by Hapgood's "You're not my type," he exploded: "You come on like you're running your joes from the senior common room and butter wouldn't melt in your pants but… if you could have got your bodice up past your brain you would have screwed me and liked it." Now his fantasy seems to have been made flesh; the battle between bodice and brain is, for Celia, not much of a contest. On another level, however, the transformation terrifies him. "Who the hell are you?" he cries out in anguish. "I'm your dreamgirl, Ernie—," Celia replies, "Hapgood without the brains or the taste." "Who the hell are you?" is, of course, the key question in the play. Celia is not only Ridley's "dreamgirl" but Elizabeth 's: her "sleeper," her "double." The complicated trap Hapgood has sprung for Ridley hinges on his being totally convinced that Celia is not Hapgood, and it works: despite his espionage training, despite his street smarts, despite his suspicions, Ridley is taken in. (He calls her "Auntie," Mother's sister.) But in order to "become" Celia so convincingly, there must be something of Celia locked deep within Hapgood. Ironically, Celia is Hapgood's "twin"; Kerner may have never seen her "sleeping," but we have. Who, then, is the "real" Elizabeth Hapgood? Is it possible to answer? Ridley is fooled the way all of us are ultimately fooled, expecting people to be "what they seem or… the opposite," to be either "particle" or "wave."

As always in Stoppard's plays, the elusiveness of the truth proves to be a matter of form as well as of content: just as the characters are constantly being "ambushed" in Hapgood, so too is the audience. Thus, when the lights come up on the second scene of act 2 and "Celia" suddenly comes flying out the kitchen door to answer Ridley's ring, we are in the same shocked position as he is: who is this creature who looks exactly like Hapgood but who dresses, speaks, and behaves so differently? When she identifies herself as Hapgood's twin, there is no real reason to doubt her—especially since we have not been told the exact details of Hapgood's plan to trap Ridley. As far as we know, Hapgood's having a twin may be part of the plan. After Celia exits briefly, allowing Ridley to contact Hapgood on his two-way radio and thus enabling us to hear Hapgood's voice, we are even more convinced that Celia is legitimate: can one person, after all, be in two different places at the same time? (There is an obvious answer to this apparent impossibility, but the pace of the theater production is such that we don't have the time to work it out.) Celia seems so different from Hapgood that, despite ourselves, we get taken in.

This adds immeasurably, of course, to the humor of the later scene in which Celia, now dressed like Hapgood and occupying her office, finds herself having to impersonate Hapgood when Maggs unexpectedly enters the office with important classified documents from Australia:

Maggs: I was in the pub.… I got the desk to bleep me if you came in—just the top one, really, it's green-routed and Sydney's been on twice this morning.

Hapgood: Has he?

We laugh because Celia is way out of her depth and trying desperately to disguise that fact. When Ridley attempts to help her out by reaching for one of the documents, Maggs cautions her, "It's yo-yo, Mrs Hapgood." "Is it, is it really?" Celia replies. "Yes, indeed. It's yo-yo, Ridley, you know what yo-yo is." Luckily, Ridley does, since Celia, treading cautiously through the minefield of this foreign language, clearly doesn't have a clue. Nor can she respond when Maggs passes on the cryptic message "Bishop to queen two"—a move in one of Hapgood's ongoing boardless chess games with McPherson in Canada, played via the security link with Ottawa. At the very end of the scene, however, Ridley departs before her, leaving her alone on stage for a moment; as she prepares to follow him, Maggs enters once more wondering if everything is all right:

Hapgood: Yes, Maggs—everything's fine. (She heads through the open door.) Queen to king one.

Like pawns rooked by a grand master, we have suddenly been checkmated: Hapgood's "Celia" turns out to be the queen of disguises.

