A quibble is to Shakespeare, what luminous vapours are to the
traveller; he follows it at all adventures; it is sure to lead him out of
his way, and sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant
power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible . . . . A
quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world,
and was content to lose it.1
In retrospect, it seems to be no coincidence that the play which established Tom Stoppard’s reputation was enmeshed with the text of a Shakespearian tragedy in which the hero is characterized by an obsessive fascination with ‘words, words, words.’ From the bitter puns of his first line to the profound ambiguity of his final utterance, Hamlet lays himself open to the reprimand administered by the unimaginative Horatio, who cannot enter into the verbal fantasies of the Graveyard scene: ‘‘Twere to consider too curiously, to consider so.’ Just as the eighteenth-century critic sighed over Shakespeare’s enslavement by the malignant power of the quibble, so his modern representatives have belaboured Stoppard for his capitulation to the charms of the fatal Cleopatra of linguistic frivolity. Arnold Hinchcliffe dismisses the ‘baroque clutter’ of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead with the comment, ‘Stoppard’s pleasant young gentlemen disappear leaving behind the odour of University wit’; and John Simon condemns the play as an indulgence ‘in interminable word play, some of which is amusing and linguistically stimulating, but the total of which is cloying.’ ‘A brilliant, surrealist opening scene,’ which ‘quickly spiralled downhill into an undergraduate panto/word game,’ wrote Peter Buckley, reviewing the later play Jumpers; and John Weightman considered that the final sequence of the same play went on five minutes too long, and wondered, ‘Is it because Mr Stoppard cannot quite control his flow of language and gimmicks?’ Less condemnatory in tone is Victor L. Cahn’s observation that Stoppard ‘delights in linguistic trickery, double meanings, and homonymic phenomena.’ One of the consequences of this feature of Stoppard’s art is the charge, levelled by Philip Roberts, that it gives comfort to the reactionary view of theatre as ‘an end and not a means, diversionary and not central, a ramification and not a modifier of the status quo, a soother of worried minds and not an irritant.’2
Stoppard himself has consistently emphasized the pleasure he takes in language. ‘I’m hooked on style,’ he informed Giles Gordon in 1968, and elaborated on his preoccupation with ‘things I find difficult to express’ in an article in the Sunday Times:
One element of this preoccupation is simply an enormous love of
language itself. For a lot of writers the language they use is merely
a fairly efficient tool. For me the particular use of a particular word in
the right place, or a group of words in the right order, to create a
particular effect is important; it gives me more pleasure than to
make a point which I might consider to be profound.
Some years later, with Jumpers and Travesties behind him, he told Oleg Kerensky that ‘the way language and logic can be used or misused amuses me -it’s a wonderful garden to enjoy.’3 This fascination with language, which manifests itself in Stoppard’s plays as a concern with words as both medium and theme, sets him apart from the majority of his contemporaries in the British theatre. In a recent study, Gareth Lloyd Evans has argued that developments in the past twenty years suggest that ‘verbal drama both in its own terms and in consort with other forms of expression is in jeopardy.’ The dominance of a naturalistic vernacular in the modern theatre, which, he declares, is no longer ‘the starting point for a process of verbal creation but, in many cases, the be-all and end-all of the dramatic speech,’ reinforces the movement towards a drama in which the word is devalued at the expense of the expressive immediacy of physical action. His view that many recent plays ‘seem haunted by a need not to give words very much more than a functional job’ echoes Stoppard’s own observation that language is in danger of becoming no more than ‘a fairly efficient tool.’4
If Lloyd Evans’ diagnosis is correct, then Stoppard’s preoccupation with style—with language not as a crude functional tool but as an instrument worthy of respect and careful tuning—has implications for the value-system of our society, and the question of whether his Shakespearian susceptibility to the quibble results in anything more significant than ‘an undergraduate panto/word game’ is one that needs a considered answer.
