Tom Stoppard is making theater news again, with
a hit play in the West End and
his trilogy opening on Broadway in the new season.
‘n’ Roll is generally regarded as the best new play
to open in London in the current
season, and The
Coast of Utopia is expected to repeat its success
at the National when it opens at Lincoln
Center in New York on November 5, with “Voyage.”
The next play, “Shipwreck,” opens December 21, and the third
on February 15, 2007, the year this prolific playwright, who shows
no signs of slowing down, will celebrate his seventieth year.
Life and Works
Tom Stoppard was born July 3,
1937, in Zlin,
where his father was the company doctor for the Bata shoe company. When the company transferred him to Singapore,
his wife and two-year-old Tom and his brother accompanied him. Three years later, when the Japanese invaded
family were evacuated to India, while the father stayed
behind, and was killed. In Darjeeling
in 1946 Tom’s mother married British army major Kenneth Stoppard,
who moved the family to England.
Graduating from private
schools, Tom worked as a journalist in Bristol, where his family lived, from 1954
to 1960, the last two years of which he specialized in theater and
film. Going to London in 1962, he served as a drama critic
on a short-lived magazine, during which assignment he managed to
see 132 plays. By then he
had resolved to become a playwright.
He wrote short stories and plays for radio, among them “A
Walk on the Water” and “If You’re Glad I’ll be Frank.”
In 1966, his life
changed when “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” was staged
at the Edinburgh Festival by the Oxford Theatre Group. The hit of
the Festival, the play transferred in April of 1967 to the National
Theatre, beginning Stoppard’s long association with the National. John Stride was Rosencrantz and Edward Petherbridge played Guildenstern.
Stoppard began the
play in the summer of 1964 when he was in Berlin on a Ford Foundation grant. He explains: “The chief interest and objective
was to exploit a situation which seemed to me to have enormous dramatic
and comic potential – of these two guys who in Shakespeare’s context
don’t really know what they’re doing. The little they are told is mainly lies,
and there’s no reason to suppose that they ever find out why they
are killed.” Stoppard sees
the pair as ”bewildered innocents rather than a couple of henchmen,
which is the usual way they are depicted in productions of ‘Hamlet.’”
Guildenstern Are Dead” is an actual line from the final scene of
‘Hamlet,” and Stoppard’s detailing the
off-stage life of these two “bewildered innocents” is rich in humor
and in truth. And Stoppard’s
dialogue is a delight, changing easily from colorful contemporary
prose to Shakespeare’s poetic blank verse, as we follow the two
on and off the stage of the play of “Hamlet,” where “every exit
is an entrance somewhere else.”
Along with their scenes in “Hamlet,” Stoppard portrays imaginatively
what happens when the two exit – and enter Stoppardland. The philosophical First Player of the touring
troupe announced by R. and G. expresses a favorite theme of Stoppard’s: the reality of drama vs. the drama of reality,
as considered more fully later in “The Real Thing.”
After some one-acts,
including the hilarious “The Real Inspector Hound,” a take-off on
Agatha-Christie-like murder mysteries and also on drama critics,
the next major work by Tom Stoppard is “Jumpers,” first
produced at the National Theater in London
in 1972, with Michael Hordern and Diana
Rigg as the principals.
Stoppard loves contrasts: the established drama critic and
the young climber in “Inspector Hound,” and here, the ageing moral
philosopher married to an ex-musical comedy star.
In “Jumpers,” the world of the future is a topsy-turvy one,
as astronauts fight on the moon and academics perform gymnastics.
When one of them is murdered, an investigation by a police inspector
“How marvelous to
have a pyramid of people on a stage, and a rifle shot, and one member
of the pyramid just being blown out of it and the others imploding
on the hole as he leaves,” notes Stoppard.
“The presentation guys, parodies and mimics academic philosophy,
which I got from reading books of that kind in large numbers.” Stoppard believes that “almost everybody
would admit to having this sense that some things actually are better
than others in a way which is not, in fact, rational. That, roughly, is the central concern of
the play.” Academics are
portrayed as acrobats, symbolizing both their academic jargon and
their clambering for academic advancement.
In its latest revival at the National Theatre and on Broadway,
Simon Russell Beale played professor George Moore (not the
George Moore) and Essie Davis his wife, an ex-entertainer, among
whose fans is the police inspector who arrives to arrest her for
murder, but remains to fawn at her feet.
first produced in London in 1974
and in New York the following
year. For its latest revival
at the National Theatre, with Antony Sher
as Carr, Stoppard reworked it, sharpening the humor. “’Travesties,’ says Stoppard, is a work
of fiction which makes use, and misuse, of history.” He was fascinated by the idea that James
Joyce, Lenin, and Dadaist Tristan Tzara
were in Zurich at the same time,
during World War 1. The narrator
of the action is Henry Carr as an old man recreating his (faulty)
memories of the events when he worked at the British consulate in
Zurich and agreed to
play Algernon in Joyce’s production of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance
of Being Earnest.”
