House of Cards:

Theater Games with Tom Stoppard


If in the afterlife there is a great hall where all great writers go, as all great warriors are supposed to go in Norse mythology, then it is undoubtedly William Shakespeare who occupies the honored seat at the head of the table, presiding over thousands of writers throughout history whose work contains but a glimmer of the genius this man from Stratford-on-Avon was able to summon with his quill pen and parchment. Yet, how does one measure the quality of a piece of literature? Is it the story, the political message, or the precision and dexterity with which a writer uses his words? If measured by the latter category, then nobody deserves to occupy one of the equally honored seats beside Shakespeare more than Tom Stoppard. Since his 1964 breakthrough play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Stoppard’s linguistic somersaults and verbal acrobatics have made him the most celebrated and respected playwright of his generation. Yet, for all the praise he has received, he is not a man without critics, many of whom have argued that if the quality of an artistic work is measured by the humanness of the story or political message it was trying to convey, Stoppard would be more deserving of a seat at the far end of the table of literary giants. However, for Stoppard, a one time theatre critic himself whose work has never shied away from philosophical debate, these criticisms proved but an inspiration to his whimsical imagination.  

If one could sum up Stoppard’s theatrical aesthetic during his early years, it would be an unabashed love of games—be they linguistic, theatrical, or philosophical. Even his impulse for writing, which he has said stems from a desire to explore ideas by arguing with himself through the voices of his characters, is, in a sense, playwriting as game play. Whether its Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, in which he takes two of the most marginal characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and shuffles them together with  existentialist philosophy and Wittenenstemian language theory to create a play about two fops trapped in a literary text where they are predestined to die at the hands of pirates, or Jumpers, in which he stacks his playwriting deck with a murder mystery, bouncing gymnasts, and philosophical speculations on the existence of God to craft a play about the deteriorating moral values of Western society, Stoppard has always taken the word “play” in playwriting very much to heart.

            Yet, for all their cleverness, there seemed to be a lack of caring about personal and political issues in these early plays, which was ironic for a playwright whose childhood was shaped by so many personal losses and political upheavals. Even today, his work contains no reference to his extraordinary beginnings: his birth as Tomas Straussler to a doctor for the Bata shoe company in Zin, Czechoslovakia; his family’s flight to Singapore during the Nazi invasion; the death of all four of his grandparents in concentration camps; the uprooting of his family to Bombay, India two years later when the Japanese attacks on Singapore began; his father’s decision to stay in Singapore to provide medical services and eventual death at sea when his ship was bombed by the Japanese; or his mother’s remarriage to Major Kenneth Stoppard and the new family’s eventual relocation to England. If he were Eugene O’Neill, these tragic childhood events would have been fodder for a dozen plays.   

            However, the 1982 premiere of The Real Thing, with its focus on a clever playwright and his turbulent marriages, marked a distinct change for Stoppard. Many close to him felt the play was unusually personal, reflecting Stoppard’s own troubled marriages to both his first wife, which lasted only three years, and his second, Miriam, which was in the beginning stages of falling apart while he was writing the play. Yet, although The Real Thing clearly signaled a more mature and, perhaps, more vulnerable stage in his craft, Stoppard, as always, remained a master gamesman, stacking his deck with ideas about love, marriage, theatre, politics, and, in a pointed response to his critics, the quality of good writing.


                 Dan Tarker, Literary Associate