Tom Stoppard – a birthday tribute
Tom Stoppard, a playwright who holds a special place at the heart of Faber, celebrates his eightieth birthday on 3 July 2017. He has been published here for fifty years, beginning in 1967 by bringing characters from the wings of Hamlet centre stage in his dazzling debut Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, recently revived at the Old Vic to great acclaim and now a Faber Modern Classic.
Since then Faber has published his numerous remarkable works – awards too many to mention – for stage, television, film and radio, including five collected volumes containing over thirty plays.
In the early days of the drama list, Faber published plays only once they were an established success on stage. By 1972, Stoppard’s place was secured: his new play Jumpers (‘A dazzling, hilarious and honestly benevolent work’, The Times) was announced pre-production in the Faber catalogue, hardback and paperback.
This was followed by, amongst others, Travesties, stunningly revived this year – ‘witty, playful and wise. Forty years on, it is starting to look timeless as well.’ Sunday Times – directed by another Faber playwright, Patrick Marber.
In the 80s came The Real Thing, deemed by the Guardian, ‘that rare thing in the West End (or anywhere else for that matter): an intelligent play about love’; followed by the metaphysical spy-thriller Hapgood (‘for sheer intellectual excitement, Hapgood has no rival.’ Sunday Times)
The 90s saw two masterpieces open at the National Theatre, first one of our best-selling plays of all time Arcadia – ‘a brilliant, brilliant play. A play of ideas, of consummate theatricality, of sophisticated entertainment and of heartache for time never to be regained.’ Sunday Times – and, in 1997, The Invention of Love, portraying the life of poet A. E. Housman, heralded by the Evening Standard, ‘the most emotionally powerful and enthralling play of his career’.
The new millennium brought the trilogy The Coast of Utopia, an epic drama of romantics and revolutionaries in nineteenth-century Russia, which caused Michael Billington to observe, ‘I think it is time we began to appreciate Stoppard not for his intellectual legerdemain, but for what he is actually best at: exploring the mystery of existence, the anguish of the human heart and the strange fact that it is our apprehension of death that gives joy and intensity to life.’ Rock ’n’ Roll at the Royal Court followed. (‘I was tempted to end this review by saying, It’s only rock ’n’ roll but I like it. In fact, it’s about much more than rock’n’roll, and I love it.’ Telegraph). And then came Stoppard’s glorious five-part television drama Parade’s End, based on the novel by Ford Madox Ford, transmitted on BBC2 in autumn 2012.
In 2014 Stoppard was given a special award as ‘the greatest living playwright’ at the sixtieth London Evening Standard Theatre Awards in recognition of more than a half century of outstanding work. The Hard Problem premiered at the National in the following year: ‘one hundred minutes of brilliant panache: it’s the new Stoppard.’ Daily Mail
We wish the extraordinary and enchanting Tom Stoppard many more publications, many happy returns of the day and a wonderful birthday.
Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington selected The Real Thing to represent Tom Stoppard’s body of work in his book The 101 Greatest Plays: From Antiquity to the Present. His essay is reproduced below, followed by a birthday coda.
The Real Thing
I’ve been fortunate, as a critic, in being able to chart the career of Tom Stoppard. I first came across his work in 1966, when I was asked to review for the Third Programme two radio plays – If You’re Glad I’ll Be Frank and The Dissolution of Dominic Boot – by the then scarcely known Stoppard. Nearly half a century later, in 2015, I found myself wrestling with The Hard Problem at the National, a work I found richly invigorating in its portrait of the battle between scientific materialism and selfless virtue. In the interim I’ve recorded Stoppard’s capacity, in works such as Jumpers, Travesties and Arcadia, to expand the boundaries of theatre, to bring unlikely opposites into flamboyant juxtaposition and to delight in the punning possibilities of language. But of all his plays The Real Thing (1982) strikes me as his most durable in its ability to combine emotional depth with structural intricacy.
Stoppard’s play turned out to be the third in a sequence in which British middle-aged, male dramatists grappled with questions of adultery. Pinter’s Betrayal (1978) examined the politics of infidelity and brilliantly reversed conventional chronology. Peter Nichols’s Passion Play (1981) ingeniously created alter egos for its central characters. But, deeply as I admire both plays, Stoppard’s resonates even more strongly in that it branches out from adultery to explore a philosophical question: namely, the nature of ‘the real thing’ in love, art and politics. It is also a dazzling theatrical construct that presents us with a series of interlocking Chinese boxes.
Reviewing the play in 1982, I was roundly rebuked by Richard Curtis for revealing the calculated artifice of the opening, play-within-a-play scene. But I have no regrets since this is crucial to Stoppard’s point. In the first scene we see ‘Max’ reacting with verbal insouciance to the discovery that his wife ‘Charlotte’ has forgotten to take her passport on a supposed trip to Switzerland. It transpires that this is one of a series of alleged adulteries which ‘Charlotte’ has disguised by bringing home appropriate presents such as Rembrandt place-mats after a purported trip to Amsterdam. As Max suavely observes, ‘It’s those little touches that lift adultery out of the moral arena and make it a matter of style.’ But Stoppard goes on to show that in real life people rarely react with such Wildean sophistication to personal crises.