In addition to Carr’s
aggrandizing his own importance in the historical events (like Lenin’s
taking the train to Petrograd to start the revolution), Stoppard
provides a dizzying parody of “The Importance” in which Carr’s sister
Gwendolyn and librarian Cecily are rivals for the affection of (they
believe) the same man. Cecily
complains that James Joyce, writing Ulysses, has been keeping
long-overdue the library’s copies of the Irish Times of June
1904 and Homer’s Odyssey. When
Joyce’s manuscript is mixed up with one of Lenin’s, like Miss Prism’s
exchange in “The Importance,” the critique of each is hilarious.
One of the best Wilde-parody lines is Lenin’s declaration “To lose
one revolution may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two, looks
like carelessness.” The verbal pyrotechnics include limericks,
puns, and literary allusions, and there is music and dance as well.
Plus a serious discussion of the function of art, upon which
Stoppard will enlarge in “The Real Thing.”
In “Night and Day”
and “The Real Thing” Stoppard departs from the off-key worlds of
the earlier works, and creates a naturalistic environment. That of “Night and Day,” he says, was dictated
by the obligation to provide a promised work for a West End manager: “giving him a play which started with
fourteen acrobats wouldn’t have pleased him.” Set in the fictitious African state of Kambawe, a former British colony, in the home of British
miner Carson and his attractive wife Ruth, the plot concerns the
rivalry of two reporters, who have arrived to cover a rebellion. The older Wagner is a professional journalist,
contending against the younger Milne, a freelancer, each hoping
to outdo the other with a scoop.
They also are rivals for the affections of Ruth.
A former newsman
himself, Stoppard sees journalism as “the last line of defense.”
He notes that “with a free press everything is correctible; however
imperfect things are, they are correctible if people know they’re
going on. If we don’t know they’re going on, it’s
concealable.” Milne in the
play “has my prejudice if you like…I wanted him to be known to be
speaking the truth.”
Stoppard’s next major work was “The Real
Thing,” which premiered in London
in 1982 with Roger Rees as Henry and Felicity Kendal as Annie, and
in New York in 1984 with
Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close in the leads. Another realistic work,
“The Real Thing” is a romantic comedy with serious overtones, as
it deals with love and infatuation, and where these are concerned,
asks “what is ‘the real thing’?”
The plot involves married playwright Henry, who falls in
love with an actress, Annie. As the play begins not with the action but
with a scene from one of Henry’s plays, in which Annie’s actor husband
appears, the opening scene is not “real” as far as the plot is concerned.
Remember, Stoppard loves a play-within-a-play, as in “Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern,” “Travesties,” and “The Real Inspector Hound.”
The scene of infidelity in Henry’s play is then echoed, with
a difference, in the ‘real’ play.
After two years of
marriage to Henry following their divorces, Annie becomes involved
with a young revolutionary, Brodie, who
writes about his “cause” in an inept play that Annie makes Henry
rewrite. Their debate on art versus truth is fascinating:
Annie feels that Brody’s dreadful version is the “truth,” while
Henry (and Stoppard, one feels) opts for the artist, who is able
to shape raw material into something that is more true for the audience,
has an affair with the actor who is playing the part of Brodie
in his (improved) play. The
loutish Brodie himself shows up, now famous, making his television
debut, while Annie is rehearsing “Tis
Pity She’s a Whore” and falling in love with her co-actor. In the recent revival at the Donmar Warehouse in London, which transferred to Broadway, Jennifer
Ehle played Annie.
“Arcadia” is judged by many to be one of
Stoppard’s best plays.
Seen at the National Theatre in London
and then transferring to the West End
and to Broadway, it operates on two time levels: the eighteenth
century and the present. The
English country estate on which it takes place is indeed arcadian,
and in the family who reside there, the most intelligent is a 17-year-old
girl genius (Amanda Fielding), who discovers mathematical formulae
later claimed by others. Rufus
Sewell, who made his theater debut in the play, later became a star
on stage and screen. Introducing actual history into his Stoppardian world is characteristic of this playwright,
is no exception, as a letter from literary giant Lord Byron finds
its way into one of the volumes in the family library.
Two hundred years
later, academic literary sleuths descend upon the estate. We learn that the original house burned and
the young mathematical genius perished in the fire. The academics light upon the Byron letter,
and their scholarly account of its origin, life, and associations
are vastly different from what we saw actually occur. Stoppard is again having fun with academics
and their theorizing. In
speaking of “Jumpers,” in which academics are portrayed as acrobats,
Stoppard said, “Most of the propositions I’m interested in have
been kidnapped and dressed up by academic philosophy, but they are
in fact the kind of propositions that would occur to any intelligent
person in his bath.”
