Tom Stoppard

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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...

(This entire section contains 1204 words.)

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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

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[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 point detached enough for arbitrariness to look like order. Fraser, Albert's opposing voice, might usefully be held to represent Stoppard the man—Stoppard when he is not detached. Fraser lives down among the chaos, where he sees it to be a sheer fluke that the right number of people who do not want to milk cows do want to fill teeth and vice versa. Finding the perception intolerable, he chooses suicide. But climbing the bridge in order to jump off it, he sees things from Albert's viewpoint, loses the desire to die, and goes back down, where he sees it to be a sheer fluke that the right number … and so on, in a reticulation as endless as painting the bridge. Neither Albert nor Fraser can be right alone.

Here and now in Stoppard is a time and place defined by an infinite number of converging vectors each heading towards it at the speed of light and steadily slowing down to nothing before passing through it and speeding up again. Ignoring for the moment that the still point is itself moving, here and now is what things tend towards, with a tantalising slowness as they swell into proximity. In this resides much of the significance of Stoppard's fascination with Zeno's paradox—the asymptotic frustration by which the hare never quite catches up with the tortoise. In Jumpers, George Moore the philosopher (the other George Moore the philosopher) concludes that since the arrow could not have quite reached Saint Sebastian he must have died of fright. It is a fabulous joke but there is fear in it—the awe of watching a slow approach down long perspectives.

Guildenstern says that the more witnesses who attest to the remarkable the thinner it gets and the more reasonable it becomes until it is thin as reality. Here and now is Zero—a word which rings like a gnomic tocsin in Beckett's Endgame and arrives in Stoppard's plays as a developed vision. (The word itself passes through like a micro-meteorite during the Farjeonesque game of bridge in The Real Inspector Hound.) Stoppard has gradually become more and more capable of bodying this vision forth, but the vision was there at the beginning of his drama and indeed before the beginning. In his novel Lord Malquist and Mr Moon, Mr Moon is sick with his secret knowledge of the long perspectives, just as Rosencrantz feels sick when he looks into the audience (an echo, but more than an echo, of Clov's similarly bleak gaze in Endgame), or Gladys the TIM girl feels sick when she looks down the well of time in the radio play If You're Glad I'll Be Frank. But not even madness can make a coherent whole of all Moon sees. Moon is appalled by the shift of a glacier that leads to a man straightening his tie. "But if it's all random", he asks Lady Malquist, "what's the point?" And when she replies "What's the point if it's all inevitable?" he can't deal with the answer. (pp. 72-4)

From Enter A Free Man to Travesties is a long way. Stoppard's habit of cannibalising old situations to make new ones tends to suggest repetitiveness but really he has been expanding his scope all the time. Take the meticulously extended preparation for the gag about the Rule Britannia clock in Enter A Free Man. In that apprentice work such devices are at first sight tangential enough to seem merely cosmetic. But hindsight reveals that they constitute the play's real originality. Otherwise the plot is like one of Ibsen's turned on its head, with the daughter continually telling her father the truth about himself, instead of the saving lie. The eccentric atmosphere suggests Saroyan's The Time of Your Life, which in its turn was more solidly in the Broadway tradition than people thought at the time. If Stoppard had never written anything subsequently, we might think of Riley's indoor rain as being a nod to N. F. Simpson, and the concern with Time to be like J. B. Priestley's, or Christopher Fry's, or, at best, T. S. Eliot's. But in retrospect the architecture looks like decoration and the decoration looks like architecture.

In all the subsequent plays the texture is composed entirely of interweaving preparation. By the time of Jumpers it takes the whole play for the separate stories of the tortoise and the hare to catch up with each other—Zeno's paradox resolved at the intersection of long lines of coincidence. And in Travesties we find the long lines turning into curves, the planes curving into spheres, and the spheres making music.

And if the music of the spheres sounds cold, would it be more convincing if it sounded warm? There is abundant evidence in Stoppard's plays to show that he is as capable of emotion as anybody. In Enter A Free Man Linda is a finely tuned moral invention whose equivalents we might well miss in the later plays, if we really thought they should be there. The mainspring of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is the perception—surely a compassionate one—that the fact of their deaths mattering so little to Hamlet was something which ought to have mattered to Shakespeare. And in the radio play Where Are They Now? there is a flaring moment of generous anger against the school system which turned childhood into a hell of pointless competition. "Where are they now?" people ask about all those young winners, and Gale, putting things in perspective on behalf of all the losers, bitterly asks "Where were they then?"

There is plenty to indicate that if Stoppard had done no more than employ the drama as a vehicle for moral messages he would still have been a force in the theatre. The playwrights who grapple with those issues supposedly too weighty for Stoppard's frivolous talent are likely to have been inspired by a view of their task which is not only less comprehensive than Stoppard's but less penetrating. Stoppard leaves them behind not because he can't do what they can do, but because he can do what they can do so easily. (p. 74)

At their best, Stoppard's heady dramatic designs impress us not as deliberately sophisticated variations on the reality we know but as simplified models of a greater reality—the inhuman cosmos which contains the human world, the amoral vastness in which morality is a local accident, the totality from whose perimeter we look like—Zero. ("Nothing", Lord Malquist tells Mr Moon, "is the history of the world viewed from a suitable distance.") Stoppard's triumph—which he does not share with Priestley, Fry or Eliot any more than he shares it with Star Trek or Dr Who—is to have created this impression not through vagueness but through precision…. If his speculative scope recalls modern physics, his linguistic rigour recalls modern philosophy. It is a potent combination whatever its validity.

And if the whole vaultingly clever enterprise turned out to be merely intuitive—well, what is so mere about that? It might be only in Stoppard's enchanted playground that the majestic inevitabilities of General Relativity can be reconciled with the Uncertainty Principle or quantum physics, but Einstein's lifelong search for the Unified Field was the same game, and he believed in intuition. He also believed in Einfühlung—the intellectual love for the objects of experience. Just such a love, it seems to me, is at work in Stoppard's writing, lending it a poetry which is as far beyond sentimentality as his ebullient detachment is beyond the arrogant solipsism which commonly passes for commitment. (pp. 75-6)

Clive James, "Count Zero Splits the Infinite: Tom Stoppard's Plays," in Encounter (© 1975 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. XLV, No. 5, November, 1975, pp. 68-76.

Benedict Nightingale

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[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 would explain all; but it hardly seemed worth debagging anyone in hopes of finding it. Anyone who knows his W. S. Gilbert or Monty Python should recognise the sounds of topsyturveydom when he hears them: nothing is what it says, much means the exact opposite.

Cahoot's Macbeth is meatier stuff, though it begins with a characteristic Stoppard joke and follows it with plenty more. Three witches circle a smoking pot in the reddish murk, and salute two noblemen with spears; and then up go the lights, and we're actually and oddly in someone's living room. Macbeth turns out to be the well-known Czech actor Pavel Landovsky, and everyone else a member of the suitcase-theatre that has recently been performing abbreviated classics in Prague houses and tenements, more auspicious auditoria having been refused them by the neo-Stalinists presently in power. Before long it is time for the Porter scene. There are three or four enormous bangs on the door, which then crashes open to reveal a smirking lackey in a belted raincoat who proceeds to needle and threaten everyone present. Noting that the intellectuals watching the performance, like those giving it, are actually employed as janitors, cleaners and the like, he congratulates Landovsky on having 'cracked the problem of the working-class audience'. Reminded of the nominal protection his nation's laws give to human rights, he points out that 'a lot of water has passed through the penal code' since Dubcek. Crack follows crack, most of them funny, all of them malicious. We laugh and feel uncomfortable, as Stoppard, who by now has little left to learn about the uses of humour, presumably means us to do.

