Since Harold Pinter died in 2008, Tom Stoppard has been probably Britain’s greatest living playwright. They were friends, but their work could not be less alike. Pinter runs on menace; for Stoppard, the playfulness is the thing—with erudition as its wingman. His idea of drama is an elegant duel between two ways of thinking.
His masterpiece isn’t easy to pick. Is it the comedy that made his name at Edinburgh in 1966, “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead”? The play that showed he could do feeling, “The Real Thing” (1982)? The work recently voted Britain’s fourth favourite play, “Arcadia” (1993)? Or even the one film script that bears his fingerprints—“Shakespeare in Love” (1998), now a hit play. In terms of revivals, “The Real Thing” wins: it has just been on Broadway yet again, starring Ewan MacGregor and Maggie Gyllenhaal.
For Stoppard, university was a newsroom in Bristol. He was first a reporter, then a drama critic. (Once, applying for a job as a political correspondent, he was asked to name the home secretary. “I said I was interested in politics,” he replied, “not obsessed.”) His plays tended to be art for art’s sake until he became fired up about totalitarianism. Now 77, he remains a prolific adaptor, but a slow originator; his new play, “The Hard Problem”, is his first since “Rock’n’Roll” in 2006.
KEY DECISIONS Two by his mother: (1) to flee the Nazis in Czechoslovakia when her son Tomas was a toddler, and, after losing her husband in the war, (2) to marry a Major Stoppard and move to England. Rather like Nabokov, Tom writes English as if he has just fallen in love with it. And he speaks it in a richly exotic accent: when Alan Bennett recorded “The Wind in the Willows” for the BBC, he borrowed Stoppard’s Rs for Toad.
GOLDEN RULES (1) Be funny. (2) Be referential—“R&G” riffs on “Hamlet”, “Travesties” on “The Importance of Being Earnest”, “Dogg’s Hamlet” on “Hamlet” and the play within it. (3) Be bold. “War is capitalism with the gloves off” (“Travesties”). “I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are” (“The Real Thing”). “Information is light” (“Night and Day”). He used this last line again in a lapidary speech in 2013, as he accepted the PEN/Pinter prize for courage and truthfulness.
STRONG POINTS (1) Paradoxes. “I’m with you on the free press. It’s the newspapers I can’t stand” (“Night and Day”). (2) Grace. In his eulogy for the critic Kenneth Tynan, who bought “R&G” for the National, Stoppard said to Tynan’s children, “For those of us who shared his time, your father was part of the luck we had.” (3) Openings. Precocious teenager in “Arcadia”, to her tutor: “Septimus, what is carnal embrace?” Tutor: “It is the practice of throwing one’s arms around a side of beef.”
FAVOURITE TRICK (1) Making worlds collide—physics and espionage in “Hapgood”, ethics and gymnastics in “Jumpers”, music and Marxism in “Rock’n’Roll”, biography and chaos theory in “Arcadia”. (2) Playing with history. “Travesties” is set in Zurich in 1917, when Lenin, Joyce and Tristan Tzara, father of Dada, were all there; Stoppard’s Joyce is “an essentially private man who wished his total indifference to public notice to be universally recognised”. (3) Tossing in bits of stage business, from a tortoise (“sleepy enough to serve as a paperweight”) to dancing—sometimes used to wrap things up, as if the mind finally defers to the body.
ROLE MODELS Beckett, for his bleak truths. Wilde, for his piercing nonchalance. Shakespeare, for his sense of self—making every character sound like him.
TYPICAL SENTENCES (1) “We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short” (“Arcadia”). (2) “It’s not the voting that’s democracy; it’s the counting” (“Jumpers”).
The Hard Problem National, London, from Jan 21st. Arcadia Theatre Royal, Brighton, Jan 30th, then touring