Tom Stoppard Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In addition to composing plays and occasionally adapting the dramas of others, Tom Stoppard has written several short stories, radio plays, teleplays, screenplays, and the novel Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon (1966). He prides himself on his versatility, eschewing the notion of the dedicated author plowing a lonely furrow and sacrificing almost all other concerns on the altar of high art. Instead, as he told an interviewer in 1976: I’ve got a weakness . . . for rather shallow people who knock off a telly play and write a rather good novel and . . . interview Castro and write a good poem and a bad poem and . . . every five years do a really good piece of work as well. That sort of eclectic, trivial person who’s very gifted.

Stoppard’s novel Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon is “rather good.” It is an exuberant farce that uses a collage of literary styles and allusions ranging from those of Joseph Conrad to Oscar Wilde, and from James Joyce to T. S. Eliot. Lord Malquist is a modern-day earl who seeks to sustain the dandyish refinements of his eighteenth century ancestors. His hired diarist, Mr. Moon, is a pathetically ineffectual man obsessively nursing a homemade bomb. Where the imperious and selfish Malquist anticipates such later dramatic characters as Sir Archibald Jumper of Jumpers, the confused, Prufrockian Moon models for the rebuffs experienced by the same text’s George Moore. Malquist sums up what seems to be the novel’s thesis when he declares, “since we cannot hope for order, let us withdraw with style from the chaos.”


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Tom Stoppard’s dramaturgy has a uniquely wide appeal in the contemporary theater because he often manages to combine comedy with social concern, farce with moral philosophy, and sometimes absurdism with naturalism. He and Harold Pinter, beginning in the 1960’s, came to be considered the English-speaking world’s leading playwrights. Both owe a large debt to Samuel Beckett and exhibit a willingness to experiment with theatrical forms. Pinter’s sparse language, pauses, and silences, however, contrast sharply with Stoppard’s free-flowing fountains of verbal play and display. Moreover, Pinter’s carefully guarded characters and often baffling, static plots could not differ more from Stoppard’s accessible people and vividly detailed, fast-paced action sequences. His plays have won Tony and Olivier awards. The film of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead won the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival in 1990. In 1999 Shakespeare in Love, for which he wrote the screenplay, won seven Academy awards and three Golden Globes. In 1997 Stoppard became the first British playwright to be knighted since Terence Rattigan.

Stoppard’s work is postmodernist in its self-conscious artfulness and intricate game playing. He loves to confound his audience with abrupt shifts of time and convention, unreliable narrations, and surprising twists of plot. His eclectic borrowings fuse high and low culture, invading the texts of William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Wilde, Joyce, Eliot, and many more to combine them with “whodunit” thrillers, journalistic techniques, music-hall comedies, and popular love songs.

The leading debate among Stoppard’s critics is whether his works are too frivolous and waggish to be taken seriously and whether, despite his eye for striking situations and ear for witty talk, he is no more than an ingenious but juvenile sprinter, too short-winded to complete the potential of his promising situations. His supporters insist that Stoppard is able to fuse his fertile comic sense with intellectual substance. They find his vision of life mature and profound as he dramatizes such concerns as free will versus fate (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead), moral philosophy (Jumpers), art versus politics (Travesties), totalitarianism (Every Good Boy Deserves Favour), the press’s freedoms and responsibilities (Night and Day), and married love (The Real Thing). They assert that Stoppard’s career has shown an increasing commitment to ethical humanism and freedom of conscience while his dramatic craft has forged a rare compact between high comedy and the drama of ideas.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

What thematic concerns and stage techniques seem to run throughout Tom Stoppard’s career, from his earlier works, such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, to The Coast of Utopia? List and briefly describe several concerns and techniques.

How has Stoppard’s work evolved and changed? List characteristics that make The Coast of Utopia unique, even for Stoppard’s canon.

In what ways is Stoppard an outsider in British society, both because of his origins and because of the kinds of plays he has chosen to write?

Stoppard’s plays are both connected to real, historical events and written in a style that is at the opposite extreme from documentary and realistic depiction of characters and events. Explain how historical reality and staginess show up in his plays.

Stoppard’s approach might be called “the comedy of serious ideas.” What are these ideas? How are they made comic?

A signature feature of Stoppard’s plays is their language, often evident in spectacular speeches meant to dazzle the audience by their rapid sequence of different ideas and their engaging sound. Choose a speech or two and explore how Stoppard tries to dazzle.

Whether minimal or elaborate, the staging Stoppard describes for his plays is never conventional. Describe the staging that he specifies for one or two plays.

What makes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead such a fascinating commentary on William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (pr. c. 1600-1601, pb. 1603)? How is it both familiar and strange, old-fashioned, and avant-garde?


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Billington, Michael. Stoppard the Playwright. London: Methuen, 1987. Long the drama critic of The Guardian, Billington, who writes from a leftist perspective, admires Stoppard’s eloquence but mistrusts his conservative ideas. Still, Billington praises The Real Thing and expresses his hopes that Stoppard will increase his passion for both people and causes.

Brassell, Tim. Tom Stoppard: An Assessment. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985. Brassell’s study is detailed, elegantly written, and learned. He applies a considerable knowledge of modern drama as well as philosophy.

Cahn, Victor. Beyond Absurdity: The Plays of Tom Stoppard. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1979. Traces absurdist techniques through Stoppard’s plays.

Gusso, Mel. Conversations with Stoppard. New York: Limelight Editions, 1995. A collection of interviews between New York Times drama critic Gusso and the playwright that covers the time from 1972 to 1995 when the playwright’s Indian Ink was about to open in London. Presents Stoppard’s own erudite thoughts on his work.

Hayman, Ronald. Tom Stoppard. London: Heinemann, 1977. Hayman’s compact text is chiefly valuable for two highly revealing interviews conducted in 1974 and 1976.

Kelly, Katherine E., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Tom Stoppard. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Provides essays on all things Stoppard, including an in-depth biography, as well as scholarly criticism on his plays, radio plays, and screenplays. Also contains a very extensive bibliography.

Londré, Felicia Hardison. Tom Stoppard. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981. Especially good in tracing the sources of the abundant allusions in Stoppard’s writing.

Rusinko, Susan. Tom Stoppard. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Mainly summarizes the views of other critics and reviewers. Its chief service is an extended bibliography of secondary as well as primary sources.

Sammells, Neil. Tom Stoppard: The Artist as Critic. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. Examines the playwright’s exploration of literary forms and contrasts his artistic freedom with his political conservatism.

Whitaker, Thomas. Tom Stoppard. New York: Grove Press, 1983. Whitaker’s text is succinct, perceptive, and smoothly worded. He stresses the performance aspects of Stoppard’s plays, often commenting on particular productions that he has seen.