Stoppard’s Theatre of Unknowing

  • Mary A. Doll


It should come as no surprise, given his background, that Tom Stoppard should be a playwright of paradox. His personal as well as professional life speak of a penchant for double, not stable, coding. Born in Zlin, Czechoslovakia, 3 July 1937, Tom Straussler became a child without a country, fleeing the effects of World War II by living with his family in Singapore, then in India, and finally in England - all before the age of nine. When his mother remarried after his father was killed, his name changed to Stoppard and his life changed from that of an immigrant - he called himself a ‘bounced Czech’ - to that of a privileged student in English preparatory schools1. Stoppard began his career as a journalist and theatre reviewer, although his real interest was in creating, not critiquing, plays. When at the age of twenty-nine he achieved world fame with his first play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, he became known as a university wit - without yet having attended university.


Chaos Theory Political Prisoner Totalitarian Regime Ballroom Dancing Stage Play 
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  1. 1.
    Stoppard attended a preparatory school in Nottinghamshire and a boarding grammar school in Yorkshire. (See Kenneth Tynan, ‘ Withdrawing with Style from the Chaos’, The New Yorker, 19 December 1977, 41).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    For a list of Tom Stoppard’s plays to 1988, see Contemporary Dramatists, ed. D.L. Kirkpatrick (London: St. James Press, 1988). Since 1988 Stoppard has rewritten one of his radio plays, Artist Descending a Staircase, for the stage (1973, 1989), and has also written a play entitled In the Native State (1991).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd (1961; rpt. New York: Penguin Books, 1980). Victor Cahn also categorises Stoppard as a post-Absurdist in his Beyond Absurdity: the Plays of Tom Stoppard (Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1979).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    For discussion of the term ‘mystery’, see Esslin, pp. 413, 417, and 425; for ‘mystification’, see Esslin, p. 21. For Stoppard’s use of the term ‘mystification’, see Stephen Schiff, ‘Full Stoppard’, Vanity Fair (May 1989) 215. Richard Corballis uses the former term in Stoppard: the Mystery and the Clockwork (New York: Methuen, 1984).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Schiff, op. cit., p. 215.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Tom Stoppard, ‘The Definite Maybe’, Author 78 (Spring 1967) 24.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Esslin, p. 434.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Steven Toulmin, The Return to Cosmology: Postmodern Science and the Theology of Nature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982) p. 238. That scientific post-modern chaos theories, articulated in the eighties, became metaphors for Stoppard’s themes of mystification and ambiguity as early as the sixties suggests that Stoppard’s post-Absurdism foreshadowed post-modernism (see note 14).Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Michel Foucault, This is Not a Pipe, trans. and ed. James Harkness (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982) p. 12.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Ibid., p. 36.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    ‘Statue Brings Rescue to Standstill’, The Times-Picayune (New Orleans), 4 January 1991, 2.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    See Thomas R. Whitaker, Tom Stoppard (New York: Grove Press, 1983) p. 130.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    TomStoppard, The Real Thing (London/Boston: Faber & Faber, 1983) p. 54.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    See The Reenchantment of Science, ed. David Ray Griffin (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988). See also Paul Davies, The Cosmic Blueprint (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986); and James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science (New York: Viking, 1987).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1993

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mary A. Doll

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