Tom Stoppard

A conversation with James Mustich, Editor-in-Chief, Barnes & Noble Review

Tom Stoppard has an instinct for comedy and an affinity for attractive ideas. These twin qualities have made his life in the theater — from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead through Rock ‘n’ Roll – an essential pleasure for audiences on both sides of the Atlantic for more than four decades. Anyone who has been swept up in the intellectual and emotional weather of his most ambitious works — I think particularly of the trilogy The Coast of Utopia, which I saw in New York in 2007 — emerges from the experience alert to wonders of life and language and attuned to both the mysterious intuitions of human nature and the ineluctable ruefulness of history. And, curiously enough, buoyed by comic perspicacity to boot.

Last month, the Sam Mendes production of Stoppard’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where it will run through March 8. The text of the play has just been published by Grove/Atlantic, which is also issuing Stoppard’s version of another Chekhov drama, Ivanov. While the playwright was in New York in December to attend rehearsals for the Brooklyn production, I spoke with him for an hour at his hotel in Soho. Gracious and affable, and notably less imposing than he appears in photographs, Stoppard was an engaged and engaging host. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.  — James Mustich



James Mustich: You did an adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull a decade ago, and your versions of Ivanov and The Cherry Orchard are about to be published, in conjunction with the latter’s run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Why Chekhov? What do you bring to him? Or, if you’d rather, what does he bring to you?

Tom Stoppard: Well, to begin with a wider perspective, translation and adaptation are very appealing jobs for a writer. Certainly for me, because the way I look at it is that somebody else did the hard part, and I am left to do the part that I really enjoy most, which is dealing with the utterance. I have translated — a word which perhaps ought to be in quotation marks, and I’ll come back to that point — plays from Spanish, Hungarian, and German, and now Russian. About this business of “translation,” though, I don’t read Russian any more than I read any other languages than English and French. I have done a French play; until I did, I was more complacent about the idea of a non-linguist translator, because it seemed to me that, especially with a well-known writer like Chekhov, there are many, as it were, coordinates on the sentence you’re working on. But in translating from French, I had to admit that I was more secure than I ever could be while working from a literal.

To begin with, the standard practice is to have a literal version prepared for oneself. In the case of Chekhov, a woman called Helen Rappaport, who is well known in London for doing exactly this, especially for Chekhov, prepared a word-for-word translation — which is more than it sounds, because she would offer alternative translations for various words and phrases, with a whole slew of footnotes to explain other things, including the social and political background, for example. So you get quite an apparatus to start you off.

As I said, in the case of Chekhov, there are many translations, and you’d go crazy if you tried to look at them all, but it’s good to have two or three around, in the knowledge that there probably isn’t such a thing as an absolute ideal translation which would stand for the English version of The Cherry Orchard for, say, a generation. It doesn’t seem to work like that. Probably, if I looked at my translation of The Seagull today, I wouldn’t want to leave it just the way it is. What tends to happen is that it’s the director who wants a new version. This is not entirely, perhaps not at all, a question of vanity. While you’re rehearsing actors, there is a lot to be said for dealing with a text which hasn’t crystallized yet, which is still, in some sense, organic — organic to the specific situation, to the particular occasion. Although I gave Sam Mendes my translation of The Cherry Orchard many months ago, every day I am making small adjustments to it in rehearsal in Brooklyn.

Sometimes, these changes are to do literally with the staging of moments. It’s one of the things that I love about the theater; there’s something pragmatic about it. While you’re writing the text, it seems to be a self-sufficient activity (there’s you, there’s the text, there’s the translation of it, and so on), as though you are writing a poem which you will then mail to somebody. But in the theater, it isn’t like that. Yesterday, for instance, I was throwing in phrases because the actor needed a couple more beats to get himself off-stage. I like that very practical side of theater.

Then again, I also feel quite strongly that the actor is at the sharp end of this, so when an actor says, “I’m not quite sure that this phrase is quite comfortable in the middle of this speech,” I almost always try to change it in a way that the actor likes. Mostly, I think, “Yes, yes, this actor has got a point.” Occasionally, I think, “Well, actually, I wish he’d live with this one, because I like it myself.” But generally, there’s a degree of flexibility. With translation — and I’m really talking only about translation; I wouldn’t be saying these things about one of my own plays — one feels that the Chekhovian moment in utterance exists somewhere close to the intersection of all of the attempts to translate it, but none of these attempts is it.

