Tom Stoppard Stoppard, Tom (Vol. 29) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Clive James

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Stoppard] is at his strongest when one precise meaning is transformed into another precise meaning with the context full-blown in each case. It is an elementary point to prove that a word can mean anything we choose it to mean. Many of us must have sometimes felt, when reading the later Wittgenstein, that he is not really saying anything about words which Lewis Carroll didn't say equally succinctly. The later Wittgenstein is in this regard the obverse of the early one, only instead of saying that a word is attached to something in the world he is saying that it is not. The early position refuted itself, and the later one needs no proof—artistic endorsements of it are doomed to triviality.

But Stoppard is not really concerned to say that words can mean anything…. It is the plurality of contexts that concerns Stoppard: ambiguities are just places where contexts join. And although Stoppard's transitions and transformations of context might be thought of, either pejoratively or with approval, as games, the games are, it seems to me, at least as serious as Wittgenstein's language games—although finally, I think, the appropriate analogies to Stoppard's vision lie just as much in modern physics as in modern philosophy.

Even among those who profess to admire his skill, it is often supposed that there is something coldly calculated about Stoppard's technique. By mentioning his work in the same breath with modern physics one risks abetting that opinion. But there is no good reason to concede that modern physics is cold, or even that to be calculating precludes creativity. Guildenstern is not necessarily right when he tells Rosencrantz (in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) that all would be lost if their spontaneity turned out to be part of another order—one of the play's themes is that Chance, while looking deterministic if seen from far enough away, is random enough from close to. Both views are real…. It could even be assumed that each viewpoint is fixed. That would be a Newtonian picture of Stoppard's universe, and like the Newtonian picture of the real universe could go a long way towards explaining everything in it.

But physics, to the small extent that I understand it, ceased being Newtonian and started being modern when Einstein found himself obliged to rule out the possibility of a viewpoint at rest. Nobody could now believe that Einstein did this in order to be less precise—he did it in order to be precise over a greater range of events than Newtonian mechanics could accurately account for. Mutatis mutandis, Stoppard abandons fixed viewpoints for something like the same reason. The analogy is worth pursuing because it leads us to consider the possibility that Stoppard's increasingly apparent intention to create a dramatic universe of perpetual transformations might also spring from the impulse to clarify.

It is perhaps because there is little recognisably mystical about him—scarcely a hint of the easy claim to impenetrability—that people are inclined to call Stoppard cold. It might have been a comfort to them if Stoppard had rested content with merely saying: listen, what looks odd when you stand over There is perfectly reasonable if you stand over Here, whereupon the place you left begins looking odd in its turn. That would have been relativity of a manageable Newtonian kind, which anyone patient enough could have hoped to follow. But Stoppard added: and now that you're Here, you ought to know that Here is on its way to somewhere else, just as There is, and always was. That was Einstein's kind of relativity, a prospect much less easily grasped. In fact grasping doesn't come into it. There is not much point in the layman trying to grasp that the relative speed of two objects rushing away from each other at the speed of light is still the speed of light. What he needs to realise is that no other explanation fits the facts. Similarly with Stoppard's dramatic equivalent of the space-time continuum: it exists to be ungraspable, its creator having discovered that no readily appreciable conceptual scheme can possibly be adequate to the complexity of experience. The chill which some spectators feel at a Stoppard play is arriving from infinity.

Critical talk about "levels of reality" in a play commonly assumes that one of the posited levels is really real. By the same token, it would be reasonable to assume that although everything in a Stoppard play is moving, the play itself is a system at rest. But in Stoppard's universe no entity, not even a work of art, is exempt from travel. The Importance of Being Earnest is moving through Travesties like one stream of particles through another, the points of collision lighting up as pastiche. The same kind of interpenetration was already at work in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, through which the play Hamlet made a stately transit like a planet encountering a meteor shower, and with the same pyrotechnic consequences. (pp. 70-2)

In a body of work which is otherwise conspicuously impersonal, Albert [in Albert's Bridge] is probably the character who comes closest to representing Stoppard the artist. Albert is at a...

