Skip to content

Tom Stoppard’s Progress

(Quadrant, Jan-Feb 1995)

“I have seen the future—and it is yellow.” This enigmatic statement by Professor Duncan McPhee, shortly before he was shot, has had the force of prophecy. McPhee was one of the characters in Tom Stoppard’s 1972 play Jumpers, and he thought the future was going to be yellow because of the kind of intellectuals visibly taking over the universities. Twenty years ago Stoppard needed eye-catching track suits to help identify them—hence the colour—but no assistance is needed nowadays to recognise the type. Bounding onto the stage with arguments as supple as their limbs, the eponymous jumpers of the title are a collection of bendy relativists for whom all traditional moral judgment has been cast in doubt—has indeed become indistinguishable from aesthetic judgment, simply a matter of taste.

A phrase of Mozart’s must not be said to be superior to a donkey’s bray—in donkey culture brays are considered melodious. And what do donkeys think of the matter? Shouldn’t we ask? In the same way good and bad aren’t actually good or bad, but “just categories of our own making, social and psychological conventions like the rules of tennis. Telling lies is not sinful but simply anti-social.” A lie in one place might be a necessary truth in another, and unforgivable murder in one place becomes a necessary murder somewhere else. Pragmatism rules. Meaning and context is all. And trust is destroyed.

As Stoppard saw matters, it was the plain duty of anyone who understood what was happening to try and prevent it, and in Jumpers a professor of ethics, George Moore, is assigned this thankless task. A rather indeterminate deist who is not afraid to enlist God on his side, Moore is provided with a variety of theatrical props to dramatise his argument. He has a bow and arrow for shooting at the target of Zeno’s paradox, and a hare and a tortoise as well.

But the hare dies by misadventure, the tortoise is crushed underfoot, and his arguments from First Causes fall on deaf ears. The embodiment of embattled decency, Stoppard’s stage George Moore has quite a lot in common with the historical George Moore of 1903. Bertrand Russell remembers how when the latter tried to light his pipe, he would strike a match, and then begin to argue, and continue until the match burnt his fingers, interminably striking matches and arguing and burning his fingers until the box was finished—the pipe  remaining unlit. Stoppard’s George Moore II has also a somewhat preoccupied manner, having burnt his fingers even more severely on the old flame he married and who occupies the bedroom next door.

Down-to-earth women are common in Stoppard’s plays. It’s their male adversaries who are dreamy fantasists. An amnesiac musical-comedy queen who once sang about Juney Moons, and whose clothing waywardly comes and goes, Dotty Moore might seem a rather striking exception to this rule, but like her husband George she can tell a moral limbo when she sees one. And what she has just seen on television is downright shocking. It seems that two astronauts on the moon named Scott and Oates didn’t take enough fuel with them—enough, that is, for both to return to earth. So who shall live and who shall die? Violently wrestling Oates off the boarding ladder, Captain Scott secures his own survival before announcing: “I’m going up now. I may be away for some time.”

This little bit of lunar unpleasantness is a mini drama about relativism, Darwinian naturalism, and the kind of “survival ethics” which in fact supersede ethics of any kind. And Dotty’s poignant response answers the yellow-clad academic jumpers better than George’s arguments:

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 moon-men 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. There is going to be such … breakage, such gnashing of unclean meats, such coveting of neighbours’ oxen and knowing of neighbours’ wives, such dishonorings of mothers and fathers, and bowings and scrapings to images graven and incarnate … 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.

Jumpers is concerned more explicitly than any other of Stoppard’s plays with the moral fabric of social life. It presents a world in which a strong and unified character like George is pitted against men too shifty to be fully understood. If Dotty’s world is falling apart because the truths that have been taken on trust can no longer be trusted, and if George’s arguments on behalf of God and against relativism fall on deaf ears, it is significant that the architect of moral disintegration in the play is the mysterious vice-chancellor of the university to which the track-suited yellow academics belong—Sir Archibald Jumper, MD, DPhil, DLitt, LD, DPM, DPT (Gym), “a first rate gymnast though an indifferent philosopher”.