Unluckily, this burst of didactic comedy is soon over. The secret policeman … makes a temporary exit; Landovsky … continues to demonstrate the political relevance of Macbeth in Husak-territory; then in wanders a character from Stoppard's first play, who proceeds to hail everyone as 'cretinous git' and so on; and the evening begins to look badly in need of the Python military-man who used to interrupt his team's more harum-scarum efforts with the regimental bark, 'Stop, stop, this is getting silly'.

To be fair, there is some point to the nuthouse lingo, which now starts to infect Landovsky's company, bewilder those who are bugging their performance, and enrage the returning cop. It is meant, I think, to suggest that the authorities will always find it difficult to suppress resourceful imaginations, wits and tongues, even if they put their whole nation behind the chunky grey bars that [the policeman] ends the play frantically and symbolically constructing. But the evening as a whole leaves a sketchier, more fragmented, and finally less eloquent impression than what I take to be Stoppard's most successful foray into committed hilarity, the TV play Professional Foul. Both are about usurpation and the abuse of power, not unlike Macbeth itself; but it is the one that ignores, not the one that explicitly invokes, that parallel which comes the nearer to justifying it.

Benedict Nightingale, "Git Away," in New Statesman (© 1979 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 98, No. 2522, July 20, 1979, pp. 104-05.∗

Mel Gussow

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["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 stares in disbelief….

So much of the comedy comes from the contrast between the small reality—two men in a tiny cell—and the enormity of the delusion. Giving a lunatic an orchestra is like turning a little boy into the general of a vast army. This discrepancy is demonstrated by musical as well verbal jokes. For example, when the dissident slams shut his copy of "War and Peace," the orchestra thunders into "The Overture From 1812."…

Mr. Stoppard's text is short (the score is somewhat longer). The evening lasts about 70 minutes, but it speeds by, operating on several levels at once, as the author darts deviously from verbal pranks to political comments, while issuing sidelong observations on medicine, education and the arts. This is an unusual theatrical and musical event, clearly one of the oddest to play the Met since Robert Wilson's and Phillip Glass's "Einstein on the Beach." "Every Good Boy" certainly deserves more favour when encountered in such grand circumstances.

However, one question remains. The comment—the dissident as the discordant note in society—works for the theatrical part of the evening, but what does "Every Good Boy" say about the society of the orchestra? What if all the triangles, piccolos, cellos and kettle drums went blissfully in their own direction without benefit of score or conductor? The result would not be dissidence or dissonance but cacophony. Perhaps covertly "Every Good Boy" is intended as a piece of music criticism.

Mel Gussow, in a review of "Every Good Boy Deserves Favour," in The New York Times (copyright © 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 31, 1979 (and reprinted in The New York Times Theater Reviews: 1979–1980, The New York Times Company & Arno Press, 1981, p. 145).

John Simon

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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 players he constantly berates for their alleged shortcomings. The other A. Ivanov is a political dissident—actually, merely a truth teller, but what is more maddening to a totalitarian government?—who has been jailed and tortured with painful bogus cures and is now being detained and treated with a mild laxative until he agrees to tell lies and is pronounced healthy and discharged. But neither harshness nor laxatives can wrench a lie from his bowels.

The other characters include the political Ivanov's son, Sasha, who also plays the triangle … and whose orthodox Soviet schoolmistress tries to get him to correct his own, as well as his father's, dissident ways; he is supposed to talk his dad out of hunger strikes, for instance. There is also the Doctor, the psychiatrist "treating" the two Ivanovs; he himself plays the violin in a real orchestra, and the distinction between reality and illusion is lessened by having the onstage orchestra variously represent Ivanov's fancy and the Doctor's reality. This is a relatively kindly man, even though his science is a tool of the regime, and though he fiddles while truth burns. He is also funny, but perhaps only because he is a character in a Stoppard play. And then there is the Colonel, who runs the hospital though his doctorate is in semantics, which might have given rise in Stoppard to a number of anti-semantic jokes, but surprisingly didn't….

Stoppard is frequently described—almost as if the phrase had been coined for him—as being too clever by half. In the case of EGBDF (the title refers both to Sasha and to the musical mnemonic), he is again very clever, but a halftone off. The musical in-jokes are funny, but I cannot quite see the plight of Russia's artists, truth tellers, Jews, indeed entire population, as a fit subject for fluffy farce. High comedy—the kind that, like The Misanthrope, scarcely differs from tragedy—perhaps, but not the sort of thing where we get pell-mell "sharing a dish of tagliatelle Verdi and stuffed Puccini," "throwing a trombone to the dogs," "the Jew's-harp has applied for a visa," and (from the Doctor) "He has an identity problem—I forget his name." Jokes about tyrants are all very well: They do not laugh tyranny out of existence, as was formerly believed, but they do, when cracked by its victims, help a little. Jokes about the victims, however, shared by a cozy playwright and comfortable audience, make for morally cacophonous cachinnation….

As a farce, EGBDF is perky but undistinguished; as a statement about human realities, it falls far, far short of the play by Arthur Schnitzler that Stoppard has adapted for the London stage under the title Undiscovered Country. Let's have that one, and soon. (p. 82)

John Simon, "Small Favors," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1984 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 12, No. 32, August 13-August 20, 1979, pp. 82-3.∗

Brendan Gill

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["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 Wittgenstein quickly gives way to potted Shakespeare—a "Hamlet" that for pace and violent high spirits resembles nothing so much as a tragic Punch and Judy show….

The second play, dedicated to the Czechoslovakian writer Pavel Kohout, is a version of "Macbeth" as Stoppard imagines it being played in an apartment in Prague. It is a fact that Kohout and some distinguished actor friends of his have assembled a small company, which, on invitation, stages "Macbeth" in people's homes. Stoppard acknowledges that Kohout's extraordinary "living-room theatre" has been his inspiration, but he insists that "Cahoot is not Kohout, and this necessarily over-truncated 'Macbeth' is not supposed to be a fair representation of Kohout's elegant seventy-five-minute version." Being Stoppard, "Cahoot's Macbeth" is an outrageous manipulation of the original play, and it ends by modulating unexpectedly back into Wittgenstein and the question of what words are capable of meaning under differing circumstances. We are amused and instructed, but we leave the theatre feeling somewhat under-nourished: so much fun, so little food for the imagination! The Master Juggler has left us nothing to do but laugh, and that is a welcome but insufficient activity. (p. 147)

Brendan Gill, "Stoppard's Shakespeherian Rag," in The New Yorker (© 1979 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LV, No. 35, October 15, 1979, pp. 147-48.∗

Victor L. Cahn

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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 revolution in Artist Descending a Staircase, Travesties, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, and Professional Foul. (p. 153)

In most of Tom Stoppard's plays his characters are struggling, not surrendering. They are aware of absurdity, yet they are unwilling to resign themselves to it…. In Stoppard's latest plays his protagonists have sought specific channels through which to pursue meaning and to find significance for themselves. They seek faith in rationality. They seek faith in human emotions. They seek faith in relationships with other people. They seek faith in their humanity. Their battles are not necessarily successful. But the very struggle brings a dignity to life and aids in that drive to reach beyond absurdity. (p. 155)

Stoppard has not been content to leave man in the absurdist void. True, his works always have elements of absurdity, manifested generally in his protagonists, who are nonentities swept into the action of a world they cannot understand. And Stoppard almost always displays their predicaments comically. However, he also develops undertones of seriousness, emphasizing the need for some action other than surrender to counteract absurdity. He explores man coping with the artistic world in such plays as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Artist Descending a Staircase, The Real Inspector Hound, and Travesties. He explores man coping with political systems in If You're Glad I'll be Frank, Travesties, and Every Good Boy Deserves Favour. He explores man coping in society in such plays as Enter a Free Man, Albert's Bridge, Where Are They Now, and Professional Foul. He explores man and his faith, both religious and secular, in such plays as Jumpers and Travesties. Of course, in none of these works does any single theme long dominate, and the four areas are usually interlocked.

