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Stoppard's Theatre

Stoppard's Theatre
Finding Order amid Chaos

John Fleming offers the first book-length assessment of Tom Stoppard’s work in nearly a decade.

Series: Literary Modernism Series, Thomas F. Staley, series editor

December 2001
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343 pages | 6 x 9 |

With a thirty-year run of award-winning, critically acclaimed, and commercially successful plays, from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1967) to The Invention of Love (1997), Tom Stoppard is arguably the preeminent playwright in Britain today. His popularity also extends to the United States, where his plays have won three Tony awards and his screenplay for Shakespeare in Love won the 1998 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

John Fleming offers the first book-length assessment of Stoppard's work in nearly a decade. He takes an in-depth look at the three newest plays (Arcadia, Indian Ink, and The Invention of Love) and the recently revised versions of Travesties and Hapgood, as well as at four other major plays (Rosencrantz, Jumpers, Night and Day, and The Real Thing). Drawing on Stoppard's personal papers at the University of Texas Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center (HRHRC), Fleming also examines Stoppard's previously unknown play Galileo, as well as numerous unpublished scripts and variant texts of his published plays.

Fleming also mines Stoppard's papers for a fuller, more detailed overview of the evolution of his plays. By considering Stoppard's personal views (from both his correspondence and interviews) and by examining his career from his earliest scripts and productions through his most recent, this book provides all that is essential for understanding and appreciating one of the most complex and distinctive playwrights of our time.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Annotated Chronology of Stoppard's Career
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Career before Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
  • Chapter 2: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
  • Chapter 3: Galileo
  • Chapter 4: Jumpers
  • Chapter 5: Travesties
  • Chapter 6: Examining Eastern Bloc Repression
  • Chapter 7: Night and Day
  • Chapter 8: The Real Thing
  • Chapter 9: Hapgood
  • Chapter 10: Arcadia
  • Chapter 11: Indian Ink
  • Chapter 12: The Invention of Love
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

John Fleming is Director of Graduate Studies in the Theatre Department at Southwest Texas State University.


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In 1977, ten years after Tom Stoppard's breakthrough success with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Kenneth Tynan, prominent critic and longtime Literary Manager for England's National Theatre, asserted that in terms of international prestige, the standard of British playwriting was held by Harold Pinter, Peter Shaffer, and Stoppard. Since that assessment Pinter has done limited writing for the stage, while Shaffer's post-1980 work has received a mixed reaction. In contrast, Stoppard has consistently continued to garner both critical acclaim and commercial success. Of his nine major plays—Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1967), Jumpers (1972), Travesties (1974), Night and Day (1978), The Real Thing (1982), Hapgood (1988), Arcadia (1993), Indian Ink (1995), and The Invention of Love (1997)—only Hapgood and Indian Ink have failed to win one of London's Best New Play Awards. Beyond their status as award-winners these plays merit study and production by virtue of their intelligence, theatricality, and linguistic mastery.

Stoppard's plays cover an eclectic array of themes and topics. From the world of science, he has tapped into the metaphoric potential of quantum physics and chaos theory. From philosophy, he has dramatized logical positivism, Wittgenstein's language games, and debates over whether morality is relative and socially constructed or grounded in metaphysical absolutes. Questions about the social responsibilities of the artist, journalist, and politician appear in plays that examine the role and nature of art, the relative merits of a free press, and the injustices and human rights violations of pre-perestroika Eastern Bloc politics. He has explored the nature of love and the requirements of intimate human relationships. He has considered the effects of colonialism as seen through a conflict of cultures and aesthetics. Interwoven through many of these plays are the recurrent issues of the nature of personal identity as well as the unreliability or variability of human memory and perspective. Cumulatively, Stoppard's work has been concerned with the social, moral, metaphysical, and personal condition of being human in an unstable, uncertain world.

While comedy is always a central feature, Stoppard has consciously explored different narrative techniques. He once remarked that ultimately he would like "to have done a bit of absolutely everything" (Watts, "Tom Stoppard," 47). Indeed, eclecticism is one of the hallmarks of Stoppard's canon, and it is a trait that makes his work appear fresh, vital, and enduring. While he has treated a diversity of subjects, a constant in Stoppard's work has been his preoccupation with aesthetics, with the formal properties of play construction, and above all with style. For Stoppard, a writer's only obligation is "to write well" (Freedman), and plays are "good" or "important" if the writing is "of a very high order" and not because of its social content (Hudson, Itzin, and Trussler 68). While Stoppard champions style, it is not, as Thomas Whitaker asserts, an end in itself. Stoppard's stylistic bravura and theatricality are always yoked to, and in service of, some more substantial ideas, ideas often antithetical to Whitaker's interpretations.