Stoppard has acknowledged that the works of T.S. Eliot and Samuel Beckett ‘are the twin syringes of my diet, my arterial system,’ and that he has been influenced more by ‘the way in which Beckett expresses himself’ than by ‘the image of two lost souls waiting for something to happen’ (stressing the idiosyncratic language rather than the dramatic situation of Waiting for Godot).5 These remarks encourage us to locate his work in that tradition of twentieth-century writing which has persistently revealed an awareness of the difficulties facing a literary artist in an age of linguistic impoverishment. Eliot himself, with the craftsman’s doggedness in the face of the intractable, more than once transforms the problems posed by language as a medium of communication into the substance of his art. After seventeen lines of rhymed verse, heavily charged with symbolism, he breaks off to comment on his own performance:
That was a way of putting it—not very satisfactory:
A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,
Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle
With words and meanings.6
Each piece of language is only ‘a way of putting it.’ Other ways can be tried, but every attempt to complete the circuit of communication between writer and reader will be thwarted by the nature of language. The writer must wrestle to encode meaning in an appropriate pattern of words; the reader must wrestle to decode the meaning from the words. But difficulties arise at each stage of the process—because it is a process and therefore subject to the operation of time. First of all, the message that the writer seeks to communicate is unstable, like the writer himself and everything else in a time-governed world:
There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been. (East Coker, 199)
If the configuration of sense-impressions that makes up each individual’s experience of being alive changes from moment to moment, then any pattern that the mind creates to embody experience in a form that can be communicated to other minds will be a valid expression only of what was, not of what is. The self that seeks to express its knowledge of the world participates in the flux of all temporal things. Furthermore, the medium of language is not only difficult to master, but is itself also subject to time. Having spent twenty years ‘trying to learn to use words,’ says Eliot, he has discovered that ‘every attempt/Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure’:
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. (East Coker, p202-03)
The message, the particular forms of expression that seem appropriate, and the medium of language itself: all suffer the inexorable processes of time and change. Every victory that the artist wins leads only to another battle in an unending war:
And every phrase
And sentence that is right . . .
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. (Little Gidding, 221)
For Samuel Beckett the ‘wrestle/With words and meanings’ has become even more ‘intolerable.’ In his plays he dramatizes the effects of time and change on the self, the medium, and the message. Krapp, listening to the tape he recorded thirty years before, jeers at the voice from the past: ‘Just been listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago, hard to believe I was ever as bad as that.’7 Mrs Rooney, in All that fall, finds her own way of speaking ‘bizarre.’ Her husband, too, is aware of something strange in her use of words:
Mr. Rooney: Do you know, Maddy, sometimes one would think
you were struggling with a dead language.
Mrs. Rooney: Yes indeed, Dan, I know full well what you mean, I
often have that feeling, it is unspeakably
Mr. Rooney: I confess I have it sometimes myself, when I
happen to overhear what I am saying.
Mrs. Rooney: Well, you know, it will be dead in time, just like our
own poor dear Gaelic, there is that to be said.
Since language is constantly changing, each generation gradually loses touch with its own speech-community, retaining out-of-date idioms which begin to sound bizarre, until eventually whole language-systems fall into disuse. As Eliot put it, ‘last year’s words belong to last year’s language/And next year’s words await another voice’ (Little Gidding, 218). Beckett’s blind Dan muses on the identifiable processes that have been at work over the centuries: ‘I got down and Jerry led me to the men’s, or Fir as they call it now, from Vir Viris I suppose, the V becoming F, in accordance with Grimm’s Law.’8 The agony of Clov, as he participates in the ‘something’ that is ‘taking its course’ in Endgame, is exacerbated by his sense of disjunction between words and the actual experience of being alive. When Hamm challenges him with, ‘Yesterday! What does that mean? Yesterday!’ he retorts with a violence bred of despair: ‘That means that bloody awful day, long ago, before this bloody awful day. I use the words you taught me. If they don’t mean anything any more, teach me others. Or let me be silent.’ When time becomes meaningless as a measure of existence, the words that embody time-concepts become a falsification of felt reality. As the play draws to its close, Hamm asks Clov to say ‘a few words’ of farewell. Clov looks back over the patterns that had been imposed on experience by those who taught him a way of looking at the world:
They said to me, That’s friendship, yes yes, no question, you’ve
found it. They said to me, Here’s the place, stop, raise your head
and look at all that beauty. That order! They said to me, Come now,
you’re not a brute beast, think upon these things and you’ll see how
all becomes clear. And simple!
Friendship, beauty, order: none of these things exists in the world of Endgame, so the words that he has been taught ‘don’t mean anything any more.’ They are empty sounds. Just as words themselves change, by the operation of Grimm’s Law and other sound-shifts, and entire languages die, so the reality they seek to express changes and parts of it disappear from the spectrum of experience. Clov goes on: ‘Then one day, suddenly, it ends, it changes, I don’t understand, it dies, or it’s me, I don’t understand that either. I ask the words that remain—sleeping, waking, morning, evening. They have nothing to say.’9 Even the few words that still correspond to his experience in ‘the refuge’ he inhabits—‘sleeping, waking, morning, evening’—go the way of ‘friendship’ and ‘beauty,’ as the pattern which is ‘new in every moment’ alters. Whether this new pattern is a function of the perceiving self or the encompassing reality is beyond his understanding. The nothingness of the end is upon him, and the remaining words ‘have nothing to say.’ ‘Nothing’ is the only experience left to be embodied in language.
