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 residing in Zurich during World War I. By juxtaposing 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. A play-within-a play, Travesties is based on the memories of Henry Carr, a common man who claims to have come in contact with the three "revolutionaries." Mistaken identities, misunderstandings, and the faulty recollections of Carr are among the play's farcical elements. However, critics praised its intellectual depth and noted that Stoppard relies less on theatrics than in his previous plays. Travesties also marks a new development in Stoppard's career: it involves his most detailed political and ethical analysis, an increasingly important characteristic of his later drama. Travesties won a Tony Award in 1976.
Stoppard further examined political issues in his next four major plays, which have come to be known as his "dissident comedies." Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1977), a play with orchestra written with the composer and conductor André Previn, is set in a prison hospital "somewhere in the Soviet Union." One of the inmates is being detained for psychiatric help because of his political beliefs. Professional Foul (1977) is set in Czechoslovakia and portrays the plight of dissidents in a totalitarian society. Night and Day (1978), set in a fictive African country during a rebellion against a dictatorial regime, examines the role of the press. In addition to dramatizing contradictory attitudes among journalists, ranging from responsible reporting to sensationalizing, Stoppard also presents the topics of marital infidelity, war, and government in the third world. The second of the interlocking plays Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth (1979) is dedicated to the playwright Pavel Kohout. Kohout is one of several Czech dramatists and actors banned from the public stage in Czechoslovakia because of alleged subversive activities. Cahoot's Macbeth centers on a staging of Macbeth in a living room, recalling Kohout's Shakespearean "living-room theater." The performance is interrupted by a government inspector who has come to investigate the play's language to see if it is subversive. A character from Dogg's Hamlet enters Cahoot's Macbeth and introduces a new language, "Dogg," named after a professor in the first play. The actors then speak their lines in "Dogg" in order to befuddle the inspector. In general, the critical reaction to Stoppard's "dissident comedies" has been mixed. However, many critics have commended Stoppard for incorporating political themes into his work, thus extending the scope of his art.
Many critics suggest that in The Real Thing (1982) Stoppard continues the inclination toward more conventional comedy that they had noted in his dissident works. In this play, Stoppard further deemphasizes farcical action, concentrating instead on witty dialogue and autobiographical elements. While The Real Thing characteristically examines art, metaphysical issues, and political commitment, it also marks Stoppard's most significant treatment of the theme of love. Some critics consider The Real Thing a move toward high comedy and the comedy of manners. Critics have especially praised the characters of this play, finding them more realistic than those in Stoppard's previous plays. The Real Thing won a Tony Award in 1984.
Stoppard's theater has moved from depicting the absurd view of existence to attacks on absurdity through art and philosophy; from political detachment to commitment for personal and artistic freedom; and from wild, theatrical farce toward more conventional comedy. His ardent concern for truth and his willingness to present conflicting viewpoints have led critics to regard him as a moralistic playwright with a positive view of humanity.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 4, 5, 8, 15; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 13.)