Stoppard sometimes gets labeled a postmodernist, but to my mind, he is more accurately seen as continuing and extending high modernism's experimentation with aesthetic expression. Like modernist writers he admires (e.g., Joyce, Eliot, and Wilde), Stoppard downplays the social function of art, rarely writing works that directly engage the social-historical moment. Instead he rigorously pursues aesthetic effect and innovation. Furthermore, the ideology that informs his work is decidedly conventional: Stoppard firmly believes in the values associated with Western, liberal humanism. In Theory of the Avant-Garde Peter Burger argues that modernism's noninstrumental aestheticism makes modern art the institutional collaborator of modern bourgeois ideology. Indeed, Stoppard lives the life of the bourgeois intellectual, and his work revolves around the values, views, and ideology of that lifestyle. While Stoppard is indebted to the art that has gone before him, his artistry is not linked to any one particular school of playwriting, but instead Stoppard embodies the Romantic notion of the artistic genius; his artistic vision has followed a determined course of individualism. This idea of the artistic genius who can not be neatly explained by the sociopolitical context of the historical moment may be at odds with contemporary literary theory, yet it seems to me the most accurate way to assess Stoppard's work. That said, each play will be considered in light of the personal, historical moment of Stoppard's life and career.

One of the most debated aspects of Stoppard's canon concerns the interpretation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (henceforth Rosguil), Jumpers, and Travesties. Some scholars read these plays as exhibiting the relativist values of absurdism, existentialism, and structure for structure's sake. In contrast, more traditional scholars dispute these readings as being blind to the internal evidence that upholds Stoppard's own professed support of "Western liberal democracy, favoring an intellectual elite and a progressive middle class and based on a moral order derived from Christian absolutes" ("But for the Middle Classes"). These scholars argue that beneath the originality of Stoppard's dramatic structures fairly traditional dramaturgy is not only at work but in service of the ideas articulated in the play's dialogue. In contrast, the postmodern and poststructuralist critics elevate form to the level of content and meaning as they valorize form in and of itself, thereby deprivileging the dialogue as they argue that Stoppard's plays accent the unknowability of the world, the elusiveness of true knowledge, the fallibility of human memory, and the relativity of almost all aspects of life. My own interpretations draw on both sets of scholars. Plays do not possess one clear meaning, but rather are open to a multitude of responses, albeit some interpretations may be considered more valid than others. Thus, at times both the traditional and the postmodern critics are accurate, but on particular points I argue that there are reasons for favoring one or the other and sometimes these seemingly polar readings can be mutually valid in a both/and paradigm. Kenneth Tynan suggests the paradoxical nature of Stoppard and his work when he speculates that Stoppard believes in "a universe in which everything is relative, yet in which moral absolutes exist" (56). Indeed, in the chapter on Professional Foul I use Robert Kane's philosophy to elucidate how I believe Stoppard melds relative and absolute perspectives into a consistent worldview. This both/and paradigm permeates much of Stoppard's canon and will be most clearly seen in the discussion of deterministic chaos and Arcadia, the play that weds the pre- and post- Travesties Stoppard.

When Stoppard writes a play he assumes an audience similar to himself. Likewise, I am writing this book assuming an audience that has an interest and affinity for Stoppard. I write from the perspective of a scholar, a teacher, an audience member (both viewing and reading), and a practitioner (a playwright and director). Coming from, and writing for, these multiple identities and perspectives requires a consideration of different types of information. Practitioners tend to be more pragmatic than theoretical, and thus there is some justification in John Stride's (the original Rosencrantz in London) statement on the relative irrelevancy of the philosophical content of Rosguil for an actor: "You tell me the philosophy that is expressed in the play and I'll tell you if I tried to cope with it.... I don't think it's much good to an actor in performing a role" (Faraone 39). On the other hand, I think that Faraone is also correct when she says: "Perhaps one of the reasons [John] Wood has become the quintessential Stoppardian actor is the incisive quality of his intelligence" (39-40). In other words, while the production team and actors need to present the more "concrete" elements of the play, an understanding of the abstract ideas that permeate Stoppard's work is information worth knowing, even if those abstractions are not directly translated to the stage. (Indeed, my brief overviews of quantum physics (for Hapgood) and chaos theory (for Arcadia) are nowhere near as in depth as the coverage that Stoppard supplied the original casts.) Likewise, the audience member experiences the play via the live presence of the actor and the mise-en-scene, the reader via the written text, and ideally they are, as Stoppard says, "moved to tears or to laughter" ("Playwrights and Professors"). They are also likely "moved to thought." Many of Stoppard's plays challenge the receiver to think, to grapple with intellectual ideas. For students, teachers, and practitioners, I hope that this work helps elucidate and illuminate these complex plays. For scholars already well versed in Stoppard's work, new insights may be found in the notes, as the nuances culled from Stoppard's papers have often been placed there. Overall, I hope that this book will provide not only some measure of explanation but also stimulation for further thought, and a desire to experience Stoppard on the stage and on the page.

