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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...
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- Critical Essays
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.)
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[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?
But we are finally moved by the snuffing out of the brief candles he has lit. Tinged perhaps with sentimentality, an emotional commitment has nonetheless been made. (pp. 85-6)
The Real Inspector Hound … need not detain us long. It is a facetious puzzle that, like several of Stoppard's minor pieces, presents an apparently crazy series of events for which in the closing moments a rational explanation is provided. (p. 86)
Jumpers, produced in 1972, was the next milestone in Stoppard's career; but something should first be said of his work for radio, a medium he has used more resourcefully than any other contemporary English playwright. In Albert's Bridge (1967) and Artist Descending a Staircase (1972), both written for the BBC, he explores two of his favorite themes. The first is the relativity of absolutely everything. (It all depends on where you're sitting.) The second is the definition of art. (Is it a skill or a gift? Is it socially useful? Or does that, too, depend on where you're sitting?) (pp. 87-8)
[The catastrophe at the conclusion of Albert's Bridge is effective but it is] also a neat escape hatch for Stoppard, who is thus absolved from the responsibility of telling us which view of life we should espouse—the longshot or the closeup.
Artist Descending a Staircase has a plot that starts out backward and then goes forward…. [It] concerns the careers and beliefs of three artists, one of whom is dead and may have been murdered by the others, either of or by both working in cahoots. The title derives from Marcel Duchamp's painting Nude Descending a Staircase, and the play contains plenty of evidence that self-cannibalism is not alien to Stoppard. (pp. 88-9)
[Jumpers is] something unique in theatre: a farce whose main purpose is to affirm the existence of God. Or, to put it less starkly, a farcical defense of transcendent moral values. At the same time, it is an attack on pragmatic materialism as this is practiced by a political party called the Radical Liberals, who embody Stoppard's satiric vision of Socialism in action. (p. 93)
[Travesties] had its origin in Stoppard's discovery that James Joyce, Lenin, and Tristan Tzara, the founder of Dadaism, had all lived in Zurich during the First World War—a conjunction of expatriates that made instant comic connections in his mind. (p. 107)
I gladly concede that the grostesque rhetorical ramblings of Henry Carr, whether in soliloquy or in his long first-act confrontation with Tzara, are sublimely funny; but at the heart of the enterprise something is sterile and arbitrary. As Ronald Hayman, a devout Stoppard fan, put it, "there is no internal dynamic." Stoppard imposes the plot of Wilde's [The Importance of Being Earnest], itself thoroughly baroque, upon his own burlesque vision of life in wartime Zurich, which is like crossbreeding the bizarre with the bogus. (pp. 108-09)
[What Travesties lacks] is the sine qua non of theatre; namely, a narrative thrust that impels the characters, whether farcically or tragically or in any intermediate mode, toward a credible state of crisis, anxiety, or desperation…. In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Inspector Hound, and Jumpers, acts of homicide are committed—acts insuring that a certain amount of pressure, however factitious, is exerted on the characters. They are obviously in trouble; they may be killed, or, at least, be accused of killing. Trying, as Stoppard does in Travesties, to make a play without the magic ingredient of pressure toward desperation is—to lift a phrase from Jumpers—"tantamount to constructing a Gothic arch out of junket." (pp. 109-10)
The hard polemic purpose of Travesties is to argue that art must be independent of the world of politics. (p. 111)
Stoppard's idol—the artist for art's sake, far above the squalid temptations of politics—is, unequivocally, Joyce. The first act ends with Henry Carr recounting a dream in which he asked Joyce what he did in the Great War. "'I wrote Ulysses,' he said. 'What did you do?'"
