World Literature

Tom Stoppard

 

BORN: 1937, Zlin, Czechoslovakia

NATIONALITY: English

GENRE: Drama

MAJOR WORKS:

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966)

Jumpers (1972)

Travesties (1974)

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

The Coast of Utopia (2002)

 

 

Tom Stoppard. Stoppard, Tom, photograph. © by Jerry Bauer. Reproduced by permission.

 

Overview

One of England’s most important playwrights, Tom Stoppard has gained a wide international audience. His plays revolutionized modern theater with their uniquely comic combinations of verbal intricacy, complex structure, and philosophical themes.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Born into Conflict. Thomas Straussler (Stoppard) was born on July 3, 1937, in Zlin, Czechoslovakia, to Eugene, a doctor, and Martha Straussler. In 1939, troops from Nazi Germany invaded the country; according to Nazi racial laws, there was ‘‘Jewish blood’’ in the family, so Stoppard’s father was transferred to the island of Singapore in Southeast Asia in 1939, taking the family with him. When the Japanese invaded Singapore in 1942, the women and children were taken to India. Dr. Straussler stayed behind as a British Army volunteer and was killed as a captive in a Japanese prison camp.

From School to Journalism. In Darjeeling, India, Thomas attended an American boarding school. In 1945, his mother married Kenneth Stoppard, a British Army major, and both of her sons took his name. When the family moved to England, Stoppard continued his education at a preparatory school in Yorkshire until the age of seventeen, when he felt that he had had enough schooling. Stoppard became first a reporter and then a critic for the Western Daily Press of Bristol from 1954 to 1958. He left the Daily Press and worked as a reporter for the Evening World, also in Bristol, from 1958 to 1960. Stoppard then worked as a freelance reporter from 1960 to 1963. During these years, he experimented with writing short stories and short plays. In 1962 he moved to London in order to be closer to the center of the publishing and theatrical worlds in the United Kingdom.

Radio Plays. Stoppard’s first radio plays for the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) were aired in 1964, with two more following in 1965—the same year he met and married his first wife, nurse Josie Ingle. His first television play appeared the next year, as did his only novel and the stage play that established his reputation as a playwright, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The play takes two minor characters from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and shows the world of the Danish prince from a different perspective. More than an oblique look at a dramatic classic, it is an examination of existentialist philosophy— the belief that human beings are both free and responsible for their actions and that this responsibility is the source of their feelings of dread and anguish—with protagonists who learn that they are to die and must accept their fate. The play earned Stoppard his first Tony Award in 1966.

Television Plays. That same year, Stoppard produced Tango, based on a work by Slawomir Mrozek, followed by two more television plays in 1967. The year 1968 saw another television play and two short works for the theater. By 1970, after Stoppard returned to the BBC with two more radio plays, two more television plays, and another stage piece, he began to make connections in the world of alternative theater. He became acquainted with Ed Berman from New York City’s off-off-Broadway, who was attempting to establish an alternative theater in London. Stoppard composed a single play for performance in 1971 at the Almost Free Theater, a feeble double bill in 1975, and Night and Day, which prompted lengthy discussion in 1978.

In 1972, the same year Stoppard met and married Miriam Stern, he presented Jumpers, his second major work, which begins with circus acts and evolves into religious and moral philosophy. As philosophical ideas began to eclipse characters in his drama, critics began to get restless. While Stoppard was making a name for himself with intellectual debates over ethics, morality, censorship, and other modern problems, critics were shifting in their seats.

Major Stage Plays. After a collaborative effort with Clive Exton two years later, Stoppard produced his third major work, Travesties. The play is based on the premise that Vladimir Lenin, James Joyce, and Tristan Tzara all lived in Zurich, Switzerland, during World War I. Stoppard illuminates the purpose and significance of art by fostering the interaction of the three men’s theories: Lenin’s Marxism, Joyce’s modernism, and Tzara’s Dadaism. Travesties won Stoppard his second Tony Award in 1976.