JM: You’ve said about your own plays that the motivating impulse in composition is the next line — to find out what it is, to be surprised by it, to take what you’ve done to the next step. In a translation, you know what the next line is. So while there’s the consolation of Chekhov having done the heavy lifting, so to speak, is there a fundamental difference for you in the experience of writing when you’re working on an adaptation?

TS: That’s a good point. You do know what’s coming up when you’re translating. I suppose the concentration then is on finding a formulation which is speakable and in character — and economical as well, actually. And in that task perhaps it’s actually quite helpful to know what the comeback is going to be, what the next line is going to be. Because you’re dealing in rhythms, really. When I’m looking at a speech, parts of it I find immediately — I think half the time I get there in one. But as to the rest, it seems as if you don’t get it in one, you feel you never get it — you’re into your seventh or eighth try, and then you’re into your ninth, which you discover to your surprise is the same as your first. It’s a strangely maddening process, but essentially an enjoyable one for me, because it’s a pleasant challenge each time. It goes wrong if you work too many hours at a stretch. What happens is that some kind of reverb sets in between your natural sense of the language and your translator’s brain-load, and you lose touch with some fundamental level of English discourse. Quite often, one might go to bed thinking, “That bit’s OK, probably,” and the next day it reads much more stilted in some way, because you’d been made un-grounded by the loop between the literal and your own sense of the language.

JM: Between The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard, 1997 and today, you’ve spent a good deal of time in Russia, so to speak, much of it on The Coast of Utopia.  

TS: Yes.

JM: Do you feel any affinity between the Russians in The Cherry Orchard and the Russians in The Coast of Utopia?

TS: Oh, yes, very much so. Historically, the story told in Coast of Utopia came to an end about 1860, so there’s a generation in between. But the traditions cross that gap. There’s a character in The Cherry Orchard who is known as the Passer-by, who is clearly a kind of radical vagabond of some kind. In fact, in Russian, the word for “passer-by” had the connotation of somebody who lived not exactly as an outlaw, but who lived on the move and was, in some sense, a revolutionary, or potentially a revolutionary. Chekhov himself, as all Russian writers would have been, was intensely aware of the radical history of the previous hundred years. It would be impossible to discount that history when writing a social play. So, having done all the work that I did on Coast of Utopia, I was very well prepared for Cherry Orchard. It’s not a political play in the simple, direct sense, but I was very well prepared for translating in a certain historical and social context.

JM: The characters in Coast of Utopia are possessed by ideas, and in this they resemble characters in your other plays. While Herzen and company are possessed by ideas of revolution and history, for instance, characters in Arcadia are possessed by mathematical ideas, those in Rock ‘n’ Roll by the ideal represented by music. This type of  “possession” is not found in Chekhov’s plays, is it? Where the characters in your plays are possessed, the characters in Chekhov are often dispossessed, in the several senses of that word. I’m wondering how you sense this difference in human sensibilities.

To approach it from another angle, there is a great deal of activity linguistically in your own work — humor, wordplay, a bustling traffic in ideas; in Chekhov, however, what has always stuck with me is a kind of stasis — a slowness that belies the massive movements of emotion taking place beneath the surface.

TS: I know what you mean. It’s as though there’s a micro-narrative and a macro-narrative in some way. Chekhov directors and Chekhov actors love working on his plays because there seems to be no end to what you can find out about the micro-narrative when you’re investigating a text. I daresay — and this is not to be thought as being an argument against it — I daresay that many of these discoveries would have been news to Chekhov himself. Which I think is fair enough; modern theater does exactly the same thing with Shakespeare. Not every author’s work will be conducive to this particular form of interpretation and investigation, but Chekhov seems to be.

There are certainly passages, scenes, characterizations in this production of The Cherry Orchard which I didn’t have in my mind while I was translating. That’s often what happens to a text when the same bunch of people spend several weeks speaking it, moving around inside it, and finding out what its potential is. These are not discoveries which make previous productions obsolescent; that’s not what they’re for. What they are for is for the occasion of this performance. That’s another thing that I like about the theater — that it’s all done for this performance.

JM: You’ve said that you rely on actors to bring humanity to the intellectual constructs of your own plays. In Chekhov, remarkably and singularly, at least by my lights, it’s as if the humanity is there . . .

TS: Yes.

JM: . . . and the actors are providing a construct for the humanity Chekhov has already tapped.