This structural dislocation of the audience's perspective is by now a Stoppardian signature: an absurdist world, after all, defies comprehension. The scene transitions in Hapgood exemplify this conundrum brilliantly. At the end of scene 1, for example, Blair, in the municipal baths, speaks into his two-way radio: "I want Kerner in Regent's Park, twelve o'clock sharp. (He puts the radio away and looks at his wrist-watch. The next time he moves, it is twelve o'clock and he is at the zoo)." Blair has made, in effect, a quantum jump; like an electron or a "twin" moth, he is one moment at the baths and then "instantly" at the zoo. Blair's "elusiveness" sets the pattern for the majority of the play's scene changes, the most stunning of which involves Ridley in act 2. At the end of his first encounter with Celia, "Ridley stays where he is. The next time he moves, he's somebody else. So we lose the last set without losing Ridley. When the set has gone, Ridley is in some other place … , a man arriving somewhere. He carries a suitcase. He is a different Ridley. It's like a quantum jump." What we are seeing, in effect, is Ridley's literal twin materializing out of "nowhere." But as we have seen, all the play's characters are "twins," literally or metaphorically: the audience's difficulty in determining who is who on the physical plane simply mirrors its confusion on the ontological plane. Thus, in the play's climactic scene, set once again full-circle in the municipal baths, we see, "impossibly," two Ridleys at the same time. The illusion is created, significantly, through lighting: the flashlight Ridley is carrying at the beginning of the scene (allowing much of the stage to be in darkness) and the strobe light at the end (distorting our perception). But then, as Hapgood has dramatized so convincingly, all human identity is finally "a trick of the light."

The unmasking of the Ridley twins as the play's traitors seems to solve one of the major mysteries posed by Hapgood, at least on the surface level of its espionage plot; unlike Jumpers, say, this mystery play does offer a "dé-nouement" in which the guilty party is identified. But Stoppard's surfaces are deceptive, and his surprises never stop. For Ridley, as his name suggests, is, like all the play's central characters, a riddle: both "wave" and "particle." On the one hand, he is indeed a traitor who has been spying for the Russians, and he can certainly be extremely ruthless. On the other hand, the motives behind his "selling out" to the Russians are complex: feeling betrayed by the English class system ("We're in a racket which identifies national interest with the interests of the officer class"), he has come to distrust all ideology, viewing espionage as a round dance of futility, a "game" that nobody ever wins. When he falls into Hapgood's trap, then, and agrees to help her hand over secret scientific data to the Russians, he acts not so much for ideological reasons as for "personal" ones: his genuine concern both for Hapgood's son, who he believes has been kidnapped by the KGB, and, more important, for Hapgood herself. In Ridley's view, the information they are meant to be pass ing on to the Russians is worthless ("It's a joke"), especially when weighed against the safety of Joe. Given the absurdist nature of espionage dramatized in the play, it is hard not to sympathize with Ridley's point of view—especially with his feelings for Joe. Hapgood's son is the latest in a long line of "wise children" in Stoppard's drama; a template of ethical behavior, he serves, like young Alastair in Night and Day, "as a catalyst for revealing the moral propensities of others" [Richard Corballis, in Tom Stoppard: A Casebook, ed. John Harty, 1988]. And Ridley's feelings for Hapgood are likewise a mitigating factor. When he precedes her into the darkened baths with flashlight in hand, thus initiating the events that will expose him as a traitor, the torch he is carrying exists on more than one level: Ridley's "treason" here stems primarily from his love for Hapgood.

This ambiguity surrounding Ridley's identification as the play's traitor is mirrored in Stoppard's treatment of the other "prime" suspects in the unit, Kerner and Blair. Alhough the exposure of Ridley as a double agent would appear to let them both off the hook, Stoppard's surprises are not yet over. For we ultimately discover that Kerner too has been spying for the Russians. The story he told about being blackmailed into betraying the Br: ish (the KGB figured out Joe's paternity and were threatening to harm the boy)—a story we initially viewed as a fabrication, a web in the strand of Hapgood's trap for Ridley—turns out to be genuine; as Hapgood paradoxically observes, "You made up the truth." The ground keeps shifting beneath our feet: Kerner's sardonic comment to Hap-good earlier in the play—"You think you have seen to the bottom of things, but there is no bottom"—is meant equally as a warning to the audience. Kerner is thus as much a riddle as Ridley. "When things get very small," Kerner once noted when discussing the atom, "they get truly crazy"; the enigma of Kerner's identity, like Ridley's, is embodied in his very name (German Kern: the nucleus of an atom). And yet, can treason resulting from blackmail—motivated, even more than Ridley's, by love for Hapgood and their son—really be considered transon? Technically, perhaps, but then the "technical," as opposed to the "personal," is one of Stoppard's central concerns in the play. Thus Blair, while "technically" the only one of the three men to emerge "clean" from the espionage betrayal plot, proves to be, in yet another surprise, the most significant "traitor" of all. As an accomplished Intelligence agent, Blair is a master of "Newspeak," the lies that posed as truth in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four. (Orwell, we recall, was born Eric Blair.) Blair's doublespeak, however, extends to friends as well as enemies, to the "personal" as well as the "technical." But then for Blair it's all technical, as Kerner had sensed from the beginning. Proclaiming his concern for Hapgood's safety, Blair at one point threatened Kerner: "I've got one of my people working on the inside lane on false papers and if she's been set up I'll feed you to the crocodiles… ." But Blair's language gives himself away. "One of your people" Kerner replies. "Oh, Paul. You would betray her before I would. My mamushka." Kerner's prediction turns out to be correct: perfectly willing to deceive Hapgood and jeopardize Joe's safety for the "larger," fictive safety of British security, Blair is technically loyal but personally traitorous. Kerner's "mamushka" is, for Blair, only Mother.