A year later, Stoppard presented Every Good Boy Deserves Eavour, a tour de force premiered by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the hundred-piece London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andre Previn at the Royal Festival Hall. Brought to the United States, it was presented at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York with an eighty-one-piece orchestra. Concerning a dissident in an Iron Curtain country who has been placed in a mental institution, the play’s attack on the totalitarian state was the author’s strongest political statement up to that time. He was named a commander of the British Empire that same year.

The year 1979 brought three more plays, and by 1982, Stoppard was delivering his fourth major work. The Real Thing won Stoppard another Tony Award in 1984, but again critical opinion was divided: Some reviews touted Stoppard’s continued combination of humor and complexity, while other critics, such as Robert Brustein, discounted the work as just ‘‘another clever exercise in the Mayfair mode, where all of the characters ... share the same wit, artifice and ornamental diction.’’

Multiple Successes. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Stoppard enjoyed a series of successes, including the Emmy Award-nominated television play Squaring the Circle (1984); the Academy Award-nominated screenplay Brazil (1985); and the Academy Award-winning screenplay Shakespeare in Love. He was knighted in 1997 and elevated to the Order of Merit in 2000. Also in 2000, Stoppard’s play The Real Thing was performed in a limited engagement at the Albery Theatre, London, before opening on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. It won a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play.

In 2006, Stoppard’s significantly revised trilogy of plays, The Coast of Utopia, opened at its U.S. premiere in New York City. It is also heavily rumored that the successful playwright was on-site to assist with the dialogue in George Lucas’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005), as well as in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999). On June 3, 2006, Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in London. As with Stoppard’s former successes, the play received mixed reviews for its controversial treatment of anticommunist, leftist, and artistic dissent. The rock music-driven drama opened in February 2007 at Prague’s National Theatre and in November 2007 at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre in New York, where it was scheduled to run until March 2008.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Stoppard's famous contemporaries include:

Vladimir Bukovsky (1942-): Russian author and activist. Bukovsky is most noted for being a former Soviet political dissident.

Vaclav Havel (1936-): Czech writer and dramatist who was the ninth and final president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic.

Mick Jagger (1943-): An English rock musician who performs as the front man for one of the world's most successful bands, the Rolling Stones.

Peter O'Toole (1932-): An award-winning Irish actor often remembered for his iconic performance in Lawrence of Arabia.

Edward Albee (1928-): An American playwright associated with the theater of the absurd, which explores domestic frustration and anguish.

Andre Previn (1930-), a German-born American awardwinning pianist, composer, and conductor.

 

Works in Literary Context

Complexity. Describing Stoppard’s style, critic and scholar Enoch Brater notes in Essays on Contemporary British Drama how Stoppard presents ‘‘a funny play’’ in which he ‘‘makes coherent, in terms of theatre, a fairly complicated intellectual argument.’’ Brater also adds, ‘‘That the argument is worth making, that it is constantly developing and sharpening its focus, and that it always seeks to engage an audience in a continuing dialogue, are the special characteristics of Stoppard’s dramatic achievement. They are also the features which dignify and ultimately transform the comic tradition to which his work belongs.’’ Brater has summarized the complexity of language, ideas, and technique as they are so skillfully combined with humor.

Entertainments. ‘‘Writing entertainments,’’ Stoppard told interviewer Mel Gussow, is what he considers he has been doing all along. Stoppard does, however, understand that his humor is complicated by intellectual ideas that sometimes displace the characters. Between fun plays like The Real Inspector Hound and ‘‘plays of ideas like Jumpers,’ he told Gussow, ‘‘the confusion arises because I treat plays of ideas in just about the same knockabout way as I treat the entertainments.’’ Still, he reasoned to Washington Post interviewer Joseph McLellan, ‘‘The stuff I write tends to work itself out in comedy terms most of the time.’’