In his role as a doctor Sir Archibald spends an inordinate amount of time in Dotty’s bedroom examining her, and his additional sins include at least one murder. According to the vice-chancellor, Captain Scott only did what was “natural” when he abandoned Oates to die on the moon; and as for the murder itself, he is not above trying to buy the silence of a police inspector with the offer of a Chair of Divinity. The inspector is shocked—and so, understandably, are those of Stoppard’s critics who have trouble with the character of Sir Archibald. They claim that real vice-chancellors don’t behave like this at all, and they may have a point. But Archie’s antics are important as an example of a deracinated mind—of an intellectuality which has freed itself from all moral constraint, simply by thinking. And the mysterious, corrupted, unidentified university of which he is High Priest stands equally for the institutional pathologies which a rootless, tradition-less, deconstructed intellectualism breeds. All this, mind you, years before numerous arts departments had been clobbered senseless by Foucault, and Derrida, and Lyotard.

John Henry Newman once memorably described the idea of a university as “the high protecting power of all knowledge and science, of fact and principle, of inquiry and discovery” which defends the territory of the intellect against its enemies. But today even a cursory investigation will reveal almost as many enemies of the intellect within the walls of the university as without. In this situation the life of the mind is too important a matter to be left to academics. They need help. They may even need therapy.

Stoppard was himself offering therapy of a kind in his vivid dramatic caricatures of intellectual trends—the trend toward relativistic yellowness being one. But his message wasn’t always getting through. His stated dramatic ideal was “the perfect marriage of farce and the play of ideas”, and to those clever enough to follow what he was saying this had been triumphantly realised: Jumpers and Travesties not only pushed sheer theatricality to its limits, they raised inventive intellectual digression into a new form of dramatic art. But in a way Stoppard was too successful—too dazzling, too witty, too much fun. Those blinded by all the pyrotechnics decided that the final result was “seriousness compromised by frivolity”. Tom Stoppard, they said, wasn’t for real.

The frustrations of this judgment led him to try and set the record straight in the columns of the TLS. If the world wanted an uncompromisingly unfrivolous Tom Stoppard then here it was. Invited in 1977 to review Paul Johnson’s Enemies of Society, he picked from the book the key aspects of Johnson’s argument he endorsed, and wrote:

The fundamental assertions are these. Truth is objective. Civilization is the pursuit of truth in freedom. Freedom is the necessary condition of that pursuit. Political freedom and economic freedom are dependent on each other. Material and cultural progress (growth) is dependent on both together. The loss of freedom leads to civilization’s decline.

This is a usefully compressed Manifesto. The statement it makes about truth, freedom, material welfare and civilization is a good guide to Stoppard’s more persisting beliefs. He did not agree with all that Johnson said. He was less pessimistic than Johnson about the blighting effect of Cambridge philosophy. He was more optimistic than Johnson about modern art—for art was as much a child of temperament as of intellect, and it was a mistake to judge its meanings too narrowly as refutable truth-statements about this or that.

But regardless of these and other differences, he said, “in one of his themes—the defence of objective truth from the attacks of Marxist relativists—Johnson has got hold of the right end of the right stick at the right time”. In the thinking of a typical representative of this already large and busy school, Stoppard noted, “the idea of objectivity and truth in science, in nature and in logic is termed ‘this colossal confidence trick”‘, the author of this phrase going on to conclude: “The advancing edge of objectivity must be replaced by a revival of radical consciousness which is developed concomitantly with the growth of radical will and action.”

By 1977 radical wilfulness was everywhere. In certain circles it had already ensured that there were no such things as facts independent of theories, that only fools believed in objective truth, and that once you knew that everything from art to medical practice to foreign policy was merely an ideological refraction of social class, you knew it all. “These,” wrote Stoppard,

“are now the quite familiar teachings of well-educated men and women holding responsible positions in respectable universities, and the thing to say about such teaching is not that it is ‘radical’ but that it is not true. What it is, is false. To claim the contrary is not ‘interesting’. It is silly. Daft. Not very bright. Moreover, it is wicked.”

