Tom Stoppard Stoppard, Tom (Vol. 29)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Tom Stoppard 1937–

(Born Tomas Straussler) Czechoslovakian-born English dramatist, novelist, short story writer, scriptwriter, critic, translator, and journalist.

Stoppard is a leading playwright in contemporary theater. Like George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde, with whom he is compared, Stoppard examines serious issues within the context of comedy, often conveying weighty moral and philosophical themes through such comedic devices as word games and slapstick. Stoppard addresses complex questions pertaining to authority, morality, the existence of God, the power of words to represent reality, and the role and function of art. His style of drama has thus been termed "philosophical farce." Stoppard's theater sometimes draws upon Shakespeare's plays for a framework in which to present modern concerns. His plays also reflect the influence of Samuel Beckett in their absurd view of existence; of Wilde in their use of comedy; and of the Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello in their use of drama as a means of probing the nature of illusion and reality. Although some critics consider Stoppard's theatrical devices to be a smokescreen concealing a lack of profundity, most praise him for his wit and technical virtuosity.

As a young man, Stoppard worked as a journalist and critic while composing dramas that were performed on radio and television. With his first major play produced on the English stage, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966), Stoppard became an immediate critical and popular success. Exploring such themes as identity, chance, freedom, and death, the play centers on two minor characters from Hamlet. While waiting to act their roles in Shakespeare's tragedy, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern pass the time by telling jokes and musing upon reality, in the same way that the two tramps occupy themselves in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern depicts the absurdity of life through these two characters who have "bit parts" in a play not of their making and who are capable only of acting out their dramatic destiny. They are bewildered by their predicament and face death as they search for the meaning of their existence. While examining these themes, Stoppard makes extensive use of puns and paradox, which have become standard devices in his theater. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern was acclaimed by Harold Hobson as "the most important event in British professional theatre of the last nine years." The play won similar acclaim in America and was awarded the Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award as well as the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best new play in 1968.

Jumpers (1972) reinforced Stoppard's reputation as a playwright who flamboyantly examines important questions. Jumpers, a parody of modern philosophy and the "thriller" genre, is filled with running gags, puns, and a fecundity of verbal and visual wit. Farce is achieved by, among other things, a team of acrobatic philosophers whose physical gymnastics reflect their intellectual stunts. These philosophers are more intent on discussing the preoccupations of modern philosophy than on solving the mystery surrounding the death of one of their colleagues. Critics were most impressed by the pervading moral sense of the play and found the two protagonists es-pecially moving. 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 in the course of the play. However, unlike some of the characters in Stoppard's earlier plays who were trapped in a meaningless void, these characters continue to strive against the absurd.

Stoppard's next stage production, Travesties (1974), solidified his reputation as a major dramatist. Many critics began to rank Stoppard and Harold Pinter as England's foremost post-World War II playwrights. This play fictionally depicts Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, James Joyce, and Tristan Tzara...

(The entire section is 15,707 words.)