The Quality Inn is an inferior hostelry in the upper reaches of Regent Street. Two men entered the inn and took a booth toward the back. The taller man, a playwright, carried a large leather bag. For reasons which later escaped him, the shorter man, a journalist, assumed it was filled with plays; he had been drinking seriously since noon and his perceptions were not what they had been before lunch. The playwright wore a blue imitation-leather suit, purple shoes emblazoned with red stars, and a black-and-white striped scarf into which was knitted in red the word travesties. The journalist was certain of that. He drank his tea. The tea was rank and bagged. Lifting his hand, he summoned a waiter.
“May I have a drink?” he said.
“Only if you have something to eat.”
“I don’t want anything to eat.”
“Suppose I have something to eat,” said the playwright. “Can he have something to drink?”
“No, it’s against the rules.”
“Suppose I have something to drink,” said the journalist. “Can he have something to eat?”
“I don’t understand,” said the waiter.
The journalist pushed the tea bag through the murky tea.
“Well, where shall we begin?”
“Why don’t I give you a prepared statement?” the playwright said. “Actually, I’m quite prepared for interviews. I’m always interviewing myself. Or at least I used to. I don’t have to interview myself anymore because people come and do it for me.” He grinned. “Mind you, they don’t do it as well as I do.
“I must tell you,” he continued. “There’s something you should know right away. I’ll say anything to an interviewer, but somewhere in the middle of the piece, there ought to be a warning, like on cigarette packets. A warning which states: This profile is in the middle truth range. Don’t inhale. And that’s the point, since a profile shows just one side of somebody … a very good term for this particular kind of journalism.”
“And which side did you intend to show?”
“The outside. That’s what I like about interviews. Now, I suppose you’ll want some sort of background. The facts. The wheres and whens?”
“Yes, I suppose. But don’t exaggerate.”
“Oh, I’m very good at giving boring interviews,” he said. “I can say, yes, my name is Tom Stoppard and, yes, I’m 39 and, yes, I left school at seventeen and joined the Western Daily Press as a junior reporter in 1954 and joined the Bristol Evening World in 1958 and, yes, I began to write Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in 1964. I’m very good at that. No problem. Wait while I get some cigarettes and I’ll tell you some more.”
He walked off to the back of the restaurant. The facts, to dispense with them immediately, were more than a little surprising. He was born in Czechoslovakia in 1937. Both his parents were Czech. He had an older brother. Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, the four of them were sent to Singapore, quite the wrong place to go since shortly after, the Japanese invaded it. The Stoppards were evacuated to India. Stoppard’s father remained behind and died in Japanese captivity.
They spent the rest of the war in India—in Calcutta and in Darjeeling, where Stoppard attended an American multiracial school. In late 1945 his mother married an Englishman serving in the British Army who early in 1946 brought them to England. “My stepfather’s name was Stoppard,” the playwright said, returning to the booth. “My father’s name was Straussler, like the composer with ler at the end.” He smiled. “As you can see, Tomas Straussler sits before you.”
“Is that all?”
“Yes, I’m afraid that’s it. I have never starved, never lived in a garret, and I’ve never had TB.”
The playwright ordered another cup of tea. “When I left school,” he said, “I wanted to be a great journalist. My first ambition was to be lying on the floor of an African airport while machine-gun bullets zoomed over my typewriter. But I wasn’t much use as a reporter. I felt I didn’t have the right to ask people questions. I always thought they’d throw the teapot at me or call the police. For me, it was like knocking at the door, wearing your reporter’s peaked cap, and saying: ‘Hello, I’m from journalism. I’ve come to inspect you. Take off your clothes and lie down.’
“I became a playwright almost as the result of a historical accident. I began writing during a period when young writers in England wanted to be playwrights.”
“But I wasn’t much good at it and I never got to Fleet Street. Early on in my career, I had an interview with Mr. Charles Wintour, the editor of the Evening Standard. At one point, Mr. Wintour asked me if I were interested in politics. Thinking all journalists should be interested in politics, I told him I was. He then asked me who the current home secretary was. Of course, I had no idea who the current home secretary was. And, in any event, it was an unfair question. I’d only admitted to an interest in politics. I hadn’t claimed I was obsessed with the subject.