But how could these silly and daft (and well-educated) men and women holding responsible positions in respectable universities be persuaded to change their minds? Or even to open them? One way might be to arrange a bruising collision with the world in which not so well-educated people live. Something like this took place in his television play Professional Foul, broadcast in September 1977, four months after his piece in the TLS. Stoppard had been reading up on the Russian dissidents. In 1976 he had met Victor Fainberg, recently released after five years in the Soviet prison-hospital system as “insane”, and now devoting himself to the campaign to free the similarly incarcerated Vladimir Bukovsky. A thirty-four-year-old biologist who had boldly suggested that inherited factors in human development are also important, Bukovsky had been rewarded for his outspokenness with twelve years in prisons, camps and psychiatric hospitals. Then in January 1977 a number of arrests were made in Prague, and a plot began to form in Stoppard’s mind.

Professional Foul takes place during a visit to Prague by Anderson, “the J.S. Mill Professor of Ethics at the University of Cambridge”. Anderson’s main but unstated goal—though that may not be quite the word we want—is to see England play Czechoslovakia in a World Cup qualifier. A secondary but not negligible interest is his attendance at Colloquium Philosophicum Prague 77, where he is to deliver a paper on “Ethical Fictions as Ethical Foundations”. In the minds of the younger participants at the colloquium another motive for flying east seems to be sex, though the furtive fingering of girly magazines is about as far as anyone gets. A warning that copies of Playboy and Penthouse are likely to be confiscated by the Czech police is only the beginning of Professor Anderson’s enlightenment.

While registering in his hotel he is approached by rather nondescript Czech citizen. Pavel Hollar works as a cleaner, but it turns out that he was once a student of Anderson’s in London, and is now the author of a dissertation he wants smuggled out of the country. Anderson demurs—it would be bad manners to behave in this way, and surely Hollar must realise that as a guest of the Czech government it wouldn’t be right to deceive his host! Hollar argues that the human being rather than the citizen is the repository of rights, and that there is a human responsibility to fight against the state’s definition of good manners. But the J.S. Mill Professor of Ethics at Cambridge argues that individual rights are only derivative, that they flow from the collective rules of the state—and if those rules require you to do such and such, then such and such is what you should plainly do.

Up to this point the implications of Cambridge philosophy for the welfare of ordinary people seem every bit as unfavourable as Paul Johnson claimed. But after an encounter with the Czech security police there’s a happy ending. Although Anderson misses the football match, the harsh experience of losing all his rights and being held for some hours incommunicado in Hollar’s apartment brings the Cambridge visitor belatedly to his senses. Hollar himself has been torn from his family and is under arrest. Hollar’s wife and child have been humiliated and abused. Borrowing a typewriter, Anderson revises his paper on “Ethical Fictions”. Rights, he now tells the Colloquium, are more than rules. Rules belong to communities; what civilized societies call rights reside with individuals.

“I will further propose that although these rights are fictions there is an obligation to treat them as if they were truths; and further, that although this obligation can be shown to be based on values which are based on fictions, there is an obligation to treat that obligation as though it were based on truth; and so on ad infinitum.”

Here we seem to be back with Dotty’s claim that in civilized society certain truths must be taken on trust. And Anderson has been led to this less by ratiocination than by the painful spectacle of the suffering of Hollar’s family. A small child who cries “that’s not fair” is appealing, he says, to an idea of natural justice. To be sure, a philosopher talking about right and wrong is ill-advised to make too much of the argument that “a child would know the difference”. Nevertheless,

It is well to be reminded that you can persuade a man to believe almost anything provided he is clever enough, but it is much more difficult to persuade someone less clever. There is a sense of right and wrong which precedes utterance. It is individually experienced and it concerns one person’s dealings with another person. From this experience we have built a system of ethics which is the sum of individual acts of recognition of individual right.

