TOM STOPPARD, THE real thing, was talking about Tom Stoppard, the imagined thing. The imaginary Stoppard – imagined first by journalists and then by Stoppard himself – was a playwright who was too clever for his own good, a bloodless genius, not to mention an obsessive cricket player. “I know exactly who I am now,” Stoppard was saying. “I am this sort of wordsmith, un-political, dandified wit, you know, who writes plays which are very wordy but quite entertaining. It’s all true and false. I don’t mind, really. But on the other band, I’m beginning to understand people who just simply never do any interviews of any kind.”
Stoppard was sitting in a nearly empty lounge at the Biltmore Hotel one morning, considering the permutations of his identity over coffee and cigarettes. He was in town from London to see the revival of his rare collaboration with composer Andre Previn, Every Good Boy Deserves Favor, a piece for actors and orchestra, being performed at the Music Center beginning tonight.
After answering some question or other, he began to reflect, as you might expect Tom Stoppard to reflect, on the larger illusion at the center of the conversation.
“The interview situation changes you,” he said. “You’re trying to oblige somebody by making more sense of things than you normally feel. So you end up as somebody who has much clearer positions, much more definitive positions on all kinds of topics because you somehow didn’t realize you could sit there and say, ‘Actually, I have no idea.’ Each interviewer breathes from the previous interviews, so the error is being reinforced each time. In the end it’s just been cemented into this person.”
Stoppard, who is 49, is living down – or living up to, as the case may be – the lengthy profile of him that appeared in The New Yorker 10 years ago. Among other things, the article characterized him as a man mad about the game of cricket. “That damned article. It seems to be the one thing on earth that everybody has read,” he said, then set the record straight. “I play a few times a year. But I’ve just accepted my role as an English cricketer. I’ve given up trying to dissuade people that I’m not. I get asked to write cricket books.”
And what would Stoppard’s American admirers, witnesses to any of his dazzling plays (The Real Thing, Jumpers, Night and Day, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) imagine the un-political, dandified cricketer’s taste in music to be? Stravinsky? Schoenberg? Vaughan Williams?
In truth, Stoppard has been driving around London for the last two months listening to Paul Simon’s Graceland on his cassette deck.
Like the playwright Henry in The Real Thing, who admitted he listened to the Crystals while writing a play about Jean-Paul Sartre, Stoppard is not gone on classical music. “That’s broadly speaking true. I’m not at all well up on what is called classical music.”
He didn’t want to overstate this. ”I’ve been to quite a large number of operas mainly because my wife likes opera. I’m not a complete fool about it. On the other hand, it doesn’t mean a lot in my life, classical music. Nor does pop music for that matter. I mean I listen to it in the car, but I don’t buy albums by pop stars.”
His collaboration with Previn came about from Previn’s side. The two met 12 years ago when Stoppard was working in the theater with Mia Farrow, then Previn’s wife.
“I met him through her, and he said if I ever felt like doing something which need an orchestra to let him know.”
It was an invitation he didn’t think he could refuse, but a few years passed before he determined how to answer it. “It just took a long time to get to any kind of idea what to do. Usually you get an idea for something, and then you work out what form is best for it. But if somebody gives you the form first…”
What Stoppard eventually wrote, in 1977, was a play, set in Russia, about a political dissident imprisoned in a mental ward with a genuine lunatic. The lunatic believes he has an orchestra with him. The audience hears the not-so-imaginary 90-piece band along with the patient.
The music Previn composed is intended to be partly pastiche, evoking the Russian masters Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich.
The line on Stoppard, as he said, is that he doesn’t care about politics, unlike so many contemporary British playwrights who do. His plays are marvels of structure and language, and they often dance cheek to cheek with history and philosophy. But they are not reformist.
“It doesn’t actually interest me very much, the idea of being a political playwright or not being one. I think the subject matter doesn’t make a play political necessarily even.”
Every Good Boy Deserves Favor might seem the exception in Stoppard’s work. It could even suggest moral outrage.
“To say that it grows out of moral outrage is an incomplete description. Having moral outrage doesn’t help you to write a play. Moral outrage can give you a kind of subject matter, if you like, but plays, I’ve always found, grow out of something much colder that that. I only get triggered by something very abstract, by some idea.”
It is hardly surprising that none of Stoppard’s plays have been made into movies. Their pure theatrical forms discourage adaptation. He likes films, however, and has written a number of screenplays, mostly adaptations of novels commissioned on assignment. He wrote about half of Terry Gilliam’s Orwellian black comedy, Brazil, voted the best picture of 1985 by the Los Angeles Film Critics Circle.
Though he re-wrote Gilliam’s original script, Stoppard wasn’t entirely satisfied with the end result. “It was very well made – Terry is a wonderful filmmaker – but I thought it was still too long and not funny enough. It was too bleak.”
He offered this analysis cheerfully enough, cutting straight through the fake praise that blooms year-round in Hollywood. Was this the real Tom Stoppard talking or was it someone else? When he reads what he said, maybe he can tell you.
Los Angeles Herald Examiner 1986