Humor in Problematic Truth. Whatever the degree of comedy or seriousness in Stoppard’s approach, scholar and critic Benedict Nightingale of the New York Times concludes that Stoppard is consistent in the themes he examines: ‘‘All along he’s confronted dauntingly large subjects, all along he’s asked dauntingly intricate questions about them, and all along he’s sought to touch the laugh glands as well as the intellect.’’ Because of the contrasting light tone and cerebral weightiness of his plays, however, others have made specific efforts to define Stoppard’s thematic concerns as he presents them within his plays. His ideas encompass such concepts as ‘‘the nature of perception, art, illusion and reality, the relativity of meaning, and the problematic status of truth,’’ scholar Anne Wright observes in a Dictionary of Literary Biography article, with ‘‘recurring themes includ[ing] chance, choice, freedom, identity, memory, time, and death.’’ Stoppard, however, has offered a simpler interpretation. Speaking to Tom Prideaux of Look, the enigmatic playwright said, ‘‘One writes about human beings under stress—whether it is about losing one’s trousers or being nailed to the cross.’’

Influences. Stoppard has been said to show—and sometimes admits to showing—influences from Henry James, James Joyce, and A. E. Housman, as well as absurdists such as Polish writer Vaclav Havel and Irish minimalist writer Samuel Beckett. Stoppard also takes inspiration from the works of existentialist philosophers, such as Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, primarily since existentialism is a fundamental part of the Theater of the Absurd. Because of Stoppard’s unique and unmatched approach to blending such schools of thought and such wit with traditional theatrical conventions, the full measure of the impact Stoppard has had on others is yet to be seen.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Stoppard is celebrated for his linguistically playful and experimental style. Other works known for their linguistic virtuosity include:

Endgame (1957), a play by Samuel Beckett. In this one-act play, the action is minimal and the dialogue is absurdly unique.

The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), a play by Oscar Wilde. In this comedy of manners, the dialogue is stark and explosive with irony, sarcasm, and social puns.

Lolita (1955), a novel by Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov's novel is renowned for its wordplay and innovative form.

 

Works in Critical Context

Against Classification Because Stoppard’s work demonstrates a union of the intellectual to convey ideas with the emotional to express dark humor, several critics have made efforts to classify his works as either philosophical or humorous. Stoppard, however, diplomatically discourages efforts at classification. As he told Newsweek’s Jack Kroll, ‘‘Theater is an event, not a text. I respond to spectacle. Ambushing the audience is what theater is all about.’’

A Serious Comic Writer. This ‘‘ambush,’’ the way he shrewdly infuses his plays with sophisticated concepts, is what keeps the critics talking. As Washington Post writer Michael Billington described, Stoppard ‘‘can take a complex idea, deck it out in fancy dress and send it skipping and gamboling in front of large numbers of people,’’ for the playwright has ‘‘a matchless ability to weave into a serious debate boffo laughs and knockdown zingers.’’ Stoppard scholar Joan Fitzpatrick Dean concurred, saying, ‘‘Like the best comic dramatists, his gift for language and physical comedy fuses with an active perception of the excesses, eccentricities, and foibles of man.’’