Tom Stoppard’s plays are as full of specific confrontations with the obstacles that words place in the way of satisfactory communication as the works of Eliot and Beckett. Several of them are built around characters with a professional interest in language as a system for mediating information about the world. The Player, in Rosencrantz and Guildenstem are dead, recognizes the need for a preliminary dumb-show to compensate for the inadequacies of the dramatic text he has to perform: ‘it makes the action that follows more or less comprehensible; you understand, we are tied down to a language which makes up in obscurity what it lacks in style.’10 George, the philosopher in Jumpers, wrestles with the problem of defining a God who is the ground of moral action, while confessing that the odds are all against him, because language is both `an approximation of meaning and not a logical symbolism for it’ (24) and ‘a finite instrument crudely applied to an infinity of ideas’ (62). Anderson, the philosopher attending a conference in Prague in Professional foul, exposes the absurdities of a lecture on linguistic philosophy with the remark, ‘language is as capable of obscuring the truth as of revealing it’ (63). Travesties sets the novelist James Joyce against the Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara as representatives of two opposed approaches to the literary use of words; and Night and day takes a critical look at journalists, whose version of events is ‘snapped together in that Legoset language they have’ (50).
Characters making their way through the ‘wonderful garden’ of language-use and -misuse frequently end up entangled in thickets of incomprehension or stop to admire a particularly exotic bloom. Martello, in Artist descending a staircase, pauses for a moment to meditate on an unexpected curiosity:
‘This tragic defenestration,’ the coroner said. I remember that.
Pompous fool, I thought. But I suppose he looked on it as a rare
chance to use the word. It’s an odd word to exist, defenestration,
isn’t it? I mean when you consider the comparatively few people
who have jumped or been thrown from windows to account for it.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstem, whose own idiom is the contemporary vernacular, periodically find themselves swept up into a scene from Hamlet which leaves them helplessly picking over the ‘bizarre’ medium of Elizabethan blank verse.11 After their first brush with the inhabitants of the Hamlet world, they ponder the implications of one of Gertrude’s remarks:
Guil: And receive such thanks as fits a king’s remembrance.
Ros: I like the sound of that. What do you think he means by
Guil: He doesn’t forget his friends.
Ros: Would you care to estimate?
Guil: Difficult to say, really some kings tend to be amnesiac,
others I suppose—the opposite, whatever that is . . . .
Ros: Yes—but -
Guil: Elephantine . . . ?
Ros: Not how long—how much?
Guil: Retentive—he’s a very retentive king, a royal retainer . . . .
While theirs is the problem of decoding a message obscured by the medium, George Moore’s is the opposite one of formulating a set of propositions about the world as he sees it:
I had hoped to set British moral philosophy back forty years, which
is roughly when it went off the rails, but unfortunately, though my
convictions are intact and my ideas coherent, I can’t seem to find
the words .... Or rather, the words betray the thoughts they are
supposed to express. Even the most generalized truth begins to
look like special pleading as soon as you trap it in language.
His difficulty in finding the words is aggravated by the fact that his ‘convictions’ and ‘ideas’ belong to forty years ago, so that the terms he needs to communicate them—such as ‘God’ and ‘goodness’—no longer relate to anything in the experience of those with whom he wants to communicate. The equipment at his disposal for his ‘raid on the inarticulate’ has deteriorated beyond usefulness. Although he may still understand what he means by ‘God,’ the word itself betrays him because his audience no longer shares his sense of conjunction between word and referent. This traps him inside a personal idiom which can only sound like ‘special pleading’ to those who reject the validity of the ‘generalized truth’ he is trying to express.
The devaluation of words like ‘friendship’ and ‘beauty’ in what might be dismissed as the specialized laboratory conditions of Clov’s ‘refuge’ in Endgame is placed in a context that has a more immediately obvious bearing on twentieth-century realities in a sequence in Travesties:
Carr: Then you are not actually an artist at all?
Tzara: On the contrary. I have just told you I am.