Stoppard must have hugely enjoyed writing the sports journalists’ reports from Prague of the dismal failure of the English football team: “Maybe Napoleon was wrong when he said we were a nation of shopkeepers, stop. Today England looked like a nation of goalkeepers, stop … Only Crisp looked as if he had a future outside Madame Tussaud’s …” The dons, ever-eager to impart their expertise, lecture the footballers on tactics, and the usual Stoppardian double-entendres occur when McKendrick mistakes a soccer player for another colloquialist: “You’re Crisp. (He takes Crisp’s hand and shakes it) Bill McKendrick. I hear you’re doing some very interesting work in Newcastle. Great stuff. I still like to think of myself as a bit of a left-winger at Stoke …”

But the main point of the play is ethical, concerning (as Stoppard made plain in an interview in 1981) “a moral philosopher preoccupied with the true nature of absolute morality … coming from England to a totalitarian society, brushing up against it, and getting a little soiled and a little wiser. I can honestly say that I have held Anderson’s final view on the subject for years and years, and for years before Anderson ever existed …”

Along with other work from the period, Professional Foul was gleefully hailed by the critics as a sign that “art for art’s sake” Tom had at last been politicised. As some saw it this would now entitle him to be taken seriously by the theatre-going public – almost as seriously, perhaps, as the Edward Bonds, the John Ardens, the David Hares. The critical glee was doubly enjoyable in that Stoppard had earlier shown lofty disdain for the “theatre of commitment”, once going so far as to declare with Wildean mockery: “I think that in future I must stop compromising my plays with this whiff of social application. They must be entirely untouched by any suspicion of usefulness. I should have the courage of my lack of convictions.”

This was a jokey way of warning off the herd of independent minds on the left, the phrase about his “lack of convictions” being an ironic code for his reluctance to endorse the certified list of progressive causes. Art’s relation to society, he said, was rather more complicated than they imagined: “The plain truth is that if you are angered or disgusted by a particular injustice or immorality, and you want to do something about it, now, at once, then you can hardly do worse than write a play about it. That’s what art is bad at.” But at the same time, he went on, “the less plain truth is that without that play and plays like it, without artists, the injustice will never be eradicated”.

The social role of the artist is at the intellectual centre of Travesties the play in which James Joyce, Tristan Tzara, and Lenin are assembled in a Zurich library in 1917. It contains some plain truths about art of another kind, not so much from the Big Names mentioned above, as from Henry Carr, a rather overdressed representative of the Common Man. It appears that when the rest of the boys at Carr’s school were required to weed, or sweep, or saw logs for the boiler-room, a privileged few were let off with a chit from matron and allowed to mess about in the art room. With mounting irritation he tells Tristan Tzara, the posturing exhibitionist who founded Dadaism, that he seems to have somehow obtained a chit for life. Where exactly did Tzara get it?

In a piece of social analysis which might usefully be framed and hung above every Arts Council bureaucrat n the land, Carr explodes: “What is an artist? For every thousand people there’s nine hundred doing the work, ninety doing well, nine doing good, and one lucky bastard who’s the artist.” This isn’t the end of the argument (Joyce’s noble defence of Homer is effectively the conclusion) in a play which offers champagne comedy of the rarest kind, an intellectual and theatrical tour de force—with one egregious exception, the episodes involving Lenin. Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov sticks out like the sore Bolshevik he was, and as his grim shadow looms above the stage, the fireworks go out and the comedy is eclipsed.

The odd thing is that Lenin is treated with a sentimental solemnity which the other main figures on the stage—Joyce, Tristan Tzara and Henry Carr—are deliberately denied. And now more than ever we want to know why. It is true that Lenin is not wholly attractive, and that he says unsympathetic things about writing:

“Today, literature must become party literature. Down with non-partisan literature! Down with literary supermen! Literature must become a part of the common cause of the proletariat” and so on. But the tone throughout is grave and considered, the argument is not unreasonable, and since Lenin’s character is far more naturalistically developed than anyone else’s even his anger is easily forgiven. It isn’t the rage of an instinctively murderous despot. It merely expresses the understandable frustration of a Man of Destiny whose plans have been obstructed by Lesser Men.

