The Sunday Times, 08 June 2003
Chain-smoking Silk Cuts, drinking coffee and lisping for England, Sir Tom Stoppard is one of those people who couldn’t possibly be anybody else.
Chain-smoking Silk Cuts, drinking coffee and lisping for England, Sir Tom Stoppard is one of those people who couldn’t possibly be anybody else. Some years ago there was a rather tenuous theory that he looked like Mick Jagger. That is no longer credible. Jagger’s face has aged into a haggard mask that could be almost anybody; after 66 years, Stoppard’s has become monumentally Stoppard’s and the hair is now more leonine than ever.
But, oddly, on this occasion, the head apart, he doesn’t look much like Tom Stoppard. He is wearing a very sharp suit, spotted tie and white shirt. The cuffs lack buttons or links, but the overall effect is distinctly snappy. Normally he’s a louche flaneur, today he’s an executive, almost, if he weren’t so slim, a fat cat.
“This morning was a board meeting at the National,” he explains, “I don’t usually dress like this for rehearsals. It’s an illusion. I always put on a suit and tie for board meetings and, broadly speaking, everybody else does. I’ve been on the board for twelve years now. We all wore suits and ties when I started and I’ve never stopped. I consider it a courtesy. Unnecessarily, I’m sure.”
One of the satisfying things about interviewing Stoppard is that he constantly delivers Stoppardian speeches – precise, unresolved, self-deprecating - like that one. The next time I’m just going to send the tape recorder along in a taxi with a note saying “About 90 minutes on your present state of mind and dress, please”. I have a feeling he’d go for it.
Anyway, Bertrand Russell, a famous philosopher, died in 1970, the year after the first moon landing and two years before Stoppard’s Jumpers, a play about philosophy and moon landings, opened at the National Theatre. Now there are no famous philosophers and nobody goes to the moon; once again, however, Jumpers is to open at the National. It has had to be altered slightly in deference to the decline in philosophy.
“Curiously enough,” he says, “one of the tiny changes I have made it to put “Bertrand” in front of “Russell”. In 1972 “Russell” would have meant him, but it occurred to me about three weeks ago that, nowadays, “My friend Russell” wouldn’t necessarily refer to anybody. It might be a first name or it might be fictious – a reference to a character who was going to pop up later in the play. I suppose in another thirty years people will say “ Bertrand Russell, who’s that?”
The point being, of course, that nobody takes philosophers seriously any more, whereas, in 1972, they were constantly being wheeled in to dispense unworldly wisdom on radio and TV. “People like Freddie Ayer,” observes Stoppard, “were popping up on television as though they were Jeremy Paxman.” Gleefully, he remembers seeing Ayer on television talking about his most famous book.
“He was asked what he would consider the shortcomings of Language, Truth and Logic and Freddie said, ‘Well, I suppose the main shortcoming is it’s not true.’”
It could be a line from Jumpers. Then, gleefully again, tells me something he has just read – that mathematics is the cheapest university department after philosophy. All mathematicians needs are pencils, paper and a waste paper basket; philosopher don’t need the waste paper basket.
Philosophy, it is clear, is the perfect Stoppard subject, significant and absurd at the same time. Jumpers takes philosophy apart. Its hero, George, is lost in a conceptual mist, unable to condemn murder and fervently meditating on what constitutes a good bacon sandwich. And he does all this in the midst of a wild farce – this may well be Stoppard’s funniest play – and an ominous development, the exploration of the moon, that may well finish off philosophy for good.
“The inspiration for the play was my private thought that if and when men landed on the moon, something interesting would occur in the human psyche, that landing on the moon would be an act of destruction. There is a quotation when the first landing occurred from the Union of Persian Storytellers – if you can imagine such a thing – they claimed that it was somehow damaging of the livelihood of the storytellers. I understood that completely. Anyway, I was limbering up to write Jumpers and the moon landing actually occurred, quite inconveniently.”
The significance of the moon landing, for Stoppard, was twofold. First, it destroyed the moon as romantic, benign metaphor, literalising it as a lump of rock. Secondly, the event threatened to provide us with a perspective that would downgrade humanity and all its philosophies.
“I know this sounds whimsical but roughly what I imagined was that, if one was standing on solid ground looking back at earth, one would realise that our universal absolute ideas about what is good and what is bad might begin to look like the local customs coming from a finite place and, once this idea dripped through to the bottom, people just wouldn’t carry on. They, of course, did; their behaviour was just as bad before and after.”