“But I’m through with all that now. I gave up journalism and became a playwright.”
“But you have no objections to seeing journalists who have come to inspect you?”
“No, but I’m wary of them. Do you see what I’m saying?” The playwright paused to light a cigarette. “I feel I should preface this with an epigram, which is: ‘Nothing is more studied than a repeated spontaneity.’ And on that note I’ll repeat what I said to you the other day. You see, the unstated supposition to any interviewing situation is that I know the answers to the questions you’re asking. And there are certain kinds of questions to which I do indeed know the answers. If you ask me how tall I am, I’ll say six foot one and tomorrow if you ask me again I’ll say the same thing … unless, of course, I’ve grown. But if you ask me what I think of Virginia Woolf, then the answer would have a different status.”
“What do you think of Virginia Woolf?”
“Well, in my opinion, Virginia Woolf was the tallest woman writer of the twenties.”
“Are you quite sure?”
“Yes, yes. My information is that Katherine Mansfield was only four foot eleven and Edith Sitwell was only five foot three. But Virginia Woolf was six foot eight, a fact not commonly known.” The playwright laughed. “Actually, life would be very simple if writers were judged by measurable criteria. Now as a matter of fact, I don’t know if I’m six foot one, because I haven’t measured myself lately. But then I would be being merely inaccurate, which is a different kind of a mistake. Do you see? I often give a frivolous answer to a serious question, which is a kind of a lie. I don’t lie about my age or the number of bathrooms in my house, but if you ask me whether I write comedy because I am too insecure to make a serious statement, well, that’s a complex question and rather than getting into it, it’s much easier to say yes. One doesn’t tell lies. I now have a repertoire of plausible answers which evade the whole truth. It just goes wrong. The truth slips away and becomes something you probably won’t mean tomorrow.”
“You could, of course, have a prepared statement and when a newshound knocked at the door you could slide it out to him,” said the journalist.
“Yes, or it would be very funny to have the answers written on cards and do tricks. You could say to the interviewer, ‘Now listen, take a card, any card. Okay? Don’t tell me what it is. Okay? Now ask me a question. Right. Now, look at the card. Got it?’ ”
The two men paid the bill and left the restaurant. “You know, if every card said ‘maybe,’ you could get away with that,” the playwright said.
The large stone Victorian house is situated near a busy traffic circle in Buckinghamshire. Tom Stoppard has lived here for four years with his wife and four children. During the week there are a nanny and a secretary in attendance. As the two men entered, little shrieks of welcome emanated from down the hall and the four children came rushing in. The journalist was introduced and the two men retired to another room.
“This is really a parlor sort of room, which I very rarely use,” said the playwright. He seemed concerned. “I can put you into a more interesting room if you like.”
Observing a bar in the corner, the journalist assured him the room was more than adequate—grand, even, in its way. Barnaby, the seven-year-old, came in.
“Daddy,” he said, “when is Mr. Bradshaw leaving?”
“I suppose just as soon as we can get rid of him,” his father said.
“Get rid of him?” said Barnaby.
Since the two men were going to a performance of Dirty Linen [FOOTNOTE: What was Dirty Linen?], an early dinner was served in the spacious kitchen. Miriam, the playwright’s wife, served spaghetti. (Miriam, a doctor, author, and business executive, has become something of a British-television personality answering questions on popular medicine.) Everyone ate together at a large round table. Having set out the food and wine, Miriam sat down and said, “Tom, Mr. Bradshaw’s not asked a question for some time.”
“He’s going to ask the questions later,” said the playwright. “First he’s collecting the incriminating domestic evidence.”
Looking up from his plate, Barnaby watched his father eat spaghetti. “Daddy, why do you twist your fork like that?” he said.
“Because if you kept the fork still and twisted yourself,” said the playwright, “you’d get dizzy and fall into the spaghetti.”