If one may single out any unifying element in Stoppard's works, it is his faith in man's mind. He rejects the irrational, the reliance on emotion instead of intellect, the retreat from independent thought. And this commitment is the foundation for his theatrical techniques.

First, he makes free use of form: linear movement, flashbacks, plots within plots, and innumerable references to other literary works. Yet amid all the clutter and episodic action, a structure emerges, a tribute to the organizing powers of the playwright's rationality and his expectations of the audience's ability to grasp that structure.

Second, his emphasis on variety of language, in terms of brisk pace, literary allusions, and double and triple meanings, reaffirms his own belief in man's ability to communicate. He manages at the same time to make his language amusing, yet richly woven with ideas.

Third, he maintains a concern for people, demonstrated more than ever in his latest plays. Even though his characters may be isolated, lost figures, they are never turned into the one-dimensional figures of standard absurd drama. Always Stoppard insists on their dealing with ideas, questions, and their own responsibilities as human beings. Ultimately, his plays may be understood as an affirmation of man's humanity in the face of all obstacles. (pp. 156-57)

Victor L. Cahn, in his Beyond Absurdity: The Plays of Tom Stoppard (© 1979 by Associated University Presses, Inc.), Associated University Presses, 1979, 169 p.

Benedict Nightingale

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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 is indeed Stoppard's overriding aim is shown by the general failure to exploit the pathos inherent in the tale of the two wage-slaves who hotfoot it to the metropolitan fleshpots in hopes of acquiring memories, a 'past', to sustain them through the dreary years ahead…. [The] grocery-shop in which they moil is less trap and prison than a cute period-piece, cluttered with the sort of can and carton that would now fetch pounds at any Chelsea antique dealers….; and [neither character] exudes frustration, desperation for experience, or any emotion worth taking seriously. No, everything and everyone is there for farcical purposes only….

Stoppard and his director, Peter Wood, display a somewhat promiscuous appetite for comic incident and sub-plot. The principal strands and the main questions we should be asking—will master-grocer Zangler catch his truant employees, will he find the niece who has absconded with an unwished-for lover?—too often get submerged, forgotten. The farcical possibilities of the evening's climactic episode, in which all the parties assemble in the same eaterie, could be far more robustly exploited than they are….

[It is] hard to respond to raw comic event when your ears are turning somersaults lest they miss some pun, some spoonerism, some erotic innuendo, or some other conceit or trick in what is, even by Stoppard's standards, a verbally hyperactive script. I myself found this doubly distracting, since I regard Stoppard's wit as a precious resource, but one, like gold or oil, that must also be finite. How could he squander so many clever, non-reusable lines on what is—let's say it—an enterprise at best frivolous, at worst confused and silly? Even if future audiences prove my analysis incorrect by laughing their bladders dry, better a single new play by him than twenty oldies resuscitated by transfusions of his once and only life-blood.

Benedict Nightingale, in a review of "On the Razzle," in New Statesman (© 1981 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 102, No. 2637, October 2, 1981, p. 27.

Enoch Brater

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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 argument is worth making, that it is constantly developing and sharpening its focus, and that it always seeks to engage an audience in a continuing dialogue, are the special characteristics of Stoppard's dramatic accomplishment. They are also the features which dignify and ultimately transform the comic tradition to which his work belongs.

It would be convenient to assume that Stoppard's first play, the rewriting of A Walk on the Water we now know as Enter a Free Man, already demonstrated some clear evidence of that discrete synthesis between "seriousness" and "frivolity" which has become the hallmark of his style. This is not, however, the case…. The play's hero, inventor George Riley, is the British cousin to Arthur Miller's Willy Loman. Complete with a long-suffering Linda (the daughter this time—the wife is now a dowdy English Persephone), Enter a Free Man tells the story of the generations who will never make it. And Stoppard's play, like Miller's, is meant to be emblematic: each act opens to the tune of "Rule Britannia," enforcing the idea that the Riley syndrome is not so much eccentric as it is representative. The English hero dreams of sponge principles and re-usable envelopes, but the vacuum cleaner and the shilling-a-day (cribbed from Linda) are his true reality…. Time, place, and class, as much as his own inner weakness, block the entrance of Stoppard's free man.

But the thematic resemblance to Arthur Miller ends here—this is a Flowering Death of a Salesman after all. For the tone of Enter a Free Man is tragicomic and links Stoppard very conspicuously to his British contemporaries. This particular blend of outrageous humor in a tragicomic framework has its origins in a respectable tradition quite different from the one Stoppard has himself connected with Arthur Miller and the American drama. Enter a Free Man, a fanciful tour-de-force along the forget-me-not-lane, reminds us very much of the work of Peter Nichols, Joe Orton and, even earlier than that, N. F. Simpson. Here we see an early Stoppard at his most derivative: this is imitation, but it is good imitation. Stoppard, one-time theater critic in Bristol, has studied very carefully this particular style of playwriting. Enter a Free Man is the disciplined work of his apprenticeship and as such its form looks backward rather than forward. This is the play Stoppard wrote and then rewrote to get tragicomedy out of his system.

One must not, however, pass over Enter a Free Man too lightly. Though the tragicomic muse cramps the style we will later associate with vintage Stoppard in his other full-length plays, this early work contains in embryo an important element developed with greater precision in the comedy to come. The best moments in Enter a Free Man are the long passages of Riley's dialogue, comic verbosities which look ahead to those witty diatribes in Jumpers and Travesties…. (pp. 117-18)

The first signs of Stoppard's stylistic breakthrough come with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Here Stoppard discovers an objective comic vehicle which avoids any suggestion of sentimentality…. Turning Hamlet inside out gives Stoppard the opportunity to be simultaneously frivolous in conception but dead serious in execution. The heroes are Shake-speare's marginal men caught up in a stage reality of life and death they can never fully comprehend. But the tone here is deliberately cold and detached. It is only in this way that Stoppard can sustain for three acts his analytical perspective on what happens at Elsinore. The accent is on comedy, not psychology. Stoppard has caught us off guard: the surprise curtain raiser features a game of chance in place of Shakespeare's threatening apparition of a ghost. The coins keep landing on heads.

What is at stake here is not only a relaxed view of Hamlet, but a new kind of comic writing halfway between parody and travesty. (p. 119)

Because Stoppard has been so adept at treading a thin line between [parody and travesty], Rosencrantz and Guildenstern keeps us guessing. In certain respects this rewriting of Hamlet with Hamlet in a bit part is no mere travesty, but a rather ingenious parody of theatrical style. And Shakespeare is by no means the only butt of the joke…. Stoppard uses Godot as often as he relies on Hamlet: going conflicts with not-going, games are played to pass the time, the simile of leaves is the subject of considerable commentary, and pants fall down when the belt, not the center, cannot hold. Stoppard breathes new life into Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by making them dramatic ancestors of Beckett's Vladimir and Estragon. Their one-liners are the product of a verbal strategy designed to recycle Gogo and Didi's energetic "little canters." But Stoppard's parody of styles does not end here. Other playwrights will be called upon to strut and fret their hour upon this stage. Stoppard uses the acting troupe of The Murder of Gonzago, Shakespeare's play-within-the-play, not only to insinuate the bleak subject of death, but to reflect the essence of tragedy in Pirandello's teatro dello specchio. What is theatrical death and what is real death? When does illusion end and reality begin? Are we responsible for our actions or are we merely manipulated stage characters predestined by some offstage hand? More particularly, are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern free to choose their own destiny or are they tied down to an Elizabethan script controlling the ultimate end of their action on the boards? Is Hamlet, too, impaled by the same fate? "There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said—no. But somehow we missed it," Guildenstern's exit lines, therefore make the irony cut deep. This is Stoppard parodying Shakespeare, Beckett, Pirandello, and existential philosophy all at once. The collage is still not complete. Oscar Wilde, too, must come momentarily out of the closet. A Player confronts us with a bitter paraphrase of Miss Prism's literary theory from The Importance of Being Earnest: "The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means…. Positions!"