As Hapgood (and the audience) discovers, then, the quest to determine the play's "real" traitor is a deeply enigmatic one: everybody is a "double agent" one way or another—even, as we have seen, Hapgood. Especially Hapgood. In the struggle between the "personal" and the "technical," between heart and brains, between mother and Mother, Hapgood has consistently sacrificed the former—has sacrificed, in effect, her Joes for her joes. Joseph Kerner was finally more valuable to her as a spy than as a father for Joe; as Ridley taunts her: "We aren't in the daddy business, we're in the mole business." And while she clearly loves her son, he too gets subsumed in "the mole business": when Hapgood phones Joe to check that he is safe and closes the conversation, ominously, with "Yes, Joe, I'm here to be told"—the precise words she has addressed throughout the play to her operatives—a shudder passes through the audience. Who is speaking here: mother or Mother? And if Hapgood no longer knows the difference, is it any wonder that—even without her direct knowledge—Joe gets sucked in as "bait" in the espionage trap she is setting? What, finally, is Hapgood accomplishing that is so worthwhile that it could justify the sacrifice of Joe? In a quantum world that is random, quixotic and indeterminate, espionage is merely another "trick of the light." As Ridley informs Celia:

Telling lies is Betty's job, sweetheart— … so Betty can know something which the opposition thinks she doesn't know, most of which doesn't matter a fuck, and that's just the half they didn't plant on her—so she's lucky if she comes better than even, that's the edge she's in it for, and if she's thinking now it wasn't worth one sleepless night for her little prep-school boy, good for her, she had it coming.

"Maybe she did," Celia agrees, and then proceeds to de-ride the madness of the espionage world: "Everybody's lying to everybody. You're all at it. Liars. Nutters' corner. You deserve each other… . You're out on a limb for a boy she put there, while she was making the world safe for him to talk properly in and play the game …".

But this is Celia talking, not Hapgood: the "sleeper," not "the working majority." In the play's penultimate scene, Ridley gives Hapgood one last chance to awaken that "sleeper":

Listen, be yourself. These people are not for you, in the end they get it all wrong, the dustbins are gaping for them. Him [Blair] most. He's had enough out of you and you're getting nothing back, he's dry and you're the juice. We can walk out of here, Auntie.

Ridley persists in addressing her as "Auntie," as Celia, even though at this point he has discovered the ruse. But "Celia" won't, or can't, respond; feeling betrayed, Ridley reaches for his gun and Hapgood shoots him. "Oh, you mother" Wates spits at her in a particularly well-chosen epithet; by betraying her Joes, Ridley, and "Celia"—by choosing Mother over mother—Hapgood has become an obscenity. The sight of Ridley's dead body, coupled with her anger at Blair for placing Joe at risk, finally shocks Hapgood to her senses. Responding to Blair's attempt to justify his actions—"It's them or it's us, isn't it?"—Hapgood's scorn is withering, an acknowledgment of her "personal" treason: "Who? Us and the KGB? The opposition! We're just keeping each other in business, we should send each other Christmas cards—oh, f-f-fuck it, Paul!" That final phrase is, of course, Celia' s, not Hapgood's; the "sleeper" has at last awakened, with an outraged howl of despair.

What Hapgood awakens to is, paradoxically, an absurdist nightmare, a world "suddenly divested of illusions and lights." The play's analogy between espionage and quantum mechanics, then, seen on one level as a metaphor for the elusiveness of human identity, is, on the deepest level, a metaphor for the structure of the universe itself, for the elusiveness of cosmic identity: the mystery of physics mirrors the mystery of metaphysics. As Kerner explains to Hapgood:

It upset Einstein very much, you know, all that damned quantum jumping, it spoiled his idea of God.… He believed in the same God as Newton, causality, nothing without a reason, but now one thing led to another until causality was dead. Quantum mechanics made everything finally random, things can go this way or that way, the mathematics deny certainty, they reveal only probability and chance, and Einstein couldn't believe in a God who threw dice.… There is a straight ladder from the atom to the grain of sand, and the only real mystery in physics is the missing rung. Below it, particle physics; above it, classical physics; but in between, metaphysics. All the mystery in life turns out to be the same mystery… .

