Sir Tom Stoppard. In Search of Reality

The evolution of themes in the early plays (1960-1974)
by Ian Mackean


Tom Stoppard has produced a large and varied body of work, amounting to over twenty plays for radio, television and the stage, a novel, and adaptations of other writers' work. He is best known for three major stage plays, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,Jumpers and Travesties. Most of his plays are extremely funny, and extremely clever, both in construction and dialogue. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Deadand Jumpers in particular entertain us with an intricate juggling of philosophical concepts combined with Stoppard's particular brand of humour. It is easy to be dazzled by the 'pyrotechnics' of his wit and this is, no doubt, why his plays are so popular. But combined with the cleverness is a seriousness and moral concern often overlooked by critics and easy for an audience to miss


Stoppard is not the first playwright to mix seriousness with humour of course, but whereas, for example, a Shakespeare tragedy may have brief comic interludes, in Stoppard's plays the humour and seriousness co-exist as intertwined strands. Shakespeare's comic interludes serve to heighten the tragic climaxes and the tragic setting heightens the impact of the comedy, but in Stoppard's work the comic and the serious are so close that they tend to compromise one another. Stoppard himself said: 'Is my seriousness compromised by my frivolity? . . . Or my frivolity redeemed by my seriousness?' The serious thought is often hidden behind, or within, the comedy and one has to see or read a play several times before seeing through the wit and ingenuity to the moral, social, and philosophical concerns lying below.

Stoppard’s themes are generally of an intellectual, philosophical nature; his plays, while having dramatic merit, are also vehicles for the exploration of such themes as the relationship between chaos and order, or free will and determinism.

This essay is concerned with the development of these philosophical themes, and with the way Stoppard uses the medium, be it radio, TV, or stage, to give dramatic expression to his ideas. I have dealt with the plays in chronological order to show how the ideas developed over the period. In Part I, I examine his minor works, written originally for radio and television, between 1960 and 1967. In Part 2, I examine his first three major stage plays between 1966 and 1974. I hope to show that the relatively simple themes explored in the early minor works are continued in the major works on a more complex, more sophisticated level.

Part I. Early Minor Works

Stoppard's first two plays, A Separate Peace (TV 1960) and A Walk on the Water (TV, 1963, adapted for the stage as Enter a Free Man in 1968) are concerned with the problem of the individual as a 'private' being, having to exist in a society which does not agree with him. John Brown of A Separate Peace and George Riley of Enter a Free Man are different from ordinary people; neither wants to participate in the conventional routines of life, and both see themselves as fundamentally opposed to the rest of society. George Riley is the prototype Stoppardian 'hero', and John Brown is an embryonic George Riley.

A Separate Peace, although a simple play, embodies most of Stoppard's central themes in embryonic form. John Brown has his own ideas about life, and is determined to live by his own philosophy in defiance of everyone around him. The tension of the play arises from the conflict of attitudes between the 'hero' and his society. John Brown wants to spend time in a private hospital, The Beechwood Nursing Home, because he wants the privacy and the routine.

I came for the quiet and the routine. I came for the white calm, meals on trays and quiet efficiency, time passing and bringing nothing. (p.10.)

We learn that his need dates back to his war-time experiences, and the issue is seen in terms of an opposition between chaos and order, a recurring theme in Stoppard's work. Brown enjoyed the orderly life being a prisoner as an escape from the chaos of war.

Up to then it was all terrible. Chaos . . . The queue on the beach - dive bombers and bullets ... The camp was like breathing out for the first time in months ... The war was still going on but I wasn't going to it any more. They gave us food, life was regulated. (p.19.)

Now he wants to escape the chaos of everyday life into the order of hospital. While in hospital Brown paints a mural on the wall; this is the first indication of another of Stoppard's preoccupations, the status of the artist in society. A recurring point of view, which Stoppard states and tests is that which sees the artist as opting out of conventional reality and creating a reality of his own.

Brown: I'll need a lot of blue. It's going to be summer in hereMaggie: It's summer outside Isn't that good enough for youBrown: I couldn't stay out there. You don't get the benefits. (p.14.)

This attitude raises conflicts within the artist himself, and for the artist in relation to the rest of society. For the artist the opting out brings about feelings of guilt, from which John Brown is trying to escape.

The point is not breakfast in bed, but breakfast in bed without guilt. Rich men's wives can bring it off, but if you're not a rich man's wife then you've got to be ill. (p.6.)

He is also trying to escape his family connections, and, in fact, wants no social interaction at all.

I want to do nothing and have nothing expected of me. That isn't possible out there. It worries them. (p.8.)

The hospital staff are against him. Brown is attacking a convention, that a hospital is for people who are ill, and the hospital staff need to fight off this challenge to one of their basic assumptions. But also, in a wider context, they feel that what Brown is doing has something fundamentally wrong about it.

Matron: You mustn't lose interest in life.Brown: I was never very interested in the first place. (p.11.)Doctor: It's not enough, Mr. Brown. You've got to – connect. (p.22.)

He is, of course, trying to escape the reality of society to live in a private world. He is even aware of this himself.

Brown: [a hospital is] not affected by anything outside. You need never know anything, it doesn't touch you.Maggie: That's not true, Brownie.Brown: I know it's not.Maggie: Then you shouldn't try and make it true.Brown: I know I shouldn't. (p.16.)

But although he 'shouldn’t’, he feels a need to escape, at least temporarily, and feels he has a right, as an autonomous individual, to follow his inclinations. Thus the question is raised as to whether Brown is right to act as a free and independent being, or whether his failure to 'connect' with society is a failing for which one must condemn him. Characteristically of Stoppard the opposition is set up, debated, and left inconclusively. We are left to decide for ourselves whether Brown's argument:

'You mean it wouldn't be good for you. How do you know what's good for me?' (p.23.)

is enough to justify his actions.

