Tom Stoppard Stoppard, Tom (Vol. 15) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stoppard, Tom 1937–

Stoppard, a Czech-born British playwright for stage, radio, television, and screen, and the author of one novel, has won both Tony and New York Drama Critics' Circle Awards. The premise for much of his work is the Beckettian notion that man is a minor character in a drama he cannot understand. C.W.E. Bigsby has written that the central concern of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and several other plays is that wrenching object from setting and event from context "results not merely in a revealing absurdity but in a perception of the contingent nature of truth." (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 4, 5, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)

Kenneth Tynan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Stoppard has] defined the quality that distinguished him from many of his contemporaries as "an absolute lack of certainty about almost anything." (p. 48)

There are signs, however, [in his most recent work, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour], that history has lately been forcing Stoppard into the arena of commitment…. [Every Good Boy Deserves Favour] started out in Stoppard's mind as a play about a Florida grapefruit millionaire, but his works have a way of changing their themes as soon as he sits down at his typewriter. The present setting is a Russian mental home for political dissidents, where the main job of the staff is to persuade the inmates that they are in fact insane. (p. 56)

Beneath its layers of Stoppardian irony, the play (oratorio? melo-drama?) is a point-blank attack on the way in which Soviet law is perverted to stifle dissent…. E.G.B.D.F. rests on the assumption that the difference between good and evil is obvious to any reasonable human being. What else does Stoppard believe in? For one thing, I would guess, the intrinsic merits of individualism; for another, a universe in which everything is relative yet in which moral absolutes exist; for a third, the probability that this paradox can be resolved only if we accept the postulate of a presiding deity. (pp. 56-7)

His career as a playwright began in 1960, when he wrote a one-act piece called The Gamblers, which he described to me in a recent letter as "Waiting for Godot in the death cell—prisoner and jailer—I'm sure you can imagine the rest."… [His first full-length play, A Walk on the Water, rewritten and retitled Enter a Free Man,] was so weightily influenced by Arthur Miller and by Robert Bolt's Flowering Cherry that he has come to refer to it as Flowering Death of a Salesman…. A Walk on the Water is about George Riley, a congenital self-deceiver who declares roughly once a week that he is going to achieve independence by leaving home and making his fortune as an inventor…. For all his dottiness … Riley has what Stoppard describes as "a tattered dignity." This attribute will recur in many Stoppard heroes, who have nothing to pit against the hostility of society and the indifference of the cosmos except their obstinate conviction that individuality is sacrosanct. (pp. 60-1)

Despite its multiple sources [Beckett, T. S. Eliot, Kafka, Oscar Wilde], Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a genuine original, one of a kind. As far as I know, it is the first play to use another play as its décor. The English critic C. E. Montague described Hamlet as "a monstrous Gothic castle of a poem, full of baffled half-lights and glooms." This is precisely the setting of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: it takes place in the wings of Shakespeare's imagination. The actor-manager who meets the two travellers on the road to Elsinore says that in life every exit is "an entrance somewhere else." In Stoppard's play, every exit is an entrance somewhere else in Hamlet. Sometimes he writes like a poet:

We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered.

And at other times with fortune-cookie glibness:

Eternity is a terrible thought. I mean, where's it going to end?...

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G. B. Crump

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The reaction of reviewers to Tom Stoppard's Jumpers … reflects the critics' suspicion that in his plays Stoppard indulges in startling stage antics, erudite allusions, and involved puns in order to disguise deficiencies in insight and make shallow plays appear profound. (p. 354)

Jumpers, one of Stoppard's most erudite works, illustrates the problems his use of research can pose for the reviewer. The philosopher-protagonist, George Moore, spends most of his time arguing for a belief in God and moral absolutes and against the materialism and moral relativism of the "jumpers," the logical positivists who compose the philosophical establishment at his university. Besides being uncertain about the relevance of the murder plot to this argument, reviewers were unsure about the very basic question of which side, if either, Stoppard intended to have win the argument…. Other difficulties posed by the play are why Stoppard chose to name his hero G. E. Moore after the British intuitionist philosopher, and whether Bones, a major character, is merely an appendage to the mystery plot or relates to the philosophical debate in a significant way.

