Playwright Tom Stoppard; Wit ricochets off every surface

One suspects that deep in his lanky, British heart, playwright Tom Stoppard simply enjoys ducking out the back door.

Just when you think you've got this gangly and elusive writer cornered and about to confess what he means by all those absurdist little plays he keeps writing, he starts smirking and bolts, leaving you convulsed with laughter over a choice literary bon mot he has just detonated.

He seems to be saying: Really, I am just an innocent lad romping through fields of plot and punch lines with a quill stuck behind my ear. Don't ask me to be serious or explain all those drama awards pinned to my chest.

It's an oddly self-effacing attitude, coming from one of Britain's foremost living playwrights. If pressed too far, he will simply refuse to give interviews or answers. But what Stoppard really wants to do, and what he does best, is keep you laughing so much that you forget what it is you asked him in the first place. It's hard not to become a willing pawn in the masterful hands of Tom Stoppard.

Not that a recent group of English scholars gathered here didn't give rigorous academic inquiry the old college try. The select few students and professors who had ferreted out the fact that Stoppard was putting in a rare appearence this side of the Atlantic certainly looked pleased as Punch sitting in their plastic chairs here in the Frost Lounge at Northeastern University.

What would the oracle say? The local literati appeared armed with equal amounts of questions and adoration. The air crackled with intelligent expectation. And Stoppard did not let them down.

For one thing, he looks the role of the beleaguered eccentric writer. With his reed-thin body, he appears to have subsisted on boiled eggs and dry toast for all of his 45 years - even his hair has been reduced to lankiness. But this is not a drawback. Somehow, writers are expected to look weird and live in undisclosed villages somewhere outside London. It adds to their unfathomable allure.

His performance was no less on target than his appearance. Verbal feints flew through the air like fastballs hurled right over the strike zone. Relatively ''in'' jokes about literature and the theater (''I always feel as if I'm grateful for the next line'') produced alternating cadences of attentive silences and raucous if well-educated guffaws. ''Do you know,'' confessed Stoppard, ''I must say I find this type of exchange quite enjoyable,'' a sentence he made seem like conferring knighthood on those fortunate enough to be present. One got the feeling Stoppard simply loves an audience, and a rollicking one even more.

It is not a one-sided affair. Rave reviews for nearly all his dozen or so plays, and the many drama awards picked up here and in Britain testify to a strong reciprocal affection that has spanned Stoppard's 20-year career.

When his first full-length play, ''Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,'' opened on the London stage in 1967, it was called ''the most important event in the British professional theater of the past nine years,'' by one critic. Another said it was, ''the most brillant debut of the '60s.''

Broadway was just as fast off the blocks with its own acclaim when the play arrived in New York. ''Rosencrantz and Guildenstern'' won the prestigious Tony award for best play of the year in 1968. Since then it has been performed in numerous regional theaters across the country, and has become something of a cult hit. Sibling plays from the pen of this former theater reviewer have followed: ''The Real Inspector Hound'' (1968), ''Jumpers'' (1972), and ''Travesties'' (1975), among others, each picking up additional acclaim and awards for this Czechoslovakian-born son of a shoe manufacturer.

Yet Stoppard somehow seems a reluctant hero standing here in the glow of applause and instant adulation that has followed him. Lounging among the window drapes, nervously plucking at his hair, eyebrows, and anything else within reach , Stoppard is wary whenever the subject at hand prowls too close for comfort. ''I say, is this interview almost over?'' he politely but pointedly queries a student radio interviewer. The student has asked for the second time why Stoppard prefers staying home with his wife and children instead of regularly attending London theater. That interview is brought rapidly to a close. Another scholar asks why his plays seem to be so, well, ''talky.'' Stoppard retorts: ''I don't know how that is logically possible, since in other people's plays I don't remember long numbers of silences.''

Stoppard, it seems, is most comfortable when discussing literature other than his own. In fact, the reason for his appearance this side of the British Isles is to give the keynote speech for a local conference on the American writer Ernest Hemingway.

Standing before an after-supper crowd of Hemingway scholars and devotees who have been warmed up by one of Hemingway's sons (who recounted only semi-hilarious stories of the celebrated writer's shooting flying fish with .22 -caliber pistols down in the Caribbean), Stoppard resembles a man rousted out of bed to give a commencement address. He is rumpled but still sincere. ''Everyone keeps saying, 'You and Hemingway, I don't get it,' '' the writer confesses with a typically toothy grin. ''But I've been an admirer for 25 years.''

Not that this crowd would be alone in their questioning of Stoppard's professed affinity for the writer whose fame was launched by a consistent absence of adjectives. Stoppard's own writing more resembles the absurdist Irish playwright Samuel Beckett's work dipped in a sugarcoating of Oscar Wilde: fun to the taste but difficult to digest.

Indeed, Stoppard audiences who have been rolling in the obligatory aisles over the absurd Salvador Dali-like landscapes and collection of offbeat characters that people his plays have also been somewhat left in the lurch as to the play's point. Critics, who have been unrelenting in their praise for Stoppard's facility with language, have often been less than impressed with his play of ideas. Others have called his characters ''the Harlem Globetrotters of the intellect''; there is a lot of pizazz onstage, but the profundity can sometimes get lost in the shuffle.

For example, when ''Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead'' first opened, many observers hastened to christen it an existentialist drama. Indeed, this inside-out retelling of Shakespeare's ''Hamlet'' had many of the characteristics: a landscape barren of time and location, characters bereft of meaning and filled to the eyebrows with angst. But where a traditional absurdist or existential playwright may have driven the audience batty with unrelieved negativism, Stoppard sends his resilient wit ricocheting off every available surface.