Suddenly the parody of theatrical styles has created a serious conflict of ideas on stage. Stoppard's technique has been to set in motion "a series of conflicting statements made by conflicting characters," then to let them play "a sort of infinite leap-frog. You know, an argument, a refutation, then a rebuttal of the refutation, then a counter-rebuttal, so that there is never any point in this intellectual leap-frog which I feel that is the speech to stop it on, that is the last word." The dramatic impact of such an imaginative "leap-frog" results in a verbal overkill which suggests that everything that can be said about the human condition appears to have already been said and—in the grand style of writers like Shakespeare, Beckett, Pirandello, or Wilde—said most persuasively. The only problem is that we, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, don't know which ideas still have a bearing on the present…. Stoppard therefore confronts us with the recognizable dilemma of the man who, having read much, can't be sure of anything. The more possibilities Stoppard's marginal man allows for, the less he understands. This is comedy of a high order, but it is a "comedy of incertitude." The hero of our time is not a romantic Hamlet, but a rather pathetic little fellow who can't even remember whether his name is dear Rosencrantz or gentle Guildenstern. We are all bit players at life. Because Stoppard has avoided giving us any "single, clear statement" in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the determined confusion he fosters in this play succeeds in representing our own unenviable situation. The restraint has earned a crucial dividend. Just when we were having a really good laugh, the comedy has taken a serious turn indeed. (pp. 120-21)

In The Real Inspector Hound and After Magritte the difficulty of knowing precisely what is going on is similarly called into question. In the tradition of Ben Travers' highly successful Aldwych farces, Stoppard's one-acts show us what has happened to the comic-thriller once Shaftesbury Avenue has recovered from its flirtation with the theater of the absurd. A take-off on The Mousetrap, The Real Inspector Hound parodies the plot of Agatha Christie in the style of Luigi Pirandello. An establishment critic has unfortunately failed to remove himself from the set once the second act begins and is murdered for this breach of good form in forgetting his place. The distinction between "play" and "play-within-play" becomes as obscure as the obligatory mist surrounding Muldoon Manor. In this frolic, however, Stoppard's focus is on comedy, not ideas. No philosophical burden threatens to encumber the "nuts-and-bolts" of farce and fluff…. In After Magritte the comic emphasis is on visual as well as narrative ambiguity: when the curtain goes up the first prop to capture our attention is a light fixture on a counterweight system with a basket of fruit. In this extended parody of surrealist compositional technique, Stoppard takes Magritte out of the Tate and adapts for the stage his "eclectic" tricks with balance and perspective. Yet the special context of this staged Magritte is placed in a frame that makes perfect sense: what appears to be madness proves to be perfectly logical by the time the curtain comes down.

The comic style Stoppard masters in After Magritte and The Real Inspector Hound is crucial in understanding the strategy he uses to great advantage in his next two full-length plays. Jumpers and Travesties exploit the same devices of "nuts-and-bolts" comedy in order to sustain entirely different effects. The goal has changed; Stoppard has expanded his repertory. Having employed the punch of comedy and the timing of farce in The Real Inspector Hound and After Magritte, Stoppard will now use these methods to dramatize what might otherwise be dry philosophical debates. But while the one-acts never defile the purity of good comic romp, the longer plays confront us with more than one level of theatrical experience in more than one dimension of theatrical form. Jumpers and Travesties are farces and high comedies of ideas at one and the same time. In these plays parody and travesty no longer alternate in counterpoint, but rather reverberate in simultaneity. This is no Shavian "comedy" and "philosophy," but a new version of parody working in complicity with travesty.

In Jumpers, parody frequently masquerades as travesty. George Moore, professor of ethics, is Stoppard's contribution to the traditional figure of the stage pedant. But the three playing areas—the study, the bedroom, and the hall—are parts of an elaborate simultaneous set which suggests that there is far more here than meets the eye. When we recognize that there is both a comic surface as well as a philosophical depth, the play begins to operate on more than one level. But Stoppard quickly sets out to short-circuit the connections between one level and the next. What appears to be philosophical debate turns into slap-stick (Professor Moore will inadvertently crush poor Thumper) and what seems to be music hall innocence (a production number of "Shine on Harvest Moon") proves to be bitterly ironic. Jumpers, however, never fixes moral philosophy and musical comedy in any stable order, hierarchy, or progression. The play therefore implicates us in the process of making decisions. But as we try to distinguish the serious from the comic, the adventure of evaluation becomes far more complicated than we may have initially supposed. (pp. 121-23)

Travesties takes us several steps further in Stoppard's attempt to systematize confusion. In this piece the machinery of play-as-commentary-on-another-play used before in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is reassembled in a slightly different form. The tone has been altered to accommodate the levels of theatrical style which help set Jumpers in motion. Comedy is once again mismatched with ideology. But in this case Stoppard has us explore a serious relationship between art and revolution. This true history that never happened opens in Zurich and features Lenin, Joyce, and Tristan Tzara as dramatis personae. Each modern hero, however, has his own particular version of what constitutes modern heroism: Lenin's is a hammer and a sickle, Joyce's is art as a fire above all dogma, and Tzara's is a heart that belongs to Dada. Here is Stoppard's three-ring circus of twentieth-century alternatives. Which way should we turn? Where can authenticity be found? Does the artist need to justify himself in political terms? At what point do political realities begin to corrupt human values? When is "revolution" only a code word for crass materialism and bourgeois art? The philosophical debate, however, has been momentarily upstaged by that local aberration known as World War I. With military, ideological, and artistic warfare raging everywhere, the British Consular Office, stiff upper lip as always, opens rehearsals for The Importance of Being Earnest. Partisan politics must play second fiddle to drama.

Enter Henry Carr, very marginal man—but the real lead in Stoppard's play. The curtain discovers him as a seedy old man in the Zurich of today "recollecting, perhaps not with entire accuracy," what took place there in 1917–18. (pp. 124-25)

Juggling Joyce, Lenin, Tzara, Wilde's play, and Carr's memory, Stoppard counts on what the audience knows of the present to make a running commentary on the spectacle that unfolds in Travesties. For Stoppard's audience, no longer innocent, has seen every idea championed in this comedy developed, short-changed, and frequently prostituted by history. In the name of "art" or "revolution," the idealism expressed in Travesties has been seriously compromised by events since 1917. Hence the real impact of Stoppard's play: man can be a revolutionary, man can be an artist, man can even be a revolutionary artist—or man can be, like Henry Carr, absolutely nothing at all. Given what Stoppard's audience brings with it to the theater concerning the violent history of this century, the latter posture is not necessarily the least attractive.

Travesties therefore surprises us by offering something more than mere "clever nonsense." Making his elements of travesty reverberate with the density of parody, Stoppard tempts us to ask several questions simultaneously. The structure of this play has been carefully arranged to expose its many layers. This is, as the title suggests, a comedy of irreconcilable pluralities. Items which function on one level soon pass on to the next in swift dramatic tempo. Lenin's positive "Da, da," a Russian cry of yes to "revolutsia," is Tzara's nonsense word of artistic rebellion for its own sake and still another linguistic possibility for Joyce to forge in the smithy of his Irish soul…. Such rich allusive texture, however, can be deceptive. Rather than direct us to any one particular course of action, it dooms us instead to an endless circle of parts forever eluding a whole. The vast panorama that unfolds in this play, its scope and its extravagant vitality, has therefore been calculated to place us right in the center of its own fragmentation. Forcing us into a dramatic encounter with uncertainty when we least expected it, Stoppard's comedy rebounds on us.