Critic Enoch Brater summarized the essence of Tom Stoppard, saying, ‘‘Stoppard is that peculiar anomaly—a serious comic writer born in an age of tragicomedy and a renewed interest in theatrical realism. Such deviation from dramatic norms ... marks his original signature on the contemporary English stage,’’ for his ‘high comedy of ideas’ is a refreshing exception to the rule.’’ Among the plays that best demonstrate this is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. ‘‘Stoppard’s virtuosity was immediately apparent’’ in his first major dramatic work, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, New York Times critic Mel Gussow asserted. The play revisits Shakespeare’s Hamlet through the eyes of the two players whose task of delivering Hamlet’s death sentence prompts their own execution instead. Vaguely aware of the scheming at Elsinore and their own irrelevance to it, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern meander through the drama playing games of language and chance until they cease to exist. ‘‘In focusing on Shakespeare’s minor characters Stoppard does not fill out their lives but rather extends their thinness,’’ writer Anne Wright observed. By turning Hamlet ‘‘inside out’’ in this way, the play is ‘‘simultaneously frivolous in conception but dead serious in execution,’’ Brater added, and it addresses issues of existentialism reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s drama Waiting for Godot. The result, Brater concluded, ‘‘is not only a relaxed view of Hamlet, but a new kind of comic writing halfway between parody and travesty.’’ Especially notable is the play’s innovative use of language and Shakespeare’s actual text. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead interweaves references to Hamlet with actual lines of the bard’s verse. Stoppard packs the drama with ‘‘intricate word plays, colliding contradictions and verbal and visual puns,’’ describes Gussow. This ‘‘stylistic counterpoint of Shakespeare’s poetry and rhetoric with the colloquial idiom of the linguistic games and music-hall patterns’’ proves very effective, Wright commented. ‘‘Stoppard’s lines pant with inner panic,’’ a Time reviewer noted, as the title characters, according to Village Voice’s Michael Smith, ultimately ‘‘talk themselves out of existence.’’ The play became one of Stoppard’s most popular and acclaimed works: Twenty years after its premiere, Gussow contended, it ‘‘remains an acrobatic display of linguistic pyrotechnics as well as a provocative existential comedy about life in limbo.’’ Jack Kroll of Newsweek concluded that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern established ‘‘the characteristic Stoppard effect.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia features the character Mikhail Bakunin, a real-life anarchist in prerevolutionary Russia. Find out more about Bakunin’s philosophy by reading his God and the State, an unfinished work penned around 1871.

2. Stoppard reimagines the action of Hamlet from the point of view of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Pick another character from Hamlet—perhaps Ophelia, Gertrude, Horatio, or Polonius. Imagine the story from their point of view. Write a narrative in the voice of the character you pick describing the action of the play.

3. Make a list of puns and word play in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. How do these elements contribute to character development? What can you tell about each character by the language, puns, and humor he displays?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Barnes, Clive. 50 Best Plays of the American Theatre. New York: Crown Publishers, 1969.

Bock, Hedwig, and Albert Wertheim, eds. Essays on Contemporary British Drama. Munich: Huber, 1981.

British Dramatists since World War II. Volume 13 of Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale, 1982.

Brustein, Robert. The Third Theatre. New York: Knopf, 1969.

Dean, Joan Fitzpatrick. Tom Stoppard: Comedy as a Moral Matrix. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1981.

Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1985. Detroit: Gale, 1985.

Gussow, Mel. Conversations with Stoppard. London: Nick Hern, 1995.

Hunter, Jim. Tom Stoppard: A Faber Critical Guide. London: Faber & Faber, 2000.

Kelly, Katherine E. The Cambridge Companion to Tom Stoppard. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Periodicals

Billington, Michael and Joseph McLellan. Washington Post (May 11, 1969; June 25, 1969; July 9, 1969; August 29, 1978; November 26, 1978; January 12, 1984; May 23, 1985).

Gussow, Mel, and Benedict Nightingale. New York Times (November 27, 1994); (April 9, 1995): H5.

Kroll, Jack. Newsweek (April 3, 1995): 64-65; (February 8, 1999): 58.

Prideaux, Tom. Look (December 26, 1967); (February 9, 1968).

Smith, Michael. Village Voice (May 4, 1967); (October 26, 1967); (May 2, 1974).

Time (October 27, 1967); (August 9, 1968); (March 11, 1974); (May 6, 1974); (June 20, 1983); (August 24, 1992): 69; (July 19, 1993): 60.

Web sites

Levity.com. Tom Stoppard (1937—). Retrieved February 14, 2008, from http://www.levity.com/corduroy/stoppard.htm.

Malaspina Great Books. Modern Theatre: Tom Stoppard. Retrieved February 14, 2008, from http://www.mala.bc.ca/~MCNEIL/stoppard.htm.