Enter a Free Man is a more complex play built up on the simple foundations of A Separate Peace. The chief difference is that George Riley, having a wife and daughter, has a commitment to a social group. Thus he has not opted out of society to the extent that Brown has, but when he opts out of paid employment the issue of the individual's responsibility to others is more immediate and concrete.Another important difference is that Riley takes upon himself an active role, that of inventor, whereas Brown wanted to do nothing and have nothing expected of him; even his painting was ‘only to please Matron really' (p.14.).

Riley has taken on a responsibility to himself as well as to his family, and therefore he can fail, whereas Brown, in his passive isolation, was escaping the possibility of failure. In fact Riley is a failure, both as the head of a family and as an inventor, and it is this fact that creates the tension of the play, because it forces us to consider that his actions might be justified in principle even if they fail in practice.The positive side of George Riley is his independent creative spirit. He stands for the freedom of the individual to use his own mind and follow his own principles.

I was given a mind and I use it. I don't go through life as if it was a public escalator with nothing to do but watch the swimsuits go by. (p.48.)

He finds the ordinary routines of life meaningless and pointless, and he has the courage to follow his creative promptings in spite of the ridicule and indifference of those around him.

A man must resist. A man must stand apart, make a clean break on his own two feet. Faith is the key - faith in oneself. (p.16.)

In terms of general principles his ideas are quite sound; to invent a product useful in daily life, make a prototype in his own workshop, then form a partnership to go into business manufacturing the product. But his inventions always have a flaw which he has not foreseen. His thinking is logical, but at the expense of common sense and practicality. He does not realise that his prospective partner is merely making fun of him, and he avoids the guilt he ought to feel about being financially dependent on his daughter by believing that he will soon be worth millions from his inventions; he is living in a world of his own.

In making George so lacking in self-awareness Stoppard has avoided having his 'hero' face up to his responsibilities, or the guilt he ought to feel at their neglect. All the opposition to George comes from his daughter Linda, who points out his inadequacies,

If he was honest he'd come down and say I've decided that some people are cut out to make a living and some people are cut out to lie in bed, and I'm the bed type. (p.60.)

This splitting up of the issue into two characters, one 'for' and one 'against' is characteristic of Stoppard's technique. He has said that he writes plays as a means of contradicting himself, (see Bigsby p.24), and his plays are often structured around the kind of dialectic process expressed by Moon in Stoppard's novel Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon:

I distrust attitudes, he went on, because they claim to have appropriated the whole truth and pose as absolutes. And I distrust the opposite attitude for the same reason. ... when someone disagrees with you on a moral point you assume that he is one step behind in his thinking, and he assumes that he has gone one step ahead. But I take both parts, O'Hara, leapfrogging myself along the great moral issues, refuting myself and rebutting the refutation towards a truth that must be the compound of two opposite half-truths. And you never reach it because there is always something more to say. But I can't ditch it.' (p.53.)

Enter a Free Man ends on a note of compromise and re-establishment of harmony. George and Linda both make failed attempts to escape the situation by leaving home, then understand each other better when they return. George makes steps towards coming to terms with reality by deciding to go to the labour exchange, and Linda grows more tolerant towards his 'eccentricities'. George's wife has always tolerated his odd behaviour without expecting him to be a success. In fact she married him because he was 'different', and she defends him as an individual, against Linda's attack on his social status.

There's lots of people like your father different. Some make more money because they're different. And some make none because they're different. (p.57.)

If he was going to be a failure anyway, he was better off failing at something he wanted to succeed at .9. He got hold of a bit of enthusiasm. That was worth a lot. (p.59.)

It is notable in these first two plays that Stoppard gives equal weight, in the script, to the human relationships and to the issue under examination. In A Separate Peace John Brown and Nurse Maggie strike up an affectionate relationship, and at the end of the play she is as reluctant to let him leave the hospital as she was to let him enter at the beginning. And in Enter a Free Man much time is spent on the home life of the Rileys, showing how having the father in a parasitic role causes tension and argument between the mother and daughter. This aspect of the play is not very successful though, Linda and Persephone are not convincing characters; their behaviour is 'wooden' because Stoppard is more interested in them as spokesmen for and against George than as characters in their own right.

At this early stage in his career Stoppard seems to have realised that his talents did not lend themselves to the portrayal of characters and relationships. Enter a Free Man remains the only play (until perhaps, with Night and Day) in which he has made a serious attempt to explore this area. The same is true of his novel Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon (1966) in which the characters are entirely flat, being representatives of stereotyped lifestyles.

The John and Maggie, or George and Linda/Persephone type of relationship, in which a couple co-exist in a fluctuating state of affection, misunderstanding and antagonism is recurrent in Stoppard's work. It can be found in almost every play. But the emotional content of his plays is at an absolute minimum, the characters being primarily vehicles for the exploration of an issue. There is often room, however, for an actor to create a convincing character to fit Stoppard's script; Michael Horden's portrayal of George in Jumpers at the National Theatre being the prime example

With Stoppard's next (published) play If You're Glad I'll be Frank (Radio 1966), a change of direction is clearly seen. Here the central couple are, in fact, separated, and although they try to meet they are unable to do so, Their relationship is frustrated, it seems, not only within the play itself but also as a result of Stoppard's decision to sacrifice human relationships to metaphysics. With this play Stoppard abandons his mentors (Enter a Free Man being heavily derivative of Robert Bolt and Arthur Miller) and his real strength as a playwright starts to show through. The theme of individual liberty versus the established order is continued, but takes metaphysical flight as the established order becomes Time itself. Gladys, the speaking clock, reflects on the nature of Time while trapped at her desk metering out ten second intervals She sees through the usual human time-scales into a vertiginously disorientating vision of relativity :

They think that
time is something they
for their own convenience,
and divided up into ticks
and tocks (p.4.)
When you look down from
a great height
you become dizzy. Such
depth, such distance
such disappearing tininess
so far away,
rushing away,
reducing the life-size to
nothing –
it upsets the scale you live by. (p.5.)I wouldn't
shake it off by going back
I'd only be in the middle of
it, with an inkling of infinity. (p.8.)

