A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

In Tom Stoppard’s 1972 farce Jumpers the gymnasts, or jumpers, are professors of philosophy, headed by Archie, the vice-chancellor/dean, in whose faculty we find ethics professor George Moore (no, not the George Moore, writer of Principia Ethica, as he must constantly explain). As the curtain rises, against Vicki Mortimer’s splendid background of the moon and stars, the Radical-Liberal political party are celebrating their victory at George’s house, with an acrobatic display by the professors, June-Moon songs by George’s wife Dotty, and a strip tease on a swing. Meanwhile, George is phoning the police to complain about the noise. Suddenly a shot rings out, and the top man on the acrobats’ pyramid, Professor McFee, is dead.

Enter Inspector Bones (Nicholas Woodeson) to investigate.  With true Stoppardian misunderstanding (like the mix-up of James Joyce’s and Lenin’s manuscripts in “Travesties”), George believes Bones is investigating his phone complaint, not the murder.  Bedazzled by Dotty, who is the chief suspect, Bones joins the household, and along with Archie, makes frequent visits to Dotty’s bedroom. Under the expert direction of  David Leveaux, the zany goings intensify, via a revolving stage. We never do find out who committed the murder, the least important item in antics that combine the physical gymnastics of the jumpers with the verbal gymnastics.of Stoppard and the mental gymnastics of his leading character, George.

George Moore (“half of the students believe you are [the famous] George Moore,” says Archie) holds the Chair of Ethics, next to the lowest, which is theology.  In an excellent, appealing and detailed performance by Simon Russell Beale, George is a familiar professorial type, absent-mindedly stepping on his pet turtle, delighting in the turns of phrase he finds in composing a paper for a symposium on “Man: Good, Bad, or Indifferent,” dictating meticulously qualified long sentences to his secretary, testing theories with a bow  and arrow or hare and tortoise.  He reigns in his cluttered study but is insecure and bumbling in Dotty’s mirrored bedroom.  In contrast to the assertive, suave Archie, well played by Jonathan Hyde, George is questioning and back-tracking all the time, attempting to prove the existence of  morality and of “an incredible, indescribable and definitely shifty God:”  “I think, therefore God is.  Or is it ‘are’?”

In his pursuit of defining “good,” George reduces to the absurd his method of philosophical reasoning,  through qualifying sentences to a forced conclusion:  “…to say this is a good bacon sandwich is only to say that by the criteria applied by like-minded lovers of bacon sandwiches, this one is worthy of approbation.  The word good is reducible to other properties such as crisp, lean and unadulterated by tomato sauce.  You will have seen at once that to a man who likes his bacon sandwiches underdone, fatty and smothered in ketchup, this would be a rather poor bacon sandwich.”

Essie Davis is a delightful Dotty, George’s young wife, who in a glittering outfit looks and sings like Marlene Dietrich at the opening party, but forgets the lyrics.  She is depressed at seeing the astronauts jumping on the same moon that figures in her romantic songs.  Taking to her bed, she may or may not be having an affair with Archie, who may or may not be visiting her as her psychiatrist.  His reply to George on this matter is ambiguous:

Archie:   Therapy takes many forms.

George:   I had no idea you were still practicing.

Archie:    Oh yes…a bit of law, a bit of philosophy, a bit of medicine, a      bit of gym…A bit of one and then a bit of the other.

George:   You examine her?

Archie:    Oh yes, I like to keep my hand in.

Archie has his own philosophical doubletalk.  He and Bones hear Dotty (offstage} cry “Help!”

Archie:     It’s all right –just exhibitionism; what we psychiatrists call “a cry for help.’

Bones:      But it was a cry for help.

Archie:     Perhaps I’m not making myself clear.  All exhibitionism is a cry for help, but a cry for help as such is only exhibitionism.

All ten jumpers do a fine job, including a near-ballet when the body of McFee is neatly bundled into a blue plastic bag. When George asks why McFee would crawl into a plastic bag to shoot himself, Archie replies: “Hard to say.  He always was tidy.”   Stoppard’s own deft answer, when asked whether his plays were intended to be serious or comic: “It’s a matter of taste whether one says they’re wonderfully frivolous saddened by occasional seriousness, or whether there’s a serious play irredeemably ruined by the frivolous side of this man’s nature.” Performance schedule: www.nationaltheatre.org.uk