March 3, 2011

Tom Stoppard

There are a couple of bits of Tom Stoppard news this week (an Arcadia revival is in previews on Broadway and Keira Knightley might play Anna Karenina in a film of Stoppard's adaptation), so I used that as an excuse to write about my favorite playwright in my Taki's Magazine column:
Tom Stoppard’s remarkable career stands as a puzzling rebuke to cynicism about show biz. Sure, audience-pandering, trend-surfing, and propagandizing can explain the vast majority of what the entertainment industry sets before us. Yet, how can we account for Stoppard’s endless success? Sir Tom has appealed to everyone’s best instincts for most of the last half-century, and he’s been handsomely rewarded for it.

Read the rest there.

By the way, here's something that caught my eye in Johann Hari's 2003 review of a Stoppard biography in the leftwing Independent:
Did you know that Stoppard came up with the name of his friend Mick Jagger's 1997 tour, "Bridges to Babylon", or that Stoppard, Jagger and the ultra-right-wing journalist Paul Johnson often meet for tea and biscuits? (Oh, to be a fly on the wall of that padded cell...)

That England's leading playwright, rock star, and historian get together privately and, no doubt, exchange heresies ... I mean, they have to be mad to say things like what Johann Hari suspects them of saying at tea parties he doesn't get invited to.


Grumpy Old Man said...

All Englishmen of any note know one another personally, and if they swing that way, have shared tea and strumpets.

Anonymous said...

Paul Johnson is 'ultra-rightwing'? He's a neocon.

TGGP said...

I didn't bother to get more context from Hari's article, but it could be an affectionate labeling of insanity for aristic types. Like "Oh, those three wild and crazy guys!". Granted, if not for Jagger I'd have gone instantly for your interpretation. And now that I think about it, Keith Richards is the more unrestrained one.

Anonymous said...

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE made me wanna throw up, but maybe it was Paltrow's fault.

I like EMPIRE OF THE SUN, but I hope Stoppard's plays are not like BRAZIL, one of the most pointless and stupid 'dazzling' movies ever.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that the leading playwrights, like novelists, of the second half of 20th century have been Jewish on both sides of the Atlantic.

Mamet, Miller, Albee(aint he Jewish), Pinter, Kushner.

Anonymous said...

OT: Steve, a few weeks ago you wrote

"What's this world coming to? Strange phenomena are afoot as Republican politicians continue their mystifying recent trend (e.g., Sen. Ensign, Gov. Sanford) toward getting into sex scandals with women:

Rep. Chris Lee (R-N.Y.) has resigned from the House effective immediately, an announcement that came just hours after a Web site alleged flirtatious behavior by the congressman online. ..."

Not so fast. It turns out he was soliciting transgendered individuals too. In some of his personal ads he specifically looked for trannies.

Kiwiguy said...

I mainly know of Stoppard from 'Shakespeare in Love' which I thought was fantastic.

btw. Paul Johnson's 'Enemies of Society' is recommended reading.

anony-mouse said...

Or maybe when they get together for tea and biscuits they just talk about tea and biscuits. And the weather.

"As long as old men sit and talk about the weather..."

They are getting on, after all.

Steve Sailer said...

Jonathan Last was apparently right when he guessed that Rep. Chris Lee resigned so fast because there had to be lots more from where that came from.

Anonymous said...

I like Stoppard but I don't know if he's the best. Why the need to compare anyway? Is everything a competition?

I didn't know he had a hand in the movie Brazil. If that's the case then there's a pretty hefty mark against him. Pretentious, self-conscious, and boring that was.

Try seeing some early Frayn.

Ray Sawhill said...

Nice piece. FWIW, I'm more partial to Stoppard's screenplays than I am to his stage plays, which often strike me as a little antic, or sometimes too idea-driven (for my tastes, anyway), though I certainly respect them. But he seems more likely to relax a bit and let emotion take over when he writes for the movies, and maybe especially when he's adapting someone else's work. I loved "The Russia House" and "Enigma," for instance.

TGGP said...