A more puzzling aspect of Stoppard’s treatment of Lenin is that material central to his theme is ignored. If there is a single line which contains the main idea in Travesties it is Carr’s dictum that “the easiest way of knowing whether good has triumphed over evil is to examine the freedom of the artist”—certainly that is the line which is meant to bounce off Lenin. But although the revolutionary ruminations of Act Two bring in a wide range of material, the kind of phrase which illuminates this issue, and on which Stoppard might well have played brilliant variations, is somehow missed. What I have in mind is Lenin’s declaration (the italics characteristically being his own): “Our task, the task of social-democracy, is to combat spontaneity.”

Those three words echo and re-echo through every subsequent historic development in Soviet history. They reach down to the foundations of the state; they define the tasks of the entire police and ideological apparatus; and in their direct bearing on artistic freedom they explain the cultural desolation of Soviet life.

If saving the life of the mind from academics has been one of Stoppard’s missions, saving the English language has been another. The two are closely related. In Jumpers Archie’s deracinated intelligence can make words mean anything at all, with ethically fateful consequences. In Professional Foul the linguistic philosopher Andersen comes to realise that “the essen­tials of a given situation speak for themselves, and language is as capable of obscuring the truth as of revealing it”. Words are not all — and in Prague he finds that even the most ingenious sophistries in defence of the “rights” of the state cannot shield him from the wrongs done to a mother and child. As a reviewer in the Times put it, “everything hinged on the impact of wordless human suffering on articulate spiritual atrophy”.4 But the linguistic disorders of the over-educated are only part of the problem. Language is also being steadily destroyed by journalistic hacks and under-educated zealots who think that provided you have an issue, and can manage the approved moral tone, then how you express yourself hardly matters.

This appears in The Real Thing when a jailed anti-missiles protestor named Brodie is persuaded to write a play. His supporters are confident that when the remorseful authorities find they have jailed an artis—no mere criminal—this will win his release. But in the eyes of Henry, a writer who is Stoppard’s alter ego, Brodie’s art is rather thin on ideas: “War is profits, politicians are puppets, Parliament is a farce, justice is a fraud, property is theft… It’s all here … You can’t fool Brodie: patriotism is propaganda, religion is a con trick, royalty is an anachronism … Pages and pages of it.” Worse even than the rag-bag of radical cliches is the fact that Brodie

“is a lout with language. I can’t help somebody who thinks, or thinks he thinks, that editing a newspaper is censorship, or that throwing bricks is a demonstration while building tower blocks is social violence, or that unpalatable state­ment is provocation while disrupting the speaker is the exercise of free speech … Words don’t deserve that kind of malarkey … I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect.”

What The Real Thing tells us about writing, however, is better than what it tells us about love. While it’s a bitterly funny portrayal of how theatre people live and love and tear their lives apart, and not without poignancy, the author was plainly aiming at more than this. ]umpers had been about the morality of academic gymnasts, and The Real Thing supposedly illumined the morality of boudoir gymnastics among theatre folk both on and off the stage. The play is spiked with self-revelation since it contains a writer plainly modelled on Stoppard himself, and despite Roger Scruton’s strictures in a review the characterisation is convincing enough.

Indeed, the characters are vividly real. That’s not the problem. The difficulty is that they’re a generally unwholesome crew, and there’s a callous flippancy to everyone except Henry which leaves a rather sour taste. Charlotte managed to “get off with” nine other men while being married to Henry—which simply as a matter of logistic scheduling surprises him. Henry’s daughter is an unendearingly coarse-mouthed and promiscuous teenager who ridicules his ideals and whose head is full of “persuasive nonsense” about sex. The woman Henry falls in love with and marries, Annie, is simultaneously bedding an actor with whom she has been performing in John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore—short excerpts from which are used—and this ugly variation on incest and murder from the Elizabethan repertory is not a help.

