Tom Stoppard Stoppard, Tom (Vol. 3) - Essay

Stoppard, Tom (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stoppard, Tom 1937–

Stoppard is a Czech playwright and novelist, now living in England, whose work, especially the popular play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, is generally regarded as brilliant, funny, and imaginative.

Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is obviously giving considerable pleasure to large numbers of people, so I advance my own reservations feeling like a spoilsport and a churl: the play strikes me as a noble conception which has not been endowed with any real weight or texture. The author is clearly an intelligent man with a good instinct for the stage, and his premise is one that should suggest an endless series of possibilities. But he manipulates this premise instead of exploring it, and what results is merely an immensely shrewd exercise enlivened more by cunning than by conviction.

As is now generally known, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a theatrical parasite, feeding off Hamlet, Waiting for Godot, and Six Characters in Search of an Author—Shakespeare provides the characters, Pirandello the technique, and Beckett the tone with which the Stoppard play proceeds. Like Pirandello, Stoppard tries to give extradramatic life to a group of already written characters, introducing elements of chance and spontaneity into a scene previously determined by an author. His object is to discover what happens to people whose lives are completely fixed and formalized when they are allowed to meditate, self-consciously, upon their own predestination….

In outline, the idea is extremely ingenious; in execution, it is derivative and familiar, even prosaic. As an artist, Stoppard does not fight hard enough for his insights—they 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. Whenever the play turns metaphysical, which is frequently, it turns spurious, particularly in the author's recurrent discourses upon death…. There is, in short, something disturbingly voguish and available about this play, as well as a prevailing strain of cuteness which shakes one's faith in the author's serious intentions.

Robert Brustein, "Waiting for Hamlet" (1967), in his The Third Theatre (copyright © 1965, 1966, 1967 by Robert Brustein; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1969, pp. 149-53.

Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the hit presumptive of the season, may well be hoist with its own Stoppard. For the idea of the play is a conception of genius, which requires genius to develop it, whereas, in the event, it gets only cleverness and charm. The play turns the action of Hamlet inside out like a glove, and makes the story of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern its subject, with Shakespeare's main characters wandering in at appropriate moments to speak snatches of the Bard's lines as a sort of background music….

The play, through which can be seen squeezing large chunks of Beckett, Pinter, and Pirandello, like sliding bulges on a python as he digests rabbits swallowed whole, is concerned with free will versus predestination and illusion versus reality, the two pairs of antinomies that have paid off best in the theatre…. Yet …, though [Stoppard] has written a literate and, for the first half, entertaining play, he has reduced a stroke of genius to a tour de force.

John Simon, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1968 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XX, No. 4, Winter, 1967–68, pp. 664-65.

Tom Stoppard's comedy is the funniest kind of writing about writing. His subjects are the English language—that magnetic minefield—and the conventions of literature and drama, and it is his relish for all of them, as much as his jolting, punning wit, that gives his one-acters "The Real Inspector Hound" and its curtain-raiser, "After Magritte," so much vitality. The plays … nowhere reach for the philosophic and human overtones of Mr. Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead"; they are, as they are meant to be, clever, shrewd, and satiric. Almost all his prankish nonsense—his bits of verbal and visual legerdemain—pays off.

Edith Oliver, "At Lady Muldoon's," in The New Yorker, May 6, 1972, pp. 61-2.

[Jumpers, by Tom Stoppard,] is the most vital, the most distressingly funny, and if you care for the word the most significant coup de théâtre offered by a new play in London for many a year…. Jumpers is a most imperfect play, with a number of bits that don't come off and a rather feeble ending; but its shortcomings, compared with its shining virtues, are in Daisy Ashford's phrase, 'as piffle before the wind'.

J. W. Lambert, in Drama, Summer, 1972, p. 15.

There is something irrepressible about the wit of Tom Stoppard that hums as clearly over the air of his radio plays as it does on the stage…. Few artists can catch the cobwebs of sinister intent quite as lightly as Mr. Stoppard.

Adrian Rendle, in Drama, Winter, 1973, p. 88.