While much has been written about Stoppard, this book is as much a work of theatre history as it is of literary criticism. It documents Stoppard's career, the development of individual plays, and it draws on existing scholarship so as to provide sound interpretations of the plays while also pointing the way toward alternative perspectives and further avenues of study. This book benefits from my being the first scholar to examine in depth Stoppard's personal papers, which are now housed at the University of Texas's Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center (HRHRC).

Stoppard's Theatre seeks to locate Stoppard in his plays. By emphasizing the centrality of Stoppard himself I do not mean to suggest that I am offering biographical readings of his plays or positing authorial intent as the definitive meaning. In contemporary literary theory authorial intention is often discredited, but if one repositions Stoppard as a reader of his work and views intention as simply one reading of the work rather than the definitive meaning, it can be a useful tool for opening up potential interpretations of the plays. Stoppard aptly argues: "It's always worth trying what the author had in mind, even if you decide not do it" (Watts, "Tom Stoppard," 48). Conversely, Stoppard is also wise enough to acknowledge: "There's no superior truth in my description of the play. The main trouble with the premise is that none of these thoughts is a consideration while writing a play. It's all kind of fake, and the interview makes you fake by allowing retrospective ideas to masquerade as some form of intention" (Buck 70). This work draws extensitely on Stoppard's comments in his interviews and his correspondence, not so much to treat his views as "the superior truth," but rather as information that is relevant and worth knowing. On the other hand, I point out a number of moments where Stoppard's view does not seem to be the most accurate description of a given event, circumstance, attitude, or idea. Likewise, I note instances where his private correspondence contradicts his public pronouncements.

Stoppard has often described theatre as an event, not a text, meaning that his plays are designed to live and breathe on the stage and are meant to be experienced in the theatre. Likewise, Stoppard notes that for each given production there is an equation to be gotten right. However, the ephemeral nature of a stage production makes it difficult to provide a detailed analysis of the actual stagings. On the other hand, by researching prompt books and production photos and by viewing the major productions of the 1990s I have occasionally been able to add insights gained from the London and New York stagings. (Often that information appears in the notes.) While his eclectic themes are partially conveyed by dialogue and character, Stoppard, in conjunction with collaborators, often employs a controlling metaphor that illuminates the central ideas. The metaphor and ideas are theatricalized not only by the dramatic structure but also by the stage images. While I tread through the familiar ground of themes and structures, I have tried to include a theatrical, as opposed to a purely literary, perspective.

A further feature of Stoppard's theatricality is the mutability of his written texts. Stoppard views the play text as but one of many production elements, and he has sometimes altered his writing to fit a particular production consideration. This view of the text as a kinetic object has resulted in plays that have evolved over the years and through different productions. One of Stoppard's most revelatory statements comes in his author's note to the Samuel French acting edition of Rosguil: "There is no definitive text of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.... I doubt that the same text has been performed in two different places anywhere in the world. This seems to me only sensible" (3). While Stoppard is rightly hailed for his literary qualities, it is important to keep in mind that he is first and foremost a man of the theatre, an art form that is ephemeral. Thus, the theatricality of Stoppard's plays includes the fact that they are flexible objects that have been, and that can be, adapted to the individual circumstances of different productions.

The first chapter covers Stoppard's career from his decision to turn to playwriting in 1960 to the success of Rosguil in 1967. It provides description and analysis of nine unpublished scripts (most notably Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Meet King Lear and The Gamblers), works not previously examined by scholars. These early efforts show Stoppard's development as a writer, not only in terms of honing his style and skill, but also in thematic terms. This chapter also offers the revelations of Stoppard's correspondence with Anthony C. H. Smith, his best friend, mentor, and source of both financial and emotional support during the seven years of doubt and development. Through these letters, which Stoppard will not allow to be quoted, one gets glimpses of the private man who can be as much of a stylist in his personal writing as he is in his plays. The presuccess letters hint at the mind-set and emotions, the alternations of self-doubt and self-confidence, that bubbled under the cool surface during the years of struggle and striving.

Through individual chapters, the remainder of this book emphasizes Stoppard's nine major plays (listed above). These major plays represent the times that Stoppard deliberately crafted a full-length play for the West End or for one of the subsidized, establishment theatres (Royal National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company). A separate chapter is also devoted to Galileo, the only unproduced, unpublished stage work of Stoppard's post-Rosguil career. This previously unknown Stoppard work was intended for production at the London Planetarium, but the project was shelved, and the manuscript removed from circulation until it was delivered to the HRHRC. One other chapter discusses two of Stoppard's plays on pre-perestroika Eastern Bloc politics (Every Good Boy Deserves Favor and Professional Foul). Due to considerations of lengeh, fine stage comedies and radio works such as The Real Inspector Hound, Dirty Linen, After Magritte, Albert's Bridge, and Artist Descending a Staircase are only mentioned in passing. Finally, the conclusion looks at Stoppard within the context of related theatrical traditions, contemporary British theatre, and ehe cyclic mode of aesthetic/thematic explorations that he has used to create his canon.

