The Magazine

The Real Tom Stoppard

Our greatest comic playwright.

Oct 7, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 04 • By JONATHAN LEAF
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Tom Stoppard
A Life
by Ira Bruce Nadel
Palgrave Macmillan, 384 pp., $29.95

TO WRITE ONE BRILLIANT and very funny play is an accomplishment. To write two or three, as Oscar Wilde did, is extraordinary. To write five or six, as George Bernard Shaw did, is prodigious.

So think what that says about Tom Stoppard, who has written eight: "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," "The Real Inspector Hound," "Jumpers," "Night and Day," "The Real Thing," "On the Razzle," "Arcadia," and "The Invention of Love." Stoppard has never--as he acknowledges--had a talent much suited to the creation of plots, nor has he ever been inclined to render characters who speak much differently from one another. But as a serious dramatist he has gradually developed and now, at age sixty-five, he surpasses Arthur Miller and Harold Pinter as our premier living writer of dramas. And, more to the point, he has climbed past Congreve, Wilde, and Shaw to become the most outstanding comic playwright in the history of the English language.

Not that he has lacked for recognition along the way. In the thirty-five years since "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" first appeared, he has remained a star. In recent years, he has won an Academy Award, become the only playwright ever to have two shows running simultaneously at Lincoln Center, been the only living playwright not writing in French to have his work performed at the Comedie-Francaise, received a knighthood, and has been the subject of innumerable studies and biographies--the latest of which is Ira Nadel's massive "Tom Stoppard: A Life."

The Nadel biography does a good job of giving us facts about Stoppard: born in Czechoslovakia in 1937 as Tomas Straussler, family forced to flee because of their Jewish ancestry, father's death on a ship bombed by the Japanese, mother's remarriage to a British major in India, rearing in England. Nadel makes a few small mistakes (misspelling the names of the director Fred Schepisi and Princeton's McCarter Theater, attributing a famous remark of Rossini's to Verdi). But he is generally thorough--indeed, at times, wearisomely so. The book is not only exhaustive, but frequently exhausting, filled with digressions about the intellectual life of Jews in nineteenth-century Czech lands, recurrent mentions of a Stoppard letter to a former Czech president, and Stoppard's friendships with celebrities.

Nadel interrupts his discussion of "Arcadia," for instance, to mention that "on his return to London, he went to see Pinter's "Moonlight"; two days later, on 28 October, he and Felicity Kendal attended an event at Buckingham Palace and the next day he was off to Auckland, New Zealand and then Australia for the opening of several of his plays and to lecture. On his return he lunched with the Prince of Wales and John Cleese on the same day. The year ended with a party at the Jaggers'."

THERE IS, of course, an irony in the appearance of a meticulous, heavily footnoted, fact-filled biography of Stoppard--a playwright who has often insisted that literal accounts of necessity tend to miss the underlying truths that fictional depictions uncover. Still, Nadel, an energetic, facile Canadian who has also published a well-received biography of the singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, has written what will surely be the standard account for some years to come.

Regarding Stoppard's plays, Nadel is far better at recounting the reaction to them and explaining their often abstruse themes than he is at gauging or commenting upon their significance. It eludes him, for instance, that Stoppard's "Travesties" is overrated and itself, arguably, a travesty, or that the much-criticized "Night and Day" is among the best plays of the last half century. Stoppard's biographer also spends little time discussing perhaps the most interesting aspect of Stoppard's work: its development since "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead."

Nadel mentions several times that a poll rated the play the seventh best English-language drama of the twentieth century. "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" is so overflowing with wit that it easily and deservedly established Stoppard's reputation in one flash at its Old Vic premiere in 1967. But Nadel does not make the point that, for all its eclat, the play has dated badly. The camp elements that so appealed to 1960s audiences are weaknesses, and its lead parts lack the tragic dimension and grandeur of later Stoppard roles.

Nadel makes only an oblique reference (through a quotation from the actor Richard Dreyfuss about Stoppard's contribution to the screenplay for "Shakespeare in Love") to the question of how important a writer's work is when the bulk of it has a limited audience. But perhaps this challenge to Stoppard's reputation is a false one. His work is popular with the masses.

