A Theatre of Formalism

  • Neil Sammells


‘I used to feel out on a limb,’ admits Stoppard, ‘because when I started to write you were a shit if you weren’t writing about Vietnam or housing. Now I have no compunction about that … The Importance of Being Earnest is important, but it says nothing about anything.’1 As we shall see later, in Travesties Stoppard the playwright pinpoints what Wilde was up to with rather more accuracy than this overstatement allows; nevertheless, the remark deserves our attention. Stoppard’s championing of a drama which says nothing about anything is not simply a new aestheticism, ‘a delectation,’ in Eichenbaum’s words, ‘with certain elements of form consciously divorced from “content” ‘.2 It is, rather, an elevation of form to the status of content. His plays evoke the two orders (preservation of the traditional canon and deviation from that canon) and in so doing they perform a critical function — speaking of those procedures which have brought them into being, and with which they so clamorously argue.


Critical Engagement Mistaken Identity Dramatic Form Fictional Account Opening Scene 
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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    Quoted by Tynan, Show People, p. 47.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    B. Eichenbaum, ‘The Theory of the Formal Method’ in Matejka and Pomorska (eds), Readings in Russian Poetics (1971) p. 12.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    See B. Crossley, ‘An Investigation of Stoppard’s “Hound” and “Foot” ’, Modern Drama 20 (1977) passim.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    R. Bryden, The Observer, 23 June 1968, 26.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    See M. Billington, Guardian, 14 September 1985, 10.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    The Real Inspector Hound (2nd edn, 1970) p. 9.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    See R. Bryden, The Observer, 23 June 1968, 26.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Wardle, ‘A Grin Without a Cat’, 19.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Stoppard coins this phrase in a review of Agatha Christie’s Rule of Three. See Scene 16 (12 January 1963) 39.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    S. Beckett, Proust and Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit (1965) p. 23.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    W. Harris, ‘Stoppard’s After Magritte’, Explicator 34 (January 1976) passim.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Scene 18, (9 February 1963) 46.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    After Magritte (1971) p. 34.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    C. James, ‘Count Zero Splits the Infinite’, Encounter 45 (1975) p. 70.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    K. Hurren, Spectator, 12 February 1972, 245;Google Scholar
  16. J. Barber, Daily Telegraph, 3 February 1972, 11.Google Scholar
  17. 16.
    G. Melly, The Observer, 2 July 1967, 19.Google Scholar
  18. 17.
    In The Dog It Was That Died and Other Plays (1983) p. 92.Google Scholar
  19. 18.
    ‘Paradise and Purgatory’, The Observer Magazine (29 November 1981) 42.Google Scholar
  20. 19.
    Interview with A. Gollob and A. Roper, Gambit 10 (1981) 6.Google Scholar
  21. 20.
    Jumpers (1972) p. 81.Google Scholar
  22. 21.
    2nd interview with Hayman, Tom Stoppard, p. 143.Google Scholar
  23. 22.
    Interview with F. Hill, The Times Educational Supplement, 9 February 1973, 23.Google Scholar
  24. 23.
    F. Marcus, Sunday Telegraph, 6 February 1972, 18;Google Scholar
  25. J. Barber, Daily Telegraph, 3 February 1972, 11.Google Scholar
  26. 24.
    J. Barber, Daily Telegraph, 11 June 1974, 14;Google Scholar
  27. G. Weales, Commonweal, 13 February 1976, 114;Google Scholar
  28. J. Elsom, Listener, 20 June 1974, 801;Google Scholar
  29. Tynan, Show People, pp. 113, 119;Google Scholar
  30. F. Marcus, Daily Telegraph, 16 June 1974, 801;Google Scholar
  31. M. Coveney, Financial Times, 11 June 1974, 3.Google Scholar
  32. 25.
    G. B. Shaw, ‘Preface to Three Plays by Brieux’, in B. Dukore (ed.), Dramatic Theory and Criticism: Greeks to Grotowski (New York: 1974) p. 636.Google Scholar
  33. 26.
    D. Rod, ‘Carr’s View on Art and Politics in Tom Stoppard’s Travesties’, Modern Drama 26 (1983) 541.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. 27.
    Michael Billington, for instance, in reviewing the original London production, suggests that Joyce ‘emerges as a truly great man, shaping the way future generations view reality.’ (Guardian, 11 June 1974, 12.) For a full discussion of the various lobbies for a spokesman in the play, see C. Werner, ‘Stoppard’s Critical Travesty, or Who Vindicates Whom, and Why …’, Arizona Quarterly 35 (1979) 228–236.Google Scholar
  35. 28.
    Werner, ‘Stoppard’s Critical Travesty’, 230–1.Google Scholar
  36. 29.
    Travesties (1975) p. 85.Google Scholar
  37. 30.
    Tynan, Show People, p. 109.Google Scholar
  38. 31.
    Bristol Evening World, 23 April 1960, 3.Google Scholar
  39. 32.
    Oscar Wilde, Plays, Poems and Prose Writings (1975) p. 350. All subsequent references to The Importance of Being Earnest and Wilde’s critical writings will be to this edition.Google Scholar
  40. 33.
    In the uncut original Wilde allows Algy the most explicit and stylish declaration of this confusion of document and person. Miss Prism expresses the sincere hope that ‘you will now turn over a new leaf in life.’ ‘I have already begun an entire volume, Miss Prism,’ comes the reply. See the Four Act version of the play in The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (new edn, 1966) p. 357.Google Scholar
  41. 34.
    For the most succinct discussion of how Stoppard, or Old Carr, cheats history by telescoping four years into one in order to create the events and meetings in Travesties, see R. Ellmann, ‘The Zealots of Zurich’, The Times Literary Supplement, 12 July 1974, 744.Google Scholar
  42. 35.
    See G. Lukács, The Historical Novel, trans. H. and S. Mitchell (Harmondsworth, 1969) especially pp. 36–39.Google Scholar
  43. 36.
    P. Wood, interview with R. Hayman, The Times, 8 June 1974, 9.Google Scholar
  44. 37.
    Quoted by Hayman, Tom Stoppard, p. 4. Stoppard is here describing John Hurt’s performance in the original production.Google Scholar
  45. 38.
    J. Joyce, Ulysses (Harmondsworth, 1969) p. 11.Google Scholar
  46. 39.
    R. Kipling, ‘The Elephant’s Child’, Just So Stories (1962) p. 46.Google Scholar
  47. 40.
    H. Zeifman, ‘Tomfoolery: Stoppard’s Theatrical Puns’, Yearbook of English Studies 9 (1979) especially 216–18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. 41.
    Tynan, Show People, pp. 112–13.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Neil Sammells 1988

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  • Neil Sammells

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