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Updating Tom Stoppard

(The Salisbury Review, Winter 2003)

It’s amazing how few people are aware that anthropology has taken over their lives. Stoppard’s 1972 play Jumpers is all about the evils of relativism, and why it is that the old values we once believed in—standards of goodness, beauty, or truth—have been swept away. Sir Tom thought it was largely done by bent philosophers in universities.

He was right about the doctrine, but dead wrong about the source. Philosophical relativism—the sort he worried about in 1972—is above all intellectual relativism, a somewhat anaemic two-dimensional form of the disorder found mainly in the heads of academics. The latter are not numerous. As a social group or potential constituency, philosophical relativists consist of a few hundred lecturers, students, and books, and even if you throw in the writers and journalists who subsequently became infected, it is hard to see them having the political weight to capsize a whole nation.

Anthropological relativism on the other hand is the three-dimensional doctrine of large and muscular groups of people, millions strong, who have arrived in Britain over the last fifty years. They couldn’t care less about logic or ethics or epistemology. What they care about is promoting their own interests, and what their political guides and mentors in the UK employ to do this is multiculturalism. Aided by enthusiastic members of the host society keen to see the demise of the West, they get elected to public office, form institutions for their own advancement, and employ the huge political leverage to be obtained by combining ever-expanding “rights” with the view that tribal views are the only views that count, and that establishing the supremacy of tribal notions of the good, the true, and beautiful (which the enlightened describe as multicultural notions) is what the whole world needs.

After The Coast of Utopia, the recent revival at the National Theatre of Jumpers reminded us vividly of what Tom Stoppard does best. Simon Russell Beale was splendid in the demanding role of philosopher George Moore, and the supporting cast was more than adequate—though it’s unclear what is gained by having a supposedly faded musical comedy star named Dotty Moore played by an exceptionally nubile recruit from the Sydney stage. She appears half naked much of the time and this certainly keeps the men in the theatre awake. But casting Essie Davis in the role of Dotty made nonsense of the character and equal nonsense of many of her lines. Overall, however, this was a minor blemish. And what a joy it was, as waves of laughter washed over a delighted audience, to hear again the gaiety of yesteryear when puns flowed trippingly off the tongue, ideas sparked wit, and the wit seemed neverending.

In his historical pageant The Coast of Utopia Sir Tom offered High Seriousness, along with a nine-hour production that gave a new meaning to longueurs. In my view this betrayed his own gifts. What he always did best in the past was Low Seriousness, something nobody else ever did so well before. He had learnt from both Shaw and Wilde. From the example of Shaw he learnt cunning: it was plainly not advisable to let everyone see the moral coming at you from miles away. Nor was it enough to be merely clever or known as a wit, like Wilde. A deceptive obliqueness is needed by those bearing unwelcome news—so Stoppard mixed it up, combining songs, striptease, gymnastics, magical wordplay and mysterious murders, in ways which only those who have seen productions of Jumpers or Travesties can ever know.

Asked what a nude lady on a trapeze had to do with moral philosophy, Stoppard once replied that it was an “isolated image I wanted to drag in. I love the idea. It’s very theatrical. The only way I really work is to assemble a strange pig’s breakfast of visual images and thoughts and try and shake them into some kind of coherent pattern.” The effect of shaking up a “pig’s breakfast” of thoughts and images is to divert and distract the audience so it never knows what to expect. The curse of Shavian instructional drama is that the entirely predictable pedagoguery never lets up. But in successful didactic art unpredictability is all. With classic Stoppard you’ve no idea what will be next, and digression is raised to the level of high art. The technique is insidious. Low seriousness gets under our guard—the armour we wear against didacticism—and operating behind a screen of laughter it knocks us out.

But a production of Jumpers in 2003 sounds unmistakably a bit passé. The relativism which 30 years ago may have been confined to a handful of university departments and their staff is now a dogma imposed at every educational level. What this means is that in important ways the argument presented by Tom Stoppard in Jumpers needs to be brought up to date, redirected, and expressed in a way reflecting the passion for ethnic tribalism in our time. Let us therefore see how the anthropological apocalypse affects the arguments presented by Stoppard in Jumpers, in the specific cases of the astronauts on the moon, the donkey’s bray, appointments in the Church of England, murder, and the philosophical justification for the existence of God.

The astronauts

In Jumpers Dotty Moore is a retired musical-comedy queen who in the course of a mental breakdown sings a medley of songs about the moon: when television shows Astronaut Scott pushing Astronaut Oates off the steps of a damaged lunar lander so that he can make it home by himself (“I am going up now. I may be gone for some time” says Scott to Oates from his departing space-ship) she falls into a downward spiral of despair. In 1972 it being assumed that both astronauts inhabit the same ethical universe, one where they recognise shared rights and duties, and for Dotty these are cruelly ignored by Scott at the expense of Oates.

By 2003, fair employment rules ensure that men of different ethnic background (and neither of them European) are sent together into space. When a representative of Tribe X is pushed off the steps of the lander, his counterpart from Tribe Y explains blandly through an interpreter that in his culture that’s what they always do, that a UN edict on cultural autonomy gives him the right to do so, and that there cannot be any such thing as an “ethical universe” because Tribal Rights Rule. No punitive action is taken against the Astronaut belonging to Tribe X by the Multicultural Space Agency which employs him, but soon after his return to earth a court at the Hague initiates vilification proceedings against those who accused the member of Tribe Y of homicide.