Indeed, it's not unlikely that more people around the world have seen and appreciated Stoppard's work than, say, Neil Simon's--for Simon has had consistent popular success in the theater and much-less consistent success at the movies (think of "Max Dugan Returns" or "Only When I Laugh"), while for Stoppard, the opposite is true. Stoppard has reached vast audiences with his scripts for such films as "Empire of the Sun," "Brazil," "Shakespeare in Love," "The Russia House," and for uncredited work on widely seen movies like "Schindler's List." At the same time he has never been afraid to work on projects with limited appeal, spending large amounts of time on plays for little-known avant-garde theater troupes and occupying several years in the 1990s writing a BBC radio play. (And when was the last time you listened to one of those?) Nor has he hesitated to write dramas that demand such sizeable casts or complex sets that they cannot be performed except as special events.

A SOMEWHAT ill-at-ease supporter of Margaret Thatcher and close friend of Paul Johnson, Stoppard first showed his hostility to liberal shibboleths and left-wing cant in 1978 with what may still be his best drama: "Night and Day." A commercial hit in London when it premiered with Diana Rigg, the play depicted a day in the life of an English family in a fictitious African country that bore an intentional likeness to Idi Amin's Uganda.

By creating an obnoxious and unscrupulous leftist journalist named Richard "Dick" Wagner who plays a role in the death of an idealistic young Tory journalist, Stoppard made transparent his dislike of the dregs of Fleet Street and the unions exploiting the newspapers. He also exposed his frank contempt for the concept of revolutionary truth and the implicit kinship that exists between totalitarianism and reporters of the Alexander Cockburn ilk. Along the way, he created the character of Ruth Carson--the lead female role in "Night and Day" and one of the great roles for women in the whole of the theater--and drew the play together with a fast-paced plot that pointed up the disastrous result of the appearance in post-colonial Africa of Oxford-educated Marxists and members of the self-anointed New Class.

Unfortunately, he was also asking England's drama critics--most of whom were Oxford-educated Marxists and members of the self-anointed New Class--to appreciate the play. Unsurprisingly, when "Night and Day" opened, the London critics immediately began the immolation of Stoppard's reputation. Even they, however, had to admit the play included some typically wonderful Stoppard lines, as when the heroine rebuffs Wagner, with whom she had once had a one-night stand, by saying, "a lady, if surprised by melancholy, might go to bed with a chap, once: or a thousand times if consumed by passion. But twice, Wagner, twice . . . a lady might think she'd been taken for a tart."

The play is rarely revived, and it is indicative of Stoppard's self-deprecatory nature that on the occasion of its only New York revival, at a small off-Broadway non-profit house in 2001, he mostly avoided interviews with journalists and, moments after being introduced to the actors, asked them why they hadn't cut any of his lines. Regardless, "Night and Day" is not only a masterpiece but also a real improvement over his two preceding "serious" plays, "Travesties and Jumpers."

POSSIBLY BECAUSE it is pretentious and at times confusing, the 1974 "Travesties" was long a favorite with highbrows struck by the fanciful premise of a 1917 meeting of James Joyce, Vladimir Lenin, and Tristan Tzara in Zurich. Why it's still being revived is harder to explain. The play's two main characters, the British diplomat Henry Carr and the dadaist Tzara, are incredible figures on the stage and historical afterthoughts off it. The depiction of Lenin is not broad enough to be funny or scathing enough to be true, and the real-life character of James Joyce is probably too complex for any playwright to enter completely.

More curiously, "Travesties," which has both limericks and quatrains, lacks the poetic quality that Stoppard elsewhere displays. Look at the 1972 "Jumpers," for example, which is as rich with great lines as any play in the modern theater:

DOTTY: Archie says that the academics can look forward to rather more radicalism than liberalism. . . .

GEORGE: Any party which calls itself radical might be said to have forfeited this claim if it neglected to take over the broadcasting services and send the Church Commissioners to prison.

DOTTY: It wasn't the Church Commissioners, it was property companies and Master of Foxhounds.

GEORGE: I thought the Church Commissioners were a property company.

DOTTY: They were dispossessed, retroactively, as a humane gesture.

"Jumpers" manages to wed this wit to a serious inquiry into the philosophical arguments on behalf of God's existence, and it has a provoking mystery involving a dead acrobat. So why does it lack the punch and tension of such later plays as "The Real Thing" or "Arcadia"?

Perhaps the problem is the extremity of its unreality. The story never quite coalesces, and the characters sound alike. Writing the play under the influence of Peter Brook, Stoppard produced an experiment as much as a play. Stoppard commented at the time that he thought Brook's device of releasing butterflies to end a play far exceeded anything he could accomplish with words.

So, seemingly with this in mind, Stoppard focused the "theatrical" dimension of the play on the routines of a troupe of gymnasts rather than on explaining the murder central to the plot. (Stoppard's infatuation with Brook went so far then that he actually traveled to Iran to see the opening of a Brook-commissioned play whose title, "Orghast," suggests its quality.) Moreover, in accepting the idea that stage business was a superior substitute for clarity of action and the union of words and character, it was as though the playwright were declaring an ignorance of Shakespeare and O'Neill and a belief in the dramatic principles underlying "Cats."

