A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

Tom Stoppard

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.  Rock ‘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, Czechoslovakia, 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 Singapore, the 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.’”

“Rosencrantz and 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 follows.

“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.   

“Travesties” was first produced in London in 1974 and in New York the following year.  For its latest revival in London 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, more real.

Meanwhile, Annie 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, and “Arcadia” 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 Court Theatre 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 at Cambridge, 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.”

Among Stoppard’s 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.

In 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.”