Carr: But that does not make you an artist. An artist is someone
who is gifted in some way that enables him to do some-
thing more or less well which can only be done badly or
not at all by someone who is not thus gifted. If there is any
point in using language at all it is that a word is taken to
stand for a particular fact or idea and not for other facts or
ideas. I might claim to be able to fly . . . Lo, I say, I am
flying. But you are not propelling yourself about while sus-
pended in the air, someone may point out. Ah no, I reply,
that is no longer considered the proper concern of people
who can fly. In fact, it is frowned upon. Nowadays, a flyer
never leaves the ground and wouldn’t know how. I see,
says my somewhat baffled interlocutor, so when you say
you can fly you are using the word in a purely private
sense. I see I have made myself clear, I say. Then, says
this chap in some relief, you cannot actually fly after all?
On the contrary, I say, I have just told you I can. Don’t you
see my dear Tristan you are simply asking me to accept
that the word Art means whatever you wish it to mean; but
I do not accept it.
Tzara: Why not? You do exactly the same thing with words like
patriotism, duty, love, freedom, king and country, brave
little Belgium, saucy little Serbia—(38-39).
Dadaism is only an extreme manifestation of the assault on language, which is inextricably bound up with an assault on traditional values. As words go dead or have other meanings foisted upon them, the area for misunderstanding, incomprehension, and antagonism even among members of the same language-community widens. The specialized dialects that are associated with particular groups of speakers within a society militate against communication with the uninitiated as effectively as Tzara’s individualism. After listening to several attempts to explain the meaning of the word ‘quorum’ in the jargon of the Civil Service—‘A quorum is nothing more or less than the largest minimum specified number of members being that proportion of the whole committee, let us say three or four . . . invalid without them’—the new secretary in Dirty linen is reassured that ‘It’s not as complicated as it sounds.’12
Examples of Stoppard’s explicit reference to the pitfalls awaiting anyone who wishes to practise the art of verbal communication could be multiplied, but what concerns us more urgently is the nature and significance of his own artistic response to the problem that haunted his predecessors. Eliot has the weary determination of those ‘Who are only undefeated/Because we have gone on trying’ (The Dry Salvages, 213). Beckett is nearer exhaustion, carried forward by desperate need rather than heroic resolution: ‘you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.’13 Stoppard, in contrast, takes up the challenge of language joyously. Travesties has been described as having the texture of ‘shot-silk, always shifting and shining—and, like life, paradoxical.’14 The surface of his plays is constantly being broken by ripples of pleasure, as he seizes upon the ambiguities and absurdities of words and syntax and register and exploits their comic resources. Comedy is life-enhancing, and Stoppard’s art reminds us that, though every poem is an epitaph, ‘At the graveside the undertaker doffs his top hat and impregnates the prettiest mourner’ (Jumpers, 89). The last part of this article will aim to demonstrate that the ‘profoundly superficial’ 15 qualities of his work constitute a ‘central,’ not merely a ‘diversionary,’ engagement with the realities of the contemporary world.
First of all, it will be useful to identify some of the features of language that Stoppard draws upon to keep up the ‘interminable word play,’ or as he himself has put it, the attempt ‘to inject some sort of interest and colour into every line.’16 Essentially, the jokes are a series of insights into the multifarious ways in which communication can break down. At its simplest, it is a matter of utterances which are capable of more than one meaning. Sometimes, the potential for comic misunderstanding resides in different semantic connotations of the same word. George Riley, in Enter a free man, is trying to explain to the mocking and sceptical Harry that the decline of Britain’s ‘greatness’ is due to her neglect of the enterprise of ‘little men’ like himself:
Riley: The Japanese look after the small inventor!
Harry: All Japanese inventors are small.
Carmen: They’re a small people.
Harry: Very small. Short.
Riley: The little man!
Harry: The little people! (15)
Riley’s ‘small’ refers to the inventor’s business; Harry’s refers to the inventor’s physique; and Carmen’s refers to the nation to which the inventor belongs. Similarly, Harry picks up both Carmen’s ‘They’re a small people’ and Riley’s ‘The little man!’ to put Riley’s delusions about himself in ironic perspective with the comment, ‘The little people!’—the fairies. ‘I have a complaint,’ a patient informs the Doctor in a Soviet mental hospital, in Every good boy deserves favour. Back comes the reply, ‘Yes, I know—pathological development of the personality with paranoid delusions’ (26).
Sometimes, the ambiguity lies in the different syntactical structures that can be perceived in an arrangement of words. The Player attempts to clarify the personal situation of the characters in Shakespeare’s tragedy:
Player: The old man thinks he’s in love with his daughter.
Ros: (appalled): Good God! We’re out of our depth here.