It all looks as if Dotty’s prophecy in Jumpers has come true with a vengeance: “such breakage, such gnashing of unclean meats, such coveting of neighbours’ oxen and knowing of neighbours’ wives, such dishonorings of mothers and fathers …”

The notion that one can derive an instructive fable about personal relations from the philandery land of the actor is misconceived. After all, didn’t The Player himself tell us in Rosencrantz and Guildenstem are Dead that “We’re actors—we’re the opposite of people!” But that such a project should even be entertained shows how far Stoppard had moved since the manifesto of 1977. The values of theatrical people are largely bohemian; and from its inception in the nineteenth cen­tury artistic bohemia has been the most consistent enemy of the middle classes, of commercial prosperity, and even of civilization itself. To consult even the wisest of its inhabitants on how to live your life is like looking in the pages of Penthouse for advice on how to raise a family.

“I know not seems”, says Hamlet—for seeming is acting, and actors only seem to be true. In agreement with Hamlet and with the canons of modem authenticity we are inclined to feel that the social masks of seeming should be stripped away. Masks are worn by people compelled by society to play roles; compulsion is wrong; and it is one of romanticism’s more tiresome dogmas that only by radical self-disclosure will we get back to the real selves which are really true. In Stoppard’s The Real Thing this takes the unusual form of a theory of love as pure coition: “Carnal knowledge. It’s what lovers trust each other with. Knowledge of each other; not of the flesh but through the flesh, knowledge of self, the real him, the real her, in extremis, the mask slipped from the face …” But to idealise romantic unmasking is risky. Its consequences are far more often cruel than kind. That many critics discovered in The Real Thing a more “human” side to Stoppard seems rather blind.

They were right, however, to detect a turning point. There had always been a certain tension between the different elements to be found in the playwright’s review of Paul Johnson. On the one hand it saw a connection between the morale of a healthy middle class, and freedom and material growth. On the other hand it linked Western liberal democracy to the persistence of an intellectual and cultural elite. The limit of his agreement with Johnson was reached when the latter attacked modern art for being anti-representational. A kind of irritable puritanism hostile to Stoppard’s luxuriantly eclectic style seemed to be lurking in the wings. And Stoppard plainly felt a temperamental impatience with some of the moral and aesthetic canons of middle-class life. It seemed more than possible that the playwright’s real affinity was not for all those useful wealth-producing burghers, but for the world of a traditional, literate, devil-may-care aristocracy. And this of course is the world of Sidley Park in 1810, in his new play Arcadia.

Byronic jesting requires a social setting of broad acres and broader morals, one in which adultery is merely the more hazardous of various blood sports on offer. At Sidley Park the echo of gunshots at dawn may signal only the death of a hare. But it’s just as likely to announce the fiery finale of some nocturnal escapade—with pistols at twenty paces. In such a milieu the aristocratic code that one should do what one likes and to hell with the peasants blurs indistinguishably with the bohemian code that one should do what one likes and to hell with bourgeois morality—Byron embodying the best and worst of both worlds.

In matters Byronic misbehaviour must be handled with style. Charlotte’s conduct in The Real Thing probably differs little from Lady Groom’s in Arcadia, but whereas the naturalistic treatment of infidelity among the faithless seems beside the point, the same thing transmutes into high comedy in the language of another time and place. Jealously accused by Lady Croom of embracing her rival Mrs Chater, the ingenious Septimus says in his defence:

My lady, I was alone with my thoughts in the gazebo, when Mrs Chater ran me to ground, and I being in such a passion, in an agony of unrelieved desire … thought in my madness that the Chater with her skirts over her head would give me the momentary illusion of the happiness to which I dared not put a face. (Pause.)

