Tuesday, November 28, 2006

What It Is With Stoppard

Buce Jr. favors me with an interesting (albeit recycled) A. O. Scott Slate piece on Tom Stoppard (link) (either that or I am being insulted). "What we get" (growls Scott)
is mostly less than meets the eye: the erudition of the cocktail party and the emotional range of a good TV sitcom, middlebrow pleasures dressed up in the trappings of high learning—modernism without difficulty. Stoppard is often called a playwright of ideas, but he is more accurately a playwright of the idea of ideas ...
I'd say this is a pretty good illustration of how the guy who gets to frame the question also gets to dictate the answer. I'm not sure Stoppard ever claimed to be anything more than a certain kind of "middlebrow pleasure" (though I would have to concede that others have probably claimed it for him). Scott expands on his point:
[S]mart fun is Stoppard's stock in trade. Watching his plays, you feel smart. What could be more fun?
They may make Scott feel smart: not me. Indeed at just about any Stoppard play I'm at risk of having to face up to the fact that I'm not very smart--or would have to, if I weren't having such fun. If you come to a Stoppard play in a mood of high seriousness, I suppose it might be otherwise, but if you really are in a mood of high seriousness, then what are you doing there anyway?

Scott gives his own game away when he sputters that Shakespeare in Love is "a movie for people in love with the idea of Shakespeare." Quite right. It's a big wet kiss to the theatre business, in the same genre as Kiss Me, Kate, or All That Jazz or The Producers. You got a problem with that? Put Stoppard in that company and maybe we can all feel easiser about ourselves (I agree that the John Webster line is a clinker, though).

From time to time, Stoppard has put on a darker and more serious face, particularly in the pre-Gorbachev years, when he undertook to skewer the lies and pretensions of his former homeland--I'm thinking of Professional Foul (link), for example, or Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (link). I think these are both wonderful, but they are pretty much out of fashion these days, and certainly not the stuff that Stoppard's reputation lives on (to be fair, Scott does tip his hat to Professional Foul and some of its kin).

Oddly enough, "out of fashion" may be Scott's real (though inadvertent) complaint. Stoppard's plays, he argues:
are best appreciated as part of the golden age of English silliness, a moment that produced such indelible monuments of the human spirit as A Hard Day's Night and Monty Python's Flying Circus.
Let's hear it for the golden age of English silliness. Now, there is something to be nostalgic about.

[Fn.: I know almost nothing about it, but the promise of a "Tom Stoppard Trilogy" is enough to fill me with dread. He's almost certainly too old, too famous, too able to get his way whether he deserves to get his way or not. But dear god please let me be wrong.]

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