Player: No, no, no—he hasn’t got a daughter—the old man
thinks he’s in love with his daughter.
Ros: The old man is?
Player: Hamlet, in love with the old man’s daughter, the old man
Ros: Ha! It’s beginning to make sense! (49)
In this exchange from The Real Inspector Hound, the function of the one-word sentence “Drink?” is taken in quite different ways by the two speakers:
Cynthia: Thank you so much for coming.
Hound: Not at all. You never know, there might have been a
Hound: More serious than that, even.
Cynthia: (correcting): Drink before you go?
Hound: No thank you. (31)
Sometimes, the confusion arises when the participants approach a conversation with different sets of assumptions about the context in which it is being conducted. As Clive James has put it, in one of the most perceptive accounts of the significance of Stoppard’s word-games:
. . . he is at his strongest when one precise meaning is transformed
into another precise meaning with the context full-blown in each
case . . . . it is the plurality of contexts that concerns Stoppard:
ambiguities are just places where contexts join.17
For example, George, in Jumpers, believes that his wife has casseroled his pet hare, Thumper; Crouch, the porter, believes that she has shot one of her husband’s academic rivals; the two contexts collide:
Crouch: I got to know him quite well, you know . . . made quite a
friend of him.
George: You knew about it?
Crouch: I was there, sir. Doing the drinks. It shocked me, I can tell
George: Who killed him?
Crouch: Well, I wouldn’t like to say for certain . . . I mean, I heard
a bang, and when I looked, there he was crawling on the
floor . . .
. . . and there was Miss Moore . . . well
George: Do you realize she’s in there now, eating him?
Crouch: (pause): You mean—raw?
George: (crossly): No, of course not!—cooked—with gravy and
mashed potatoes. (76)
In Travesties, Bennett, the manservant, brings the morning newspapers and telegrams for Henry Carr, a consular official in Zurich during the First World War:
Carr: Is there anything of interest?
Bennett: There is a revolution in Russia, sir.
Carr: Really? What sort of revolution?
Bennett: A social revolution, sir.
Carr: A social revolution? Unaccompanied women smoking at
the Opera, that sort of thing? . . .
Bennett: Not precisely that, sir. It is more in the nature of a
revolution of classes contraposed by the fissiparous
disequilibrium of Russian society. (29)
In Professional foul, the philosopher from Stoke University, McKendrick, is unaware that the hotel accommodating the British delegation to an academic colloquium in Prague is also being used by the English soccer team, who are to play an international match against Czechoslovakia. He is introduced to one of the players in the lift:
You’re Cris(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. Of course, my stuff is largely empirical—I
leave epistemological questions to the scholastics. (59-60)
The footballers leave the lift eyeing him warily.
The primary purpose of these various kinds of word-play is often, of course, simply to make the audience laugh. Some of Stoppard’s plays frankly aim to be nothing more than what he calls ‘nuts-and-bolts comedy,’ farces ‘without an idea in their funny heads.’18 Even in the more substantial works, such as Jumpers and Travesties, this brand of verbal high-spirits has its place. Without being too solemn about what is intended as fun, however, these word-games can be seen as performing the additional function of keeping the audience alert to the endless possibilities for linguistic confusion. We have to be on our toes all the time for the ‘series of small, large and microscopic ambushes’19 that Stoppard lays for us. We, as well as the characters, are liable to have our assumptions rattled by unexpected turns in the text. The passage quoted earlier from Travesties continues:
Carr: What do you mean, classes?
Bennett: Masters and servants. As it were. Sir.
Carr: Oh. Masters and servants. Classes.
Bennett: (expressionless as always): There have been scenes of
Carr: I see. Well, I’m not in the least bit surprised, Bennett. I
don’t wish to appear wise after the event, but anyone
with half an acquaintance with Russian society could see
that the day was not far off before the exploited class,
disillusioned by the neglect of its interests, alarmed by
the falling value of the rouble, and above all goaded
beyond endurance by the insolent rapacity of its
servants, should turn upon those butlers, footmen,
cooks, valets . . . (29)
Most members of an audience will assume without a second thought that the ‘exploited class’ refers to the ‘servants.’ The jolt, when we realise that Carr is operating from an exactly opposite set of assumptions about class oppression, is not, of course, intended to make us revise our assumptions or to pass judgement on Carr’s. But it does encourage us to recognize, through our laughter, that what we accept unquestioningly as an objective or correct point of view may be a conditioned response, which could strike an observer differently conditioned as being just as eccentric as Carr’s prejudices seem to us.
