During my second decade of planned reading (2007-2016), I began every year with Greek drama. To begin this year – year 2 of my third ten-year plan – I stayed on the stage but moved forward 2400 years and read some plays by Tom Stoppard. I had read The Real Inspector Hound and The Invention of Love and seen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Shakespeare in Love and enjoyed every postmodern, mobius-strippy twist of dramatic logic. So wanting to experience more of Tom Stoppard’s special brand of surreality, I decided, in some way that I’ve since forgotten, to explore Arcadia and The Real Thing in the first few days of 2018.
I hate to be curtly dismissive of the work of an award-winning playwright and critical favorite, but compared to the others I had liked so much, these two plays just didn’t work as well in my view, as much as I again appreciated the wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey. The Real Thing, for instance, primarily seemed to ask, What is the real thing in relationships? But even the character who believes in romance and commitment divorces his wife and leaves his child. (Maybe romance and commitment aren’t entirely compatible principles.) It's a play about deep moral issues with no foundation other than feelings and ill-trained logic to build on. Living in a post-Christian world is tough for the ethicist, but surely we can’t accept the abandonment of children as the Real Thing.
I liked Arcadia much better, partly because its characters seem more genuinely concerned with the questions it asks: does love intrude on Newtonianism, for instance. But the play offers few answers. It struck me in the end as though Stoppard wanted to delve into the old conundrum of free will and determinism and tried to make it sound original simply by replacing “determinism” with a more specific scientific term (i.e “Newtonianism”). But no less august body of scientists than the Royal Institution named it one of the best science-related works ever written, so maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. In any case, the non-interacting interaction of characters from different times (Click the timey-wimey link and watch that Dr. Who scene again if you’d like; I’ll wait. —Back? Good, I’ll finish my sentence now. —Yes, I thought so, too.) culminating in a scene in which characters move across the stage like the feet in a cosmic waltz makes me want to see the play in the flesh.
It occurs to me that I’ve liked Stoppard most when the object of his characters’ lines are, recursively, characters and dramatic lines, objects that Stoppard knows very well. Who, ask Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, is writing their lives? Are we watching a play, ask the critics of The Real Inspector Hound, or actually in a play? I have more Tom Stoppard planned for year 5 and year 8 (more details on this page), and I’m curious to see if the pattern of my reaction continues. If only I had my Tardis right here, I’d let you know today.