The obvious danger with all this is that, with no more moon landing and philosophers not appearing on Newsnight, the play might seem dated. But he doesn’t think so.
“One of the surprising benefits of having a play revived after two or three deacdes it that it tends to accrue relevance rather than lose it. As long as it doesn’t refer directly to the Tony Blair government or something like that, as long as it’s fictitious and generalised, it stand a good chance of capturing any decade with one of its aspects. I know that’s a rather large claim.”
The play is directed by David Leveaux, but Stoppard has been patiently sitting through most of the rehearsals.
“One of the pleasures of being a playwright is the rehearsal, I’ve always liked it…. It’s not a very profitable us of one’s time if you’re writer, to be honest, and it’s not a case of the first production of the play when you’re not only useful, you’re essential. I mean if I’d known in advance exactly which six minutes of each day I’d be useful for, it would have been better.”
But, unusually for Stoppard, he does at the moment seem to have time to spare. He’s just completed the screenplay for the first part of what should be a trilogy of films of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and he’s looking at a possible translation for the Donmar. But, sadly, there is no new original Stoppard in sight.
“I’ve got nothing original going. It’s impossible to say why. When Arcadia was just opening, I knew I wanted to write a play about Houseman – The Invention of Love and then I knew I wanted to write a play about Herzen – The Coast of Utopia. There was no gap. But Utopia closed here in November and it’s now June and not a dicky bird… Well, I had a sort of hot flush the other day when I heard something on the radio and I thought,’Oh!’ and I got a couple of books from the London Library. But I’m not sure there’s enough there.”
Of course, a Stoppard idea for a play is not the same as THE Stoppard idea behind all his plays. The first is a constantly changing metaphor for the second and the second is remarkably consistent – it is the idea that our ideas don’t work, they always fall short of the world. The world, to employ the jargon, is underdetermined by theory. For Stoppard this is a comic issue, but also a moral one – which is probably why he is a playwright, rather than a philosopher – because if ideas fall short of the world, then the structure of our behaviour is threatened..
“I’ve always wobbled between believing in absolutes and in the relativity of everything. It’s a circle I can’t square because temperamentally, psychologically and intuitively I do believe in absolute values. I don’t believe that certain actions are good or bad only in the context of where we are perceiving them from. And yet the knowledge that so much of our understanding is relative to our time and place is very strong with me too.
“However sophisticated you get, you always arrive at a moment of reversal when you realise you are lost and you have to spring back to the mind of a child, say, and you have to seek refuge in intuitive understanding. The reason ‘gut instinct’ is a cliché is because we all need that phrase, it’s something you snap back into when you get lost in sophistry.”
He believes the scientific imagination pushed to its limit can only account for the selfish act, that there is no materialistic explanation for altruism.
“Is there such a thing as a really altrustic act? I can’t get rid of the sense that there is.”
Though evidently intensely engaged with this problem, he is modest about this own thoughts on the matter. He repeatedly points out that his job is to entertain people for two and a half hours, not to resolve the moral issues of our time. His research – whether into philosophy, quantum theory or nineteenth century Russian political thought – is just enough to make the play, not enough to proclaim himself an expert, nor, indeed, to expand theatrical horizons.
“I’m not trying to reach for something that extends the boundaries of popular theatre, I’m trying to write popular theatre. I don’t know what that smile means, Bryan, I really am. There’s a high degree of pragmatism in theatre. When the play is being performed you’re looking for a certain kind of match, for a certain sense of their being a common reference between the play and the audience.”
In other words, the play’s the thing and, whatever superstructure critics or thinkers erect around it, the central imperative is that it must be all right on the night, it must work. But, in Stoppard’s case, this is not a mere showman’s banality, it is an organic part of his scepticism of all big ideas and generalities. He does not not want to impose a play any more than he wants to impose a big idea, he wants to work with the organic entity that is performance and audience. Asking what the resulting concoction is about is to miss the point, it is about the fact that, for reasons impossible ever to grasp, it works. And there is, in this working, some moral significance, but to state it would destroy it.
All of which leaves one hoping he’ll come up with a new idea soon. I thought I caught a glimpse of what it might be when he idly mentioned that he thought Agatha Christie’s plays would be much more interesting if the identity of the murderer was announced at the beginning. But I was probably wrong. It could equally well be about sharp suits and Silk Cut.
“Is that enough?” he murmurs as he rises nervously to return to his rehearsal.
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