At the beginning of Night and day, we see the news photographer, George Guthrie, asleep in a garden-chair near the verandah of a colonial-style house. An African servant enters and removes an empty glass from the table beside him. Ruth returns home from a shopping expedition to Jeddu and is surprised to find the unexpected visitor. Guthrie explains: ‘The boy said it was okay to wait in the garden. Is that all right?’ After several moments talking about other matters, Ruth picks up his remark and delivers a short lecture on the niceties of post-colonial English:
Ruth: By the way, we don’t call them boy any more. The idea
is, if we don’t call them boy they won’t chop us with their
machetes. (Brief smile.) Small point.
(GUTHRIE holds his arm out, palm to the ground.)
Guthrie: Boy about this high, fair hair, your mouth, knows about
cameras, has a Kodak himself; said I could wait in the
(RUTH acknowledges her mistake, but GUTHRIE
His name’s Alastair.
(He has pushed it too far and she snaps at him.)
Ruth: I know his bloody name. (20)
The chances are—especially since Stoppard has prepared his ambush by letting us see the servant, but as yet giving us no inkling of the existence of Ruth’s eight-year-old son—that we have fallen into the same misunderstanding as Ruth. Each individual member of the audience will respond to her rebuke according to his own political/racial/ cultural orientation. Her discomfiture when she realizes her mistake is amusing, because it is always funny to see knowing superiority deflated; but some of us may squirm a little too. But the quibble on the word ‘boy’ that makes this social comedy possible also stimulates our awareness of the power that words can have in a larger context. The political changes in Africa have brought with them changes in the language, and sensitivity to the nuances of words may be necessary for reasons other than simple social tact. The wrong word in the wrong context can be dangerous, especially since people are more than likely to interpret what they hear according to their own, not our, ideological assumptions.
Less light-hearted than Henry Carr’s version of class-exploitation or the verbal contest between Guthrie and Ruth is Guthrie’s assessment of the catastrophe in Vietnam later in Night and day. He tells his colleague, Wagner, of an incident involving a raw news-photographer, who risked his life to get pictures of the Vietcong in action. Later, continues Guthrie, he was killed when he stepped on a land-mine:
Guthrie: And Larry. And the other three in Larry’s helicopter. Do
you know how many people were killed in that war?
Wagner: Not exactly.
Wagner: Oh. People.
Guthrie: And eighteen missing. (26)
The audience, like Wagner, applies the wrong context to Guthrie’s question. The shock administered by the unexpected answer—only fifty-four!—forces us to reinterpret ‘people’ as ‘journalists.’ But it is less easy for us to shrug off this verbal misunderstanding than it appears to be for Wagner, with his ‘Oh. People.’ Or at least, it should be. If we accept it as a confusion merely at the level of language, we are tacitly endorsing the moral insensitivity of the two newsmen, who make a value distinction between the deaths of different categories of human beings. Guthrie and Wagner represent a much more serious aspect of the linguistic irresponsibility which allowed Tristan Tzara to assert blithely that the word ‘artist’ could mean whatever he wished it to mean. Stoppard’s word-play, here, puts us on our guard against the dangers of permitting the ‘shabby-equipment’ of language to deteriorate to such an extent that we have no effective means of maintaining our moral bearings in ‘the general mess or imprecision of feeling.’ Since language is the best instrument we have for probing the emotional and intellectual, moral and political complexities of human behaviour, Stoppard’s art is performing an invaluable service in helping us to keep it sharThe blunter the medium becomes, the cruder the range of responses available to us. Milne, the idealistic young reporter in Night and day, applies these ideas to the area of industrial relations in his comments on his former colleagues on the Grimsby Evening Messenger:
I never got used to the way the house Trots fell into the jargon back
in Grimsby—I mean, on any other subject, like the death of the
novel, or the sex life of the editor’s secretary, they spoke ordinary
English, but as soon as they started trying to get me to join the
strike it was as if their brains had been taken out and replaced by
one of those little golf-ball things you get in electric typewriters . . . ‘Betrayal’ . . . ‘Confrontation.’ . . ‘Management’ . . . . My God, you’d
need a more supple language than that to describe an argument
between two amoebas. (39)
Part of the bite of this passage lies in the fact that Milne is himself falling into jargon with the crude stereotype embodied in the term ‘house Trots.’