TS: I understand. You’re absolutely right. In the first place, I have written plays which are more in the nature of an argument between ideas, or an argument between people who have different views over a particular abstract question. On the page, they are probably a bit cold and a bit dry, I guess.

JM: No. I’ve just read several in the past couple of weeks. I wouldn’t use those adjectives myself. In fact, I was surprised at how absorbing they were as texts.

TS: Really?

JM: Yes.

TS: I’ve been told in the past, however, that some of my characters are, as it were, spokespeople for a particular point of view. Which I accept. I’ve always felt that because I’m writing for live performance, the element of there being an individual human being behind these statements is somewhat taken care of, because that’s what actors are: they are people who pretend to be other people. They are not pretending to be robots or weighing machines. I think I profit from that. But to be honest, it isn’t something which I am thinking about while I am writing. Maybe I should be. Although anything which I say about my own work is entirely retrospective. I don’t really seem to work from any kind of principle or program about how to write plays and what they should be like. I wonder whether anybody does.

JM: Your own plays often seem inspired — fueled may be a better word — by some reading you’ve done. Your reading of Isaiah Berlin’s Russian Thinkers led to other books — Herzen’s memoirs, etc. — and, eventually, to The Coast of Utopia on the stage. But it doesn’t strike me as research; that isn’t the right metaphor. It’s more that the writing of the plays is the culmination of your investigation of the material you’ve been intrigued by, as if creating the play is the way you digest it to your own satisfaction.

TS: Yes. What you’re saying chimes with my sense of what’s going on. Of course, I don’t have to write a play at all. I could choose to do the reading and take what I get from it. But you’re right. In practice, I come across something which interests me, and I find I have to read a lot more to find out what it means, and what the people were like, and what the times were like. You’re quite right again. I don’t think of it as being research, which is to say that I read for pleasure, really — pleasure and interest. On the other hand, I do choose to write plays, because I like being in the theater. I’ve loved the whole physical actuality of it since I first went into a theater, especially backstage, when I was in my late teens. It was a world which appealed to me. I don’t act, I don’t direct, I don’t design. To be part of that world, for me, means to write for it. And I think I am a very lucky person.

JM: Is that how your initial play came about? You wanted to be part of that world?

TS: The first play?

JM: Yes.

TS: I think that’s true. I probably wanted to be a playwright before I had the foggiest idea of any play which I might attempt to write. Yes.

Actors were my friends. I was living and working on a newspaper in the west of England, and there were at least a couple of very good theaters there, and there was lots of amateur theater. I knew actors and I knew directors, and I was somebody who would get to be in actors’ dressing rooms rather than just sitting in a seat watching a play. At that time, I’m sure you know, the theater, for some reason, attracted a quite disproportionate amount of attention. I joined this newspaper in 1954, when I was 17, and I was around theater from that age onwards, at a time when playwriting became the hot kind of writing.

JM: John Osborne. The era of the “angry young men.”

TS: Yes. Subsequently, a generation of novelists, I think, took over that role in English culture, in the ’70s and ’80s — and they’re still around, of course. But theater never went away, never curled up and died; it’s still a medium. This is as true of New York, and America in general, as far as I know, as it is of London and England. Theater is still a medium which attracts young writers. You’d think that it would be all over by now, with television and film. But it’s not. There are many, many more small theater spaces than there were when I was starting out.

JM: Really?

TS: Yes. There’s a big world of fringe theater in London, pub theater and so on. And I’d say nearly all of these places are looking for new work more than reviving old work. It’s surprising, pleasantly surprising, that a lot of people under 30 who want to write, want to write plays.

JM: I was looking at a magazine the other day called Standpoint, and I saw on the masthead that you are on its Advisory Board.

TS: I am, yes.

JM: When the magazine launched, you gave a short speech that I found striking. Perhaps if I read a bit to you, you could elaborate a bit?

TS: All right.

JM: “The world is in spasm. When societies are in spasm people let go of some of their habits and assumptions. This can be the mark of maturity and progress in certain instances but in others we are letting go of something hard-won, and something we ought not to let go of. It has never been more important that we should recognize the difference between cases.”

TS: I didn’t write anything down for that occasion. I was just speaking off the cuff. I was trying to collect a few thoughts while waiting for my turn to speak. So this is an exercise in recollection now, trying to figure out what I was thinking about.

But let’s try and remember. Was that six months ago?