After dinner the two men drove up to London. During the trip the playwright recalled the success of his first play. “In 1965 I began work on a novel called Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon,” he said. “I just couldn’t write it. Time passed and I finally started it two days before it was due. I worked out that if I wrote 30,000 words a day, I could still get it done in time.” It was about this time that he also began work on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. “I believed my reputation would be made by the novel. I believed the play would be of little consequence. They both appeared in the same week in August of 1966. I remember taking the train back to London from Edinburgh, where Rosencrantz had opened at the Edinburgh Festival. I looked through the pages of the Observer. There was no mention of the book. But there was a photograph of me with a caption which said: ‘The most brilliant dramatic debut since Arden.’ And I thought to myself, ‘I didn’t know Arden had written novels.’ But, of course they were referring to the play. When I went to bed that night I remember thinking that some monstrous hoax had been perpetrated on me. The novel, on the other hand, did very badly. It sold about 688 copies and I’m told it did very well in Venezuela. I’m very big in Caracas, you know.”
“Well, not exactly in Caracas. Near Caracas.”
It began to rain and slowing down, the playwright turned on the windshield wipers. “I became a playwright,” he said, “almost as the result of a historical accident. I began writing during a period when young writers in England wanted to be playwrights. In the late fifties, the playwright was the hottest thing in town. It’s true. I promise you. Pinter, Osborne, Arden, and Wesker were the four hoarse men of the new apocalypse. Now, that’s a truthful answer, in a limited way, as to why I write plays.”
“And the rest of it?”
“Well, when I seriously consider why it is that I write plays, it has nothing to do with the social history of England or with what other people were writing around 1958. I’d rather write for the stage than television, for instance, because in a theater one has the full attention of one’s audience, whereas while watching television one tends to glance at the newspaper, to talk, or to answer the telephone. I’m not terribly keen on having my plays performed in that sort of situation. And I’m not terribly attracted to writing novels because their impact is dispersed over the time it takes someone to read them. And could I trust my readers to lock the doors and take the telephone off the hook? I could not. There is also the fact that I like theaters as places. So one begins to see that my plausible answer turns out to be very much like a lie.
“Rosencrantz came about in a curious way. I was riding back from one of the commercial television stations with my agent, where I had failed to convince them that I was the person to write an Armchair Theater. We were talking about a production of Hamlet at the Old Vic. He said there was a play to be written about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern after they got to England. What happened to them once they got there? I was attracted to it immediately.
“The play had no substance beyond its own terms, beyond its apparent situation. It was about two courtiers in a Danish castle. Two nonentities surrounded by intrigue, given very little information and much of that false. It had nothing to do with the condition of modern man or the decline of metaphysics. One wasn’t thinking, ‘Life is an anteroom in which one has to kill time.’ Or I wasn’t, at any rate. God help us, what a play that would have been.” He paused to light a cigarette. “I think I’ve actually seen one or two of those plays,” he said. “But Rosencrantz and Guildenstern wasn’t about that at all. It was about two blokes, right?
“But there you go. There’s a deep suspicion among serious people of comic situations. The point is that good fun is merely frivolous. There was something I said the other day which bears repeating. The trouble is that I think I said it to you. Never mind. I think I used to have a redeeming streak of seriousness in my work and now I have a redeeming streak of frivolity. That’s a neat way of putting it and I wouldn’t say it represents the precise truth of the matter. But that is the tendency.
“I tend to see everything through a comic prism. After Magritte, for example, sprang from a friend’s story about the morning he was shaving when he saw from the bathroom window his pet peacock leap over the garden hedge and make off down the road. Peacocks being rare birds, he dropped his razor and, barefoot and lathered, he pursued it, caught it, and returned with the peacock under his arm. Now, I tend to write plays about people who drive by in a car at that particular moment. They see a man in pajamas, bare feet, and shaving foam, carrying a peacock, for about a third of a second. They never see him again. They never quite understand what it is they’ve seen. They probably wouldn’t even agree on what it was.
“You see, I know what I’m after. And it’s like this. I’m stuck with the kind of plays I write. I’m stuck with the level I write on because I enjoy humor, I’m good at humor, and I enjoy it being performed and laughed at—ironic juxtapositions, all that sort of thing. And that’s what I’ve got to do. Because if I decided to write a modern Greek tragedy in blank verse I’d just write rubbish. You see, I want to demonstrate that I can make serious points by flinging a custard pie around the stage for a couple of hours. In other words, I want to write plays that are just funny enough to do their jobs but not too funny to obscure them. My line at the moment would be to try to reduce weighty preoccupations about the way the world is going to an extended exchange of epigrams with a good first-act curtain.”