The contrast between the two concepts of time is reflected in the two forms of language used by Gladys. In performance this free verse is spoken simultaneously with the rigid repetitive rhythm of the speaking clock. In this way Stoppard makes his point directly on the audience's perceptions. The dual perception of these scales drives Gladys towards a mental breakdown; we might see her as trapped between excessive order and excessive chaos. She wants to rebel against her role as mediator between the two.

At the third stroke
I'm going to give it up,
yes, yes - it's asking too much,
for one person to be in the
of so much (p.22.)

Ultimately though, she accepts the established order and continues to measure out ten second intervals under the guiding hand of the First Lord of the Post Office, who 'sets her right'. The story is of chaos trying to overrun order, but failing.

The depth which Stoppard formerly tried to give his plays by the characters and their relationships is now given by the complexity of structure, in which the themes are presented simultaneously on a number of levels.

Gladys's frustration at the rigidity of our concept of time is paralleled by Frank's attempts to squeeze a few minutes out of his schedule as a bus driver, to rescue Gladys from the G.P.O. building. Every time he stops the bus, Ivy the conductress, frightened of the threat to convention (chaos disrupting order), chases after him shouting, 'Frank we'll get behind time . . . I ask you to remember the schedule . . . The passengers have noticed' etc., representing the pressure of established order limiting individual action.

Another level on which the accepted order is represented is the G.P.O. hierarchy, and the procedure by which a member of the public ought to approach its senior officials. Frank, like John Brown and George Riley before him, rebels against the accepted order and pursues his own course. He charges through a series of offices in the G.P.O. building and bursts in upon a board meeting presided over by the First Lord. Frank's rebellion is frustrated however, just as Gladys's was, by the authoritative voice of the First Lord.

My dear fellow - there's no Gladys - we wouldn't trust your wife with the time - it's a machine, I thought everyone knew that. (p.25.)

And just as Gladys accepted the regulating hand of authority passively, So Frank is pleased that his rebellion has failed.

Actually, it's a relief. Frankly, I'm glad. (p.25.)

Although these characters have struggled to rebel against order and authority they are quite relieved to have failed. On a metaphysical level this suggests that order and chaos co-exist in some kind of natural balance that cannot be violated. In human terms it suggests that the autonomy of the individual is limited by the order of the universe, physical and social, in which he exists, and that this is the cause of both frustration and comfort: A truth that is 'a compound of two opposite half-truths.' (see quote above).

Another characteristic of Stoppard's work to emerge in If You're Glad I'll be Frank is deliberate ambiguity. Is Gladys really being held prisoner by the G.P.O. to act as the speaking clock? Or is the speaking clock just a machine and Frank's idea that it is his wife just a delusion? This question is unanswerable; it adds a deliberate quality of mystery to the play by throwing into doubt our assumptions about which aspects of the play represent objective reality, and which represent subjective, and possibly deluded experience. This important point will be further discussed in relation to Jumpers and Travesties.

The next in this series of early radio and TV plays, Albert's Bridge (Radio, 1967), continues the same themes, concentrating specifically on the opposition between chaos and order. Like John Brown, Albert cannot stand the chaos of everyday life and seeks an escape into a more ordered existence. In A Separate Peace the problem was presented largely in terms of physical circumstances, the hospital being a world more ordered than the outside world. In Albert's Bridge the physical circumstances are equated with conceptual, or psychological factors, which belong to the subjective world of individual perception. Hence the peace of mind Albert finds high up among the geometrically ordered bridge girders, away from the human demands of his wife and child, is equated with the concept of seeing life from a distance, as opposed to seeing it close up.

Albert: The banks are littered with various bricks, kiddiblocks with windows; dinky toys move through the gaps, dodged by moving dots that have no colour ... It's the most expensive toytown in the store - the detail is remarkable.

Kate: I saw you today ... coming out of the hairdressers. Six and six, I had it cut.Albert: Just goes to show - if you get far enough away, six and sixpence doesn't show, and nor does anything, at a distance.Kate: Well, life is all close up isn't it?Albert: Yes, it hits you when you come back down. (pp. 22-23.)

This concept of varying perspective is reinforced by Frazer, a potential suicide who climbs the bridge in order to jump off. But from the heights of the bridge he escapes the pressure which caused his despair and therefore no longer wants to jump. Back on the ground the pressure builds up again and he climbs the bridge again, so he spends his time repeatedly ascending and descending the bridge. He explains:

I can't help it. I'm forced up and coaxed down. I'm a victim of perspective. (p.35.)

Albert becomes entirely dependent on his job and eventually abandons his wife and child in favour of the bridge. His family life is ruined by his hankering for order. His situation does not last though, the bridge finally collapses when 1,800 painters march on to it without breaking step; an excess of order on a physical level. The authorities have called in the army of painters because in planning the most economical way to paint the bridge they have, like George Riley, relied entirely on logic and forgotten common sense; an excess of order on a mental level. Thus the play illustrates, on a number of levels, the thesis that an excess of order causes collapse due to the upsetting of some kind of natural balance.

The four plays discussed so far have a unity as a group, or cycle of works. They are unified by the themes they explore, and the methods by which they explore them. It is worth summarising the observations made so far, as a basis for approaching Stoppard's major works. Each of the 'heroes' is an individual struggling to establish some kind of relationship with the rest of the world. They all ultimately fail to achieve what they were striving for; 'the world' asserts its superior strength over the individual. The struggle is seen in terms of a series of dialectical oppositions, and the failure arises not because one side of the argument is 'wrong’ but because one side has been asserted to the exclusion of the other. The opposing principles take on a number of guises; Chaos versus Order, Freedom versus Responsibility, Illusion versus Reality, Logic versus Common Sense, the Individual versus 'The Establishment'.

