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Meet Tom Stoppard, the greatest English playwright alive

Sir Tom Stoppard, the greatest English playwright alive, decodes his plays and his Indian connection

Tom Stoppard at Westminster Abbey in London, in April 2017. Photo: Getty Images
Tom Stoppard at Westminster Abbey in London, in April 2017. Photo: Getty Images

At the Jaipur Literature Festival this year, former Prithvi Theatre artistic director and educator Sanjna Kapoor introduced Sir Tom Stoppard, now 80, as the greatest living playwright in the English language. He kept quiet but later remarked, with signature Stoppardian wit, “I think I left my hearing aid behind."

With the death of the greats Edward Albee (of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? fame) and Nobel winner Sir Harold Pinter, he is probably the greatest English dramatist alive. The audience clapped at this information but the odd thing about playwrights is that you could introduce them as anything—the greatest flame-thrower in Prague, for instance—and it wouldn’t matter. Not many people know their work because, unlike novelists like, say, fellow Jaipur attendee Amy Tan, whose work is widely available, plays are enclosed within theatres, run for a certain amount of time in specific cities, and aren’t usually read casually.

It is, therefore, impossible to summarize his themes in a short paragraph, but I’ll say this—he does revisit, continually, two ideas: love and time. His two masterpieces, Arcadia and The Real Thing, obsess over what was or could have been. We trace lovers, with the past and the present colliding, in conversations such as these in Arcadia:

Thomasina: Septimus, what is carnal embrace?

Septimus: Carnal embrace is the practice of throwing one’s arms around a side of beef.

Or this exchange:

Chater: You insulted my wife in the gazebo yesterday evening!... I demand satisfaction.

Septimus: You are mistaken. I made love to your wife in the gazebo.... Mrs Chater demanded satisfaction and now you are demanding satisfaction. I cannot spend my time day and night satisfying the demands of the Chater family.

The reason Stoppard has been such a huge influence on my writing life is that when you are young, you are easily influenced by clever lines, and Stoppard’s work is an unlimited buffet of ha-ha cleverness. As you get older, you begin to understand what’s really going on in his plays.

For example, his characters are always minor players with a major backdrop. In Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, the play that made him a star at 29, two minor characters from Hamlet become heroes and Hamlet, the play, becomes the minor character. In Travesties, a junior British embassy officer, Henry Carr, stages an Oscar Wilde play in Vienna with some friends, a motley group of unknown drunken oafs, who later go on to become Vladimir Lenin, James Joyce and Tristan Tzara. In Indian Ink, his play set in India, part-romance, part-investigation (it could be titled, “What happened to a lady called Flora Crewe?"), Flora is his focus, while the Indian freedom struggle and the Raj play out offstage. Even the Mahatma has a cameo. For Stoppard, as Rosencrantz says, “Every exit is an entrance somewhere else."

He is perhaps best known for his screenplay Shakespeare In Love, the Oscar-winner he co-wrote with Mark Norman, starring Gwyneth Paltrow. So when I had a chance at the end of his session, I slipped in a question.

“Mr Stoppard, in Shakespeare In Love, you portray William Shakespeare as a drunken, womanizing, deceitful man who steals ideas, takes cash from two different producers for plays he hasn’t written. Is this how you see Shakespeare and playwrights in general?"

Long pause. And then, “Yes." With a smirk and a glint. Much laughter on the festival’s front lawns. Eighty or not, age can’t keep a great wit down for too long.

Later, over tea, as music blared from a session below (a person had written some insane poems dedicated to shamanism, which she read out to the accompaniment of “music"), Stoppard talked of something usually overshadowed by his razzle-dazzle wordplay—his time in India.

He spent his childhood in Darjeeling and his mother worked at the local Bata shop, which was then, as now, a Czech multinational. The Stoppards were Czech refugees living under the British Raj, and, like some character in a Stoppard play, neither Raj nor Indian, but observers within the vast game of empire.

“I’ve been reading a lot of (Rudyard) Kipling," he said. He has been back in India quite often over the last few years, including at the Jaipur festival—this was his second visit. At Jodhpur, he got the idea for a character—a maharaja with a fleet of vintage cars. And this character shows up in his play Indian Ink. “I stole it," he says with a laugh. In his session, he admitted he often dreamt of his childhood in India, wanting to wake up here, and when India pops up in his work, he can’t remember which bit was invented, which was a residue of his childhood here, what he stole, or what was influenced by colonial literature (rather than postcolonial, he makes that distinction clear). “My first thought on returning to Darjeeling was the smell. It used to once smell of tea leaves and now it smelt of Land Rovers."

He calls Indian Ink a trouble-free play owing to its underlying romanticism. I wanted to interrupt and say there was romanticism in all his work. And that all memory of love is a puzzle.

Yes, Stoppard covers Fermat’s Last Theorem, hedge fund algorithms, astronomy, the human brain, existentialism, Communist revolution, Pink Floyd, rationalism, ethics, Chekov, choices, Hamlet, determinism, A Passage To India, Artificial Intelligence, but the reason his plays have been commercial blockbusters for 50 years is because, at the core of the core, they are about people trying to understand love. I avoid asking about love; instead, I ask about time.

“Time shifts are important to me," he says modestly, adding it isn’t always as calculated, although when you get to the end of Arcadia, Indian Ink, The Real Thing, you realize that he is playing with characters’ desires, timelines and the plot with precise craft, like a mathematician would with variables while creating an equation. Stoppard had said at a lecture many years ago that a play is like an equation, so it might as well be an elegant equation. It’s no surprise then that so many of his characters discuss mathematics and so many of his audiences have to go home feeling like they should have paid more attention in college. “When you finish a play," he says with a smile, “you should feel lucky, not clever."

When I ask about his need to make minor characters heroes against a historical backdrop, he explains with a cricket analogy, as his characters often do in his plays. “When you start a play, you’ve got to know who’s got the ball."

As time runs out, and the insane poems and insane music get louder, I ask him if he still feels every exit is an entrance to somewhere else. “Yes," he says, smiling, “it is another opportunity to get things right."

Now our time is really up.

He checks my Jaipur badge and asks, “Your name…the emphasis is on which syllable?" and practises it a couple of times. Then does a sort of namaste (I respond), both of us unsure of what we’ve just done. I remind him of his line about memory: “We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered." And then I ask if he’ll remember our meeting like that. ‘No," he says, “…this bridge did not burn."

And with that, he blends into the melee, off to invent new love.

Anuvab Pal is a playwright, screenwriter and stand-up comedian.

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