Travesties, however, is both a beginning and an end. In terms of dramatic form it is the culmination of Stoppard's attempt to "marry" the play of ideas to comedy and farce. But in terms of theme the play demonstrates its author's increasing political consciousness. In questioning the compatibility of the revolutionary and artistic temperaments, Stoppard for the first time makes politics a central issue in his work. The subject has certainly been implied before: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead situates its protagonists in the crossfire of Shakespearean power politics and Jumpers abandons its characters on the empty runway of radical liberalism. But wedded simultaneously to so many other considerations, the politics of these plays never succeeds in upstaging the spectacle of possibilities competing for our attention. Though in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Jumpers politics makes for some rather strange bedfellows—as it does in the "nuts-and-bolts" of Dirty Linen—it commands only secondary interest when shaped by the hand of an accomplished farceur. Travesties signals a change, not only a shift in tone, this time in the direction of dramatic intention. With the shock of realism, politics begins to intrude a weary head into a theatrical merry-go-round previously free of any imperatives whatsoever. (pp. 125-26)

Stoppard's recent work has … been an attempt to adapt his own theater style to accommodate social and political issues far more identifiable than that motley of opposing values threatening to disturb the comic surface of his plays. In Night and Day, a work which, had it been written earlier, might have contrasted the lyrics of Cole Porter with the light/dark imagery of Richard II in a sophisticated parody of Noel Coward, Stoppard turns his attention to trade unionism, the price society must pay to ensure freedom of the press, and an African nation on the brink of civil war. Kenneth Tynan once called Tom Stoppard "a cool, apolitical stylist" and to illustrate the description quotes the playwright as having said that his favorite line of English drama comes from Christopher Hampton's The Philanthropist: "I'm a man of no convictions—at least, I think I am." But Stoppard's recent work displays a darkening tone, a focus on social responsibility, and the necessity—if not the inescapability—of taking a stand. It is impossible to say what role parody and travesty will ultimately take in Stoppard's continuing experimentation or whether they have any future at all in this sudden turn to theatrical naturalism. But what we can say about Tom Stoppard is that, unlike so many other fashionable playwrights, at least he has an authentic style he can develop and perhaps even depart from. In the past Stoppard has given us a new kind of comedy to capture the drama of contemporary ideas. Judging from the quality of his new work, there is no reason to suspect that this serious writer masquerading as a comedian has run out of ammunition. For style in Stoppard has always been a question of substance as well as technique. What he has found in his theater is not only a special way of saying something, but something, at least, that needed very much to be said. (pp. 128-29)

Enoch Brater, "Parody, Travesty, and Politics in the Plays of Tom Stoppard," in Essays on Contemporary British Drama, edited by Hedwig Bock and Albert Wertheim (© 1981 Max Hueber Verlag München), Hueber, 1981, pp. 117-30.

Joan Fitzpatrick Dean

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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 painters of the post-war period who explore the specific limits and nature of their media. The works of Rothko, Pollock, Reinhardt, and others implicitly ask: What is a painting? Must it express or represent an object or an emotion? Must it have certain tangible features (color, form, texture, content)? Must it physically exist at all? In drama, the absurdists approach such questions at least implicitly by omitting elements formerly judged indispensable to drama—elements such as consistent characterization, unified plot, logical development, and conflict. While Stoppard never rarefies the questions he asks of art to the extreme of the abstract expressionists or of the absurdist playwrights, he does deal with the problem of the nature of his medium and, more specifically, the responsibilities of the artist in society. Stoppard's self-scrutiny also evokes the work of the metafictionists, notably Coover, Barth, and Fowles. The important distinction between them and Stoppard, however, is that Stoppard deliberately and selflessly distances himself from his work. He never indulges in the narcissism of the autobiographical impulse in his characterizations. The closest his characters come to his own life are the drama critics of The Real Inspector Hound and the journalists of Night and Day. But at least when exploring the processes and methods of creative artists, he has drawn characters who usually do not work in the medium of language. In turn, this self-consciousness has engendered a virtual obsession with the question of perspective. Characters, especially protagonists, are often afforded a means of voicing their personal thought directly to the audience. (pp. 105-06)

But Stoppard's brand of "distance" from his characters is antithetical to the celebrated "distancing" of Bertolt Brecht's Verfremsdungeffect as well as the autobiographical or confessional impulse that fuels the metafictionists. Brecht's V-effect was primarily intended to distance the audience and, hence, instill in them a greater objectivity or critical awareness of the events on stage. Instead, Stoppard's technique, even in his most didactic plays, is for the playwright to distance himself. Rather than heavy-handedly weighting the arguments that the playwright himself espouses, Stoppard often makes those arguments ludicrous; if not, at least the counterarguments are given fair voice. By not idealizing those characters who best represent Stoppard's own opinions, he renders them no more credible than the others.

Second, and corollary to the concern with the nature of art, is Stoppard's consciousness of the dramatic tradition that nurtures him. This demands a thorough knowledge and profound understanding of the theatre, its techniques, and history. The most obvious example of the consciousness of the dramatic tradition in Stoppard's work is in his borrowing, some might say theft, from Wilde and Shakespeare. Moreover, it also accounts for Stoppard's penchant for and skill in parodying popular dramatic genres. Like most contemporary playwrights, he has not contented himself with the confines of representational drama but has broken out of those constraints by revivifying the soliloquy, aside, song, and interior monologue. Structurally, Stoppard manipulates the fourth wall of representational theatre by mining the traditions of drama to recover vehicles for direct address to the audience. This leads to the play-life metaphor that appears in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, The Real Inspector Hound, and Travesties. Certainly, Stoppard's experience as a drama critic has substantially contributed to his keen awareness of the dramatic tradition.

Third, Stoppard's treatment of language allies him not only with the absurdists but also with the wittiest if not greatest writers of the English language. Like Conrad, Stoppard may have had the advantage of learning English as a second language and thus with a greater sensitivity to the ironies and nuances of its idiom. His use of puns, quid pro quo, and other forms of wordplay is perhaps his most acclaimed and best known characteristic. Like all brilliant comic writers who employ the English language, Stoppard indulges himself as well as his audience in the sheer pleasure of experiencing the density and richness of which the language is capable. Moreover, his attention to language results not only in humor but also in precision. As a means of considering the difficulty of communication as well as a comic vehicle, language is assiduously explored and exploited by Stoppard. (pp. 106-07)

Although Stoppard's self-consciousness, concern for language, and sensitivity to dramatic tradition place him in the mainstream of contemporary drama, other features of his work mark him as something of a reactionary. To some critics, his theatricalism suggests an atavistic return to nineteenth-century farce; others regard his cleverness as a ruse to disguise his lack of profundity. Stoppard's insistence upon comedy as his métier, even when dealing with serious issues, has provoked many commentators. During the 1960s and 1970s, when great drama was generally identified with the solemnity, gravity, and even pretentiousness of other playwrights, Stoppard's work allies him with the masters of the comic tradition. Like the best comic dramatists, his gift for language and physical comedy fuses with an acute perception of the excesses, eccentricities, and foibles of man. If his plays endure, Stoppard's unique accomplishment may prove to be the theatrical treatment of the intellectual and artistic follies of our age.