"If it's all random, then what's the point?" cried Bone, the forerunner of George in Stoppard's television play Another Moon Called Earth (the "original" of Jumpers). And George later echoes his lament: "Copernicus cracked our confidence, and Einstein smashed it: for if one can no longer believe that a twelve-inch ruler is always a foot long, how can one be sure of relatively less certain propositions, such as that God made the Heaven and the Earth …"

In the quantum world of Hapgood, a world where light is both wave and particle, a twelve-inch ruler may not always be a foot long. This is indeed a terrifying concept, for the pragmatist Blair, such conclusions are not acceptable. When Kerner mocks his belief in objective reality, Blair replies: "What other kind is there? You're this or you're that, and you know which. Physics is a detail I can't afford …". Orwell's Winston Smith [in Nineteen Eighty-four] sought psychic security in certain immutable scientific laws: "The solid world exists, its laws do not change… . Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four, " a claim reiterated (though "halved") by Alexander, the hero of Stoppard's Every Good Boy Deserves Favour: "One and one is always two." But Winston and Alexander were struggling against repressive totalitarian regimes that cynically distort truths for their own power-driven ends; the characters in Hapgood, on the other hand, are struggling against an absurdist universe in which the very essence of such "truths" has been exploded. Despite George's impassioned belief in the original coda of Jumpers that "it remains an independent metaphysical truth that two and two make four," the most one seems able to say in a post-Newtonian world is Dotty's "two and two make roughly four" (my emphasis).

The sweet security of Newtonian physics has thus been forever shattered, destroying in its wake such complementary consolations as "God's in his heaven—/ All's right with the world!"—in an absurdist universe, Pippa has passed on. The resulting randomness is ironically acknowledged in Hapgood's choice of an alias when impersonating her "twin sister": portraying a "decoy," a "trick of the light," she slyly names herself Celia [Latin caelum: heaven] Newton. The joke, however, is ultimately on Hapgood, for "Celia Newton" turns out to be an illusion in more ways than one: the certainties that name once embodied no longer apply, replaced by a God rolling dice. "What's the game?" queried a bewildered Rosencrantz, a "voice in the wilderness"; "What are the rules?" added Guildenstern. The characters of Hapgood appear equally forlorn. Invited by Celia to play a deckless game of cards while waiting for Joe's "ransom" call, Ridley responds, "Well, what are we playing?" Celia's silence forces Ridley to guess, to plunge into the void. Unfortunately, Ridley guesses wrong: "Snap!! Bad luck …". When the "game" of life proves to be so inscrutable, so arbitrary, what are the chances of winning? Certainly the dice never roll in Ridley's favor; in the program of the London production of Hapgood, Stoppard casually informs us that the fateful day on which Ridley plays and loses the game of "Snap"—and, later, his life—is a Friday the thirteenth: "bad luck" indeed. The question twice posed in Hapgood about a particular espionage scheme, "Who's in charge and is he sane?", might thus well be asked of the universe; the mocking laughter that serves as an answer—the sound of rolling dice—echoes repeatedly through the play.

And yet, for all its absurdist trappings, Stoppard's drama refuses to succumb to despair. In Beckett's ironically tided Happy Days, Winnie's desperate mask of cheerfulness keeps slipping, exposing the face of pain underneath; as Winnie notes, "sorrow keeps breaking in." In Hapgood, by contrast, it is happiness that keeps breaking in: the optimistic note sounded continually as the play's counterthread beats a muted but persistent refrain. Kerner, for example, while acknowledging his "estrangement" in a seemingly absurd and pointless universe, nevertheless continues to make value judgments, continues to believe in something. Against the theorems of quantum mechanics suggesting randomness, Kerner places an opposed set of "theorems":

The West is morally superior, in my opinion. It is in different degrees unjust and corrupt like the East. Its moral superiority lies in the fact that the system contains the possibility of its own reversal—I am enthralled by the voting, to me it has power of an equation in nature, the masses converted to energy. Highly theoretical, of course… .