The implication of all this—that Joyce was an apolitical dweller in an ivory tower—is, unfortunately, untrue. He was a professed socialist. And this is where Stoppard's annexation of the right to alter history in the cause of art begins to try one's patience. (A minor symptom of the same sin occurs when Carr says that Oscar Wilde was "indifferent to politics"—a statement that will come as a surprise to readers of Wilde's propagandist handbook The Soul of Man Under Socialism.) (p. 112)
It is all very well for Stoppard to claim that he has mingled "scenes which are self-evidently documentary … with others which are just as evidently fantastical." The trouble with his portrait of Joyce is that it is neither one thing nor the other, neither pure fantasy nor pure documentary, but is simply based on a false premise. When matters of high importance are being debated, it is not pedantic to object that the author has failed to do his homework. (p. 113)
Kenneth Tynan, "Withdrawing with Style from the Chaos—Tom Stoppard" (originally published under a different title in The New Yorker, Vol. LIII, No. 44, December 19, 1977), in his Show People: Profiles in Entertainment (copyright © 1979 by Kenneth Tynan; reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, a Division of Gulf & Western Corporation), Simon and Schuster, 1979, pp. 44-123.
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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 instance, a distinguishing trait of logical positivism is its focus on language. This focus was inspired by Wittgenstein's Tractatus, which is concerned with the relation between a logical language and the world of which that language purports to give us a picture; distortions in the language that shapes the picture, Wittgenstein believed, can lead to an unclear picture of reality…. In Jumpers, much of the action and humor hinges on linguistic ambiguities and confusions. These confusions mirror larger ambiguities present in the reality represented in the drama. (pp. 356-57)
The most pervasive verbal joke in Jumpers is the "cognomen syndrome," a psychological condition in which one's name corresponds to one's role in life. (p. 357)
The central tenet of logical positivism is the principle of verification, which holds that no statement is "literally significant" or "meaningful," no statement is truly about the world unless its truth or falsity can be empirically verified. (pp. 358-59)
Jumpers demonstrates some of the drawbacks to the logical positivist attitude toward reality. For one thing, treating McFee's death as a problem of waste disposal leaves no room for sorrow over McFee the man, the unique individual who will never again know life on this earth. Archie's first reaction to his colleague's death is glib and callous: "It's a great pity," Dorothy quotes him as saying, "but it's not as though the alternative were immortality."… The play ties this careless devaluation of life to the "emotive theory of ethics," the logical positivist doctrine that ethical statements are expressions of the speaker's feelings, not of absolutes, and the corollary principle that morality is the totally relative product of one's culture…. Stoppard represents this position as leading to the abandonment of ethics altogether. In this way, McFee's espousal of the emotive theory of ethics contributed to a climate of amorality in which his own murder became more likely.
A second drawback is that logical positivism cannot, by virtue of its materialistic assumptions, give Dorothy the spiritual comfort and reassurance she craves. (p. 363)
Although the original George Moore could find no convincing evidence that God exists, the George of Jumpers affirms God's existence on several traditional grounds…. (p. 364)
Even to George himself, it sounds like he believes because he believes: "All I know is that I think that I know that I know that nothing can be created out of nothing, that my moral conscience is different from the rules of my tribe, and that there is more in me than meets the microscope—and because of that I'm lumbered with this incredible, indescribable, and definitely shifty God."…
Whatever may be Stoppard's personal views about God, Jumpers does not endorse George's position at the expense of those of Bones and Archie. It does not show a brilliant Sherlock Holmes outwitting the bumbling representatives of Scotland Yard and triumphantly proving that the murderer is the one person we would never suspect. At the end, we have not discovered the identity of the murderer or the nature of his motive, but have merely listened to several inconclusive speculations and received some inkling of the plethora of possible culprits, the variety of their motives, and the ambiguities of the evidence. McFee's puzzling murder forms a dramatic image of a reality as striking, as full of menace, and as enigmatic as the sharp sound made by the closing of the secretary's purse. That sound of closure is all the answer man gets when he seeks knowledge of life's ultimate mysteries, yet the presence of the detectives in Jumpers testifies that he will never stop seeking. (p. 368)
G. B. Crump, "The Universe as Murder Mystery: Tom Stoppard's 'Jumpers'," in Contemporary Literature (© 1979 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), Vol. 20, No. 3, Summer, 1979, pp. 354-68.