The key for dealing with these apparently irreconcilable opposites is the concept of perspective. The world is too chaotic for John Brown and Albert, and too rigidly ordered for Gladys and Frank. But it is the same world. The way we see the world depends upon the way we look at it; reality is relative. This is the heart of the 'world picture' established by Stoppard in his early minor works. He goes on to expand and elaborate this view in his longer works Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Jumpers, and arrives at a definitive statement with Travesties.

Part 2. First Major Works for Stage

Stoppard's full length stage plays are more complex than the works dealt with so far, but the underlying principles of construction are similar. The dialectical opposition at the heart of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is between fate and free will, and interwoven with this is an exploration of reality versus illusion. In this play the conceptual themes and the use of the medium have been more fully integrated than in any of his other works. The play is structured round a conceit in which the two characters trapped in a play is equated with Man trapped in a deterministic universe. Thus it functions throughout on two levels, and occasionally on three when the play draws attention to itself as a play, in relation to us, the audience.

Stoppard uses Rosencrantz and Guildenstern exactly as Shakespeare created them, that is as undeveloped flat characters, with minimal and ineffectual roles, largely ignorant of the events into which they have been drawn, and whose deaths pass almost unnoticed. Their role in Hamlet is in fact similar to the role of the absurdists' anti-hero in the universe, and this, with an obvious debt to Waiting for Godot is how Stoppard has used them. Having no credible existence outside the plot of Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have no memory of their lives beyond being summoned by a court messenger. All they 'know' is that they were born, they have been called in to play a predetermined role, and that they will die.

The inevitability of death is the most disturbing fact about their existence. They try to comprehend it as a reality but are unable to battle through the illusions thrown up by the mind to account for the unknown.

It's silly to be depressed by it. I mean one thinks of it like being alive in a box, one keeps forgetting to take into account the fact that one is deadI mean, you'd never know you were in a box, would you? It would be just like being asleep in a box. Not that I'd like to sleep in a box ... you'd wake up dead for a start. (p.50)

When The Players, specialists in illusion, arrive, the whole relationship between illusion and reality is thrown into doubt.

Guil: You die so many times: how can you expect them to believe in your death?Player: On the contrary, it's the only kind they do believe. They're conditioned to it. I had an actor once who was condemned to hang for stealing a sheep ... I got permission to have him hanged in the middle of a play ... and you wouldn't believe it, he just wasn't convincing It was impossible to suspend one's disbelief. (p.61.)

The suggestion is that we cannot believe in reality even when we see it. And that we are all too eager to believe in illusions.

Player: Audiences know what to expect, and that is all that they are prepared to believe in. (p.61.)

The Player proves his point later when Guildenstern stabs him and he falls to the ground and 'dies'. Guildenstern is completely taken in by the Player's act, thinking he has killed him, until the Player revives and says

For a moment you thought I'd - cheated. (p.40.)

'Cheated' by substituting reality for the illusion. These ideas relate to an early speech of Guildenstern's which expresses ideas central to all of Stoppard's work:

Guil: A man breaking his journey between one place and another at a third place of no name, character, population or significance, sees a unicorn cross his path and disappear. That in itself is startling, but there are precedents for mystical encounters of various kinds, or to be less extreme, a choice of persuasions to put it down to fancy; until "My God," says a second man, "I must be dreaming, I thought I saw a unicorn." At which point, a dimension is added that makes the experience as alarming as it will ever be. A third witness, you understand, adds no further dimension but only spreads it thinner, and a fourth thinner still, and the more witnesses there are the thinner it gets and the more reasonable it becomes until it is as thin as reality, the name we give to the common experience. "Look, look," recites the crowd. "A horse with an arrow in its forehead It must have been mistaken for a deer." (pp.14-15.)

This means that we can never be absolutely sure of knowing whether something we perceive is an illusion, a rationalisation of an illusion, or reality. This concept occurs again and again in Stoppard's work, and is exemplified by After Magritte, the thesis of which might be paraphrased as follows; what we 'know' depends upon how we choose to interpret what we think we see.Guildenstern tries again to comprehend the reality of death:

It's just a man failing to reappear, that's all - now you see him, now you don't. That's the only thing that's real: here one minute and gone the next and never coming back.' (p.61.)

Stoppard gives this idea dramatic expression by utilising the interval between acts two and three. Act two closes on this dialogue:

Guil: I like to know where I am. Even if I don't know where I am, I like to know that. If we go there's no knowing.Ros: No knowing what?Guil: If we'll ever come backRos: We don't want to come back.Guil That may very well be true, but do we want to go?Ros: We'll be free.Guil: I don't know. It's the same sky.Ros: We've come this far.
(He moves towards exit. Guil. follows him)
And besides, anything could happen yet.(They go.)Blackout. (p.69.)

Then act three opens in pitch darkness. The audience is made to experience Guildenstern's concept of death. Staring at nothing but blackness on the stage we wonder whether the actors will reappear.

Stoppard uses the stage to dramatise an idea again when Rosencrantz considers suicide. As well as presenting another aspect of death, as an escape from life, this raises the question of free will. Rosencrantz moves to the edge of the stage:

Ros: I wish I was dead. (considers the drop). I could jump over the side. That would put a spoke in their wheel.Guil: Unless they're counting on it.Ros: I shall remain on board. That'll put a spoke in their wheel. (p.78.)

Three levels of meaning fuse at this point: I) Shakespeare's character is contemplating an escape from Hamlet, 2) An actor is considering an escape from the play we are watching. 5) A man is considering an escape from his fate. The attempt fails, of course, on all three levels,The play ends on a multiplicity of images of death, On one level the play itself is ending.

Ros: That's it, then, is it? ... what was it all about? When did it all begin? Couldn't we just stay put? I mean no one is going to come and drag us off. (p.91.)

Rosencrantz's and Guildenstern's deaths are represented by their disappearing from view:

Guil: Now you see me, now you - (and disappears).

