Sizing Up Stoppard

What makes the Postmodern playwright tick?

The first part of Tom Stoppard’s epic 2002 trilogy, The Coast of Utopia, opened yesterday at New York’s Lincoln Center, and his new play, Rock ’n’ Roll, continues its run in London. In an “Assessment” published in 1999 and reprinted below, A.O. Scott argued that the playwright was ultimately more of an entertainer than a revolutionary artist. Scott concluded, “What we get is mostly less than meets the eye: the erudition of the cocktail party and the emotional range of a good TV sitcom, middlebrow pleasures dressed up in the trappings of high learningmodernism without difficulty. Stoppard is often called a playwright of ideas, but he is more accurately a playwright of the idea of ideas.”

Early in Shakespeare in Love, the narcissistic twit we are supposed to believe went on to write the greatest dramatic poetry in the language steps outside the theater to offer words of solace to a snaggletoothed urchin, originally slated to play Juliet, who has just been fired. The boy, it turns out, is a particular aficionado of stage violence. The best parts of plays, he tells Will as he prepares to feed one of his pet mice to a passing alley cat, involve dismemberment and murder. Will asks the boy’s name. “John Webster,” he replies. There is a beat, as if to cue audience laughter, and then Shakespeare walks away. The scene, which serves no purpose in the film’s plot (though Webster will later be instrumental in stirring up the suspicion that Gwyneth Paltrow is a woman), is indeed a joke: John Webster is the name of the bloodiest of all English dramatists—the Quentin Tarantino of the Jacobean stage. The young torturer of mice will grow up to write revenge tragedies such as The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi. Get it?

The scene I’ve just described is an exemplary Tom Stoppard moment: A literary in-joke that turns on the accidental, and wholly conjectural, collision of two historical figures. (One of Stoppard’s best-known plays, Travesties, grows out of his discovery that Lenin, James Joyce, and the Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara all spent time in Zurich in 1916, and imagines what their table talk might have been like.) The British playwright co-wrote the screenplay for Shakespeare in Love, and over the past few months a number of my friends have tried to excite my interest in the movie by invoking this fact. Stoppard’s name, familiar to anyone who cares about modern theater or who took AP English in high school, signifies a deft blend of high culture and high wit, deep thinking and schoolboy cleverness. I keep hearing and reading the words “smart fun” in connection with Shakespeare in Love, and (leaving aside that the movie is neither) smart fun is Stoppard’s stock in trade. Watching his plays, you feel smart. What could be more fun?

Some writers demand erudition of their audiences. Stoppard supplies it. I am surely not the only person who walked into the Vivian Beaumont Theater to see Arcadia a few years back knowing next to nothing about English landscape gardening or chaos theory; by the time the play was over I felt as though I did. And while many theatergoers will arrive at Stoppard’s most recent play, The Invention of Love, with some notion of Oscar Wilde’s glorious career and tragic end (especially if they have already seen Moises Kaufman’s Gross Indecency or read Pat Barker’s novel The Eye in the Door), few will be familiar with the life and work of the Oxford classicist and poet A.E. Housman, and fewer still will have any prior knowledge of the differences between English editions of the ancient Roman love poet Propertius. But playgoers will leave the theater flush with the thrill of having learned something about these arcane matters, even if an hour later they will be hard pressed to say just what they’ve learned. Stoppard’s genius lies in his ability to excite our intellectual curiosity and, in a stroke, to satisfy it.

In Stoppard’s plays, the messy and diffuse complexities of history, science, philosophy, and art are tied into neat and compact parcels. The plays share a certain puzzlelike quality; they are full of easy paradoxes and diverting logical conundrums. Stoppard belongs to an international literary tradition—call it brain-teaser modernism—whose theatrical godfather is Luigi Pirandello, and which includes writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, Raymond Queneau, and Italo Calvino. For these writers, literature is a grand chess game of mental possibilities, an irresistible occasion for philosophical showmanship. (Stoppard, born Tomas Straussler in Czechoslovakia in 1937, has also shown some affinities with the playful philosophical playwrights of his native country, from Carel Capek in the 1920s to Pavel Kohout and Václav Havel in the ‘60s and ‘70s.) But whereas Borges at his best elicits from readers a shudder of metaphysical terror, and Calvino stimulates a spasm of epistemological ecstasy, Stoppard consistently induces in his audiences a frisson of self-congratulatory pleasure.

Stoppard, who started out as a journalist and theater critic, turned to play writing in the late 1950s, at a moment when, as he once said, “the least fashionable playwright was as fashionable as the most fashionable novelist.” When the National Theatre staged his first full-length stage play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, in 1967 (he had previously done radio pieces for the BBC), he joined the fashionable ranks of such English playwrights as Alan Ayckbourn and Harold Pinter. Today, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and the rest of his early work—The Real Inspector Hound and Jumpers, as well as numerous short plays for stage, television, and radio—are best appreciated as part of the golden age of English silliness, a moment that produced such indelible monuments of the human spirit as A Hard Day’s Night and Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

In the 1970s, Stoppard augmented his play writing with screenwriting, enhancing his highbrow reputation by supplying scripts for auteurs Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Joseph Losey. (By then the least fashionable screenwriter was as fashionable as the most fashionable playwright.) In the years since, Stoppard has readily indulged himself with hack work (The Russia House), middlebrow entertainments (Empire of the Sun), and pre-Shakespeare in Love house calls as a script doctor (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). Andrew Lloyd Webber and Steven Spielberg recently commissioned a Cats screenplay from Stoppard. But while Stoppard has slummed a bit for the big screen, he has done some of his most serious and demanding work for the small one: Professional Foul, a 1977 BBC commission, addressed the moral dilemmas faced by a group of English academics at a philosophical conference in Prague; and Squaring the Circle: Poland 1980-81, broadcast in 1984, brought the playful self-consciousness of Travesties to the deadly serious events surrounding the Lenin Shipyard strike and the subsequent government crackdown.

Stoppard still scoffs at the idea that theater can be an agent of political awakening or social change: “If I wanted to change the world,” he once told an interviewer, “the last thing I would do is write a play.” “The ‘role’ of the theater,” he has written, “is much debated (by almost nobody, of course), but the thing defines itself in practice first and foremost as a recreation. This seems satisfactory.” Since the late ‘70s, however, Stoppard has shown intermittent dissatisfaction with the kind of intellectual jeux d’esprit that made his name and has committed himself to a more ambitious theater of ideas. The philosophical puzzles—about chance and order, appearance and reality, science and art—are increasingly tethered, in plays such as The Real Thing, Arcadia, and The Invention of Love, to a more conventionally theatrical register of feeling. As in Shakespeare in Love, we get smart fun and pathos too.

But what we get is mostly less than meets the eye: the erudition of the cocktail party and the emotional range of a good TV sitcom, middlebrow pleasures dressed up in the trappings of high learning—modernism without difficulty. Stoppard is often called a playwright of ideas, but he is more accurately a playwright of the idea of ideas, just as Shakespeare in Love is a movie for people in love with the idea of Shakespeare. T.S. Eliot, who will no doubt share screenwriting credit with Stoppard in the film version of Cats, once referred to his poetry as a “superior amusement,” a description that applies to Stoppard’s plays as well: They are amusing, and they make us feel superior.