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Benedict Nightingale

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Dogg's Hamlet] is an elaboration of a minor curiosity called Dogg's Our Pet, and [Cahoot's Macbeth is] fresh evidence that its author is becoming a sort of one-man Amnesty International, with a special interest in his native Czechoslovakia. Little need be said about the first, except that it interjects a comically compressed version of Hamlet into [a] whimsical series of verbal jokes…. 'Cretinous git', says a boy to his headmaster, who nods in gracious acknowledgment. 'Sod the pudding club', smiles a great lady as she hands out the school prizes. Over the interval drinks a jealous rumour spread among my fellow-critics, to the effect that the BBC was in possession of the phrase-book that...

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Mel Gussow

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Every Good Boy Deserves Favour"], a collaboration between Tom Stoppard, the playwright, and André Previn, the composer and conductor, is itself a theatrical pun—a play on words and music. This ingenious keyboard comedy … is about the political dissident as the discordant note in the orchestra that we call society.

In "Every Good Boy Deserves Favour"—the title is of course a mnemonic—a political dissident shares a room in a mental hospital with a madman who thinks that he has a symphony orchestra at his fingertips. The orchestra is a figment of his, and of our, imagination…. It is Mr. Stoppard's clever conceit that the orchestra performs at the madman's will, as the skeptical dissident...

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John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As plays with full symphonic orchestras on stage go, [Every Good Boy Deserves Favour] is probably the best, but was the trip really necessary? Suppose Ringling Bros, had approached our saltatory author with a request for a play incorporating its entire menagerie on stage, would he have likewise jumped, or boggled, or recoiled? The better part of cleverness is to know when to resist it.

This particular farce with music concerns two Alexander Ivanovs in the same enclosure—whether it is a ward or a cell is a moot point—in a Soviet mental hospital. One is a genuine madman, who fancies himself the triangle player in a philharmonic orchestra that he sees and hears around him and whose...

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Brendan Gill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth"] is the latest prank by Tom Stoppard to reach our shores. Actually, it's two pranks, since it consists of a couple of little plays that the ingenious author has contrived to join loosely together but that have the air of having been surprised into marriage by the universal shotgun known as giving the customers their money's worth…. These plays combine comically abbreviated versions of "Hamlet" and "Macbeth" with the kind of frisky finger exercises in wordplay and logic that are Stoppard's favorite stock-intrade. In a program note, Stoppard mentions that "Dogg's Hamlet" derives from a section of Wittgenstein's "Philosophical Investigation," but don't be frightened; potted...

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Victor L. Cahn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Tom Stoppard's playwrighting career may be said to parallel the progress of twentieth-century theater. His first play, Enter a Free Man, is a realistic comedy-drama. He then moves into the world of absurdity, which is dramatized in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, in his fiction, and in several shorter plays. Yet at the same time, he extends the limits of absurdity by dramatizing the outside world concretely, as a part of a recognizable social system. And in his latest plays he creates characters who are not resigned to absurdity but are determined to battle against such a vision of the world—first through philosophical argument in Jumpers, and then through artistic and political...

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Benedict Nightingale

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Though you wouldn't know it from the wilder reviews, the opening of [On the Razzle] was a flatter-than-expected affair. No one seemed to be rolling in the aisles, busting their guts, or indulging in analogous acts of cachinnatory self-violence; and the questions to be asked are these. Did the presence of all those scribbling critics and professional first-nighters cause a paralysis onstage that transmitted itself back to the audience, meaning that future performances may be more relaxed and funnier? Or is there something in Stoppard's adaptation of the 19th-century Viennese playwright, Johann Nestroy, innately inhibiting to laughter? Or, as I suspect, is the truth a bit of each?

That laughter...