Rosencrantz's last words echo Frank's last words, 'Frankly, I'm glad,' at the end of If You're Glad I'll be Frank.

Ros: I don't care. I've had enough. To tell you the truth, I'm relieved. (disappears) (p.91.)

Then the stage lights up to reveal the Players in the final body-strewn tableau of Hamlet. This reminds us of the significance of 'stage-deaths' illustrated earlier by the Player, and also that the deaths of the king, the queen, Hamlet and Laertes were considered events of monumental importance, compared with the dismissal of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with the single line Stoppard chose for his title. Finally, this Shakespearean image of death is overtaken by the play's close:

(but during the above speech (Horatio's) the play fades, overtaken by dark and music). (p.92)

We, the audience, are left to contemplate these images, and our own inability to conceive of the 'reality' of death. In this way Stoppard is trying to awaken us to the fact that we all have mental habits to protect us from the unknown. Death, of course, is the great unknown, but if we accept the principle in relation to death we must also apply it to every other aspect of reality, and realise that any confidence we feel about being able to distinguish between reality and illusion may rest on dubious foundations.

The theme of fate versus free-will undergoes similar permutations throughout the play. There is not room for a complete analysis, but the main points can be identified in two scenes. The play opens with a representation of the problem. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are tossing coins, and the coins have come up heads ninety two times in a row The act of tossing a coin is apparently an act of free-will, and each individual time a coin is tossed the result apparently depends on chance. But in the long run it seems that the results of their actions are predetermined Thus we have an image in which free-will and chance seem to operate on a short-term scale, but viewed in the long-term a fate, or predetermination seems to be in control. This leads on to a more sophisticated development of the 'perspective' principle noted in Albert's Bridge.

Guil: Where we went wrong was getting on a boat. We can move, of course, change direction, rattle about, but our movement is contained within a larger one that carries us along, as inexorably as the wind and current. (p.89.)

This image is appropriate for an understanding of Stoppard's resolution of the chaos versus order opposition, as well as the fate versus free-will opposition. The simple polarity of Albert's Bridge in which Albert was either 'up' or 'down', 'distant' or 'close up', is superseded by this 'boat' image in which the characters are simultaneously 'up' and 'down'; all that varies is how they choose to view their situation, as passengers trapped on a boat over which they have no control, or as individuals free to do as they choose within the limits of the boat As his work matures Stoppard is attempting to express more complicated truths; no longer simply playing off an idea against its opposite, but combining both sides with an over-view which allows for the co-existence of contradictory principles.

Social criticism plays a larger part in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead than in any previous play. The neglect of moral standards is of course a prominent feature of Hamlet but Stoppard transposes the theme to give it contemporary relevance. The Players are supposed to be taking culture to the king's court, but their plays are usually obscene performances in which, for a price, the audience can participate. They are 'a comic pornographer and a rabble of prostitutes' (p.19.). This might allude to the sexual morality of society in general, as suggested by the frequent reference to 'the times being what they are' and Guildenstern's comment 'The very air stinks' (p.22.). (A joking reference, perhaps, to 'Something is rotten in the state of Denmark'). It might also be an allusion to some contemporary playwrights of whom Stoppard is highly critical. (See his comments in Theatre Quarterly 14 May/July 1974 p.14.). And Guildenstern's comment:

Come, come, Alfred, this is no way to fill the theatres of Europe. (p.25.)

But it would be wrong to emphasise this level of argument. Stoppard is making a much more significant and far-reaching comment on the moral and spiritual desolation of a civilisation without a God This is not explicitly stated in the play, but it is clearly, if metaphorically, suggested in this poignant speech by the Player:

You don't understand the humiliation of it to be tricked out of the single assumption which makes our existence viable - that somebody is watching. ... every gesture, every pose, vanishing into the thin unpopulated air. We ransomed our dignity to the clouds, and the uncomprehending birds listened. ... Even then habit and stubborn trust that our audience spied upon us from behind the nearest bush, forced our bodies to blunder on long after they had emptied of meaning, until like runaway carts they dragged to a halt. No one came forward. (pp.45-46.)

The Players are suffering from a loss of identity and purpose just as much as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Their constant travelling is as aimless as Rosencrantz's and Guildenstern's constant waiting; the only distinguishing factor being that the Players are active, while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are passive. They are 'all in the same boat' (literally in act 5) living in a Godless society, and the following exclamation applies in Stoppard's view to twentieth century man in general:

We're actors - we're the opposite of people. (p.45.)

A fuller statement of this point of view is given in the novel Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon:

"The thing about people is," said Moon, "that hardly anyone behaves naturally any more, they all behave the way they think they are supposed to, as if they'd read about themselves or seen themselves at the pictures. The whole of life is like that now." (p.53.)

The emptiness and uncertainty of modern times is also conveyed by the contrasting languages and dramatic styles used in the play. The intermittent appearance of scenes from Hamlet in the play reminds us of times when religious and moral values were accepted as absolutes. Every line of the Shakespearean language conveys a confidence, purpose and eloquence which is in marked contrast to the clipped, artless dialogue of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in which words often fail them altogether. The picture of contemporary life Stoppard is suggesting is one in which the disappearance of religious faith, along with the moral standards and purpose which it conferred on life, leaves Man in a state of aimless desolation and anonymity.

This general picture is transposed, in Stoppard's next play Jumpers (1972) into a more specific look at a society (presumably Britain in the near future) in which values are uncertain.

Jumpers is structured on roughly the same lines as Enter a Free Man. George Moore, like George Riley, holds convictions which put him in conflict with the society around him. And like George Riley his standpoint is partially discredited by his being somewhat 'out of touch with reality' (in the everyday sense). George Moore is a professor of moral philosophy engaged in preparing a speech about the existence of God. He is unique in his department in that he believes in God, and it is evident that in this respect he is virtually unique in the whole society; a policeman is bribed with the chair of divinity, churches are converted into gymnasiums, murder is regarded as an inconvenience, and an atheist is appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. The play is full of evidence that the institutions of law, politics, and religion have been debased to serve the self-interest of those in power.