“Your plays aren’t peopled by what one would call real people. Why don’t people interest you as much as words?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know. I mean you’re wrong actually to put it in quite those terms. I’m not a lexicographer. I’m not interested in words as such, I’m interested in ideas. But there’s no other way to express an idea except in words. It’s a distinction worth making. I’m not being pedantic. I’m not James Thurber, who, if he couldn’t get to sleep, thought up 93 words beginning with pqu or something. That’s not it at all. Couldn’t care less. Never do crosswords. Don’t care.”
The car crossed the Hammersmith cloverleaf and moved into central London. “It doesn’t interest me in any way to create characters. In Dirty Linen, the Chairman is off the shelf and Miss Gotobed is off another shelf. She’s not a real character. What interests me is getting a cliché and then betraying it. Miss Gotobed is a busty lady who triumphs in the play and she’s sharper and brighter about a lot of things and that’s fine but it doesn’t mean she’s a real character at all. In fact, it probably means that she’s less real than anybody else.
“Incidentally, it’s worth pointing out that you make it sound as though I belong to some rather exclusive little club who write plays which aren’t about real people. Without making too much of it, it appears that my plays which aren’t about real people go down well with enormous numbers of real people. Now you tell me why that is.”
“Well, perhaps characters in a play are never real. Have you met anybody who’s reminded you of Oedipus Rex lately?”
“Only my father. God, I should say immediately into this tape recorder that it’s not true, I have a weakness for wisecracks which I don’t sometimes have the tact to withhold. I always think that mere untruth is a very poor reason for restraint. Let me rephrase that. Accuracy is a high price to pay for truth. End of epigram.” The playwright laughed and then in a solemn voice said: “This epigram has been brought to you by Hitachi.
“You know, the kind of joke I enjoy the most is a tautology. When I was at school we used to listen to The Goon Show and I remember they were doing a sketch on colonial India and there was this joke. One of the Goons, Spike Milligan, I suppose, said, ‘And then the monsoons came, and they couldn’t have come at a worse time, bang in the middle of the rainy season.’ Now, that to me is a perfect joke. My kind of joke is a snake in a funny hat eating its own tail. Tautologies, right? And for reasons which may be very uninteresting indeed, I’m very fond of them.”
“You do speedwriting, I suppose?”
“Yes, if I’m given enough time.”
“How long have you been a pedestrian?”
“Ever since I could walk.”
“And how do you see yourself in the scheme of things?”
“Je suis, ergo sum.”
“I thought so. It’s a theme that runs throughout your work.”
The two men walked hurriedly up Great Newport Street. It was still raining and they were late for Dirty Linen, “It’s raining,” the playwright said. “Let’s duck into the nearest theater.”
Entering the crowded theater, the playwright was recognized by several of the lingering astute and a flurry of whispers rose in his wake. The two men retreated to the upstairs bar.
“How many times have you seen Dirty Linen?” said the journalist.
“Twelve,” said the playwright, “and it gets better every other time.”
Moments later, the bell rang and the two men took their seats. The playwright took pen and paper from his leather bag in order to make notes on the performance. It was a habit of his to stop in from time to time to assure himself (and the actors) that matters were running smoothly. The houselights went down. The play began and one was soon immersed in jokes—tautologies and puns, wisecracks and japes, non sequiturs,absurd conceits and epigrams, followed about an hour later by the curtain and much applause. A man sitting two seats away turned to his wife and said, “Is that the end?” The two men returned to the bar.
