Sir Tom Stoppard, an appreciation of theatre’s philosopher king

24th January 2015

Tom Stoppard
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Tom Stoppard: theatre’s philosopher king

A new play from Tom Stoppard looms, his first for nine years: The Hard Problem. Not – dare one say this? – his snappiest title. Not up there with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which made his name overnight in 1966, while he was still in his 20s. And not nearly as arresting as Arcadia, that 1993 masterpiece of wit and erudition woven across two centuries of action, encompassing Newtonian physics, chaos theory, landscape gardening and much, much else besides, which confirmed him as the genius he had long been hailed as being.

Compared, too, with his last work at the National, in 2002, The Coast of Utopia – an epic trilogy about Russian thinkers and radicals – the new play seems to promise an evening hard and problematical. I’m slightly surprised that Nicholas Hytner, who’s directing it as his swansong production at the NT, waved that title through. But the play is effectively sold out for the entire booking period. There are plenty of people prepared to sign up for an evening on the strength of Stoppard’s name, contents barely known.

The basic scenario involves “a young psychology researcher at a brain science institute” who’s spurred by “a private sorrow” to ask questions that put her at odds with her mentor, her boss and the institute’s founder. Stoppard has told Time Out New York that “it’s really a play in which the characters are concerned with the problem of consciousness – what consciousness is and why it exists. That’s probably all I should say about it.”
It could, of course, be underwhelming. Does anyone remember Hapgood, which came before Arcadia and might even have spurred him on to write that far better science-based play? That was an attempt at a Cold War espionage thriller involving double-agents and identical twins. It studiously latched itself at a metaphorical level to particle physics and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Not even the presence of Felicity Kendal, Nigel Hawthorne and Roger Rees could save it from being one of the Eighties’ more effortful West End experiences.

And yet a little vignette of Stoppard during the fraught period of previews for Hapgood, which gets relayed in Ira Nadel’s useful (if little adulated) 2002 biography, explains, I think, why he enjoys an unusual rapport with, and respect from, theatregoers. During the tryouts in Wimbledon, “a woman came out baffled by the complexities of the play to find Stoppard leaning on the bonnet of his car, writing furiously. ‘I didn’t understand that at all,’ she complained. ‘I know, I know,’ said an unhappy Stoppard, ‘but I’m trying to improve it.’  ”

That may not be an anecdote he relishes, but it catches the spirit of the man. He has supreme natural gifts as a writer yet often chooses the path that entails the most industry, and greatest potential hazard. While he has mustered a gilded sideline in screenwriting (most dazzlingly with Shakespeare in Love), at 77 it’s still his appetite for the stage that defines him – and he seems to like biting off more than he can chew, asking us to do the same.

Where some playwrights might take as their subject unemployment in Stockport, Stoppard peers at the more abstruse end of existence. Where most writers aspire to be society’s campfire storytellers, he’s looking at the shadows cast by the flames and asking whether any of it is real. He’s British theatre’s self-appointed philosopher-king, assuming a duty of care for our intellectual life. He courts accusations of pretension and even perverting the natural course of theatrical endeavour; after all, aren’t writers supposed to write what they know about? Stoppard – an autodidact and bibliophile, who skipped university and abandoned a promising early career in journalism, lured away by theatre’s investigative potential – writes about what he wants to know about.

Received ideas about the need for well-rounded characters get short shrift. “I write plays because dialogue is the most respectable way of contradicting myself,” he once famously said. And again: “Writing a play is to write some kind of equation; it’s got to be an elegant equation.” And again: “What I like to do is take a stereotype and betray it, rather than create an original character. I never try to invent characters. All my best characters are clichés.” The central conceit’s the thing – around that might be spun wordplay, puns and paradoxes, together with the more regular trappings of drama. The intellectual quest is where he starts; that doesn’t rule out the operations of the human heart but it floats scepticism about any simple safety valve of emotional release.

It might have been assumed that his last play, 2006’s Rock ’n’ Roll, marked the perfect end point for his stage-writing career. The play, a tribute to the rock dissidents of Czechoslovakia when it was under Communism, revisited the land of his birth. Stoppard was born Tomas Straussler in 1937, the son of a shoe factory doctor; the upheavals of the mid-20th century meant that his early life was that of a Jewish refugee, pitching up – via Australia, Singapore and India – in an England that gave him a home (for which he has always been grateful) and a conventional family life (his mother remarried after his father perished in the war). Rock ’n’ Roll ends with a clip of the Rolling Stones playing Prague in 1990, after the Wall came down. A neat moment for this child of the Sixties to bow out?
But he has more to say – or ask. And contrary to the erroneous view that he hops from subject to subject, almost on passing whim, the “problem of consciousness” was noticeably lurking in Rock ’n’ Roll, which features a protracted discussion about the Greek poet Sappho’s description of being in love. A Czech academic argues that the poet could contemplate the effect of love while remaining wholly outside of it. That’s scoffed at by Max, a diehard communist lecturer, who suggests the “mind” is an illusion: “Her mind is her brain. The brain is a biological machine for thinking. If it wasn’t for the merely technical problem of understanding how it works, we could make one out of – beer cans. It would be the size of a stadium but it would sit there, going, ‘I think, therefore I am.’ ”

Looking back across the corpus of Stoppard’s work, you see how teeming it is with questions about the life of the mind, and our life in the mind. In Enter a Free Man (1968), his debut in effect (it derived from a 1963 television play), the anti-hero, George Riley, a hopeless middle-aged inventor, leans on “I think therefore I am!” as a consoling catchphrase; so far as the rest of the world is concerned, however, he’s a nobody.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead – that sidelong look at Hamlet through the perspective of its two most significant minor players – begins by resembling a student jape, but the reason it endures is that it touches the core of recurrent Stoppardian preoccupations: who’s calling the shots? Is there any real free will? Perhaps these ghosts in Hamlet’s machine, desperately staving off the worry that they don’t “matter” and lack tangible agency, are like us.
Indebted, plainly, to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot for this breakthrough hit, Stoppard inherited too the post-war apprehension of a godless universe. Thereafter the ambit of his work stretches as far as the edges of the scientifically known and into the deepest interiors of the human skull. The result is a continual collision of ideas and implosion of personalities.
There was a period – even in the aftermath of Arcadia, his greatest success (a new production of which begins a regional tour at the end of this month) – when it looked as though Stoppard might become a marginalised figure. The new writing scene became angrier, nastier; taste shifted away towards the less polished, less highfalutin. But by sticking at it – by having the courage of his lack of convictions, you might say – his high-minded approach appears to have been vindicated. His spirit feels attuned to the internet age with its relish for quotable wit and hunger for knowledge; the world got smarter, more cerebral, but perhaps more uncertain, more overloaded with existential conundrums.

His generation has been intensely long-lived in its productivity – think of Alan Bennett, Edward Bond, Caryl Churchill, Michael Frayn; all long past nominal retirement, all still going. But I’d suggest that it’s his influence that’s beginning to be most visibly evident in the younger generation. He has blazed a trail for brainboxes and clever-clogs. His example can be detected in the intellectual flash, flair and dare of director Rupert Goold, in the scientific and conjectural relish of Nick Payne’s “multiverse” drama Constellations, or Lucy Prebble’s exhilarating play about brain science and the pharmaceutical industry, The Effect. When he finally stops, as he must, there will be a Stoppard-shaped hole in our theatre culture; but he has already thrown down the gauntlet, and I’d argue the means, too, for others to fill it.

First published in the Daily Telegraph, 24 January 2015.

This article was originally published here

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Dominic Cavendish - Theatre Critic & Journalist

Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive Theatrevoice

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