I had heard so much about "Brazil" I was a bit let down when seeing it, but overall I'd say it's a good movie with an entertainingly dysfunctional rather than miserably bleak dystopia. It reminded me of Douglas Adams' text-adventure Bureaucracy.

Looking him up on imdb, I didn't see any reference to "Robin Hood", but maybe that doesn't include everything.

CJ said...

Mandatory Paul Johnson shout out. Intellectuals and Modern Times are great reads that tell you all kinds of things you didn't know. You don't have to agree with him on everything.

Re the movie Brazil: it doesn't matter about the screenplay, if it's directed by Terry Gilliam it comes out as a Terry Gilliam movie. Not a plus IMO, but tastes vary.

Jerry said...

Enigma? That nasty piece of historical patting on the back by the losers from the Isles?

During the war, the Poles solved the Enigma puzzle; in the movie, the Pole is a traitor. During the war, the Brit was a traitor; in the movie, the Brits are the heroes. Is this postmodern, or "playful," or maybe just plain distasteful?

From Wikipedia:

The film - and by association the book - have attracted criticism for their portrayal of the Polish role in Enigma decryption.[4] Critics argue that in the film the fictitious traitor turns out to be Polish whilst only slight mention is made of the contributions of pre-war Polish Cipher Bureau cryptologists to Allied Enigma decryption efforts,[5] while historically, the only known traitor active at Bletchley Park was British spy John Cairncross who passed crucial secrets to the Soviet Union.[6]

Anonymous said...

I'd never thought of this before, that there is a significant amount of nihilism in intellectual thought associated with conservatism while liberalism comes across as moralistic (i.e. giving back to the community, equality for ALL). Unless you go back, I guess, to T.S. Elliot critics don't seem to care.

On the other hand, there's the oligarchic strand of thought here on iSteve, in which your life is given meaning simply because you are in a position to lord it over the rest of us.

I'm not familiar with Johnson but it's obvious that Stoppard indulges in the extremes of intellectual thought (though not quite so far as DFW, I suppose) while Jagger indulges in excess. So the elite have found a way to appeal to the common man which allows them to remain part of the elite while appearing to be something quite different. From across the channel, these guys seem to be elites that have found a way to maintain status by appealing to a mass audience.

OT: As for moral absolutes, I think the virtue of selfishness plays no little part in good moral reasoning. What's in it for me?, Is it good for me? are valid questions to ask when pondering some controversial subject. That along with How will this affect other people? (i.e. on gay marriage, why should a typically socialized female with mother potential be left unmarried while some artsy, effete homosexual buys the dress she should of worn for his "marriage")

I had fun reading "R&G are Dead" as a teenager, also thought Brazil was good at evoking emotions. Have to admit I stopped reading Shores of Utopia because it seemed counterproductive to spend my time that way that week of that year but now wish I'd tried Arcadia; it fits better with my other reading.

To me, Milan Kundera is much, much better on both the topics of human freedom and the gentility of an earlier era but maybe I just prefer novels to plays. ;)

BTW, I assume Jagger with the Econ degree and the decades long is the richest of the three.

Steve Sailer said...

My assumption has always been that the idea behind "Brazil" is: What if Evelyn Waugh had written "1984" instead of George Orwell? Brazil's England is like Oceania with more ineptitude and social climbing.

Indeed, Waugh wrote a minor dystopian novella "Scott-King's Modern Europe" before "1984" came out. Orwell reviewed Waugh's book in the New York Times on Feb. 20, 1948:

Unfortunately, it's a modest effort. It's modeled on Waugh's experiences of Yugoslavia, Spain, Italy, and Mexico, while Orwell was extrapolating from Stalinist Soviet Union.

Whiskey said...

Orwell was of course famously wrong. The Soviet Union moldered on for a while, but collapsed without the strong man killer of Stalin's power. Libya is falling because Khadaffi is old, weak, and his sons tone-deaf, playboy disasters. As it happened with Mubarak.