Stoppard’s latest works include “The Coast
of Utopia” reviewed in Archive
of Reviewed Plays and Rock ‘n’ Roll.” reviewed in Archive
of Reviewed Plays The former is
a trilogy, “Voyage,” “Shipwreck” and “Salvage.” Alexander Herzen
and writer Turgenev are among the group of nineteenth-century Russian
intellectuals, romantics, and revolutionaries, who argue the future
of their country while some of them are unable to manage their private
lives. The central character is socialist Herzen, who counters the Communist argument that “blood
today leads to utopia tomorrow.”
Herzen declares: “We need wit and courage to make our
way while our way is making us.
But that is our dignity as human beings, and we rob ourselves
if we pardon us by the absolution of historical necessity.”
“Rock ‘n’ Roll” debuted
at the Royal
in the 2006 season celebrating the theater’s fiftieth anniversary. Played by Rufus Sewell, Jan,
the central figure, is a Czech who in 1968 returns home when the
Communist rule in his country undergoes regime change to counteract
“liberalization.” Jan has been studying for his doctorate
sent there as a spy. On his
return he is interviewed by a dissatisfied
interrogator: “When our allies answered our call for fraternal assistance
to save socialism in this country, thousands of Czechs and Slovaks
who happened to be in the West decided to stay there.
You, on the other hand, whom we requested to remain in Cambridge…you rushed back to Prague.”
Stoppard sees rock ‘n’ roll, with excerpts from leading groups
being played between the scenes, as a form of revolution. The Communists ban it and throw in jail
Jan’s favorite Czech group, the Plastic People of the Universe. Not only political repression, but many
other subjects come in for criticism, including sleaze journalism,
but Stoppard also allows Jan’s professor (David Calder) equal time
to defend Communism – he being “the last Communist left in Cambridge.”
short plays, the best include “The Real Inspector Hound” (1968),
a farcical take on the well-loved Agatha Christie-type murder mystery,
in which two drama critics, reviewing the play, get involved in
the action, and “Dogg’s Hamlet,” and “Cahoot’s
Macbeth” (1979). In the latter
double bill, he races through a fifteen-minute version of “Hamlet”
in which the famous soliloquy is reduced to a one-liner, “To be
or not to be,” and the cast, spurred on by applause, do a ninety-second
repeat of the play. “Cahoot’s Macbeth”
was inspired by an actual situation in occupied Czechoslovakia , where the play was prohibited. A group of actors then perform a truncated
version in a living room, using those who wander in as extras in
roles like that of Banquo.
Stoppard’s play “The Invention of Love,”
produced in London’s West End and
in New York in 2001, centers upon the English poet and
classical scholar A.E. Housman
and his secret love for a classmate at Oxford University,
Moses Jackson. As does “Arcadia,” it takes place in the present
and in the past. The play
begins in 1936 when Housman, newly dead, is on his way to Hades,
the classical underworld, and is waiting for Charon
to ferry him across the River Styx.
As the boatman delays, Housman asks, “Are we waiting for
someone?” “He’s late,” answers Charon.
Housman: Are you sure?
Charon: A poet and a scholar is what I was told.
Housman: I think that must be me.
Charon: Both of them?
Housman: I’m afraid so.
Charon: It sounded like two different people.
Housman: I know.
The exchange expresses
the duality of Housman’s nature.
As a poet and academic, he wrote and spoke incomparably,
but when it came to personal emotions, he was unable to express
himself. The duality is portrayed by having two different
actors in the role, as the young student and the elderly poet.
In one moving scene, Housman, at 77, encounters his younger
self. The prize-winning play
was presented in New York by Lincoln
Center, directed by Jack O’Brien, with Richard Easton as the older
poet and Robert Sean Leonard as young Housman.
Among the films Stoppard
has co-scripted are “Brazil” in 1985 and “Shakespeare
in Love,” for which he won an Academy Award for best screenplay.
One will recognize the world and the humor as Stoppardian,
as he blends invention and history, especially the scenes where,
as Shakespeare walks through the streets, he hears such lines as
“a plague on both your houses” to use them later as dialogue.
Or naming the youngster loitering and spying outside the
playhouse John Webster, whose favorite is “Titus Andronicus” and
whose works will later outdo the horrors of that play.
addition to writing for films, radio, and television, Stoppard has
adapted a number of foreign plays by such writers as Molnar, Lorca,
and Chekhov. “On the Razzle” began as
a German play, and also was adapted as “The Merchant of Yonkers,”
and by Thornton Wilder as “The Matchmaker,” later the musical “Hello, Dolly.”