"The masses converted to energy" implicitly evokes Einstein's celebrated equation e=mc2, Kerner's equation transposes it into the social and political sphere and discovers consolation. Similarly consoling is Kerner's transformation of Einstein's metaphysical angst, his shattered faith in God. Einstein's inability to believe in a God who threw dice is, for Kerner, "the only idea of Einstein's I never understood… . He should have come to me, I would have told him, 'Listen, Albert, He threw you—look around, He never stops'." The world may be random, uncertain, but hopelessness and despair are certainly not the inevitable response.

The subtext of optimism running through Hapgood is at its clearest—and, because of the structural position, its strongest—in the play's brief final scene. On the surface, we seem to have reached the nadir of despair. All of Hapgood's illusions have been totally shattered: her espionage work has been exposed as a farce; Ridley is dead, killed by her own hand; Blair has "betrayed" her; Kerner is about to return to Russia ("[Blair] thinks I was a triple, but I was definitely not, I was past that, quadruple at least, maybe quintuple.") Having repudiated espionage and resigned her job, Hapgood is now simply a mother: the final scene is set once more at Joe's school as Hapgood watches her son play rugby. When Kerner, who has come to say farewell before departing for Russia—to Hapgood and, not so incidentally, to his son, whom he is seeing for the first time—turns to leave, Hapgood cries out: "How can you go? How can you?"

(She turns away. The game starts. Referee's whistle, the kick. After a few moments Hapgood collects herself and takes notice of the rugby.

When the game starts Kerner's interest is snagged. He stops and looks at the game.)

Hapgood: Come on St Christopher's!—We can win this one! Get those tackles in!

(She turns round and finds that Kemer is still there. She turns back to the game and comes alive.)

Hapgood: Shove!—heel!—well heeled!—well out—move it!—move it, Hapgood—that's good—that's better!

Like everything else in the play, the ending is enigmatic but charged with hope: Kemer does not leave; Hapgood, registering his hesitation, "comes alive." Kerner's interest has been snagged specifically by the "game." The "game" of espionage may be elusive and futile, but this game—Joe's "game"—is worth playing. As Hapgood herself has discovered in her "liberating" impersonation of Celia, there are values worth believing in, the values noted by Michael Billington in his astute review of the play: "that democracy is better than dictatorship, that love is a possibility and that—a persistent Stoppard theme—children anchor one in the real world" [The Guardian, 9 March 1988]. The universe may be random and subject to chance; the metaphysical "game" may be purely arbitrary, played by a God capricious as a child ("Snap") or made giddy by the sound of rolling dice; but not every Friday, luckily, is the thirteenth. Chance may be positive as well as negative, a belief embodied in the very name of Stoppard's title character: Hap (defined by the OED as "Chance or fortune… ; luck, lot") is specifically linked to good. The clouds of absurdism are dispersed in the play by Stoppard's postabsurdist search for silver linings; "the need to make things better," Stoppard noted in a 1981 interview [in Gambit 10, No. 37], "is constant and important. Otherwise you're into a sort of nihilism." Temperamentally opposed to nihilism, Stoppard has chosen to write plays in which a "crazy" world is, crazily but persistently, imbued with hope. And so Hapgood closes with both Elizabeth and Kemer facing front, facing the audience, as they recommence their journey of faith, rooting for St. Christopher's (the patron saint of travelers, the bearer of divinity) and cheering on Hap-good. The last word we hear when all is said and done, echoing in our ears as the curtain falls, is, significantly in this postabsurdist play, "better!"

In the addendum to Beckett's early novel Watt, we find the following little poem:

who may tell the tale
of the old man?
weigh absence in a scale?
mete want with a span?
the sum assess of
the world's woes?
in words enclose?

This is the daunting task absurdist writers like Beckett have set for themselves: the dramatization of "negatives" (age, absence, want, woes, nothingness). Beckett's plays—frequently, like the Watt poem, couched in the interrogative—are thus a series of paradoxes; it is enormously difficult to make absence present on stage, to concretize a void, to create something out of nothing, to "eff ' the "ineffable." In doing so they explore, in Esslin's words, "the ultimate realities of the human condition … Like ancient Greek tragedy and the medieval mystery plays and baroque allegories, the Theatre of the Absurd is intent on making its audience aware of man's precarious and mysterious position in the universe."

