Tom Stoppard pp 82-104 | Cite as

The Word Made Flesh: Moral Action in the Body Politic

  • Paul Delaney


For the first decade of his theatrical career, Tom Stoppard could expect to spend a substantial part of most interviews defending himself for not dealing with political realities in his plays. Tagged with a reputation for stylish stagecraft and erudite wordplay, Stoppard had to respond so often to the charge that his plays evaded ‘real’ issues, that he even attributes the genesis of a major play to the ubiquitous question: ‘One of the impulses in Travesties is to try to sort out what my answer would in the end be if I was given enough time to think every time I’m asked why my plays aren’t political.’1 And yet — to paraphrase George in Jumpers — as though to defy reason, the question would not go away. Given Stoppard’s sense of the primacy of moral issues, he could opine ‘I’d like to write a play — say, XYZ — which would pertain to anything from a Latin American coup to the British Left, and probably when I’ve done it I’ll still be asked why I don’t write political plays’.2


Free Ride Moral Dilemma Moral Action Moral Standard Moral Truth 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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  1. 1.
    Ronald Hayman, ‘First Interview with Tom Stoppard: 12 June 1974’, Tom Stoppard, 4th ed. (London: Heinemann, 1982), p. 2.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Tom Stoppard, ‘Ambushes for the Audience: Towards a High Comedy of Ideas’, Theatre Quarterly, 4, no. 14 (May–July 1974), p. 13; hereafter cited in my text as ‘Ambushes’.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Milton Shulman, ‘The Politicizing of Tom Stoppard’, New York Times, 23 April 1978, sec. 2, pp. 3, 27.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Joan FitzPatrick Dean, Tom Stoppard: Comedy as a Moral Matrix (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1981), pp. 88–9.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Tom Stoppard, ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Favour: A Play for Actors and Orchestra’ and ‘Professional Foul: A Play for Television’ (London: Faber and Faber, 1978); Tom Stoppard, Night and Day, 2nd ed. (London: Faber and Faber, 1979); Tom Stoppard, Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth (London: Faber and Faber, 1980). Quotations from these editions will be noted parenthetically in my text.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 7.
    Felicia Hardison Londré, Tom Stoppard (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981), p. 142.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    John Barber, ‘Newspaper Drama is Year’s Best New Play’, Daily Telegraph, 10 November 1978.Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    The term comes from Ronald Hayman who remonstrates that if Professional Foul had been presented pseudonymously it would scarcely have been ‘identifiable’ as Stoppard’s work (Tom Stoppard, 4th ed., London: Heinemann, 1982, p. 137). Although Hayman offers perhaps the most extreme denial of the continuity of Stoppard’s drama, other critics emphasise the change in Stoppard’s material while virtually ignoring the moral matrix which continues to figure as the pattern in his carpet. See Victor L. Cahn, Beyond Absurdity: The Plays of Tom Stoppard (Rutherford, N. J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1979); Michael Hinden, ‘Jumpers: Stoppard and the Theater of Exhaustion’, Twentieth Century Literature, 27 (Spring 1981) 1–15. J.L. Styan argues that Stoppard’s ‘career in flighty Pirandellian theater gamesmanship has taken a turn toward the serious’ (‘High Tide in the London Theatre: Some Notes on the 1978–79 Season’, Comparative Drama, 13 [Fall 1979] 255) and Joan FitzPatrick Dean concurs that these plays ‘turn from the frivolous and farcical’ in a clear ‘departure from his work prior to 1975’ (Comedy as a Moral Matrix, pp. 86, 87). Such criticism not only overstates the transformation in Stoppard’s art by failing to recognise the stature of the earlier plays, it also fundamentally misperceives the significance of Stoppard’s newly ‘political’ plays.Google Scholar
  9. 10.
    Kenneth Tynan, ‘Withdrawing with Style from the Chaos’, New Yorker, 53 (19 December 1977), pp. 41–111; repr. in Kenneth Tynan, Show People: Profiles in Entertainment (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979), pp. 44–123.Google Scholar