We quickly discover that the opening scene is the work of an acclaimed dramatist, Henry, who is married to Charlotte and who is having a passionate affair with Max’s wife Annie. But when Max confronts Annie with the tangible evidence of the affair – through an Othello-like, blood-spotted handkerchief – he reacts with none of the dexterous calm of the stage ‘Max’: ‘You’re filthy. You filthy cow. You rotten filthy . . .’ he cries before flinging himself on Annie in a violent embrace. Stoppard underlines his point by showing how Henry, admired as a dramatist for his verbal mastery, is similarly bereft when he discovers that Annie, with whom he has now lived for two years, is having a fling with a fellow actor. Left alone, while Annie goes off to meet her lover, Henry puts on a Procul Harum record and utters an anguished cry of ‘Oh, please, please, please, please, don’t.’ But Stoppard’s play is not simply about the difficulty of dignified cuckoldry. It is about a middle-aged dramatist’s sentimental education in discovering that ‘the real thing’ in love is not an idealised, exclusive passion but a frank acknowledgement by each partner of the other’s flawed individuality.
Stoppard is a brilliant writer, but occasionally his meticulous research sits on top of the dramatic action. Here, however, he writes from the heart without sacrificing one iota of his mental agility. He extends his exploration of ‘the real thing’ to art by having Annie urge Henry to spruce up a ham-fisted play written by Brodie, a soldier who has committed an act of arson at the Cenotaph as a protest against Cruise missiles. Henry famously attacks Brodie’s clunky dialogue by comparing good writing to the manual dexterity by which a cricket bat can send a ball speeding to the boundary. It’s one of Stoppard’s most moving and anthologised speeches. But while Stoppard’s play is a passionate plea for the sacredness of words (‘If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you’re dead’), it also raises the question of whether Brodie’s original play has a clumsy authenticity which Henry’s skilled rewrite can never quite match.
Stoppard is on more controversial ground when he has Henry declare, ‘Public postures have the configuration of private derangement,’ a resonant line which I quoted in my paean to Venice Preserv’d. Henry’s point would seem to be confirmed when, later in the play, we learn that Brodie’s act of arson was dictated more by a desire to sexually impress Annie than by his innate radicalism. Many have challenged the validity of Henry’s proposition and asked whether all anti-nuclear and anti-apartheid protests, or Stoppard’s own challenge to the abuse of human rights in his native Czechoslovakia and elsewhere, are the product of private derangement. My own view is that we should not automatically assume Henry’s views are Stoppard’s. The play has undoubted aspects of autobiography – Henry’s musical tastes are very much Stoppard’s own – but it is also discreetly critical of a hero who hides behind a mask of verbal wit and emotional detachment and who has to learn about the self-abasement of passion.
What is beyond challenge is the play’s emotional power and meta-theatrical skill. Henry, having confessed that he doesn’t know how to write love, takes Annie through a scene from Strindberg’s Miss Julie, one that shows how passion can be expressed through sub-text and that prefigures Annie’s later involvement with the working-class Brodie. The dangerous mutual attraction between Annie and her fellow actor Billy – who gets to play Brodie in Henry’s rewrite – is also expressed through a scene of forbidden love from Ford’s incest-ridden ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore. The whole play is about the teasing and constantly shifting relationship between art and life. It was there in Peter Wood’s original London production but was brought out even more strongly in Mike Nichols’s 1984 Broadway revival, with Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close: there the opening scene was played in heavily inverted commas in contrast to the emotional reality of what followed. And in Anna Mackmin’s 2010 Old Vic production we saw more clearly than ever the rocky path that the two lead characters take on their journey to maturity: Toby Stephens’s Henry moved from initial superciliousness, via naked desperation, to a humane understanding while Hattie Morahan’s Annie progressed from the reckless excitement of illicit passion to the relative calm of total commitment. If I had to rescue just two Stoppard plays from oblivion, it would be his magnificent TV drama Professional Foul and this one. Like all first-rate plays, it appeals simultaneously to head and heart and is, in the words of an American critic, ‘the best cricket-bat anyone has written in years’.
I’ve little to add to my appraisal of The Real Thing except to congratulate Tom on his 80th birthday and to say something about the generosity of spirit that accompanies his intellectual curiosity. I’ve seen many public examples of that generosity. I’ve heard Tom speak, movingly and well, at memorial services to old friends such as John Wood and Ken Tynan: I specially remember his looking directly at Ken’s children, from the lectern at St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, and saying that ‘for those of us who shared his time, your father was part of the luck we had’. On a lighter note, one of the joys of the London summer was a biennial party Tom threw in Chelsea’s Physic Garden. It was always an idyllic affair – full of good company, great food and extraordinary diversions such as stilt-walkers – where Tom, as host, always somehow found time to speak to his myriad guests. If there is a heaven, you hope it turns out to be a bit like that Stoppard summer party.
But I’ve also seen more private examples of Tom’s instinctive warmth. We always praise him as a writer for his cerebral brio: only recently have we come to explore the bedrock of emotion that animates his plays. But it is there in his life as well. I still remember how, when I wrote a short book on Stoppard, he went out of his way to send me a copy of his adaptation of Vaclav Havel’s Largo Desolato on which the ink was scarcely dry. One particular image has also stuck with me. One night I went to the old Theatre Museum in Covent Garden to see a rare staging of a late, highly political play by Trevor Griffiths; Stoppard was there too and, the instant he clapped eyes on Trevor, he rushed up to embrace him. Ideologically, the two dramatists are poles apart yet Tom was eager to mark both their friendship and their shared professional sympathy. That, I felt, was the real thing.
MB, July 2017