Tom Stoppard is similarly concerned in his drama with the metaphysically "precarious" and "mysterious"—thus his attraction to the Theater of the Absurd. But while frequently exhibiting an absurdist outer shell, Stoppard's plays contain at their core a subversive "sweetness" that ultimately bursts forth and cracks that shell; this unique blend of shell and core produces the distinctive postabsurdist tone of much of Stoppard's theater. The measure of Stoppard's departure from true absurdism can be gauged partly by comparing the humor of his plays with that of Beckett. Beckett's is almost literally graveyard humor, the rueful laughter of skeletons littering the road to Calvary (as Nell observes in a quintessentially Beckettian line in End-game: "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that"). At the close of Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, a sudden shadow blots the merriment of that last act in the figure of Marcade, an emissary of death. Infected by the darkness of his presence, Rosaline delays for a year the expected comic resolution by imposing a "service" on her lover Berowne:

Rosaline: You shall this twelve month term from
  day to day,
Visit the speechless sick, and still converse
With groaning wretches; and your task shall be,
With all the fierce endeavour of your wit
To enforce the pained impotent to smile.
Berowne: To move wild laughter in the throat of
It cannot be; it is impossible:
Mirth cannot move a soul in agony.

"Wild laughter in the throat of death" precisely sums up the humor of Beckett's plays. Stoppard's humor, by contrast, is "tomfoolery," marked by its buoyancy, its exultation in life—a torrent of unstoppable puns and hilarious jokes, full-throated and irrepressible.

This disparity in the tone of their humor leads us to the heart of Stoppard's divergence from Beckett and genuine absurdism. Although I disagree with much of Brustein's criticism of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, his assessment of the "derivative" nature of Stoppard's despair in that play strikes me as accurate: "[Stoppard's insights] all seem to come to him, prefabricated, from other plays—with the result that his air of pessimism seems affected, and his philosophical meditations, while witty and urbane, never obtain the thickness of felt knowledge." As admiring as Stoppard is of the art of Beckett's absurdism, that art is, finally, not Stoppard's. In the "arguments with himself that constitute his drama, part of him clearly acknowledges the absurdism of man's existence in a world "divested of illusions and lights," but another part of him—a major part—consistently subverts that acknowledgment. In the last analysis, Stoppard's eschatology is ameliorist; the rich vein of optimism running through the subtext of his plays thus converts what could easily be a threnody into an aubade. There is light at the end of the tunnel of Stoppard's drama—elusive, inscrutable, perhaps even deceptive, but still light. Whereas Beckett's absurdist theater fearlessly explores the darkness, the "black hole" of nothingness ("The fable of one with you in the dark. The fable of one fabling of one with you in the dark. And how better in the end labour lost and silence" [Company]), the postabsurdist plays of Tom Stoppard hopefully explore this "trick of the light."

Further Reading

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Delaney, Paul, ed. Tom Stoppard in Conversation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994, 300 p.

Collection of interviews dating from 1967 to 1993, containing comprehensive coverage of Stoppard's plays.

Gordon, Giles. Interview with Tom Stoppard. The Transatlantic Review, No. 29 (Summer 1968): 17-25.

Conversation in which Stoppard discusses the conception and composition of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Gussow, Mel. Conversations with Stoppard. London: Nick Hern Books, 1995, 146 p.

Series of interviews, spanning the years 1974 to 1995, in which Stoppard talks about his works from "The Real Inspector Hound" to Indian Ink.


Bareham, T., ed. Tom Stoppard: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Jumpers, Travesties: A Casebook. Houndsmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan, 1990, 220 p.

Contains critical studies and early reviews of the three plays as well as interviews with Stoppard, surveys of his work, and a bibliography.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Tom Stoppard: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1986, 191 p.

Collection of thirteen essays on various facets of Stoppard's art and career. In his introduction, Bloom assesses Stoppard's achievements and notes his affinity to his precursors, particularly Samuel Beckett and Oscar Wilde.

Brassell, Tim. Tom Stoppard: An Assessment. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985, 299 p.

Book-length critical study of Stoppard's major and minor works.

Chetta, Peter N. "Multiplicities of Illusion in Tom Stoppard's Plays." In Staging the Impossible: The Fantastic Mode in Modern Drama, edited by Patrick D. Murphy, pp. 127-36. Westpott, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992.

Examines elements of fantasy in Stoppard's works.

Corballis, Richard. Stoppard: The Mystery and the Clockwork. Oxford: Amber Lane Press, 1984. 204 p.

Examines Stoppard's stage plays, arguing that each presents a clash between two worlds: the real world, which is marked by uncertainty and mystery, and the dream world of artifice and abstraction.