Stoppard opens up a more sinister vein when he turns from language as a measure of the range and sensitivity of an individual’s or a group’s response to the world to language as a weapon in the hands of those who want to impose their view of the world upon others. A comic exploitation of the way language can be used to manipulate the perception and evaluation of an object occurs in the opening school-dinner sequence of the radio play, Where are they now? The scene is set in 1945, when the constraints of a war economy made it necessary to change the gastronomic habits and prejudices of the nation:
Dobson: Pass it along, boy, and be your age.
Groucho: I don’t like dogfish, sir.
Dobson: It is not dogfish, it is salmon, rock salmon, finest rock
salmon, caught, quite possibly, off the rocky coasts of
our Canadian allies, what is it, Chico?
Chico: Rock salmon, sir. (63)
The process of reshaping the individual’s, or a whole society’s, perception of reality by renaming objects or concepts or institutions is less comical in this extract from Every good boy deserves favour, in which a Russian dissident is being interviewed by the psychiatrist in charge of the asylum to which he has been committed:
Doctor: Your behaviour is causing alarm. I’m beginning to
think you’re off your head. Quite apart from being a
paranoid schizophrenic. I have to consider seriously
whether an Ordinary Hospital can deal with your
Alexander: I have no symptoms, I have opinions.
Doctor: Your opinions are your symptoms. Your disease is
dissent. Your kind of schizophrenia does not pre-
suppose changes of personality noticeable to others. I
might compare your case to that of Pyotr Grigorenko of
whom it has been stated by our leading psychiatrists at
the Serbsky Institute, that his outwardly well adjusted
behaviour and formally coherent utterances were
indicative of a pathological development of the
personality. Are you getting the message? (p30-1)
The message is that the individual who tries to assert an opinion which is at odds with the official state ideology can be declared insane, since the state has control of the institutions which establish the definition of insanity. As the Doctor explains elsewhere in the play, Alexander must not call the room in which he is locked up a cell, because ‘we have wards. Cells is what they have in prisons’ (27).
Stoppard had already discussed the philosophical relationship between words and meaning and truth in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead:
Guil: We only know what we’re told, and that’s little enough.
And for all we know it isn’t even true.
Player: For all anyone knows, nothing is. Everything has to be
taken on trust; truth is only that which is taken to be true.
It’s the currency of living. There may be nothing behind it,
but it doesn’t make any difference so long as it is
honoured. One acts on assumptions. (48)
And assumptions, as we have seen wittily demonstrated time and again in the verbal prat-falls that beset both characters and audiences in his plays, are among the major obstacles to efficient and amicable human intercourse. In later plays, from Jumpers and Travesties to Every good boy deserves favour, Professional foul, and Night and day, Stoppard has been testing the implications of that passage from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead in relation to the way the art of communication is practised by philosophers, politicians, artists, and journalists.
The culmination of his earlier work was reached in Jumpers and Travesties,20 plays which function brilliantly as metaphors for man’s experience of a world mediated through the mass media of a technological age. The ever-changing visual and linguistic effects -like ‘the fragments in the kaleidoscope’ says a critic,21 ‘an anthology of different sorts of play . . . different kinds of style, different kinds of idiom’ says Stoppard himself—are deliberately designed to ‘dislocate the audience’s assumptions every now and again about what kind of style the play was going to be in.’22 As they jerk us from striptease to philo sophical discourse, from limericks to political lecture, from music-hall song routines to Shakespearean sonnets, Wildean repartee, and Joycean parody, Stoppard’s verbal acrobatics provide an exhilarating, because artistically shaped and heightened, imitation of the bewildering mélange of disconnected, contradictory, and grotesquely juxtaposed versions of reality that invade our homes nightly on the television screen. Some of the more recent plays, Professional foul and Night and day, have abandoned this exuberant theatricality for a more naturalistic mode, but the preoccupation with the fact that language processes and distorts experience in an amazing variety of ways—many of them irresponsible, devious, or sinister, and almost all of them funny—is still central to his purposes and methods as a dramatist.