The donkey’s bray

In Jumpers Professor Duncan McFee denies the universality of euphony, while his adversary George Moore argues against musical relativism on the grounds that there is a world of difference between the sound of Beethoven, the sound (say) of a donkey braying, and the sound of a brass trumpet falling down a flight of stairs. The first is music, the second and third are noise. But this of course assumes a hierarchy of musical forms and harmonies from the natural up to the most artificial, climaxing in those we regard as civilised, in contrast to those that are not.

By 2003 it has become clear how absurd it was to imagine an aesthetic measure distinguishing a donkey’s bray from a Beethoven quartet. The doctrine of cultural equivalence requires a frank and sincere admission that in donkey culture brays are considered melodious, while the doctrine of equal respect demands that we ask what donkeys themselves think of the matter. Don’t they have rights? And surely it’s unfair to rank donkeys last? Any traveller will tell you that there are much more limited musical examples than the bray of an ass. An outburst of hees and haws testifies to the joys and sorrows of asinine existence: it has its own eloquence. In contrast, in the year 2003, there are places where men solemnly blow through hollow logs making whoofling noises—logs with no stops, no keys, no possibility of scales or arpeggios, nothing expressing either thought or feeling, nothing but whoofling on a single note—and bemused citizens listen respectfully to this curious example of ethnic art.

The Archbishop of Canterbury

In Jumpers the political spokesman for agriculture, Samuel Clegthorpe, is made Archbishop of Canterbury. This is presented as an act of political ‘rationalization’ in the play, and stuns George Moore, who protests that Clegthorpe is an agnostic. Dotty agrees with George: because Clegthorpe doesn’t believe in God “nobody is going to have any confidence in him. It’s like the Chairman of the Electricity Board believing in gas.” George concludes: “Archbishop Clegthorpe! That must be the high point of scientism; from here on the Darwinian revolution declines to its own origins. Man has gone ape and God is in the ascendant, and it will end as it began . . .”

In 2003, Stoppard’s artillery falls way short of target. Rationalization has been a very minor factor in the destruction of the Church of England, an institution which tribalistic absurdities—ethnic, religious, literary, and sexual—long ago brought to its knees. But since in church affairs reality has outstripped both satire and farce, all one can do is quote from Yes, Prime Minister.

In one episode Canon Stanford is being proposed for a bishopric, his credentials including a church in South London which dispenses orange juice, family planning pamphlets, and information about organizing demos, but has no place for holy communion. Asked about God, Canon Stanford considers Him an “optional extra”, and affirms his own preference for Islam. “When some smart aleck asked him on television if he knew what the Bible was, he said it was a Christian version of the Koran”. Yet even this barely approaches the unresisting lunacy described by Peter Mullen in the Summer 2003 issue of SR, where Shere Hite and Foucault are proposed as our religious mentors and guides.

The existence of God

Not surprisingly, in Jumpers this is the most important question discussed. In contrast to primitive religions with all their nebulous forces and inexplicable effects, we are told that Christian scholasticism was analytically concerned with the nature of Being, Essence, Cause, and End. The growth of logical analysis within a theological context is said to have led to the growth of rational enquiry in the sciences too. Stoppard’s mouthpiece George Moore reviews the arguments pro and con the existence of God, and the ultimate source of moral values, summarizing over two millennia of ingenious and highly productive western thought.

In 2003 the mere framing of the question in a public theatre invites a sense of the ridiculous. This does not mean, however, that the deep issues with which western minds have struggled for so long have gone away. When religions decline, cults proliferate—and today the Culture Cult, with its admiration for the pre-logical and the socially primitive, proliferates in all directions. The effect has been to sweep the entire intellectual tradition from Aristotle through Aquinas to the present day into the dustbin, replacing it with a Californian mudslide of sentimentalism about “spirituality”. This legitimates a reversion to animism, astrology, and entrail reading.


There are two murders in Jumpers and a discussion of the cannibalistic eating of aged parents. Informed that his colleague Professor Duncan McFee has been shot, Vice-Chancellor Archie adopts a tone of jesting pragmatism. He cautions Dotty that “There’s no need to get it out of proportion. Death is always a great pity of course but it’s not as though the alternative were immortality.” Before his death McFee himself had argued that moral rules are indistinguishable from the rules of tennis—merely a social convenience without which life would be shambles: you’d be fishing headless bodies out of the Thames every day. Dotty (who is mad) and Inspector Bones (who is dull) are the only characters in Jumpers who think murder unequivocally wrong.

Again the year 2003 has brought large changes, mostly because of the multicultural apocalypse. Yet there are also passages in Jumpers which now ring all too true. When McPhee cites “the tribe which eats its aged parents” as justifying a relativistic view of murder, Moore objects that this ignores the different circumstances prevailing in the Brazilian rain forest on the one hand, and the Home Counties on the other—peoples in contrasting “climes and cultures”.

But what happens when the inhabitants of the tropical rain forests move into the Home Counties, occupy them, and ensure the passing of laws that protect their right to carry on their own unsalubrious practises? Including the importation for mysterious purposes of children, and the consequent fishing of headless bodies out of the Thames? It is in these circumstances that Dotty’s vision of a morally deracinated world, its values in disarray, drifting directionless in a directionless universe, has become reality. After seeing one astronaut condemn his own shipmate to die, left behind on the moon, she cries:

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 … are 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 neighbour’s oxen and knowing of neighbours’ wives, such dishonourings of mothers and fathers, and bowings and scraping to images graven and incarnate …

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