What happens in a play, and what happens to you: Stoppard on Stoppard

Playwright Tom Stoppard“For fifty years now, on being asked what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is about, I have stood pat on ‘It’s about two courtiers at Elsinore.’ — Foreword to the 50th anniversary edition of the play, 2017

Born in 1937, Tom Stoppard is the author of more than 35 plays, nine of which have been performed at the Huntington Theatre Company. In excerpts from a variety of interviews, Stoppard reflects on the origins of his first major success Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which premiered at the Edinburgh fringe festival before transferring to London’s West End and to Broadway. 

On the attraction of playwriting
“I write plays because writing dialogue is the only respectable way of contradicting yourself. I’m the kind of person who embarks on an endless leapfrog down the great moral issues. I put a position, rebut it, refute the rebuttal, and rebut the refutation. Forever. Endlessly.” — Interview with Mel Gussow, 1972

“I play Ping Pong with myself, but there is no killing shot. It is like Ping Pong against a clock; there is a tendency for the argument to be won by the person who finishes speaking when the bell goes, rather than because there is nothing left to say.” — Interview with Time, 1974

On his education
 “The chief influence of my education on me was negative. […] I left school thoroughly bored by the idea of anything intellectual, and gladly sold all my Greek and Latin classics to George’s bookshop in Park Street. I’d been totally bored and alienated by everyone from Shakespeare to Dickens besides.” — Interview with Theatre Quarterly, 1974

On writing Rosencrantz
“My agent suggested there might be a funny play about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Britain. My first version was pure farce, with some regrettable pastiche-Shakespeare blank verse. King Lear was even in it. Then something alerted me to the serious reverberations of the characters […] the fact that they die without ever really understanding why they lived makes them somehow cosmic. In the [finished] version, their situation remains essentially humorous — two guys waiting for something to happen. But the play is now, I think, something more than a giggle.” — Interview with The New York Times, 1967

“The chief interest and objective was to exploit a situation which seemed to me to have enormous dramatic and comic potential — of these two guys who in Shakespeare’s context don’t really know what they’re doing. The little they are told is mainly lies, and there’s no reason to suppose they ever find out why they are killed. And probably more in the early 1960s that at any other time, that would strike a young playwright as being a pretty good thing to explore. I mean, it has the right combination of specificity and vague generality, which was interesting at that time to (it seemed) eight out of ten playwrights. That’s why, when the play appeared it got subjected to so many kinds of interpretation, all of them plausible, but none of them calculated.” — Interview with Theatre Quarterly, 1974

On meaning and philosophy
“Whenever I talk to intelligent students about my work, I feel nervous as if I were going through customs. ‘Anything to declare, sir?’ ‘Not really, just two chaps sitting in a castle at Elsinore, playing games. That’s all’ ‘Then let’s have a look in your suitcase, if you don’t mind, sir.’ And sure enough, under the first layer of shirts, there’s a pound of hash and fifty watches and all kinds of exotic contraband. ‘How do you explain this, sir?’ ‘I’m sorry, Officer. I admit it’s there, but I honestly can’t remember packing it.” — Interview with Kenneth Tynan, 1977

Caroline Lagerfelt and Jack Ryland in the Huntington's production of Tom Stoppard's Night and Day (1982)
“Philosophy doesn’t impress me as an academic disciple. […] It’s a self-enclosed world dealing in abstractions. I can appreciate the attraction. I can play chess with myself too. That doesn’t mean it’s doing anybody any good. On the other hand, most of the propositions that I’m interested in have been kidnapped and dressed up by academic philosophy, but they are in fact the kind of proposition that would occur to any intelligent person in his bath. They’re not academic questions, simply questions which have been given academic status. Philosophy can be reduced to a small number of questions which are battled about in most bars most nights.” — Interview with Mel Gussow, 1974

Rene Augesen and Summer Serafin in the Huntington's production of Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll (2008)

“My play was not written as a response to anything about alienation in our times. It would be fatal to set out to write primarily on an intellectual level. Instead one writes about human beings under stress — whether it is about losing one’s trousers or being nailed to the cross.” — Interview with Life Magazine, 1968

On Samuel Beckett
“Of the influences that have been invoked on my behalf, and they have been Beckett, Kafka, Pirandello of course, I suppose Beckett is the easiest to make, yet the most deceptive. Most people who say Beckett mean Waiting for Godot. […] I can see a lot of Beckettian things in my work, but they’re not actually to do with the image of two lost souls waiting for something to happen, which why most people connect Rosencrantz with Waiting for Godot. [… I was thinking instead of] the way that Beckett expresses himself and the bent of his humor. I find Beckett deliciously funny in the way that he qualifies everything as he goes along, reduces, refines, and dismantles.” — Interview with Giles Gordon, 1968

“There is a distinction between talking about the work, and presuming to explicate it in some way. The most famous question in modern drama is, ‘Who is Godot?’ What a total and utter calamity it would have been if Beckett had said, ‘Oh, it’s the collective unconscious,’ or, ‘It’s the inspector of highways,’ or, ‘Jehovah.’ What an appalling thing to happen to that play, because it just shuts off what that play actually does — which is that it’s about what happens to you while you’re watching it, isn’t it?” — Interview with The Believer, 2005

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