Delaney, Paul. Tom Stoppard: The Moral Vision of the Major Plays. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990, 202 p.

Traces the "paths by which Stoppard's theater develops from moral affirmation to moral application, from the assertion of moral principles to the enactment of moral practice."

Gitzen, Julian. 'Tom Stoppard: Chaos in Perspective." Southern Humanities Review 10, No. 2 (Spring 1976): 143-52.

Maintains that even in his farcical plays Stoppard conveys a serious premise: "that our society is in imminent danger of going out of control."

Hayman, Ronald. Tom Stoppard. Contemporary Playwrights Series. London: Heinemann, 1977, 143 p.

Includes two interviews with Stoppard, discussions of more than twenty plays, biographical and bibliographical materials, and a list of performances.

Hu, Stephen. Tom Stoppard's Stagecraft. New York: Peter Lang, 1989, 274 p.

Studies the lighting, scenery, costumes, action, dramatic structure, and other elements of Stoppard's major works.

James, Clive. "Count Zero Splits the Infinite." Encounter XLV, No. 5 (November 1975): 68-76.

Appreciative survey of Stoppard's works that defends their complexity and intellectual depth.

Jenkins, Anthony. The Theatre of Tom Stoppard. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987, 189 p.

Critical study of the plays that pays particular attention to the interconnection of Stoppard's texts.

Kelly, Katherine E. "Tom Stoppard Radioactive: A Sounding of the Radio Plays." Modern Drama XXXII, No. 3 (September 1989): 440-52.

Delineates the ways the medium of radio helped Stoppard master his craft.

——. Tom Stoppard and the Craft of Comedy: Medium and Genre at Play. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991, 179 p.

Traces thematic and formal elements in Stoppard's major plays.

Mackenzie, Ian. 'Tom Stoppard: The Monological Imagination." Modern Drama XXXII, No. 4 (December 1989): 574-86.

Draws on Mikhail Bakhtin's theories regarding dialogue—that texts may "speak" with multiple "voices" simultaneously—to argue that Stoppard's political plays are monologic, that is, speak with Stoppard's own voice, despite the playwright's insistence that they do not.

Page, Malcolm, ed. File on Stoppard. London: Methuen, 1986, 96 p.

Features extracts of reviews and criticism, a bibliography, a chronology, and other materials.

Robinson, Gabrielle Scott. "Plays without Plot: The Theatre of Tom Stoppard." Educational Theatre Journal 29, No. 1 (March 1977): 37-48.

Illustrates how Stoppard unites farce and philosophy in his plays.

Rusinko, Susan. Tom Stoppard. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1986, 164 p.

Examines Stoppard's use of language, manipulation of ideas, and "creative plagiarizing of other writers."

Sammells, Neil. Tom Stoppard: The Artist as Critic. Hounds-mills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan Press, 1988, 162 p.

Analyzes elements of aesthetic and political commentary and criticism in Stoppard's plays.

Tynan, Kenneth. "Withdrawing with Style from the Chaos." The New Yorker LIII, No. 43 (12 December 1977): 41-111.

Broad-ranging survey of Stoppard's life and professional career.

Whitaker, Thomas. Tom Stoppard. Grove Press Modern Dramatist Series. New York: Grove Press, 1983, 177 p.

Includes a brief biography and analysis of the major plays.

Zeifman, Hersh. 'Tomfoolery: Stoppard's Theatrical Puns." The Yearbook of English Studies 9 (1979): 204-20.

Contends that "Stoppard uses puns, carefully and deliberately, as structural devices in his plays, as an integral part of a play's basic 'meaning'."


Callen, Anthony. "Stoppard's Godot: Some French Influences on Post-war English Drama." New Theatre Magazine X, No. 1 (Winter 1969): 22-30.

Details the influence of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Gianakaris, C. J. "Absurdism Altered: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead." Drama Survey 7, Nos. 1-2 (Winter 1968-69): 52-8.

Proposes that Stoppard joins absurdism with social activist theater in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Hobson, Harold. Review of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The Times, London (17 April 1967).

Favorable evaluation in which Hobson asserts that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is "the most important event in British professional theatre of the last nine years."

Keyssar-Franke, Helene. "The Strategy of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead." Educational Theatre Journal 27, No. 1 (March 1975): 85-97.

Argues that, despite being a derivative work, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is theatrically effective because it "has a potent and appropriate dramatic strategy, a lucid and meaningful grasp on the relationship of every moment of the play to the audience."