“There’s no point in being quoted if one isn’t going to be quotable,”
“Dirty Linen sort of grew like Topsy, really,” the playwright said. “Ed Berman, the director, would have been perfectly happy if I’d turned in a 25-minute sketch, which is all I’d intended to do because I didn’t have any ideas and because I couldn’t think of a sketch relating to his own particular needs, which were for a season of plays about America or something to do with America. I ended up using an idea I’d saved for some other occasion and that idea was to have a play about a committee of very high-powered people. I was thinking of the archbishop of Canterbury and the prime minister, the equivalent of Einstein, some guy doing nuclear physics, a theologian, a philosopher, and they were going to have this committee meeting on some topic worthy of their brain power and there was going to be this staggering bird, who was there to sharpen the pencils and pass the water carafe around and I was going to have her correcting them on points of theology and nuclear physics in a very bland sort of way.
“I hadn’t developed the idea beyond that single notion of dislocating the category of dumb blondes, you see. Finally, out of despair—you know, the usual deadline trouble—I began writing that play in the form of a committee meeting to debate Ed Berman’s application for British citizenship. Got sick of that, decided to hell with Berman’s American problem, and just wrote Dirty Linen. And then, you see, because there is a God and he does look after writers, I realized that all I had to do was to have an adjournment, put in fifteen minutes about America, and I’d solved Berman’s problem as well. And the whole thing is a nonsense, of course, little more than an extended joke.”
“What are you doing next?”
“What next? Well, I’ve written a sort of play which involves six actors and a symphony orchestra. The setting is contemporary, political in its implications, to do with human rights, and the treatment is tragicomic. The idea, which was suggested by André Previn, appealed as much as anything to my incipient megalomania, I think. I just love the idea of having a hundred musicians in a play. And I’m very in awe of conductors. Apart from Evel Knievel, I think the conductor of a great orchestra is the most awesome figure on earth.
“You see, ultimately, before being carried out feet first, I would like to have done a bit of absolutely everything. Really, without any evidence of any talent in those other directions, I find it very hard to turn down offers to write an underwater ballet for dolphins or a play for a motorcyclist on the wall of death. That’s why I did this thing with André Previn. No one ever asked me to write a play with a symphony orchestra before. Probably no one ever will again.”
The theater was empty now but for a few of the actors who had come up to the bar to chat with the playwright and to have a drink before going home. “Are you bothered much with urgent requests from people seeking meaning in your work?” the journalist said.
“Not often, but often enough to be irritating,” he said. “You see, plays are written to entertain, they’re theatrical. I don’t want to be disobliging or churlish to people who are invariably nice and are paying me a real compliment in asking academic questions about my plays. But I do insist on making the point that they aren’t written to be studied and discussed. No plays are written to be studied and discussed any more than pictures are painted to be discussed. The lit-crit industry is now approaching the dimensions of ITT. It reminds me of a very good footnote to an edition of Goethe’s letters. Goethe was saying something like ‘And now, I fell in love for the first time.’ And in the footnote, the editor said: ‘Here, Goethe was mistaken. In 18 … ’ ” He laughed. “You know?”
“What about the style of your work? You’ve been accused of being all style and no substance,” said the journalist.
“Not quite. In my own work, I think if you took away the style, the gift for putting things in certain ways, if you took that away and rewrote everything so that it was pedestrian, but said the same thing, then you would have a residue of a certain number of things worth saying, but not worth listening to. I don’t think I would say that of, say, Oscar Wilde. I think Wilde was motivated by style, which is a different thing. With Wilde, style was not merely the means, it was the end. In my own work the distinction between style and substance is never quite as clear as an academic might wish it to be. I’m not a writer who doesn’t care what things mean and doesn’t care if there isn’t any meaning, but despite myself I am a kind of writer who doesn’t give a fair crack of the whip to that meaning. The plays tend to give an impression of effervescence and style and wit for their own sake and thereby obscure what to me is the core of the toffee apple.”
“The toffee apple?”
“A toffee apple, American readers, is a sort of hot dog, taken from Sanskrit …. Tof meaning hot and Ap, a sort of dog.”
“Are you prepared to stand by that?”
“Well, I write fiction because it’s a way of making statements I can disown. And I write plays because dialogue is the most respectable way of contradicting myself.”
“Not bad,” said the journalist. “May I quote you on that?”
“There’s no point in being quoted if one isn’t going to be quotable,” the playwright said.
[Photo Credit: Gorup de Besanez via Wikimedia Commons]