JM: Yes, it was in June. So just six months ago.

TS: Well, the world entered into a period of turmoil somewhat before then, of course. And the turmoil is more complicated now than it was six months ago. I guess it’s pretty clear to me what I was thinking of, which is that out of fear — not necessarily for oneself, but for family and so on, or one’s fellow man, if you like, but out of some kind of fear –one lets go of certain principles, like the principle of free expression, of free assembly. One is encouraged to compromise in the direction of some kind of state security.

Whereas, a few years ago — where can one pick up this story? The further back I go, the more I recall. When I first started getting interested myself in the area of human rights and free expression, it was a time when Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union constituted our local opposition, if you like, to these ideas. It seemed to me then that Western liberalism generally, and England particularly, had arrived at what I refer to in the Standpoint speech as “hard-won principles” — for example, trial by jury, unanimous jury decisions by twelve “good men and true,” as it used to be. Little by little, you can come to think, “Yeah, maybe a majority vote does make more sense at a time when you’re not sure whether juries can be corrupted.” So there, for example, would be an area where one could let go of things.

On the idea of absolute free expression, one has always known it was never absolute, and shouldn’t be — one doesn’t have to quote the old chestnut about shouting “Fire!” falsely in a crowded theater. One knew it wasn’t an absolute. But nevertheless, for practical purposes, there was true freedom of expression, and it went hand-in-hand, for example, with habeas corpus. That’s actually something one might dwell on for a moment. As I learned when I was writing Coast of Utopia, Alexander Herzen (or perhaps it was one of the other figures in the play) made the particular point that in the England which was the refuge from the failed revolutions on the Continent in 1848, even in that England, these hard-won principles were held onto. If you were arrested, the police had to show good cause within 48 hours or let you go. Well, the last time I looked, there was still an unresolved debate presently about whether that 48 hours should be something on the order of 42 days.

The idea of the state is, or should be, a very limited, prescribed idea. The state looks after the defense of the realm, and other matters — raising revenue to pay for things which are for all of us, and so on. That idea has turned turtle now. The state isn’t any longer perceived as an institution which exists to serve us. On the contrary, we seem to exist to serve the state, and the state takes upon itself all kinds of authority — and arrogance, actually, which I think we’ve ceased to recognize as being curtailments or invasions of the territory of the autonomous individual. That, I think, is one of the “spasms” I was referring to.

Language gets corrupted, too. I don’t mind telling your screen readers that I am smoking cigarettes while I’m talking to you. I’m sure that somewhere on the packet it will say “Smoking Kills.” And while this is not a very serious part of our conversation, it always irritates me, this little sign saying that “Smoking Kills.” Because strychnine kills. Smoking is bad for you. You are much better off not smoking. People shouldn’t smoke, and a lot of people die before they would have died, and so on — it’s a bad thing. But if you say that smoking kills, then what do you say about strychnine?

This is confession now. I am 71, and I’ve been smoking for fifty years. So yes, it kills, but only in a sense, and sometimes very slowly.

JM: You have been named one of four writers in Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World.

TS: Ah, yes. I did hear about that.

JM: How does make you feel?

TS: [LAUGHS] It certainly doesn’t make me feel like one of those people. I think what it really means is that I write plays, and they are put on quite a lot, and quite a lot of people like them. I don’t know in what sense that would be called “influential.”

JM: I bring it up because there was an encomium to you published with the list that I found interesting. It was written by Ethan Hawke, who played Bakunin in The Coast of Utopia and now has the role of Trofimov in the Brooklyn Academy’s Cherry Orchard. He talked about audience reaction to your work, which we haven’t discussed today. Let me read a bit: “I remember when I was younger being intimidated by the intellect, scope, and verbiage of his plays; they were impressive but written for some elite group to which I had not been given membership. But I came to find that more often than not, the audience left the theater impressed with themselves.”

I’m wondering what your thoughts on your audience are. You certainly engage themes that, in the general trend of our culture, one would not expect to pack theaters, but pack theaters they do, and the audience is often exhilarated by their dramatic and intellectual invention. The enthusiasm for Coast of Utopia in the theater, as I experienced it, was stunning.

TS: I don’t think of myself as being, in any sense, a proselytizer for language or, indeed, for anything else. Like most people, I suppose, I write for people like myself. I am not surprised that there are a lot of them; I’ve always assumed that there would be. One gets drawn to an area of truism to do with audiences always having been underestimated, but I don’t estimate them in any sense at all.