Still, "Jumpers" did manage to teach Stoppard something. Only once more, with the 1988 "Hapgood," would he fail to realize that even the theater of ideas requires plot and sustained development of its characters. And his talents were fully harnessed when he produced "The Real Thing" (1982), the play that fully established his reputation in America. Providing us with one of his few heroes who is a thinly veiled projection of himself, Stoppard began the play with a parody of the sort of Labour theater that had made the names of more than a few influential playwrights and then drew back to show his playwright protagonist's dim view of the hackneyed first scene. Throughout "The Real Thing," Stoppard attacked deconstruction and the idea that language is arbitrary, making clear that he sees those who think language is a prison-house as men whose minds might be changed if they spent time in an actual one.

CRITICS' GENERAL VIEW of George Bernard Shaw is that his work improved as he matured--which means that such fine early works as "The Philanderer" are ignored and such theatrical impossibilities as "Man And Superman" are studied. Tom Stoppard has suffered from the opposite pattern. Critics so admire his early work that they tend to ignore or disparage his later efforts.

The truth is that as Stoppard has aged he has grown, and his work has shown a greater power arising out of richer, more fully developed roles, something that was obvious in the two plays that seem to have cemented his standing: "Arcadia" (1993) and "The Invention of Love" (1997). Much has been said about the way in which "Arcadia"'s secondary subjects--landscape gardening and literary biography--parallel the mathematical concepts expressed in the play. But ideas are a poor substitute for passion, and it is a vivid passion that Stoppard brought to his tale of a gifted young girl's heart.

Critics who remain reticent about Stoppard have lately fallen back on accusing him not of being overly intellectual, but of being unduly unconventional in the way he structures his plays. It's true that both "Arcadia" and "The Invention of Love" are unorthodox insofar as the events depicted in them take place with the past and present existing simultaneously on stage and with scenes alternating between eras separated in time.

And certainly Stoppard's method of presentation does not conform to the nineteenth-century principles of the well-made play. Yet, in neither of these plays does Stoppard ask us to think that the characters we see are anything but actual people. In this sense Stoppard's later work is far more conventional than most of the work of Wilde or Shaw. Who really believes Cecily in "The Importance of Being Earnest" or Napoleon in "The Man of Destiny" is anything but a creature of the stage? Indeed, in an era of Pinter and Shepard, it is peculiar to complain of Tom Stoppard as unconventional.

Stoppard has also written two hilarious comedies that wisely do not bother to make claims of possessing substance: "The Real Inspector Hound" (1968) and "On the Razzle" (1981). The second (and funnier) of these is based on a Victorian play by Johann Nestroy, so loosely adapted that we must consider it a wholly new play. And Stoppard has just premiered in London a dramatic trilogy set in nineteenth-century Russia called "The Coast of Utopia." Early reviews have been notably mixed, with some calling it brilliant and others declaring it boring. It may, of course, be that both statements are true. Stoppard has always rewritten his work dramatically after his plays' first premieres, and it's generally acknowledged that "Night and Day," "The Real Thing," and "The Invention of Love" were all markedly improved by cuts and changes in the New York productions that followed the London originals.

One of the most irksome aspects of the Nadel biography is that for all the pictures in it, it never takes the reader far inside the character of Tom Stoppard himself. The biography speaks little, for instance, of either of Stoppard's ex-wives, who might have given Nadel some clues.

But probably not enough to make a difference. We know something about Stoppard's serious anti-communism. We know the endless enjoyment he takes in the play of language, which led him both to embrace camp in the 1960s with "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" and reject postmodernism in the 1980s with "The Real Thing." We know his fascination with nineteenth-century history and such early twentieth-century literary figures as James Joyce and A.E. Housman. We know that he has lived through one of the weakest eras in the history of art and somehow managed nonetheless to become a giant of literature. But about his interior life, we know nothing more than the little he has shown us.

Perhaps that is as it should be. Seeking the origins of comedy, Immanuel Kant once performed an analysis of a joke--which proved mostly that even good humor can't survive an attempt to understand how it works. Perhaps it is enough to know that the wit, breadth, depth, and prolific achievement of a onetime second-string Bristol theater critic with a high school education named Tom Stoppard increasingly marks him as the best expressly comic playwright English has ever known.

Jonathan Leaf is a playwright living in New York.