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[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.
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[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 belief. (p. 228)
Carr, a minor official at the British consulate in Zurich, stands firmly at the center of Travesties' thematic structure…. By installing Carr, in many ways a flawed, petty man, as the central stage presence, Stoppard indicates that the nature of his mind and values is at least as much at issue as those of the three obviously important intellectual characters. (p. 230)
Far from detracting from his function as thematic touchstone, Carr's very limitations increase his suitability. He represents humanity in all its fallibility; he is exactly the type of person whom a truly inclusive modern mythology must be able to reach. From a Leninist perspective, Carr, however much controlled by his class situation, represents economically motivated modern man; the potential loss of twenty francs inspires him to initiate a court suit. From the Dadaist point of view he is an individual with theoretically unlimited idiosyncracies, however repressed. From a Joycean perspective, he provides something of the material of a Leopold Bloom. In theory, if not always in practice, each of the three movements has something to offer the Henry Carrs of the world.
In Travesties, however, Stoppard creates a Carr who remains stubbornly unredeemed despite his personal contact with the would-be messiahs of the various mythologies. Not that Stoppard therefore dismisses each system completely. Indeed, he carefully constructs the play in a manner which reflects each system through a twin perspective. From a "sympathetic" point of view, each major spokesman appears to have gotten the best of his adversaries. From the theoretical "objective" point of view (or from that of any opponent), however, each fails. In the midst of this constantly shifting tableau stands Carr, an occasionally inarticulate, but nonetheless implicitly eloquent, observer. (pp. 231-32)
Partially because Tzara has not attained the same historic prominence as Lenin and Joyce, critics have tended to dismiss him as a relatively unimportant character with a good deal of entertainment, but very little philosophical, value. Tzara, however, is the only character who seems capable of "seriously" considering both art and politics. Unlike both Joyce and Lenin, he visualizes a situation where the two can coexist, where "Artists and intellectuals will be the conscience of the revolution."… (p. 235)
While Carr actively rejects both Lenin (on patriotic grounds) and Joyce (for personal reasons), he seems content to let Tzara go without specific comment. Midway through their extended direct confrontation in act one, Tzara reduces Carr to invective very much like that which Tzara himself uses later against Joyce as part of a Dadaist onslaught…. [Carr] can actively reject Lenin in Lenin's own terms by attempting to interfere with his political objective; he can respond to Joyce in Joyce's own terms by rejecting his basic esthetic vision with a snort; he cannot reject or respond to Tzara.
Neither, however, can Carr accept him. If Tzara's myth comes closest to embodying the meaning of Carr's Zurich experience, it also fades quietly from historical memory. Carr's final reminiscence seems nearly dadaist in its implications but Carr himself is unable to make the connection: "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."… Art and politics are interchangeable and equally unattainable. Radical individualism has been lost to time.
Perhaps the curtain call of the New York production provides the best short summation of Travesties' central theme. Throughout the play actor John Wood made the transition from the role of Old Carr to that of Young Carr by removing his old bathrobe and altering his carriage. Following the play, Wood hobbles out wearing the bathrobe, bows and removes the bathrobe, only to reveal another bathrobe, and another Old Carr, underneath. Stoppard leaves us only with fallible, human Henry Carr, unregenerated even in memory. The twentieth century's most cherished myths have failed to effect a transformation. (pp. 235-36)
Craig Werner, "Stoppard's Critical Travesty, or, Who Vindicates Whom and Why," in Arizona Quarterly (copyright © 1979 by Arizona Board of Regents), Vol. 35, No. 3, Autumn, 1979, pp. 228-36.
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["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.∗
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[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.