Considered along a political spectrum, Stoppard's plays tend toward the right. This century has had flocks of leftist playwrights, but Stoppard, while hardly embracing the status quo in the manner of escapist authors, addresses political issues from a conservative vantage. The history of drama, especially in the twentieth century, suggests that comedy and political commitment have little common ground. But Stoppard's faith in man and his characters' persistent, if battered, optimism are aptly suited to his comic mode.

Stoppard's preoccupation with language is not only the mainstay of his acclaim as a wit but also a serious thematic interest that can be traced throughout his work. His canon to date is fashioned of a consistent texture of characters, motifs, and themes. His recurrent character type, despite frequent unhappy ends, demands comic presentation because of the character's spirited faith in himself. Most of his protagonists weather disappointment, disaster, and even doom without despair. Their circumstances are often comfortable, but their lives are never easy.

Stoppard's plays, like their settings and their characters' games, are self-contained systems invariably predicated on and dedicated to logic. The plays hardly inspire audiences to action outside the theatre; yet they illustrate the choices—political, philosophical, and ethical—that confront contemporary man. Like games, the plays often have their own internal logic that can transport the audience from the world of missed connections to a tidily wrapped microcosm.

Stoppard's accomplishment as a craftsman of plot is not to be underestimated. Although audiences and critics have sometimes been frustrated by the tangents the plays pursue, his works withstand textual analysis and perhaps even fare better for it. In writing specifically for performance, for what will work best on stage, he also has created plays that grow richer with careful scrutiny. (pp. 107-09)

Joan Fitzpatrick Dean, in her Tom Stoppard: Comedy As a Moral Matrix (reprinted by permission of the University of Missouri Press; copyright © 1981 by The Curators of the University of Missouri), University of Missouri Press, 1981, 109 p.

Jack Kroll

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"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 back to the original setting of mid-19th-century Vienna, where we meet Zangler, the prosperous greengrocer who goes into town in pursuit of his fiancée, the fashionable milliner Madame Knorr. This leaves his shop assistant Weinberl and the boy apprentice Christopher free to play hooky and go "on the razzle" themselves, zipping into town only to run afoul of their boss and a bunch of other characters, leading to an escalating carnival of close shaves and hairbreadth escapes.

On the surface this seems like nothing but a hefty helping of Viennese Schlag, but Stoppard has deftly laced the whipped cream with 100-proof shots of real meaning. His dialogue is a hurtling stream of puns, spoonerisms and non sequiturs that soar and crash from the sublime to the outrageous. "I feel like the cake of the week," crows the dressed-up Zangler. "The clerk of the works?" suggests one flunky. "The sheik of Kuwait?" offers another, and so on until "the cock of the walk" emerges from somebody's mouth. "I won't feel we're married until we've had our consommé," remarks a romantic diner in a ritzy restaurant.

To work, this kind of thing depends on a high-velocity language that sweeps you into a cockeyed world of fractured meanings and relative truth. It works: Stoppard isn't just indulging his notorious genius for wordplay; it's his way of transmitting Nestroy's baroque genius for kaleidoscoping reality with a mix of dialect, vernacular and literary lingo.

Jack Kroll, "Stoppard in Old Vienna," in Newsweek (copyright 1982, by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. C, No. 20, November 15, 1982, p. 117.

Benedict Nightingale

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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 his people in any sort of ecstasy, whether of pleasure or pain. You can't imagine them exulting or howling or even hurting very much.

Or couldn't until The Real Thing, a play in which Stoppard put his talent on the couch and subjects it to some courageous scrutiny. This begins as if nothing has changed. A husband urbanely quizzes his wife about her professed trip abroad. Franc doing well? Frank who? The Swiss franc. After a bit more verbal virtuosity he reveals that she left her passport at home, and the curtain falls on her mild dismay, his suave amusement at this proof of her adultery. It is an amusing piece of self-parody on Stoppard's part, and it is promptly rejected with something akin to self-disgust. What we've been watching, it seems, is a scene by a dramatist noted, like Stoppard, for his wit, sophistication, intelligence, and general lack of commitment, either political or emotional. His life, into which we're plunged for the rest of the evening, turns out to be considerably less bland and brittle than his art.

Henry, as he's called, begins an affair with an actress, Annie. She tells her husband she's leaving him, and his reaction is abject and embarrassing: 'Don't, please don't.' Then Annie, now married to Henry, sleeps with an actor, and it's the dramatist's turn to wail and implore like a stricken child: 'Please, please, please don't!' Here is scintillating Stoppard, unstoppable Tom—intellectual trapezist, juggler with words, up-market acrobat and clown, a big top in propria persona admitting that love hurts, hurts hideously. On the face of it, it's a conversion as astonishing as if Phèdre were to frolic onstage in cami-knickers, high-kicking and singing 'that's my baby'.

On the face of it. Let me not suggest either that Stoppard's earlier work is essentially frivolous—what other dramatist worries so earnestly yet entertainingly about the moral nature both of ourselves and of the dark, bewildering universe we glumly inhabit?—or that this piece is woozy with untidy, unfunny emotions. Its recognition that people have hearts and glands doesn't prevent them also having agile wits to exercise. Nor are their emotions, genuine though they seem, the sort that yank painfully at our own sympathetic heartstrings. To make a distinction of Stoppardian nicety, this is less a feely play about thinking people who feel than a thinky, a very thinky, play about feeling people who think. Songs and literary references—for instance to Miss Julie and 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, in both of which Annie is performing—appear in deft counterpoint to the often contradictory evidence provided by the characters themselves. What is this 'love'? Is commitment, personal, political and/or artistic, possible or desirable? Are there any values at all? Question after question emerges from Henry's professional and domestic circumstances; and, since this is a deceptive world of dramatists, actors and plays-within-plays, and (moreover) a world that has itself been invented by a master-illusionist named Stoppard, there are few firm answers, and conceivably no 'real things' at all.

And yet, for all this calculated uncertainty, the piece does reach, or seem to reach, two conclusions. The first is that love exists. Why else (a recurrent image) the obsessive rummaging through others' belongings in search of evidence of betrayal, why else the pain and intermittent delight? The second is, in Henry's words, that 'public postures have the configuration of private derangement', or, to put it more temperately, that political attitudes reflect purely private motives. For much of the evening, to be sure, this is as much a subject of debate as the reality of love. To explain. One of Annie's protégés is a soldier imprisoned for violently protesting against nuclear weapons. He has written an autobiographical TV play that is artistically abysmal but indisputably 'committed'. Annie wants Henry to revamp it, and he does so, though he despises it. Is this another step forward in the dramatist's moral and emotional education, proof that he can give himself to a cause as well as to a person?

No. Not a bit of it. It serves only to 'prove' the point about the phoniness of political motives. The soldier made his protest to ingratiate himself with Annie; Annie supports him because she feels guilty; Henry helps them because he loves Annie. These, anyway, are the play's final revelations, and their inference leaves me boggling. Am I deranged when I wonder if it's morally acceptable to aim H-bombs at Moscow? Is Tom merely sublimating childhood feelings of rejection when he writes indignant plays about the abuse of human rights in his native Czechoslovakia and elsewhere? Must we dismiss the campaigns of, say, Wilberforce, Silverman and Sakharov as emotionally dishonest 'postures'? It surprises me that Stoppard, who queries so much, should not have found a way to introduce questions as basic as these. It astounds me that, after flaying both his protagonists and (surely) himself with so many sharp-edged doubts about their adequacy, he should end by enshrining a cynical fib.

