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Interview: Tom Stoppard
Tom Stoppard is probably Britain’s greatest living playwright. Having first made his name in 1966 with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a Beckett-influenced black comedy, he has written a new play almost every year since. His landmark works include Arcadia, which takes in chaos theory, landscape gardening and the Enlightenment/Romanticism dualism, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, which examines the Soviet regime’s practice of treating dissidents as though they were mentally ill; and the Coast of Utopia trilogy, which traces the story of some of the central figures in the nineteenth-century Russian intelligentsia as described in Isaiah Berlin’s celebrated work, Russian Thinkers.
Stoppard’s most recent play, Rock ‘n’ Roll, premiered on the West End in 2006. Its main subject is artistic repression in Communist Czechoslovakia, seen through the eyes of a young Czech PhD student called Jan who returns to his native country from Britain, where he has been studying, during the Prague Spring of 1968, a quasi-autobiographical, might-have-been version of Stoppard himself.
Towards the end of the play, there is a speech about Britain, one of the last things Stoppard has written for stage, in which a character announces, ‘This place has lost its nerve, they put something in the water since you were here. It's a democracy of obedience. They're frightened to use their minds in case their minds tell them heresy. They apologise for history. They apologise for good manners. They apologise for difference. It's a contest of apology. You've got your country [Czechoslovakia] back. Why would you change it for one that's fucked for fifty years at least?’
We started by asking him if he thought Britain really was a ‘democracy of obedience’ and ‘fucked for fifty years at least’. ‘It’s a point of view which becomes the utterance of a character in a play, and I tend to write plays where different characters argue on my behalf. But I must say I did think she had a point, put it that way. It’s not a very long speech, and it seemed to me then and now that one could – I wish I could – write a play which is essentially about that speech.’
Yet Stoppard seems to dislike playing the role of writer as social and political commentator: ‘English life has changed quite a lot in different ways, but what I think about it isn’t particularly novel or original: it’s become the commonplace of newspaper columnists and pub talk.’ Later, he added, ‘I’m quite good at finding out what I think by answering questions, but I don’t really have anything to sell, I don’t have a strong thesis.’
The Coast of Utopia trilogy is Stoppard’s deepest and most sustained engagement with the idea of the intellectual as a public figure. The Russian intellectuals it follows were some of the most important figures in Russian public life in the second half of the nineteenth century. We asked Stoppard if there was a moral clarity to their situation, living under the oppressive, backward Tsarist regime, which he felt he didn’t have as a citizen of a liberal democracy.
‘Yes, it’s not a terribly good reason for opting for suppression, but you’re absolutely right. I think it does crystallize one’s opinions. There’s an odd boundary between one’s true intellectually-derived opinions on questions on the one hand, and one’s temperament and one’s taste. Speaking for myself, my temperament is such that I’m quite persuadable. I find it very easy to agree with the last person who spoke and if I were in the kind of situation Havel was before 1989, I don’t think I’d have that difficulty when most of these questions come up. Clearly I knew which side I was on when it was somebody else’s business. I think that the area of the rule of law, and regulation, and authority in general is not as cut and dried as it was in communist Europe.’
He moved on to discuss one of the trilogy’s central characters, the critic Vissarion Belinsky. ‘He is given the choice of remaining in France, where he went for his health…and he couldn’t bear the cacophony of what, by those standards, was free expression. In other words, you could get into trouble for printing things but there was no pre-censorship – you could publish what you liked, whereas Belinsky had to be very, very clever to insinuate what his position was when he was writing under the eye of the Tzars and the secret police. That certainly clarifies things. You know where you stand. Belinsky, interestingly, chose to go home…he valued the focus and attention which his writing received because it was, in a sense, underground.’
Isaiah Berlin, whose work Russian Thinkers provides the historical basis and inspiration for the trilogy, notes in his introduction to the book that the politically-engaged character of much of the literary writing of those figures was a product of the censorship laws which precluded open political expression, and that criticism had to take metaphorical, allusive or allegorical forms.
Stoppard responded: ‘I do find that persuasive. Berlin is certainly a hero of mine and I certainly find that persuasive and deeply interesting. I don’t think it means, or I don’t think he meant, that a writer living in America or France or Britain, even at that time, was somehow incapacitated from producing the masterpieces or different kinds of masterpieces. Proust managed without the police eavesdropping on him, but yes I think it's more true, really, that the kind of writing which emerged was shaped by the circumstances in which it was written, and I think Dostoevsky would certainly have been a different writer if he hadn’t been Russian at that time in Russian history.’
In Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History, he famously expounds the idea that thinkers can be divided into two categories: hedgehogs, who see the world through one central idea (Berlin cites Plato, Dante, Hegel and Dostoevsky), and foxes, who doubt the world can be reduced to such an idea, and who delight in irreducible variety (Shakespeare, Molière, Pushkin and Joyce). Berlin concludes that Tolstoy was a fox who wished he could be a hedgehog. Stoppard is, undoubtedly, a fox. His work sets up familiar dualisms and then erodes and mocks them; he refuses to present a straightforward argument for the critic to contend with. If he had an overarching theme to his work, it would be the absurdity of having an overarching theme. His playful and absurdist early work and his later, more serious work examining artistic repression coalesce around this.
We got the sense that there simply wasn’t one idea that could contain his curiosity. ‘I have a curious nature and I love to find things out and absorb them, but I think it’s a bit in-and-out. People show up who think that I’m still deep into moral philosophy because of a comedy I wrote in 1972 [Jumpers] or into quantum mechanics because of a play I wrote in 1988 [Hapgood]; and landscape gardening [Arcadia]. All these things were genuine interests that I got very deep into – well I can’t say very deep into them all because I wouldn’t be able to in the case of some of these things, like physics – but for a short, intense period my research, if you want to call it that, was my chief delight. And that’s still the case, except I’m still rather floundering for subjects.’
Stoppard also works in another register, writing and adapting for radio, television and film. Coming up, an adaptation of Parade’s End, Ford Maddox Ford’s quartet of novels about the First World War, as a five-part, one-hour per episode series for BBC 2; also, a recently finished adaptation of Anna Karenina for the director Joe Wright, due to go into production in September. Finally, he has been in discussion with Trevor Nunn about the latter’s plans to direct a new production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at the Haymarket. At 74, then, Stoppard’s irrepressible curiosity shows no sign of abating, for which we should be thankful.