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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 discoursing on God while his exshowgirl wife plays surrealistic games (Jumpers, 1972), or a pseudohistorical meeting in a Zurich library of three radically different revolutionaries, Lenin, Joyce, and Tristan Tzara (Travesties, 1974), the theme of man's relationship to reality—his insignificance, exile, and search for self—is manifest.
As important as Stoppard's philosophical explorations, however, is his preoccupation with his own art. Stoppard's plays are nonrealistic in form, undisguisedly theatrical, and supremely self-conscious. Indeed, the playwright has succeeded admirably in uniting the innovative form of his plays with their philosophical content, making his ventures into the nature of reality—and illusion—inquiries into the very rationale for art. One of Stoppard's less well-known plays, The Real Inspector Hound,… is a particularly fine example of how a playwright integrates these concerns through the use of a metafictional character. (pp. 90-1)
Stoppard's characters acquire metafictional status by virtue of play within play. In the case of The Real Inspector Hound, this "play" is formalized into a structural demand. The characters, who are made to function within two structural units, acquire one identity in the frame play—their "real" identities—and quite another in the inner play—their fictive identities. But the distinction between the identities, and, indeed, between the plays, remains less than absolute. As the characters move across the boundary that separates the outer play from the inner one, the line which separates their identities as critics and members of an audience from their identities as actors and participants in the "whodunit" play becomes increasingly fluid…. In creating first a rigid structural line of demarcation and then violating that line through his protagonists' entrance into the inner play, Stoppard is able to use the play-within-a-play not simply in the traditional way, for enhancing reality, but rather to suggest the nature of role playing and the power of illusion over reality. (p. 91)
Moon and Birdboot, Stoppard's fictive critics [in The Real Inspector Hound], position themselves in the front row of … the fictive audience. Through this setting, Stoppard is honoring (if only playfully) the classical concept of art imitating nature—the audience is face to face not only with a stage, but with itself. And he is also suggesting, paradoxically, the mirror as a symbol of illusion.
Our initial response to Moon and Birdboot (before the play-within-a-play begins) is amused self-recognition. (pp. 91-2)
When the play-within-a-play begins, the way in which we view Moon and Birdboot instantly changes. While their identities to this point are those of actors in a mimetic play, when Mrs. Drudge walks on the stage between the critics and audience and begins the Muldoon Manor play, Moon and Birdboot are no longer simply fictive characters. In the presence of Mrs. Drudge, we find ourselves making a distinction between the status of the housekeeper and that of the critics, and as she and the inhabitants of Muldoon Manor take us deeper into the fictionalized world of the play-within-a-play, we increasingly tend to view the frame play, which consists of the conversations of Moon and Birdboot, as an extension of our own reality rather than as play…. In fact, we allow Moon and Birdboot virtually to lose their fictionalized status by repeatedly looking to them for their reactions. (p. 92)
Through the creation of two separate plays, Stoppard manipulates his audience into a compartmentalizing of characters; once the dichotomy of play world and "nonplay" world is established, he proceeds to upset any certainty with respect to those worlds by integrating the plays. (p. 93)
The Real Inspector Hound is … about "the nature of identity," its central concern being that of a functional or role-playing self. The plight of the critics is reminiscent of our own acquiescence to the demands of social convention, which constantly force us to assume a fictive identity and may result in the essential self's becoming indistinguishable from the role…. Like actors who assume the part imposed upon them, the individual, by assuming social roles, is sacrificing his essential self. (pp. 95-6)
The end of the play sees a mass interchange of identities…. Now Moon's earlier remark that the play has started and that this is just a pause becomes meaningful. The play is an endless cycle in which two actors—who are, after all, fictive—begin as observers and assume roles within the play they are watching until the line between their reality and the fiction no longer exists. Just as the whodunit play had earlier served to authenticate the critics' reality, now it serves to betray it. Once the fictionalized reality of Moon and Birdboot has become pure fiction, the play, despite its cyclic nature, must end. The audience cannot view the next cycle, since it cannot now accept the two men in the critics' seats as real, and the play depends completely upon that acceptance. In order for the play to continue there must be a new audience, and the line between reality and fiction must again be established.