Still, that by no means sums up the final effect of the piece as a whole. Stoppard has said that the logic of his plays is 'firstly, A, secondly, minus A', with rebuttal following argument and counter-rebuttal that rebuttal, and that his aim is to 'dislocate an audience's assumptions'. Well, I can report that my intellectual bones were satisfactorily wrenched from their sockets by The Real Thing, and also that its algebra sometimes infected me with that hopelessness I felt years ago in the exam hall, when I was busy failing additional maths at O-level. If accusing critics can make dramatists feel inadequate, as this play implies, dramatists in their more Pirandellian moods can make critics feel the same. Yet, if it's a slippery, elusive piece, it's also one that kept its audience audibly amused at the time, and one that, in defiance of the usual rules, somehow manages to expand yet clarify in the mind afterwards…. [Stoppard has done much] to reconcile his old writing self with a new one. He has retained his humour, increased his complexity, and deepened his art.

Benedict Nightingale, "On the Couch," in New Statesman (© 1982 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 104, No. 2697, November 26, 1982, p. 30.

Roger Scruton

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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 political absolutist). With them also is James Joyce, and much of the play—a clever collage made from Oscar Wilde's Earnest, the Ithaca chapter in Ulysses, Lenin's letters and speeches, and Tzara's boyish nonsense—is devoted to the contrast between Dada and Ulysses. There is no doubt whose side Stoppard is on. Joyce's novel, like Tzara's badinage, is supremely conscious of its artistry; but it also justifies every word by a vision of reality, whereas Dada is nothing more than self-advertisement. "If there is any meaning in any of it, it is in what survives as art", says Joyce, who demolishes the talentless self-reference of Dada, but will not deny that it is art, and not life, which is the purveyor of value. But Joyce poses a question: does art have reality because life is its raw material, or does life gain reality from the meanings contained in art? What, in short, is the real thing? Lenin, who stands apart from the other characters, sifting his benighted pedantries, shows the relentlessness of the shadow world. Yet it is not a real world. Lenin's words are dead, unfeeling, a patter of urgencies which occasionally rattles across the stage. Revolution can be translated into slogans, but not into art. Hence, if all meanings must be borrowed from art, revolution remains unmeaning, a seething pool of darkness, always advancing, always betraying, but never real.

But when revolution has cleared the world of its old significance, something still remains. In the artless desert of the totalitarian state a germ of reality struggles to exist, and to be born again. This struggle for existence provides the theme of Stoppard's most unconventional creation, a play for orchestra (Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, 1977), and also that of his most conventional, the effective television drama called Professional Foul (1977). In this second play Stoppard shows just what is at stake in the call for "human rights" that was epitomised in the Czech "Charter 77." In a cleverly contrived "lecture within a play" he argues that it does not matter if there are no natural rights. The point is rather that all social relations, and all morality, are founded in individual encounters. There cannot be society without the experience of self; and from that experience grows the inescapable sense of a sphere of inviolability. To deny rights is to deny the individual's sense of himself as a member of society, and so to deny society. The totalitarian denial of the self is therefore also a self-denial. In being everywhere, the totalitarian state ceases to be anywhere. Its massive power is, as the Czechs like to point out, also a banalisation of power, an invasion of all experience, all society, and all power, by a sense of pointlessness. The vast machinery of the revolutionary state proves itself unreal.

So there is something, after all, which provides the criterion against which meanings may be measured—a criterion outside art, and outside, or inside politics. But how can we summon up this "individual existence" … which can be understood only as a remainder? Before the invention of Art, novelists, playwrights and poets were able unselfconsciously to provide the social context and moral security with which to describe and to justify the individual self. Outside society, however, the self is nothing, a substance without attributes, matter without form. When society renews itself, then the individual also is renewed. But when society decays, the individual retreats into inscrutable subjectivity. How, then, can we guarantee his reality, and how obtain from him the significance which we desire?

Here we see the great puzzle that confronts modern art. Art can be the fount of reality only if it can also guarantee the reality of the individual, whose experience contains the clue to what is real. But the individual lies outside art, and outside the laws of art, hiding behind every mask, every persona, that art provides for him. The individual can be crushed, but not commanded. (pp. 44-5)

In what is perhaps his most brilliant play, Stoppard expresses his intense dissatisfaction with the self-involvement of modern art. Artist Descending a Staircase (1972), written for radio, shows two ageing painters, Martello and Beauchamp, who were young in the era of Duchamp (from whom the title is adapted). They are quarrelling over the death of their companion, Donner, also an artist, who fell (or was pushed) to his death, containing within himself the unsolved riddle of their existence. It transpires that the dead man alone had felt true love, towards Sophie, the blind mistress of Beauchamp. At his death Donner was working on a realistic portrait of Sophie, who herself had died, perhaps by suicide, and in any event by defenestration, on being rejected by Beauchamp. Donner's return to artistic realism comes at the end of a life of aesthetic experiment. As Donner says, "I very much enjoyed my years in that child's garden of easy victories known as the avant-garde, but I am now engaged in the infinitely more difficult task of painting what the eye sees…." But of course, the eye no longer sees it: so where lies the reality of the portrait? Only in Donner's love for Sophie, who rejected him, and who therefore refuted his love. Or did she? She loved only the artist whom she saw, before her eyes failed, beside an abstract painting at the trio's first exuberant exhibition. But had she perhaps confused Beauchamp's abstract with Donner's? With failing sight, how is it possible to distinguish between paintings, each of which abstracts towards the same point of insignificance? So had she in fact loved Donner thinking him to be Beauchamp, or rather, Beauchamp, thinking him to be Donner? What would it be, in any case, to love the individual, rather than his qualities, and what can art show that is more than quality? In a dizzying concentration of philosophical jokes, Stoppard points both to the comedy, and to the seriousness, of dead Donner's predicament. Donner's art is nothing without the individual experience which is its reality, but this experience is founded in an art which provides no definition or guarantee. What, in all this, is the real thing?

The title of the new play, The Real Thing, is shared with a famous story by Henry James, in which two pathetic old-fashioned individuals (confident at least of their reality, since it is the product of a social order which they have yet to question) are forced by penury to pose for a painter. A fatal mistake. In the glare of art their social guarantee, and hence their reality, evaporates. Only anxiety remains. Stoppard's artist is Henry, a playwright … who lives in the dilemma posed by his art, not knowing whether his experience is the creature or the creator of his plays. (pp. 45-6)

Once again the revolutionary consciousness appears, in the person of an ignorant Scottish soldier, Brodie. Brodie has become a fashionable radical cause, having taken part in a Peace March, burning a wreath as he passed the Cenotaph, and so ending up in jail on a charge of arson. Much of the plot turns on this character, who appears only at the end, but who is the recipient of concern from Henry's second wife Annie…. While in prison Brodie writes a play about his experience, including his meeting with Annie on a train. Annie seeks to have this play performed. Through Henry, Stoppard is able to strike some well-aimed blows at the posturing of the radical chic, and at the emotional fantasies which find release in facile indignations. But what Henry objects to is the terrible abuse of language which the revolutionary consciousness entails. Brodie, says Henry's friend Max, "got hammered by an emotional backlash", and Henry protests, "No, no, you can't …", so precipitating a quarrel for the sake of words. Or is it for the sake of words? Max complains that "that's what life's about—messy bits of good and bad luck, and people caring and not necessarily having all the answers…." Henry's obsession with language, he implies, is no more than a snobbish isolation from the ordinary conscience.

Max's words are intended to support Annie, but it turns out that she cares neither for Brodie nor his cause, but only for the theatrical gesture with which she had originally enticed him into it; while Brodie himself, we discover, so far from being the real thing, is a jumped-up creation of the theatre, the quality of whose sentiments is revealed by the appalling language of his play. Henry cunningly compares Brodie's play to a cudgel used in place of a cricket bat: "What we're trying to do is to write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might travel…."—and the image is developed in a masterly and devastating criticism of the radical butchery of language…. (p. 46)

In the end, we are to understand, the fault of Brodie's language is not that it is crude, heavy, gratuitous—although it is all of those—but that it is unreal. Nothing speaks from it, nothing comes out of it, besides itself. By posturing as the real thing, the thing outside art, it loses the aid which art can bring. It too becomes self-referential. But unlike art, which strives always to make room in its centre for the individual experience, the jargon-ridden language of revolution makes room only for itself. Its self-reference is of a more deadly kind; it is like a blind drawn down on our only window on the world, where we stand hopelessly looking for that elusive thing, the self.