The audience suspects it should be contemplating metaphysical conceits but is probably laughing too hard at the protagonists' bumblings to really care. The play succeeds because of the author's ability to blend out-and-out humor with attempted metaphysical inquiry. His subsequent plays, while exploring slightly different themes, seem just as exquisitely and just as precariously balanced on those same shifting sands.

But Stoppard's penchant for parody, rather than pure satire (he borrows heavily from other playwrights and theatrical forms), has led many critics to question his ability or willingness to take himself seriously. Stoppard admits to being embarrassed by the ''postures of committed theater,'' and he seems to deplore art's fascination with its own self-importance -- a theme he explores in ''Travesties.'' ''When art takes notice of something important,'' Stoppard said, ''it's claimed that art is important. It's not.'' The playwright insists that his works ''must first delight, and then instruct.'' Stoppard calls it his ''equation'' -- that balance between what a writer wants to say and the audience's capacity to understand and endure it.

Possibly it is his grounding as a reporter and a reviewer that fostered this unremitting respect for an audience's attention span. Having gone to nearly 130 plays during one year as a reviewer, Stoppard came away armed with a well-grounded appreciation for what can and does work on stage. ''Perhaps the word 'entertainer' is the common denominator [for playwrights],'' he admitted to his enraptured Boston audience, ''because plays are plays in the broadest sense that they have to hold the interest.''

Does he play for the laughs, then? ''Well, one doesn't get one's pencil out if they don't laugh, but one does have a tendency to go for it.''

Going for ''it,'' that spontaneous outburst from the audience that lets the author know he has hit paydirt, is what drives Stoppard the playwright. That the play is an ''event,'' a living thing, and not merely static words on a page is the heart and soul of his art.''

The novelist has an advantage here with the typewriter keyboard,'' he says. ''You just have to get the keys in the right order and you've done it. Because the play is an event, what you tend to do is put down a partial description of what might happen and try and describe what it might look like. But that event is first of all organic and secondly maverick. It's different every night it's played. And playwrights, you know, people come up to them and say 'I saw your play Tuesday,' and you think, 'Gosh, I hope Tuesday was OK.' Whereas if someone says, 'I read your novel last month,' you know that nothing happened to it.''

To ensure a semiconsistent theatrical product, Stoppard has been known to write his plays with specific actors in mind as well as to spend considerable time at the theater during rehearsal weeks. ''I've never actually directed a play of mine, (but) . . . I am in more or less constant attendance. When you write a play, your page is making a certain kind of noise and rehearsals have to make the actors reproduce this noise, and simply uttering the right words in the right order won't do that for you. I am very pragmatic in those weeks before a play comes before an audience. I learn a lot about the event as it evolves. You just learn what you've got wrong.''

One of the more absurd things that ''got wrong,'' and had to be righted was a ''flaming Dickensian pudding,'' occurring in Stoppard's most recent play, ''On the Razzle,'' an adaptation of a 19th-century Austrian play now playing in London. The flaming pudding, alas, fell victim to Greater London Council fire regulations prohibiting that oh-so-realistic open flame. In its stead was trotted out a largish, white birthday cake adorned with, sigh, electric candles. ''The moment,'' said Stoppard with typical understatement, ''didn't begin to work.''

But regulations being what they were, the electrified cake remained despite its having never been a part of the original 19th-century drama, and the now obligatory birthday references were ''fed in from the top,'' of the play. Artistic vision, one gathers, is often tempered by theatrical pragmatism.This kind of admission prompts a question from an audience member. ''So are you saying that your writing is really a form of 'commedia dell'arte'?'' There is a moment of respectful silence for this learned question which has come from an overweight someone in a blue blazer. All eyes revolve expectantly back to the star; the moment is pregnant with scholarly silence. ''Do you know,'' Stoppard finally responds, raking his hand through his hair, ''I am just trying to get out of this without betraying my total ignorance of what exactly that means.''

Now that is funny stuff to the intelligentsia gathered here and the room erupts with well-bred laughter, proof that the writer's comedic timing is just as good in person as it is on stage.

That balance between author and audience is apparently becoming more delicate for Stoppard as the years go by. ''What happens is I don't have a lot of ideas for plays,'' he confessed in his wonderfully rich British voice, hinting that a Stoppard novel may be in the offing. ''I now find I am leaving more and more out of the plays to make them a more manageable length . . . getting it said in a way which sustains its own interest.''

Unfortunately, the celebrated writer just tantalized his audience with the merest whisper of the latest Stoppard creation which, ''I have just finished writing and will go into rehearsal sometime this fall.'' That pariah, the ''press,'' in attendance inhibited any further details.

Not to worry, here's another question. Does the former reviewer and now celebrated and successful playwright ever feel intimidated by the British literary tradition? ''No.'' That gets another big laugh from the scholars.

But Stoppard condescends to expand. ''Actually the opposite thing happens. The whole thing becomes scaled down by the fact that one is a part of it. And the sad thing is, well not that sad, is that you don't think, 'I am part of all that.' What happens is you say, 'There I was, thinking that the theater was a special place and it's actually a place putting on plays by me.'

''And lest that brief confession tempt the audience with further demands for more personal revelations, Stoppard, ever the showman, flashes a dazzling grin and queries, ''Righto? or shall we say, 'on'?''

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