Re Moralism as intellectualism, that's a Puritan/Calvinist and also (in different form) a Quaker conceit. Jefferson, and Madison, aristos from Virginia and Wessex (back in the old country) did not care for either "we are saved, you are damned!" moralism or some utopian trans-national golden rule (Quakerism). They "knew" they were better than anyone else, they were aristocrats! While backwoods folk considered higher learning a waste of time except for entertaining preaching (the function of religion being to entertain a dreary life more than salvation).

Of course a Catholic would argue that scholarship and learning was part of a way to better worship God by appreciating his rational, clockwork universe. An approach taken by traditional Jewish scholars. You find echoes of that among Scottish Enlightenment figures arguing empiricism (if it could not be proved by reason and logic, it didn't exist) and among the works of Smith, Hume, Burns, Boswell, etc.

Anonymous said...

while historically, the only known traitor active at Bletchley Park was British spy John Cairncross who passed crucial secrets to the Soviet Union.

Ah, but we all know left wing traitors arent really traitors at all. ;-)

Anonymous said...

First, Craincross wasn't a traitor he was helping an "Ally" just like Pollard and the Harry Dexter White**.

Second, Albee and Tennessee Williams weren't(aren't)Jewish but Stoppard, Pinter, and Arthur Miller are. Of course, Miller was a hack, except for the "Crucible" his work will be forgotten. Pinter is a one-trick pony and never popular. He never good just "interesting". Stoppard is OK but a mediocrity.

Theater become a liberal/gay/Jewish ghetto a long ago. No one else really cares.

** Can you detect the sarcasm?

Luke Lea said...

What about Sam Shepherd? He's a good playwrite. True West I loved.

Simon in London said...

Even by the standards of our British lefty-scum journalists, Johann Hari is lefty scum.

Just so y'know.

ricpic said...


Translation: doesn't vomit out the party line.

Anonymous said...

Samuel Beckett? Eugene Ionesco? Lanford Wilson? August Wilson? Robert Wilson? Sam Shepard? Terence McNally? John Guare? Suzan-Lori Parks? Conor McPherson?

Steve Sailer said...

Beckett, Ionesco, and August Wilson are dead.

Frayn might be a contender: Noises Off was the single funniest play I've ever seen ("Bag!!!!!") and Copenhagen is high on my list of plays I want to see. Ayckbourn is amazingly productive. I've only seen on Sam Shepherd play and it was exactly like I expected.

Britischer Schweinhund said...

Jerry said...

the losers from the Isles



Yet you write this in English.

Anonymous said...

I hate post modern, derivative, uninspired, psuedo-scientific & psuedo-philosophical, psuedo-artistic clones.

Cram him in a Campbell's soup can, cause he's done!

Anonymous said...

"My assumption has always been that the idea behind "Brazil" is: What if Evelyn Waugh had written "1984" instead of George Orwell? Brazil's England is like Oceania with more ineptitude and social climbing."

No, it's "Orwell via MTV". Godawful movie.

Anonymous said...

Stoppard or Mamet? I never saw a Stoppard play,and truth be told, I've never been to a Mamet play either. But, I love HOMICIDE, GLENGARRY GLENROSS, and HOUSE OF GAMES(movies). And GLENGERRY, along with CASINO by Scorsese, probably says quite a lot about the world we are living in.

Marc B said...

"Did you know that Stoppard came up with the name of his friend Mick Jagger's 1997 tour, "Bridges to Babylon", or that Stoppard, Jagger and the ultra-right-wing journalist Paul Johnson often meet for tea and biscuits?"

Why is there an automatic presumption of liberalism placed upon Mick Jagger? He is among the least politically vocal of rock stars from the '60's. The Stones left England due to the hyper-taxation that had them losing money at one point. He strikes me more as somebody that was very comfortable with the power and privilege that comes with being a member of the elite and had very little concern for the plight of the lower order.

dores said...

Stoppard? I know him from "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern" are dead, the title being after two minor characters in Hamlet, whose actions changed the play. R&G are Dead was written from their perspective and when I was a young'un I thought that was extraordinarily brilliant. I saw it as a recent film and was less impressed, I guess because the idea has been done a lot more than I once thought. Still, a good idea and well written as I recall. Anyway, at age 15, I read it more avidly than I did Hamlet.