While there are thematic and stylistic interconnections between his plays, I do not yoke them to an overall thesis. An overarching thesis offers a certain clarity of focus, but of een results in the manipulation and distortion of evidence to fit the preordained pattern. In contrast, I concur with Stoppard's view of his canon: "I am not consciously playing this hand of cards at all. Every play seems a new start for me, and then somebody quite like you points out that there are all these cross references in them. But then that is what you would expect because there is one person there with a pen in his hand" (Fleming, "A Talk," 25). In this study I treat the plays in isolation and point to interconnections when I find them illuminating. Likewise, while there are connections between the chapters, each chapter stands on its own. Thus, I hope this book can meet the needs of those interested in individual plays as well as those seeking a fuller view of Stoppard.

The methodology in each chapter is not identical, but rather, depending on the availability of information and its relevancy, the following considerations may be included: point of origin or personal connection to Stoppard, explication of the central ideas addressed, evolution of the script through different published or produced versions, and thematic analysis of the text and production. For my analysis I largely rely on "close readings" as I directly relate my interpretation to the specific moment of text under study. For some of the cornerstones of Stoppard's canon (e.g., Rosguil) I have synthesized the extensive scholarship available with my own insights so as to provide a wellreasoned interpretation. For ehese older plays I often side with the dominant interpretation, but in the text and notes I also point toward alternative interpretations. In examining these plays, I foreground Stoppard's presence, as each chapter places the play in the context of the personal, historical moment of Stoppard's life and career. These chapters consider the questions: Where and how did the central ideas originate? Where does Stoppard personally stand on the issues addressed? How and why did Stoppard revise his texts? This last question leads to one of the unique features of my coverage of Stoppard's canon, a more detailed consideration of the variant texts that exist for all his major plays.

Unlike many other studies, my approach and methodology foregrounds the fact that plays are like quantum objects in that they have a dual nature, both as events to be produced and experienced and as written texts to be read. Furthermore, the written texts exist in multiple states and the quantum jump from text to production can vary significantly depending on the particular production; thus, how one encounters the play will influence one's reaction and interpretation. Aware of this fact, my analyses of Stoppard's major plays do not treat the plays as completely stable objects. It is important to acknowledge that for many of Stoppard's plays there is no definitive text, but rather multiple variant texts. Since the reader and producer only have access to the published texts, my discussions of the plays are based on them. However, the HRHRC has prerehearsal drafts and alternate versions that have been produced but not published, and so, in the notes, I have included discussion of some of the more interesting and illuminating alterations and excisions. For example, when analyzing Rosguil, I have examined the 1966 Edinburgh text, 1967 National Theatre text, 1967 Broadway text, 1968 unproduced screenplay, and 1990 film, thus extending a consideration of this play into its different incarnations. Overall, I have tried to document the major distinctions between the different texts and have noted how the variances affect meaning. That information also points to the many options available to producers.

In addition to considering multiple variant texts, my discussions of Stoppard's major plays are the first to include the insights culled from his correspondence. While neither extensive nor comprehensive, the HRHRC does include exchanges with producers, directors, and translators. These letters and memos foreground Stoppard's personal views on his plays and their ideas, but I have also noted places where Stoppard's retrospective interpretation seems to be at odds with his written texts, or places where his professed statements in interviews are contradicted by his private correspondence.

The most recent single-authored, book-length study of Stoppard's work was published in 1992, but since that time his canon of major plays has been significantly transformed. Not only have Arcadia, Indian Ink, and The Invention of Love appeared, but also Travesties and Hapgood have been produced and published in substantially altered form. Thus, my discussion of Stoppard's canon is able to reexamine old texts via the fresh insights of Stoppard's personal papers while also extending the scope of the study into new texts not previously examined by scholars. By considering Stoppard's personal views and by examining his career from his earliest scripts through his most recent, I hope to place Stoppard "front and center" so as to provide all that is essential for understanding and appreciating the work of one of the most gifted and distinctive playwrights.


“The fullest and most complete analysis of Stoppard’s works from their first presentations to later revivals, this book is a must for anyone contemplating a production of any of Stoppard’s plays. Strongly recommended for college and university libraries and for theater professionals.”

“. . . a thoughtful and well-considered appreciation of Stoppard’s theatrical work. . . . It will be of value to directors as well as to theater instructors and playwriting classes.”
Library Journal

“. . . a clear, readable and eminently useful account of Stoppard’s work for the stage.”
American Theatre


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