To which Lady Croom responds: “I do not know when I have received a more unusual compliment, Mr Hodge. I hope I am more than a match for Mrs Chater with her head in a bucket. Does she wear drawers?” Lady Croom’s interest in underwear is keen, but not exclusive. She has large ideas and ambitions, the chief of them being to preserve the classical estate of Sidley Park from the destructive romanticism of a landscape architect who would replace “the familiar pastoral refinement of an Englishman’s garden with an eruption of gloomy forest and towering crag, of ruins where there was never a house, of water dashing against rocks” where there wasn’t even a spring. When reminded by the architect that his forests and crags are inspired by “the picturesque style” she retorts that “Sidley Park is already a picture, and a most amiable picture too. The slopes are green and gentle. The trees are companionably grouped at intervals that show them to advantage.” All in all, she concludes, “It is nature as God intended, and I can say with the painter, Et in Arcadia ego”.

Lady Croom’s classicism speaks for Tom Stoppard redivivus. Following the self-exposures in 1982 of The Real Thing he entered a period of disorientation from which he now seems to have emerged renewed. During the 1980s the ethical questions with which his characters struggled seemed to have been displaced by psychological questions: not “What should I do?”, but “Who am I really—one person or two?”

In Hapgood, for example, this became a fully-fledged exploration of the kaleidoscopic possibilities of the self. Now, however, Stoppard seems to have decided that both life and art benefit when the emotional violence and intellectual confusion of romanticism are kept at bay. Instead of stripped-down nakedness, the classical setting of the nineteenth-century country house gives us masks, conventions, traditions, and elaborate and obligatory styles of speech—guarantors of civility even amidst the mayhem of weekend intrigues.

Arcadia also reminds us that naturalism unnaturally constrains Tom Stoppard. Modem demotic is not his normal voice. To show off his talents at their best he needs a period and style where speech is vivid, where men and women have larger-than-life characters, and where you can find the sort of freely speculative intelligence he admires. At Sidley Park the life of the mind is sustained by gifted amateurs pursuing this or that field of enquiry for no better reason than love of the subject and natural curiosity. It is the sort of place where a gifted child might not unreasonably be invited to consider Fermat’s theorem. Such is the mathematically precocious Thomasina in Arcadia. And such was the person on whom she seems partly modelled, Ada, Countess of Lovelace, Byron’s legitimate daughter by Annabella Millbanke, whose mathematical gifts flourished briefly in association with Charles Babbage—Babbage being the man whose invention of a mechanical calculating machine heralded the computer age.

An interest in science and mathematics has marked Stoppard’s work from the beginning: probability features in the first scene of Rosencrantz and Guildenstem are Dead, Cantor gets into Jumpers, catastrophe theory is touched on in Professional Foul; quantum indeterminacy is made rather too much of in his espionage drama Hapgood, and chaos theory takes over almost a whole scene of Arcadia. All of which tends to give the phrase “a play of ideas” new meaning. But while one is glad to be intelligently addressed in the theatre by someone for whom an idea is something other than a poilitical idée fixe, the result is not always successful. Despite the enormous inventiveness of stories which try very hard to tie the ideas to the action, and of characters for whom rattling on about particle physics seems almost natural, one sometimes has the impression, watching the immensely entertaining Mr Stoppard, that what we are watching is a clever man amusing himself.

Yet the growing prominence of science in Stoppard’s plays may have a deeper significance. Perhaps it means that today the only serious ideas are going to be the ideas which science offers—not those to be found in faculties of arts.

In the twenty years since Jumpers the yellowing of the academic landscape has proceeded apace, and many departments have now fallen terminally “into the sere”. Bendy relativists and hopelessly bent postmodernists have multiplied beyond imagining, and donkey culture is now reverently interpreted bray by bray. With the rise of a cohort of academics whose English prose reads like a foreign language, and who treat the latest symptoms of Gallic logorrhea as a huge leap in articulate thought, is it surprising to find that one of our most gifted writers for the stage has gone looking for more serious things?

Posted in Artists And Politics, Theatre.

Tagged with , , .