An explication of Jumpers in the light of the major tenets of logical positivism will show that the murder of McFee is integral to George's debate with the materialists, that the debate also includes Bones, that nothing in the play is gratuitous or pointless, and that, far from adding complications or allusions solely for the sake of dazzling the audience, Stoppard fashions the language and action of Jumpers into a highly particularized and apt portrait of the intellectual and moral uncertainty modern man feels when confronting his world. An integral part of this portrait is the implication that George, however sympathetic his character and attractive his beliefs, fails in his efforts to give life a satisfying meaning through philosophy. Further, since Jumpers does form a unified and meaningful whole, not all of Stoppard's works may be dismissed as shallow displays of stage pyrotechnics. (pp. 355-56)

Much of the satire in Jumpers extends beyond logical positivism to materialistic philosophy in general. (p. 356)

The world of Jumpers is carefully constructed to give dramatic form to some of the questions pondered by the logical positivists. For...

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Colin Ludlow

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[There] are two basic jokes in Tom Stoppard's Dogg's Hamlet, one for each part of the play. The first is that language is an arbitrary form of signification and therefore susceptible to humorous mutation if words are ascribed different meanings from those they normally possess. The second, which also depends upon incongruity for its effect, is that the action and famous lines of a well-known play can be made to appear quite ridiculous if stripped of all incidental substance and performed at breakneck speed. The two ideas are worked through in a nonsensical speech-day sketch, written entirely in a language Stoppard calls Dogg, and a fifteen-minute version of Hamlet performed (in English) by the pupils at the speech-day. The overall result is moderately entertaining, but not especially witty or original. Much of the humour is unexpectedly crude and banal…. Equally, spoof Shakespeare, which must have been the staple diet of every school and university revue since time immemorial, is not intrinsically very exciting. This abbreviated Hamlet only really takes off when the cast return for an encore and repeat the play in ninety seconds flat.

Colin Ludlow, "Reviews: 'Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth'" (© copyright Colin Ludlow, 1979; reprinted with permission), in Plays and Players, Vol. 26, No. 11, August, 1979, p. 28.

Craig Werner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[While] Tom Stoppard's Travesties focuses quite clearly on The Importance of Being Earnest, it may, judging by the early critical returns, serve even better as an example of "The Pitfalls of Being Witty." The play (which has as part of its donné the difficulties arising from a wartime production of Wilde's play in Zurich) has been hailed as a comic masterpiece, which it is, and as a vindication of James Joyce, which it is not. Centering his attention on the interaction of the mythologies of Art (represented by Joyce), Political Revolution (represented by Lenin), and Radical Individualism (represented by Tristan Tzara), Stoppard unveils the limitations of the twentieth century's most cherished systems of...

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Brendan Gill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Night and Day"] surprises us by not surprising us. For the first time in his career, [Tom Stoppard] has written a conventionally straightforward melodrama, showing few traces of the breathtaking verbal acrobatics at the top of the tent of language with which he has previously dazzled us. There is much talk in the play, and it proves to be Shavian in a bad sense, which is to say that it is more garrulous than witty. A pertinent topic for discussion has been chosen by Teacher Tom: What does our newspaper press exist for, except to make money? If it can be argued to have a purpose beyond mere money-making, is it one for which the lives of individuals—and, indeed, of entire countries—ought to be sacrificed? Mr. Stoppard was a journalist before he was a playwright, and he can make a strong case for the power of the press to expose corruption and do battle against tyranny, but there are understandably few novelties remaining in this case, and the background of violent action against which an assortment of characters offer their opinions also lacks novelty.