But Stoppard's play is not only about identity, it is about art as well. The dichotomy between the real and the fictive self which his metafictional characters embody extends as well to the relationship between art and reality. (p. 96)
Stoppard's use of the play-within-a-play structure is in one respect like Shakespeare's use of the device in Hamlet: the inner play does indeed fulfill the purpose of art, which is to hold a mirror up to nature. The experience of Birdboot (who is audience) is faithfully duplicated in the inner play. But Stoppard originally told us that his mirror image was "impossible," and his fidelity to the mimetic theory ends with this token honoring.
In fact, art emerges in The Real Inspector Hound as a force capable of controlling reality…. Stoppard sets up the play-within-a-play structure so that the distinction between reality and illusion is established, but the distinction is made only so that it might be destroyed. By the end of The Real Inspector Hound, the inner play breaks through the boundary separating it from the outer play and encompasses the outer play. In mimetic art, illusion may, in a sense, be said to be giving up its identity, trying to pass for reality. In Stoppard's art, illusion is autonomous. When the inner play breaks through its boundary, illusion imposes itself upon reality, in essence destroying the right of reality to be separately defined….
In Stoppard's earlier play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a similar set of first marginally involved and then seriously involved characters exists. Every bit as unperceptive as their counterparts in Inspector Hound, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern become victims of the play, which defines and controls them. Though philosophically consistent and structurally similar, however, the two plays are hardly carbon copies. (p. 97)
[Despite its derivative nature, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern] possesses indisputable originality, particularly in the way in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern achieve their own unique status as metafictional characters.
Though levity is characteristic of most of Stoppard's plays,… that lightness is frequently a surface quality under which more serious concerns lie. Surely this is the case with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern…. A decade and a half removed from their tramp predecessors [in Waiting for Godot], however, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern occupy a world in which the questions have changed to premises. The arbitrary quality of the universe which puzzles Vladimir to frustration is a donnée of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's world, in which even the laws of chance no longer exist: the two flip a coin ninety-two times and watch it turn up heads each time, the unbewildered Rosencrantz experiencing only embarrassment at having won all of Guildenstern's coins. Far from searching for significance in the macrocosm, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern care only about affirming the significance of their own little lives. As Rosencrantz says, "We don't question, we don't doubt. We perform." It is the fact of this performance which is at the heart of Stoppard's investigation into the play's more serious concerns.
Structurally, Stoppard uses a variation of the play-within-a-play to create his characters' metafictional status. The outer play is the ordinary world of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern…. The inner play is Hamlet…. Our experience with metafictional characters in a play-within-a-play structure tells us to view the coin flippers, the occupants of the frame play, as "real" and Hamlet's spy friends, the occupants of the inner play, as fictive. But the fact that these characters have an existence which precedes the Stoppard play alters this. Surely Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, though speaking in a modern tongue inappropriate to their Elizabethan garb, can be none other than Shakespeare's illfated pair. The fact is that the characters' dramatic existence does not begin with Act I of the Stoppard play; the characters have an inseparable preexistence which significantly affects our response. Though we are aware of the duality, we cannot with comfort divide the metafictional characters into the fictive and the real…. (pp. 98-9)
Whether we view the inner play or the outer play as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's real world, however, is not so important as the fact which Stoppard reveals in endowing his characters with literary preexistence. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern may well exemplify Sartre's existential premise, but for them the essence which precedes existence is itself fictive, reducing (or elevating) the status of these two to pure fiction. Indeed, the theatrical metaphor which sustains itself throughout the play underscores the playwright's vision of life as essent ally dramatic and of living as nothing more than playing a role. (p. 99)
That there is no other life for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern outside of the Shakespeare play, outside of their roles, is affirmed by Stoppard's final tableau, in which the bodies of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern become the subject of the ceremony afforded Hamlet in Olivier's film version, receiving all the circumstance due dead heroes. (p. 101)
What Rosencrantz and Guildenstern never realize is that they are part of a larger action than that of their own little lives. The two may go to their deaths without resistance, but they never comprehend what it means to be part of a greater plan. From his limited perspective, Guildenstern blames their fate on the boat:
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 the current….