One thing which occurred to me while you were speaking, even about Coast of Utopia, is that I write comedy. I don’t write essays. I don’t really write Shavian polemics (though Shaw also is very funny). But I do write comedy. I don’t intend to write comedy. It’s just that my mind goes that way. Although one doesn’t think of Coast of Utopia as being primarily a comedy, and it isn’t, you may remember that there is a surprising amount of laughter in the production. For me, this hinges on the whole concept of what it means to entertain people. “Comedy” is a word I am sometimes scared of, because it tends to take on colors which I don’t mean. I like to think of the word “recreational” rather than “comedy.” I feel that theater is a recreation. I would say that for most theatergoers, recreation includes the idea of listening and thinking, of having new thoughts, and if they come in the form of comedy, then perhaps so much the better.

[LAUGHS] I can hear myself talking, and I’m not sure I trust my own voice any more, because these are not preoccupations of mine as a writer. None of this is in my mind. I don’t really have a self-consciousness about whether my plays are for some kind of elite, or whether that elite is simply a huge amount of people (with any luck). I don’t worry about something which undoubtedly happens, which is that there are people who might go to a play of mine and not particularly engage with it at all.

In a strange way, it’s out of my control. People are what they write, as far as writers go. Just think of any three playwrights, whether it’s me and Alan Ayckbourn and David Mamet or some other trio. None of us have made a decision to write a particular kind of play. That’s not how it works, is it? You write the only kind that you can write.

I see Ethan every day. It never occurred to me to ask him about it! Perhaps I should have done.

JM: It’s a lovely piece.

TS: I don’t know whether it’s still true. But I know that periodically I’m told, or I read, that my plays, in some sense, flatter their audiences. This is meant, I think, in quite a pejorative sense — the plays make audiences feel clever or good about themselves in some way. I don’t look at it like that. I look at it as reaching some part of that person sitting out there, which my plays happen to reach. It doesn’t mean that they’re better or worse for it. They are just responsive to that kind of play.

Just now, when I was talking about two or three playwrights, I mentioned Ayckbourn, because when I was in London, a week ago, I saw a trilogy of his — an old trilogy called The Norman Conquests — which is brilliant and wonderful. Of course, it was being enjoyed by people like me and by people unlike me. The point is that different kinds of work reach you in different places, different parts of yourself. Ayckbourn is not an epigrammatic writer. He writes comedy of situation probably better than anybody else. We were all absorbed and engrossed, and we laughed a lot, and it gave us a wonderful nine-hour adventure. I am sure that the theater was full of hundreds of people who are core theater people — they would go to a Shakespeare and a Chekhov and everything else. What I am trying to get at is that there isn’t, as it were, a match between one kind of play and one audience. Theater is a match for theatergoers.

I’ve spent a lot of time in New York in the last four years because of Coast of Utopia and Rock ‘n’ Roll and now Cherry Orchard, and I can’t say that I had a better time at the Shaw play I saw, for example, than I did at Hairspray. I had a great time at both. That’s what’s great about theater. It doesn’t divide. It brings together.

JM: One last question. As a book lover, I have been covetous of your book-carrying valise that was profiled in the New York Times not too long ago.

TS: It was, yes!

JM: Might you share with our readers what you’re transporting in it at the moment?

TS: Because I’ve only come for a very short time, I didn’t bring it on this occasion. So the literal answer is that it’s empty and it’s back home. But I remember that one of the books, which was in the case when the New York Times photographed it, was Alex Ross’s book.

JM: The Rest Is Noise.

TS: The Rest is Noise. I do apologize to Mr. Ross, but I’m still reading it, because I tend to be reading ten books at a time; I just pick them up and put them down, and sometimes I put them down for weeks and come back to them. I’ve recently read a book called Black Diamonds, by Catherine Bailey, about an aristocratic family whose stately home sat on a coal field for a century or two; it made them the richest people in England. I’m reading a good deal about the First World War at the moment, because I’m working on something which takes place during that period. Just last night, I finished a novella by Joseph Roth called Hotel Savoy, which is a marvelous long story — it’s a 120-page book.

It’s awful the way my mind’s gone blank about what I’m reading at home!

JM: Books are patient; they’ll wait for your return.

TS: [LAUGHS] Indeed.

                                                                                                 December 10, 2008

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>