The setting of "Night and Day" is the luxurious country house of a British businessman, Geoffrey Carson, in the mythical African state of Kambawe, formerly a British colony…. [We assume] that Mrs. Carson is intended to be the leading character in the play; she has the most to say and do, and her lines and her conduct are certainly more amusing than those of any other person onstage, but by the end of the evening she turns out to have curiously little connection with the rest of the play. She is simply there, chattering away and fantasizing à la Walter Mitty, and I came to feel that though Stoppard is reputed to have invented her in order to demonstrate that he was capable of writing a satisfactory part for a woman, she wasn't one—on the contrary, she was an essentially genderless puppet, having no connection with her husband, her son, or her exlover. (p. 113)

Brendan Gill, "Trouble in Kambawe," in The New Yorker (© 1979 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LV, No. 43, December 10, 1979, pp. 113-14.∗

Harold Clurman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Diverse] elements have gone into the making of Tom Stoppard's Night and Day … but they do not give it real coherence.

Its "novelty" is that it is the first example in its author's work of more or less traditionally plotted drama. There still remain characteristic passages of improvisational playfulness and fancy. In this case they relate to Ruth Carson's (the "leading lady's") inner monologue and daydreams…. Ruth Carson is given the opportunity to say many amusing things (often only in her mind) about herself, this central situation and the various personages involved in it.

She despises the popular press and the reporters who feed it too often indiscriminately with trivia and grave news. They do so not because they are genuinely concerned with either but out of a display of vanity in hunting down headline-making stories. This is one of the play's points, the rebuttal to which, delivered by a cockney news photographer, is that the information provided by the press, despite all the skulduggery which may be involved in unearthing it, is invaluable to a democracy: "It brings light." That, if anything, is the play's thesis. In itself, it may be valid, but it is not dramatized; it is merely stated.

In the same way, Ruth Carson … is more a decorative and entertaining adjunct to the play than crucial to it. (pp. 636-37)

[The various strands of plot] are patched together rather than made integral to a dramatically convincing whole. What keeps the play going is Stoppard's elegantly fluent and sometimes sparkling writing. (p. 637)

Harold Clurman, "Theater: 'Night and Day'," in The Nation (copyright 1979 The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 229, No. 20, December 15, 1979, pp. 636-37.

June Schlueter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Along with Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard is probably the most important playwright on the contemporary British scene. His plays, like those of Pinter, are informed with a tragicomic sense of the absurd and the contingent nature of man's existence. A frequently recurring character in Stoppard's plays is the marginal man, the character standing on the fringe of the central action, tentatively placing first one foot and then the other into the arena of activity…. Man's confrontation with his world is a recurring theme in Stoppard's plays. Whether rendered in the form of two minor characters from a Shakespearean play assuming heroic status (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead), a professor of moral philosophy...

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Robert Brustein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

W. B. Yeats once called Ibsen the chosen author of very clever journalists. How much more appropriate this is as a description of Tom Stoppard. He has insinuated himself into the affections of smart people like a heartworm, usurping whatever place might once have been reserved there for genuine artists. Can anyone really take Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead seriously after seeing the plays on which it was based, Six Characters in Search of an Author and Waiting for Godot? I'm not complaining that Stoppard is lightweight; there's a place in my heart, too, for good-natured entertainments. I'm grumbling rather over how he has used his considerable gifts in the service of a shell game, conning...

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Stanley Kauffmann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Night and Day], garrulous yet thin, is said to signal a new Stoppard. The new one is actually old-fashioned. The earlier Stoppard was shallow but glittery and adventurous. Now he lumps through a relatively conventional play that he tries to brighten with some grabs at his first fine, careless, rhetorical rapture. Stuck in a stock play, his allegedly diamond dialogue now looks the rhinestone it really always was. (p. 32)

Stanley Kauffmann, "Theater: Friends and Lovers," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1980 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 7, No. 3, February 2, 1980, pp. 30, 32.∗

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