Against this background George is struggling to find convincing arguments to support his intuitive belief that God exists and that moral standards are absolute. To do so he has to tackle the philosophical questions of 'knowledge' and 'belief', and it is on this theme that Jumpers functions as a play, with the intellectual concepts being paralleled on a dramatic level.Jumpers is, basically, a domestic farce, and Stoppard uses some of the traditional elements of farce; misunderstanding, deception and ambiguity, to highlight the problem of 'knowledge', with its dependence on perception and interpretation of 'reality'. George’s wife Dotty may or may not be having an affair with Archie, the university vice-chancellor, who also happens to be a psychiatrist, doctor, lawyer, and ladies' man. The scenes in which we see Dotty and Archie together are presented ambiguously, not only to George, but also to us:

(He opens the Bedroom door. In the Bedroom, no one is in view. The drapes - or screens - are round the bed. The ambiguous machine - the dermatograph - is set up so that it peers with its lens through the drapes. The camera-lights are in position round the bed, shining down over the drapes into the bed. The TV set is connected by a lead to the dermatograph. George pauses in the doorway.)

Archie: (within): .... ThereDotty: (within): .... YesArchie: There .... thereDotty: YesArchie: ...and thereDotty: Yes .... Yes.(These sounds are consistent with a proper doctor-patient relationship. If Dotty has a tendency to gasp slightly it is probably because the stethoscope is cold. Archie on the other hand, might be getting rather overheated under the blaze of the dermatograph lights.)Archie (within): Excuse me(Archie's coat comes sailing over the drapes. George retreats, closing the door.) (p.60.)

These ambiguous scenes are a dramatic parallel to the philosophical point with which George is grappling.

George: Meeting a friend in a corridor, Wittgenstein said: 'Tell me, why do people always say it was natural for men to assume that the sun went round the earth rather than that the earth was rotating?' His friend said, 'Well, obviously, because it just looks as if the sun is going round the earth.' To which the philosopher replied, 'Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as if the earth was rotating?' (p.75.)

Having accepted this philosophical principle, he is easily persuaded by Archie to accept it in his personal life:

([George] jumps up and strides into the Bedroom.)

Archie and Dotty are calmly watching the TV The big screen shows us what they see – the read-back of Dotty's naked body.)George: Crouch says - (he is momentarily taken aback by the fact that they are watching TV.) - Crouch says -(Archie and Dotty go 'Sssssh:' and continue to watch the screen.)George (advancing): Crouch says (Then George sees the TV and the naked body on it. He pauses: the body is familiar to him, perhaps.) What's going on?Archie: The dermatograph, you know. All kinds of disturbances under the skin show up on the surface, if we can learn to read it, and we -George: (abruptly turning off the set, so that the Big Screen goes blank): You must think I'm a bloody foolArchie: What do you mean?George: Well, everything you do makes it look as if you're ... (Pause).Archie: Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as if I were making a dermatographical examination? (p.73.)

Failing to find evidence George still has faith in intuition, the starting point for his faith in God.

There are many things I know which are not verifiable but nobody can tell me I don't know them, and I think that I know that something happened to poor Dotty and she somehow killed McFee, as sure as she killed my poor Thumper. (p.73.)

We soon find out, however, that Dotty did not kill Thumper. George himself killed the rabbit accidentally and unknowingly, and so, logically, George's arguments are totally undermined.

Another of George's arguments is that the universe must have had a 'First Cause', and this is also paralleled dramatically. In the opening scene an acrobat is mysteriously shot and killed; the 'first cause' of one of the main strands in the plot, the murder enquiry, which remains completely unresolved. The policeman conducting the case is far more concerned with pursuing his personal interests than with looking for the truth.

In spite of his domestic and professional failings we sympathise with George because he stands for values which give life meaning beyond logic and self-interest. Dotty's role parallels George's in this respect. She is a singer with a repertoire of songs referring to the Moon as an agent of love and romance. Her 'belief' in these songs is shattered by news of the first British moon landing, and she is unable to continue singing. Modern science has made the moon accessible to man and thereby banished the romantic associations. She expresses the feeling of change this brings about in a way familiar to us from Guildenstern's 'unicorn' speech:

When they first landed, it was as though I'd seen a unicorn on the television news It was very interesting, of course. But it certainly spoiled unicorns. (p.38.)

On the news report we see that it is not only romance which has gone but chivalry and responsibility too. The spacecraft only has enough power to bring one man home, and in a reversal of the usual heroic gesture the captain fights off his companion and flies home alone.George and Dotty are Stoppard's representatives of human beings trying to remain human in this world of rationalism and self-interest. The central concept Stoppard is working on is expressed in this speech of Dotty's:

Dotty (dry, drained): Well, it's all over now. Not only are we no longer the still centre of God's universe, we 're not even uniquely graced by his footprint in man's image Man is on the Moon, his feet on solid ground, and he has seen us whole, all in one go, little - local ... and all our absolutes, the thou-shalts and the thou-shalt-nots that seemed to be the very condition of our existence, how did they look to two moonmen with a single neck to save between them? Like the local customs of another place. When that thought drips through to the bottom, people won't just carry on. Because the truths that have been taken on trust, they've never had edges before, there was no vantage point to stand on and see where they stopped. (p.75.)

The message is similar to the 'no-one was watching' speech made by the Player in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. It points to the idea that without God, and without absolute moral values, Man is suddenly stripped of a security which has supported him for thousands of years.The Jumpers themselves symbolise the mentality of the new age. The metaphor has a number of meanings; they jump through the vice-chancellor's hoop, they jump to the conclusion that there is no God, and in general they are automatons whose gymnastics represent the soul-less process of reason which has replaced religious faith. Acting as a team they are able to form the impressive display of a human pyramid. But, as the spectacular opening of the play demonstrates it only takes the removal of one man to cause the collapse of the whole structure. This represents the idea that the philosophical standpoint taken by the university and the society as a whole, though impressive and convincing, is a series of 'intellectual jumps' starting from a dubious first premise:

That knowledge is only a possibility in matters that can be demonstrated as true or false. (p.87.)