Perlette, John M. "Theatre at the Limit: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead." Modern Drama XXVIII, No. 4 (December 1985): 659-69.

Explores the play's concern with our inability to perceive "the reality of death."


Crump, G. B. "The Universe as Murder Mystery: Tom Stoppard's Jumpers." Contemporary Literature 20, No. 3 (Summer 1979): 354-68.

Analyzes the use of philosophical material in Jumpers to refute the charge that Stoppard is a "superficial dilettante."

Kreps, Barbara. "How Do We Know That We Know What We Know in Tom Stoppard's Jumpers?" Twentieth Century Literature 32, No. 2 (Summer 1986): 187-208.

Argues that Jumpers "poses serious questions about both the basis and the limits of human knowledge, human values, and human behavior."

Thomson, Leslie. '"The Curve Itself in Jumpers." Modern Drama XXXIII, No. 4 (December 1990): 470-85.

Examines the thematic significance of the central image pattern or arcs, arches, and circles in Jumpers, noting how the visual images echo the verbal "curves"—allusions, cross-references, and word play.


Corballis, Richard. "Wilde … Joyce … O'Brien … Stoppard: Modernism and Postmodernism in Travesties." In Joycean Occasions: Essays from the Milwaukee James Joyce Conference, edited by Janet E. Dunleavy, Melvin J. Friedman, and Michael Patrick Gillespie, pp. 157-70. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1991.

Investigates the treatment in Travesties of the post-modernist concern with power and of the modernist preoccupation with the relationship between art and politics. Corballis finds the two approaches in harmony rather than at odds in the play.

Sammells, Neil. "Earning Liberties: Travesties and The Importance of Being Earnest." Modern Drama XXIX, No. 3 (September 1986): 376-87.

Explores how Stoppard's play "critically engages" Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, interpreting and transforming the central theme and form.


Cobley, Evelyn. "Catastrophe Theory in Tom Stoppard's Professional Foul." Contemporary Literature XXV, No. 1 (Spring 1984): 53-65.

Maintains that the world presented in Professional Foul offers no absolutes but rather "a complex network of interrelationships where any statement or action is a 'both-and' issue."

Eldridge, Michael. "Drama as Philosophy: Professional Foul Breaks the Rules." In Drama and Philosophy, edited by James Redmond, pp. 199-208. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Considers Professional Foul a mystery play "that is both philosophically interesting and dramatically effective."


Rusinko, Susan. "The Last Romantic: Henry Boot, Alias Tom Stoppard." World Literature Today 59, No. 1 (Winter 1985): 17-21.

Proposes that Henry Boot, the main character of The Real Thing, "embodies Stoppard's view of the artist and his function in society."

Thomson, Leslie. "The Subtext of The Real Thing: It's 'all right'." Modern Drama XXX, No. 4 (December 1987): 535-48.

Explores the significance of the recurring phrase "all right" in The Real Thing, arguing that it is a kind of subtext which "becomes a means of furthering our evaluation and understanding, or confirming our subjective perceptions of the characters and their relationships."

Zeifman, Hersh. "Comedy of Ambush: Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing." Modern Drama XXVI, No. 2 (June 1983): 139-49.

Discusses Stoppard's device of the "comic ambush," which continually alters the audience's perception of events and thus underscores the thematic concern with what is real and what is not.


Canby, Vincent. "Stoppard's Comedy of 1809 and Now." The New York Times (31 March 1995).

Highly favorable review of Arcadia in which Canby declares: "There's no doubt about it. Arcadia is Tom Stoppard's most ravishing comedy to date, a play of wit, intellect, language, brio and, new for him, emotion."

Lahr, John. "Blowing Hot and Cold." The New Yorker (22 April 1995).

Laudatory review of Arcadia that considers it Stoppard's "best play so far." Lahr particularly admires "Stoppard's labyrinthine plot, whose ingenious twists and turns involve greed, rapacity, vainglory, skullduggery, cruelty, delusion, confusion, and genius."

Nightingale, Benedict. Review of Arcadia. The Times, London (14 April 1993).

Favorable assessment that finds Arcadia brilliantly structured. Nightingale describes the play as "Stoppard's tribute to the complexity, unpredictability and inscrutability of the world."

Additional coverage of Stoppard's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, Vol. 8; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 39; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 3, 4, 5, 8, 15, 29, 34, 63; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 13; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook 1985; Discovering Authors; Major Twentieth-Century Writers; World Literature Criticism.

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