  10. 11.
    Neil Sammells, Tom Stoppard: The Artist as Critic (London: Macmillan, 1988), pp. 122, x, 142.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 12.
    Robert Berkvist, ‘This Time, Stoppard Plays It (Almost) Straight’, New York Times, 25 November 1979, sec. 2, p. 5.Google Scholar
  12. 15.
    Hugh Hebert, ‘A Playwright in Undiscovered Country’, Guardian, 7 July 1979, p. 10.Google Scholar
  13. 17.
    Daniel Henninger, ‘Theater: Tom Stoppard and the Politics of Morality’, Wall Street Journal, 1 February 1980, p. 17.Google Scholar
  14. 19.
    Oleg Kerensky, The New British Drama: Fourteen Playwrights since Osborne and Pinter (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1977), p. 170.Google Scholar
  15. 21.
    Stoppard may not be as philosophically precise as he might be in using ‘right’ and ‘rights’ virtually interchangeably. Indeed, philosophy dons upon first seeing Professional Foul noted that Stoppard was ‘perhaps not quite so good at philosophy itself but terribly good at philosophers’ (‘Dons Wave Play On’, Times Higher Education Supplement, 30 September 1977, p. 5). But while one might wish to draw a more precise philosophical line between what is right and what are rights, Stoppard certainly does not see a diametric opposition between moral right and human rights as argued by Richard J. Buhr, ‘Epistemology and Ethics in Tom Stoppard’s Profession Foul’, Comparative Drama, 13 (Winter 1979–80) 320–9.Google Scholar
  16. 29.
    David Gollob and David Roper, ‘Trad Tom Pops In’, Gambit, 10, no. 37 (Summer 1981), p. 15.Google Scholar
  17. 31.
    Tom Stoppard, Jumpers (London: Faber & Faber, 1973 text), p. 85.Google Scholar
  18. 38.
    Tom Stoppard, ‘Czech Human Rights’, The Times, 7 February 1977, p. 15.Google Scholar
  19. 40.
    Peter Stothard, review of Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, Plays and Players, 24 (September 1977), p. 33.Google Scholar
  20. 41.
    Joost Kuurman, ‘An Interview with Tom Stoppard’, Dutch Quarterly Review of Anglo-American Letters, 10 (1980) 53.Google Scholar
  21. 43.
    Martin Huckerby, ‘Arts Diary: KGB to Blame in the End’, The Times, 17 August 1978, p. 12.Google Scholar
  22. 46.
    The assertion by Victor L. Cahn, Beyond Absurdity: The Plays of Tom Stoppard (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1979), p. 147, is corrected by Felicia Hardison Londré, rreview of Beyond Absurdity, Comparative Drama, 14 (Summer 1980) 199.Google Scholar
  23. 48.
    Michael Billington, Stoppard the Playwright (London and New York: Methuen, 1987), p. 114.Google Scholar
  24. 49.
    Richard Corballis, Stoppard: The Mystery and the Clockwork (Oxford: Amber Lane Press; New York: Methuen, 1984), p. 111.Google Scholar
  25. 50.
    Andrew K. Kennedy, ‘Tom Stoppard’s Dissident Comedies’, Modern Drama, 25 (December 1982) 470.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. 52.
    Dean’s repeated assertions that the release comes about ‘only through the ineptitude of Colonel Rozinsky’, that such inept confusion ‘is the only thing that saves them from the Soviet system’, simply miss the point (Dean, Tom Stoppard, pp. 96, 95). As recently as 1986 Susan Rusinko was still arguing that since the Colonel ‘in his confusion’ released the two prisoners ‘the conclusion one can draw is that repressive institutions, if they fall, may do so from the weight of their own bureaucratic bungling’. According to Rusinko, Rozinsky is described to Alexander as ‘not a psychiatrist but a doctor of philosophy’. Rusinko not only misses the point of Rozinsky being a philologist; she misses the fact that he is ‘a doctor of philology’. ‘In the bungling of the minor officials’, Rusinko opines in her terminal comment on the play, ‘the dead language is heavy indeed’. (Rusinko, Tom Stoppard [Boston: Twayne, 1986], pp. 81, 83).Google Scholar
  27. 54.
    Bernard Levin, ‘The Shining Truth of Tom Stoppard’, Sunday Times, 18 June 1978, p. 38.Google Scholar
  28. 60.
    Philip Roberts, ‘Tom Stoppard: Serious Artist or Siren?’, Critical Quarterly, 20 (Autumn 1978), pp. 85, 91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. 61.
    Eric Salmon, ‘Faith in Tom Stoppard’, Queen’s Quarterly, 86 (Summer 1979) 215–32.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Paul Delaney 1990

Authors and Affiliations

  • Paul Delaney
    • 1
  1. 1.Westmont CollegeSanta BarbaraUSA

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