The Magazine

The Real Tom Stoppard

Our greatest comic playwright.

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