In the second act the tone of the play becomes increasingly serious, as Stoppard tries to provide the reality which he has promised, the reality, as it transpires, of love between Henry and Annie. But the writing becomes looser, and at times disjointed. Too much cleverness has been stored in the first part of the play, and there is little room for more. Only the theatricalisation of Brodie has yet to be accomplished, in a little vignette of slapstick; when it is over Henry and Annie are left wordless and incomplete. In one way this is inevitable, but it prompts one to reflect on the imperfection of Stoppard's art.

Stoppard is not a dramatist—he does not portray characters, who develop in relation to each other, and generate dialogue from their mutual constraints. He strings characters like puppets on a line of repartee: his masters are Wilde and Shaw, and his ideal of dialogue is an exhange not of feelings, but of epigrams. The real thing is never in his words, which contain only the idea of it, in the form of brilliantly staged metaphysical conundrums. The result is of course good theatre…. But is is the effect of theatre—a kind of theatresque—and an effect without a cause cannot be described as quite the real thing. (p. 47)

Roger Scruton, "The Real Stoppard," in Encounter (© 1983 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. LX, No. 2, February, 1983, pp. 44-7.

Erika Munk

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"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 psychology—though funny, line by line, for those of us who are easy laughs. But when critics are urging their readers to see the play twice and are themselves going twice (e.g., John Simon), dismissiveness isn't enough: however false it may be, the thing is a cultural event.

Stoppard's comedy enmeshes a love-and-adultery-among-theater-folk story with an argument about literature and politics. It's so deeply enmeshed that the moment when working-class antinuclear politics, in the form of one Brodie, is thrown out of Henry and Annie's living room is the moment when true love is affirmed, and Annie, freed of her radical burden, truly becomes Henry's real thing and he hers….

The Real Thing isn't stupid because its politics are right-wing and its form a regressive combination of drawing-room mannerism and sentimental cliché; the one could be a matter of conviction, the other an ironic aesthetic tactic. What goes against the grain is Stoppard's avoidance of any discussion of the issues he raises—Shaw's obviously not one of his models. Then there's the philistinism of the play's underlying statement that eloquence and complexity are incompatible with emotional truth. Not to mention the crude way the psychological course of events is stacked in Henry's favor. Intellectually, no one ever gives him a run for his money; emotionally, he never really hurts anyone.

Stoppard's pinkos are all dimwits. This may be accurate on a low naturalistic level—would an Edward Bond let his work be rewritten by a Henry, or Caryl Churchill live with one? But while such simplicity satisfies the Broadway audience's deep need to have its conservative pieties reaffirmed, it makes the play boring and dishonest, and Stoppard's compulsion to keep Annie dumb undermines his play's plausibility. Charlotte gets all the good lines, she's as funny as Henry; she's so acute, such a good mother, not to mention elegant in a delirious kind of way, that the only conceivable reason for Henry's shifting affections is that he can't stand the fact that she's on to him. There's no sign that Henry and Annie are impelled by extraordinary sexual passion, which would be the only other explanation. So why should we watch him with sympathetic interest for two hours?

Another oddity—surely the play's not antifeminist, that would be crude, but there are these oddities—is that Annie, who represents some sort of inarticulate truth of feeling, is the biggest betrayer in the play and makes every other character suffer—Max, Henry, even Billy and Brodie, not to mention Charlotte and Debbie. Chilly Henry may have his contemptuous moments with women, but it's warm Annie who hurts people. As for Charlotte, she had eight, or maybe nine, lovers while married to Henry, which relieves him of guilt for his own adultery. Even Debbie is antiromantic as well as unvirginal.

A play about a clever right-wing playwright by a clever right-wing playwright is bound to be seen as at least partly autobiographical. On this level, The Real Thing is remarkably self-serving and vain. Though the reviewers are happily amazed that Henry learns to feel, they neglect to note that he learns only to feel the pain of his own suffering, not the pain of causing suffering in others. The limits of Henry's self-knowledge, the cramped boundaries of his love, could make him a deeply comic figure. Instead, he's a hero, which gives his lines a thin, whining edge. (p. 101)

None of the peripheral good things matter. None of the jokes do, either: they're one-liner giggles without depth. The little references to other plays are there to prove that this is Stoppard the guy who used to write about Joyce and Lenin and Tzara, but he's awfully careful not to put in anything that might go over anyone's head. What did go over the critics' heads—surely not over the producers', however—is why The Real Thing is such a perfect commercial dramatic object for Reagan's 1984. It's not because Stoppard has discovered feeling, but because he has perfectly articulated conformism. (p. 102)

Erika Munk, "The Real Stops Here" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1984), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXIX, No. 3, January 17, 1984, pp. 101-02.

Robert Brustein

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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 publicized, well-congratulated capacity not just for verbal and literary pyrotechnics but also for feeling, in that his characters can actually experience such human emotions as jealousy, envy, sorrow, and passion. Hearing these exotic emotions expressed, I was reminded of Racine's Phèdre, where the lovesick heroine has been assuming all the while that Hippolytus is frigid, only to discover that he has actually been in love with the young Aricie. "Hippolytus can feel!" says the astonished Phèdre, "but not for me." Mr. Stoppard's aberrational display of sentience left me equally bereft and isolated. (p. 28)

Considering how few people can resist a sophisticated love story, The Real Thing is destined to be one of the big hits of the Broadway season, and, when the rights are released, a reigning favorite of middlebrow theater companies. I found it rather coldhearted in its good-natured way, a frozen trifle with little aftertaste. Stoppard has doubtless made some effort to examine his own personal and literary problems, and his writing is rarely defensive or self-serving. But despite the autobiographical yeast leavening the familiar digestible cake mix, The Real Thing is just another clever exercise in the Mayfair mode, where all of the characters (the proletarian Brodie excepted) share the same wit, artifice, and ornamental diction. Even Henry's teen-age daughter, at the very moment that she is teasing her father for writing always about "infidelity among the architect class," is fashioning sentences ("Exclusive rights isn't love," she says, "it's colonization") apparently designed for inclusion in a Glossary of Post-Restoration Epigrams. No wonder Stoppard has her refer to herself as "virgo syntacta."

I think I might be less immune to the charms of this admittedly harmless piece of trivia were it not being tarted up everywhere to pass for, well, the real thing. It comes no closer to reality than any of those other adultery plays recently exported from England—and it doesn't even possess the mordancy of Harold Pinter's Betrayal or the ingenuity of Peter Nichols's Passion. Born in Czechoslovakia, Stoppard has managed to perfect an expatriate's gift for mimicry—allied to his ear for language is his unique capacity to imitate play-writing styles. But if he began his career impersonating Beckett and Pirandello (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) or Bernard Shaw (Jumpers) or Joyce and Wilde (Travesties), he has recently, along with a large number of contemporaries in the English theater, come entirely under the influence of Noel Coward's witty sangfroid. The question is whether this is a style more appropriate to simulating reality or creating escapism, whether, at this critical point in world history, we are more in need of rhetorical artifice—or poetic truth. (pp. 28-9)

Robert Brustein, "Hippolytus Can Feel!" in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1984 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 190, No. 4, January 30, 1984, pp. 28-9.


Stoppard, Tom (Vol. 15)


Stoppard, Tom (Vol. 3)