It seems to me that an artist who takes language seriously enough to make it both the medium and the matter of his artistic enterprise—even if that enterprise involves making us laugh with delight—is not evading his responsibilities. Stoppard’s susceptibility to word-play is wonderfully diverting, but it is no more ‘diversionary’ than Shakespeare’s cultivation of the quibble. Like Eliot and Beckett, he knows that the precision and flexibility of our language measures the breadth and generosity of our vision of life. A concern with ‘the way language and logic can be used and misused’ is in the end a moral concern, as well as a source of amusement. And Stoppard’s own achievement, in spite of his talk about ‘seriousness compromised by frivolity,’ endorses his claim that ‘art . . . is important because it provides the moral matrix, the moral sensibility, from which we make our judgments about the world.’23
1 Samuel Johnson, Preface to Shakespeare, 1765.
2 Arnold Hinchliffe, British theatre: 1950-1970, Oxford, 1974, 142; John Simon, ‘Theatre Chronicle,’ Hudson review, XX, 1967-68, 665; Peter Buckley, Theatre 73, ed. Sheridan Morley, 71; John Weightman, ‘A Metaphysical Comedy,’ Encounter, XXXVIII, No. 4, 1972, 45; Victor L. Cahn, Beyond absurdity: the plays of Tom Stoppard, Cranbury, N.J. and London, 1979, 33; Philip Roberts, ‘Tom Stoppard: serious artist or siren?,’ Critical quarterly, XX, 1978, 91.
3 Interview with Giles Gordon, Transatlantic review, XXIX, 1968, 25; Tom Stoppard, ‘Something to Declare,’ The Sunday Times, 25th February 1968, 47; Oleg Kerensky, The new British drama, London, 1977, 170.
4 Gareth Lloyd Evans, The language of modern drama, London, 1977, pxii, 216, 215-16.
5 Stoppard’s comments are recorded in interviews with Ronald Hayman, Tom Stoppard, ‘Contemporary Playwrights series,’ London, 1977, 8, and with Giles Gordon, ocit., 23. Early analyses of Rosencrantz and Guildenstem are dead tended to stress the debt to Waiting for Godot in terms of the absurdist elements in the content of the drama. See C.J. Gianakaris, ‘Absurdism Altered: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead,’ Drama survey, VII, 1968-69, 52-58; and Anthony Callen, ‘Stoppard’s Godot,’ New theatre magazine, X, 1969, 22-30.
6 T.S. Eliot, East Coker, in Collected Poems: 1909-1962, London, 1963, 198. Subsequent quotations from Eliot’s poetry will be taken from this edition and page references will be incorporated into the text.
7 Samuel Beckett, Krapp’s last tape and Embers, London, 1965, 17.
8 Samuel Beckett, All that fall, London, 1965, 8, 35, 36.
9 Samuel Beckett, Endgame, London, 1964, 32, 50-1.
10 Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstem are dead, London, 1968, 56. Unless otherwise indicated, all subsequent quotations from Stoppard’s plays will be taken from the editions published by Faber and Faber and page references will be incorporated into the text. The 1972 edition of Jumpers and the 1975 edition of Travesties will be used.
11 Ronald Hayman has pointed out that, ‘The movement between Shakespeare and Stoppard not only raises questions of time and space, it also effectively creates a confrontation between Elizabethan English and the English of today’ (okit., 43). Stoppard exploits different kinds of incomprehension, including that created in the minds of schoolboys by the Shakespearian text, in his recent farce, Dogg’s Hamlet (Inter-Action Inprint, 1979).
12 Tom Stoppard, Dirty linen and New-Found-Land, Inter-Action Inprint, London, 1976, 15-16.
13 Samuel Beckett, Molloy, Malone dies, The unnamable, London, 1959, 418.
14 Allan Rodway, ‘Stripping Off,’ London magazine, XVI, No. 3, 1976, 72.
15 Ibid., 66.
16 Tom Stoppard, ‘Ambushes for the audience: towards a high comedy of ideas,’ Theatre quarterly, IV, No. 14, 1974, 6.
17 Clive James, ‘Count Zero Splits the Infinite: Tom Stoppard’s plays,’ Encounter, XLV, No.5, 1974, 70.
18 Theatre quarterly, No. 14, 7.
19 Ibid., 6.
20 Stoppard himself told Ronald Hayman: ‘A lot of things in Travesties and Jumpers seem to me to be the terminus of the particular kind of writing which I can do’ (ocit., 135).
21 Lucina Gabbard, ‘Stoppard’s Jumpers: a mystery play,’ Modern drama, XX, 1977, 89. Margaret Gold comments on ‘the amazing freedom with which such a hero as Carr is made to move among so many different , stylistic levels’ (‘Who are the Dadas of Travesties?,’ Modern drama, XXI, 1978, 63).
22 Quoted in Hayman, 140. See also Hayman’s own description of the method of Travesties: ‘The action is built around a series of collisions between contrasted styles of behaviour, conflicting artistic programmes and conflicting views on whether style is in itself something to be valued’ (119).
23 Theatre quarterly, No. 14, p13, 14.