The Magazine

The Real Tom Stoppard

Our greatest comic playwright.

Oct 7, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 04 • By JONATHAN LEAF
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"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.