Close this search box.

Theatre is not a text, it’s an event: Tom Stoppard

British playwright Tom Stoppard visits Australia and talks about his writing, his inspirations and the collaborative process that is theatre-making. Mary-Lou Ciampa caught him at the Sydney Opera House.

‘It fell off my pen,’ said Tom Stoppard, sitting on the stage in the Sydney Opera House’s Concert Hall.

This was the British playwright’s response to a question on the origins of a ‘killer line’ in his play Travesties. It appeared to have disappointed interviewer Jonathan Biggins.  After all, Biggins is familiar with the text, having played the lead role of Henry Carr for Sydney Theatre Company’s 2009 production. The audience, instead, errupted in laughter. By the end of the ‘Conversation’ on Saturday afternoon, nobody in attendance could claim to be disappointed.

Looking dapper in a fawn linen suit, 74-year-old Stoppard said it was an easy gig for Biggins, as he ‘only needs to ask one question, everything connects.’

Sir Tom Stoppard (he was knighted in 1997) seemed quite eager to open up generously about any topic – apart from analysing his own work.  It’s just not something he is interested in doing and can’t see the value in it, he said.

Most famous for his play-turned-movie Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966, 1990) and for co-writing Oscar-winning screenplay Shakespeare in Love (1998), Stoppard’s 47-year career spans radio plays, theatre, film and television.  But it’s the stage that he keeps returning to.

Biggins suggested that theatre-goers, after watching Stoppard’s plays, have been quoted as saying, ‘we didn’t fully understand, but we felt very clever.’

Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington has called him ‘a formidable brainbox with a capacity for jokes’ and added that Stoppard’s forte is ‘exploring the mystery of existence, the anguish of the human heart and the strange fact that it is our apprehension of death that gives joy and intensity to life.’

One of the playwright’s preoccupations is ensuring the audience is entertained, since ‘everybody is entitled to leave before it’s over.’

‘I’m very proud of writing comedy,’ he said, making the point of how much more is on the line in writing for laughs. ‘We’re the flying young men – and women – on trapeze. If it’s met by silence . . . it’s like diving into an empty swimming pool. It’s very brave.’

‘In a polemical piece, melodramatic piece, where it’s essentially about engaging high emotions, it relies on itself to go right back,’ he said, gesturing to the back seats of the Concert Hall, ‘and reach everyone there.’

‘But with comedy . . . you just have to make the perfect pitch – like golf. It just has to land there,’ he said gesturing again, but this time pointing to just in front of the audience.

‘If it goes too far, the audience is denied the essential pleasure of reaching for it, of making the effort. It has to do some of the work to comprehend. Too far, and it’s like cutting the food up on the plate.’

‘That “perfect place” is different for every audience member. That’s the challenge.’

Theatre became something of ‘disproportionate interest’ in his youth, with the writer citing productions of Look Back in Anger and Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party as influential, as well as the fact that ‘Waiting for Godot was not that old [at the time].’

Stoppard attributed the appeal of the theatre to his younger self’s ‘journalist’s access’, where he covered all sorts of stories and got the ‘smell of the stage’.

‘For me theatre is not a text, it is an event.’  This comment from Stoppard midway through was met with rousing applause.

Once on a roll, Stoppard was left to wax lyrical, being interrupted only by himself, with factual asides he felt the audience would appreciate, such as, ‘I write by pen, by the way’.

Speaking about the act of writing, he said, ‘It’s a closed loop. It’s you and the page, the words. The moment you give it to somebody in rehearsal, the purity of that situation dissolves.’

He spoke about his initial reluctance to let go after writing a piece, of handing it over to the actors and the director and entrusting them with his words and ideas.

‘As if this sonnet is going to be completely destroyed, unless those things are exactly right. On stage, everything gets kind of messy . . . the sonnet is at the mercy of other people’s control, not your own.’

On the topic of actors, he admitted that in his early days he felt, ‘they were there to look after my text. That was their purpose in life.’

His view of theatre-making has changed. ‘It’s clear that it’s a team sport, so to speak of it in terms of the primacy of the writer is not advantageous.’

On the collaboration between writer, director and actors, he said, ‘While you’re writing, the play is making some kind of noise [in your head]. When I was young, I thought rehearsal was having actors learning to make that noise. But unless it comes from within the actor, the play will fall apart next time it is performed.’

‘Instead of the last performance being the best, it’s that first performance that it’s at its best. The line one writes gives colour and tone. The utterance does all the work.’

Biggins, himself an emerging playwright (among many other talents), was interested to find out about Sir Stoppard’s writing process. ‘I don’t do drafts of plays. I do drafts of sentences, which are likely to exist in 20 to 30 forms, each one barely distinguishable from the other.’

‘You get to a point where there is only one conceivable version of the end.’

Observing that Stoppard incorporates much historical fact into his plays, Biggins asked about the process from fact to play. How much research and reading does he do before writing?

‘Can I answer in a slightly oblique way? I don’t write that way anymore. If you can get going with the minimum amount of information, you’re better off.’ Stoppard believed it didn’t change the audience’s enjoyment or understanding of the play whether the facts are historically accurate.

‘Can you begin before you know what it is? Is that good or bad?’ Stoppard seemed to ask himself aloud.

‘When things work out right, it’s good news for what you’ve written if you feel lucky, not if you feel clever. You have to just cross your fingers, get into it and see where it takes you. You can make all sorts of plans if you like, but if you don’t get ahead of it and treat it like its own organism, with its own blood vessels, it’ll actually take you places. Something that you were worrying about, the play provides the answer.’

‘Of course,’ he adds, ‘it’s not actually luck. It’s your subconscious working for you all the time.’

The discussion turned to the topic of the quality of writing in a place where there is no censorship – linked to Stoppard’s work on the The Coast of Utopia  (2002) about 19th century Russian intellectuals dreaming of revolution.

‘Artistic suppression has a beneficial side. A lot of great literature has been produced in places and at time when writers were not free to publish what they wish.’

‘I’m not recommending it as a way to go. But because there is no freedom of speech, everything is scrutinised closely. In a free society, too much of it [writing] is flying around and it doesn’t matter all that much anyway.’

Looking to sources of inspiration for future works, the playwright admitted to ‘an addiction for newsprint’.

‘I’m a complete junky for newsprint and print in general. The play which I need, which I lack, will come from tomorrow’s Guardian. Part of me is saying, “wake up, it’s actually in the South China Post.” ’

When pressed on the topic of writing more plays, he said, ‘I really have to. I don’t know why I have to. I haven’t written a play since Rock ‘n’ Rock (in 2006).’

It had been mooted in previous interviews that he was set to write a play around journalism, as ‘it has changed a lot’ since his earlier play on the topic Night and Day in 1978.

However, in the aftermath of the phone-hacking scandal, he felt ‘that’s blown it. I can’t write about it now, it will look like I’m jumping on the bandwagon.’

His last word on the power of the written word: ‘I’ve always felt that if you want to change something by Tuesday, theatre is no good – journalism can do it better.’ But in terms of shaping culture, ‘theatre has a longer half-life.’

Tom Stoppard’s five-part adaptation of Ford Maddox Ford’s Parade’s End for the BBC will air on Channel Nine in 2012.

Mary-Lou Ciampa is a Graduate Diploma in Journalism student at La Trobe University, and upstart’s co-editor. You can follow her on Twitter: @zialulu.

Related Articles

Editor's Picks