Though he doesn't know it, Guildenstern's boat has metaphorical import, offering a wry comment on modern man's faith in free will and a bold statement on the nature of art. The confinement of which Guildenstern speaks suggests the limitations of both the individual in life and the character in drama, both of whom are free, "within limits, of course."… The inexorability describes the demands imposed both upon man by virtue of the inevitability of death and upon the dramatic character by virtue of the script. (pp. 101-02)
In their confusion and fear, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern never suspect that they may fare better as fictional characters than as real ones, for once they enter the Hamlet play they become part of an ordered universe which could not permit a coin to turn up heads ninety-two times. As the head of the players explains, "… there's a design at work in all art…. Events must play themselves out to aesthetic, moral and logical conclusion."… Furthermore, in the world of play, the dead actor can rise again for an encore. (p. 102)
In The Real Inspector Hound Stoppard toys with the concept of the mimetic quality of art, creating situations in the frame play and the inner play which are strikingly similar. In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, mimesis, like the ill-fated pair, is dead. The dumb show may preserve its sanctity, but the inner play proper neither reflects nor distorts the reality of the outer play, for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern prove to have no existence outside Hamlet. Their entire time in the outer play is overshadowed by our knowledge that they are Shakespeare's, and not Stoppard's, characters; like modern man alienated from an orderly world, their "real" lives only serve to anticipate their immortal roles. Where in The Real Inspector Hound the Muldoon Manor play succeeds in encompassing the outer play, in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Hamlet absorbs its frame completely, rendering the protagonists without their Hamlet roles nonentities. In both plays, whether the characters' fates are determined by the slick whodunit play or the Shakespearean masterpiece, the power of Stoppard's art is supreme. (p. 103)
June Schlueter, "Stoppard's Moon and Birdboot, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern," in her Metafictional Characters in Modern Drama (copyright © 1977, 1979 Columbia University Press; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Columbia University Press, 1979, pp. 89-103.
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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 the intelligentsia into finding him significant with a few philosophical reflections on a few intellectual themes. As a dramatist, Stoppard is a dandy. His plays frequently toy with difficult subjects, but they are essentially not very serious conceits—pirouettes by a rather vain dancer who knows he can leap higher than anyone else but seems to have forgotten why.
Like many intelligent émigrés, Stoppard has learned well how to imitate the customs of his adopted country; the trouble is that the imitation is largely a matter of style. Perhaps upper-middle-class English drama is largely a matter of style…. (p. 23)
[Whatever might be cogent in Night and Day] is obscured by an excess of verbal sparks and stylish posturing, distracting us from the author's intention to the author's manner. Things happen in the play—a revolution, a savage beating, a senseless death—but only as commas and semicolons in the dialogue. Typical is a moment when one of Stoppard's characters, in the midst of an uprising, describes the way a single event would be reported in every British newspaper; I was reminded of Cyrano's virtuoso speech on his nose. But it is one thing to introduce such dazzle into a swashbuckling romantic comedy; it is quite another to have it performed by people in extreme circumstances. Instead of reflecting on the danger they are in, Stoppard's characters concentrate on balances and antitheses or piling up adjectives in front of nouns. What we have here is less stage dialogue than a kind of bel canto, where people take breaths not to admit the air of reality but rather to prepare themselves for more exhalations of claustral wit. (pp. 23-4)
Robert Brustein, "A Theater for Clever Journalists," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1980 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 182, Nos. 1 & 2, January 5 and 12, 1980, pp. 23-4.∗
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 92
[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.∗