As usual no conclusion is reached, but by the end of the play Stoppard has presented us with a picture of his perception of trends in modern society. Belief in God and the validity of moral values has become the exception rather than the rule, and without any viable replacement for religion the whole concept of the 'value' of human life is being eroded.

This is the last play in which Stoppard deals with the sickness of modern man in such generalised terms. His concern with humanitarian problems later takes on a different form; a change of direction hinted at in these lines from Jumpers:

Dotty: The Theory of Descriptions was not what was on his [Bertrand Russell’s] mind that night … he was trying to telephone Mao Tse Tung.George: I was simply trying to bring his mind back to matters of universal import, and away from the day-to-day parochialism of international politics.Dotty: Universal Import You're living in Dreamland. (p.31.)

Dotty's comment echoes the criticism that was aimed at Stoppard around this time, and although he defended himself against the charge of ignoring political problems most convincingly (see Theatre Quarterly 14 May-July 1974 p.12.), his next major works after Travesties, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour and Professional Foul were concerned directly with current political issues.Before looking at Travesties (1974) it is worth glancing at Dogg’s Our Pet (1971) (Revived to support Cahoots Macbeth 1979) in which the basic idea of Travesties is illustrated. Although a very short and simple play Dogg’s Our Pet is a useful landmark in the evolution of Stoppard's ideas about language. His interest in the way different forms of language have implicit meanings of their own, distinct from their content, has already been noted; for example, the contrast between poetry and the speaking clock in If You're Glad I'll be Frank, and the contrast between Shakespearean and modern language in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. In these cases the different languages reflected different 'mentalities' or different approaches to life, and this is the starting point for Travesties. At the same time Stoppard has an interest in the philosophy of the relationship between language and meaning, which is the subject matter of Dogg's Our Pet, which was indicated, for example, by this speech of George's from Jumpers:

This confusion, which indicates only that language is an approximation of meaning, and not a logical symbolism for it . . . (p.24.)

This is the kind of problem Wittgenstein deals with in the first part of his Philosophical Investigations, and Dogg's Our Pet is virtually a dramatisation of the opening paragraph of Philosophical Investigations. Wittgenstein starts by distinguishing between the meaning of a word, and the way a word is used. One of the examples he uses to illustrate his theory is a builder who is constructing a platform and calls out to his mate, "brick," "block," "plank," etc.

Stoppard lifts this example straight out of Wittgenstein and puts it on stage. The builder is working at a school, his assistant being one of the schoolboys who have a private language of their own. (The boys are public school types, and the builder is working class, so they are people who 'do not speak the same language’ in more ways than one. This social theme is not developed in this play, but is taken up again and expanded in Professional Foul). Sometimes when the builder calls out "plank" "brick" etc. the appropriate items are thrown to him, but sometimes they are not. It is evident that the boys have the same words in their vocabulary, but they use them in a different way. Hayman (see bibliography) provides a translation: Plank = Here, Slab = Ready, Cube = Thank you, etc.Dogg's Our Pet is essentially an entertaining puzzle to stimulate the audience into thought about the way we use language. But it also has a significant meaning in that the boys and the builder, working together, do actually manage to construct a platform. Hence although each has a language of his own and is therefore, to an extent, living in a world of his own, their languages and worlds overlap enough for them to communicate and work in an intermediate 'real world'. This is the central concept for understanding Travesties.Travesties might be seen as a return to the problems Stoppard dealt with right at the beginning of his career in A Separate Peace and Enter a Free Man. In these plays the 'heroes' lived in a world of their own so separate from the real world that they were unable to function in society. In Travesties, with Dogg's Our Pet as a stepping stone, this simple opposition between the individual and 'the rest of the world' is scrapped in favour of a philosophical standpoint which asserts that, to an extent, every individual lives in a world of his own. A 'real world', separate from our perception and interpretation of it may or may not exist; the term applies to what seem to be areas of common experience, about which we seem to be able to communicate in a more or less common language.Travesties is ostensibly concerned with artists, and their relationship with the world in which they live. As we saw in A Separate Peace and Enter a Free Man (in which 'inventing' can be equated with being an artist) it is one of Stoppard's basic assumptions that the artist creates a world of his own, and, to an extent, lives in it as an alternative to the real world. In Travesties we have two artists, Tzara and Joyce, with very different approaches to their life and art. For Tristan Tzara, the dadaist, art is a revolutionary act in itself, breaking down our usual assumptions about the world, and Art.

Tzara (To Joyce): You've turned literature into a religion and it's as dead as all the rest. It's an overripe corpse and you're cutting fancy figures at the wake. It's too late for geniuses: Now we need vandals and desecrators, simple minded demolition men to smash centuries of baroque subtlety, to bring down the temple, and thus finally, to reconcile the shame and the necessity of being an artist! (p.62.)

For James Joyce art is justifiable for its own sake, operating on a level above political or social revolution:

As an artist, naturally I attach no importance to the swings and roundabouts of political history. (p.50)

Lenin is a third point in the argument, asserting that art is only valid as an aid to political revolution. Each character's attitude is reflected in the way in which he uses language:

Lenin: Today, literature must become party literature. Down with non-partisan literature. Down with literary supermen. Literature must become part of the common cause of the proletariat, a cog in the Social Democratic mechanism. (p.85.)

Tzara: Dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada. (p .37.)

Joyce: Send us bright one, light one, Horhorn, quickening and wombfruit. (p.18.)