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Enoch Brater

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stoppard is that peculiar anomaly—a serious comic writer born in an age of tragicomedy and a renewed interest in theatrical realism. Such deviation from dramatic norms not only marks his original signature on the contemporary English stage, but has sometimes made it difficult for us to determine whether his unique posture of comic detachment has been "good," "bad," or simply "indifferent." "Seriousness compromised by frivolity" is not what we have been trained to value in the important theater of our time. Yet Stoppard's "high comedy of ideas" is a refreshing exception to the rule. Offering us "a funny play," Stoppard's world "makes coherent, in terms of theatre, a fairly complicated intellectual argument." That the...

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Joan Fitzpatrick Dean

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The canon of Stoppard's work up to 1980 shares much with post-World War II art and literature in general and with contemporary British drama in particular. His works invite comparisons with the visual arts both because of his consideration of aesthetic questions through the eyes of painters (as in [Artist Descending A Staircase] or Travesties) or because of his extensive and often elaborate references to artists (as in After Magritte). His mutual concern with these artists is the nature, function, and responsibility of art. Underlying these perennial issues is a self-consciousness characteristic of contemporary art and literature. The most obvious examples of this self-consciousness are the...

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Jack Kroll

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"One false move and we could have a farce on our hands," says a character in Tom Stoppard's On the Razzle. Thank goodness for false moves, because the audience at the American première of Stoppard's new work certainly has a farce on its hands—and on its eyes and most especially on its ears. In this razzling, dazzling comic romp …, Stoppard sends not only his characters but his words through the collision course that is the essence of farce.

The play is Stoppard's loose but sporty adaptation of Johann Nestroy's 1842 comedy, which was the source for Thornton Wilder's play "The Matchmaker," which in turn led to "Hello, Dolly!" Even without Dolly it's a doll of a play, with Stoppard taking us...

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Benedict Nightingale

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Tom Stoppard's work has been notably generous with many commodities, from verbal wit to metaphysical ennui, but with one it's always been notably stingy. Bluntly, his characters have lacked strong personal feelings. A sort of rueful tristesse has, on the whole, been their dark night of the soul. It was in that mood that both the philosopher-hero of Jumpers contemplated the disloyalties of a wife he was supposed to love and, rather earlier, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern shrugged and joked their way to their violent deaths. Something deeper was perhaps touched in Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, Stoppard's tale of a father and son separated by KGB malice; but only a bit, and briefly. You can't conceive of...

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Roger Scruton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

That self-referential art and self-indulgent revolution grow from the same soil is a proposition with which Tom Stoppard is familiar, and there are few modern playwrights who could bring a more formidable intelligence to bear on it. Stoppard's own plays—which are, almost all of them, plays within plays—grow from the demand that Art should be its own subject. At the same time politics provides their occasion, and no politics fascinates Stoppard more than that which has issued from the revolutionary consciousness.

In Travesties (1975), he exploited the accidental, or not-so-accidental, coincidence in Zurich of Tristan Tzara (the arch proponent of the Absolute in Art) and Lenin (the arch...

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Erika Munk

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"There's something scary about stupidity made coherent," says Henry, hero of Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing, after one of his lover Annie's trendy-lefty effusions. There's something scarier about stupidity made a hit precisely because of its trendy-conservative effusions. If it weren't being praised without limit as a serious, indeed brilliant comedy by a writer who after years of cool and flashy wit finally has mastered character and feeling, The Real Thing's stupidity—that of a clever writer in the grip of commerce—could be dismissed with dispatch. The play is shallowly reactionary in its art and its politics, crudely subservient to a wealthy, aging audience, and self-pitying in its...

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Robert Brustein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It has sometimes been said of Tom Stoppard, by others besides me, that there is nothing going on beneath the glossy, slippery surface of his bright ideas and arch dialogue. With The Real Thing …, he has decided to confound his more skeptical critics by chipping a hole in the ice for us to peek through—under the proper conditions, no doubt, suitable also for fishing. You've probably heard by now what's swimming around this chilly pond. The "real thing" is Stoppard's amorous equivalent of the "right stuff"—grace and style in the performance of a difficult task, in this case conducting erotic relationships.

In short, Britain's leading intellectual entertainer is now exhibiting a highly...

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