One could pursue the arguments about the relationship between art and society through the play; this is one level on which the play functions. But more importantly we are given an overview of the whole problem, and here again Stoppard uses the stage to dramatise a concept, by the fact that we are seeing the events of the play through the distorting medium of Henry Carr's memory. We are introduced to this by having Carr as narrator, and reminded of it by the repeated 'time slips', in which a scene is played two or three times, slightly differently each time as Carr's memory plays tricks on him.

The egocentric Carr's best memory of the war years in Zurich is that he played a leading role in Joyce's production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Thus the events of Travesties are structured around the plot of The Importance of Being Earnest. Furthermore, the play takes its title from the fact that Carr's memory tends to oversimplify the characters he met, and hence they are often seen as travesties of themselves. For example in one scene the dialogue falls into the form of limericks, and in another into the form of question and answer, travestying Joyce's techniques in Ulysses. The point of this is that while Joyce, Tzara and Lenin are each 'living in their own world', asserting that their view of reality is more valid than the others’, the whole picture presented to the audience is itself only Carr's view of reality.

For the first few minutes of the play not a single sentence of comprehensible English is spoken. Tzara is picking words from a hat, Lenin is speaking Russian, and Joyce is speaking the language of Finnegans Wake. To the audience it is incomprehensible nonsense, until Henry Carr arrives on stage to begin his narrative. The implication suggested by this dramatic structure is that 'objective reality' is incomprehensible without somebody there to comprehend it; and the person comprehending reality will distort it according to the limitations on his ability to perceive, and the personal interpretation he puts upon what he perceives. The logical implication of this is that we all live in our own private reality. We are our own narrators, and we distort reality just as Henry Carr does. And our attempts to re-create or assert our view of reality will be more or less a travesty of objective reality.

It is interesting that Stoppard’s final statement on this theme rests on a concept of 'relativity'; that 'reality' is relative, depending on the observer, in the same way that the fate versus free will, and order versus chaos themes ended with the concept of 'perspective'. They are, fundamentally, the same concept, relativity being a more sophisticated development of 'perspective'. It is also interesting to note the similarity between these conclusions and the prevailing scientific doctrine of the day: Einstein's theory of Relativity:

Relativity began like a new broom, sweeping away all the subjectivity it found. But as we have advanced, other influences of subjectivity have been detected which are not so easily detected. Probability, in particular, is frankly subjective, being relative to the knowledge which we happen to possess.

The subjectivity referred to (in these lectures) is that which arises from the memory and intellectual equipment of the observer Without varying the equipment, he can vary in position, velocity, and acceleration. Such variations produce subjective changes in the appearance of the universe to him.Relativity theory allows us to remove (if we wish) the subjective effects of these personal characteristics of the observer; but it does not remove the subjective effects of generic characteristics common to all "good" observers - although it has helped to bring them to light. (from The Philosophy of Physical Science, Chapter 5. Epistemology and Relativity Theory. Eddington.)

Travesties is a play about the inescapable subjectivity of all Human experience, and hence of any human concept of 'reality'. For Stoppard it seems to mark the end of a line of enquiry which began with A Separate Peace:

Maggie: It's not good for you, what you're doing.Brown: How do you know? You mean it wouldn't be good for you. How do you know what's good for me? (p.23.)

John Brown, George Riley, Albert, and George Moore all suffered because they acted upon their own unique perception of 'reality', and Travesties justifies them all, on philosophical grounds. But to establish that 'reality' is ultimately a subjective phenomenon does nothing to help with making moral decisions, if it is relevant at all it merely provides a starting point for thought.

In his work since Travesties Stoppard has turned away from metaphysics and towards moral issues. This does not mark a complete break, as some newspaper critics suggested, but it does mark a definite shift in emphasis. Moral issues have been present in all the plays discussed, but although they have been acknowledged they have not explored to any great depth. Only in Jumpers were the moral issues given comparable weight to the metaphysical ones, and I would like to end on a quote from this play which encapsulates not only the basis of Stoppard's philosophical thought, but also the climate of uncertainty which affects us all in this age of relativity.

Dotty: You're probably still shaking from the four-hundred-year-old news that the sun doesn't go round you.George: We are all still shaking. Copernicus cracked our confidence, and Einstein smashed it, for if one can no longer believe that a twelve-inch ruler is always a foot long, how can one be sure of relatively less certain propositions, such as that God made the Heaven and the Earth? (pp.74-75)

Works discussed
(Page numbers refer to these editions)

1960 A Separate Peace (Samuel French)
1963 Enter a Free Man (Faber)
1966 If You're Glad I'll be Frank (Samuel French)
1966 Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (Faber)
1966 Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon (Novel) (Faber)
1967 Albert's Bridge (Faber)
1971 Dogg's Our Pet (Unpublished)
1972 Jumpers (Faber)
1974 Travesties (Faber)


Bigsby: Tom Stoppard: Writers and Their Work
R. Hayman: Tom Stoppard: Heinemann
J. Russell Taylor: Anger and After: Methuen 1962
Oleg Kerensky: The New British Drama: Hamish Hamilton 1977
Eddington: The Philosophy of Physical Science: Cambridge 1939
Wittgenstein: Philosophical Investigations: 1953

Clive James: Count Zero Splits the Infinite: Encounter Nov.1975
Jonathan Bennett: Philosophy and Mr. Stoppard: Philosophy Jan.1975
K. Tynan: The Man in The Moon: Sunday Times Weekly Review Jan 15 1978
John Simon: Theatre Chronicle: Hudson Review 29 Spring 1976
John Simon: Theatre Chronicle: Hudson Review 20 1967-8
Brian Appleyard: So what's it all about, Mr Stoppard? Sunday Times 21st September 1997

Theatre Quarterly No.14 May-July 1974: Ambushes for the Audience
The New Review Dec.1974 (re-printed in Hayman)
B.B.C. TV broadcast 26.11.78. Stoppard on the Press

© Ian Mackean, January 2001


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