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A Conversation with Tom Stoppard

14 October 2011
Tom Stoppard

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1The following conversation took place at the Sorbonne university, during the ‘Arcadias’ conference co-organised in October 2011 by the universities of Paris-Sorbonne and the Sorbonne Nouvelle. The event was organised by Professor Elisabeth Angel-Perez and Dr Julie Vatain and chaired by Elisabeth Angel-Perez, Julie Vatain and Liliane Campos.

Elisabeth Angel-Perez: There is no need to introduce Sir Tom Stoppard, one of today’s most exceptionally talented and prolific playwrights. You have been celebrated for your verbal fireworks and everyone agrees to say that your theatre is a theatre that thinks: it is always a mixture of wonderful wit and fascinating ideas. Arcadia is probably one of the best examples of a play that would combine these two dimensions. Did you have pleasure writing the play?

Tom Stoppard: Let me say first of all that I am very complimented by this occasion and by your invitation. Thank you for having me. You may think I do this a lot. I have never done it before. I have never attended a seminar on a play of mine. I have attended very few seminars on anything. I listened to a couple of speakers talking about my play and I have felt apologetic about my presence as soon as it began. I started to feel it was some kind of an intrusion upon your pleasure or grief. I felt that I might be unmasked, attending the ceremonies of the vestal virgins in transvestite garments.

But then I got used to it and of course it is interesting. I think the academic pursuit of literature requires no validation. It is an intellectual pleasure, an intellectual exercise in itself. Its relationship to authorial contention is actually more complicated and on that subject I just want to explain that this period when I was writing the play was not a period when I was trying to find witty ways to allow characters to utter their ways through Act One, Act Two and everything else.

Just to give something more concrete by way of example so that you really believe what I am saying; I do have a distinct memory that when Bernard arrives at this house for the first time and the conversation begins, I had to stop and literally put down my pen to think: ‘Are his letters in his briefcase or are they in the house?’ At that point I had not decided where these letters and the copy of Chater’s poem were. After a while I thought ‘It’s better if they are in his briefcase.’

When I was younger I probably felt I had to know pretty much everything about a play before I was even able to begin writing it. By the time I was writing Arcadia-and more and more since then-my feeling is that you have to find out what you are writing by writing it, which is really not easy. It is not possible except that you do it. It is like trying to see the light in the fridge go out. In a moment where the universe goes tock-tick, you can get in there and know what to do or do something almost subconsciously... and only then realise what you have done and what it means.

It sounds like I was making pious metaphysics out of the act of writing a play. I do not mean to make large pretentious claims for the act of playwriting but I would say that what it is not-or what it ought not to be-is the act of fleshing out a skeleton that you have prepared for it.

So, to answer your question, I did have some pleasure writing Arcadia, though I am not sure that pleasure would be the word. For some months I lived in a strange, rarefied atmosphere where I didn’t talk to anybody at all. I did not know what was going to happen in the play. But naturally, normally, typically, the retrospective view of the whole play has a very powerful impulse in it which makes people want to see more planning in it than is good for a playwright.

It was a kind of pleasure and a form of terror because I was afraid of losing the play all the time, of hitting a brick wall. I would go to sleep thinking about it and wake up thinking about it. I just did not want to have to speak to anybody in case I lost the moment I knew I could not do without.

On another level you must not leave out the motiveless playfulness of writing. I am a terrible one for making a character say something just because I like the joke. The-as it were-psychological reason for it or rationalization of the line, if I need one, is post hoc.

So when it comes to writing a play, as for any creative act, like composing music or painting, there is a simply empirical level that has not got a lot to do with its own subtext. I think there is a subtext but for me the subtext is a way in which one is the beneficiary of one’s subconscious while working.

Liliane Campos: A French audience would imagine the modern Sidley Park as the BBC version of Brideshead or as an English house in a Merchant Ivory production. So I would just like to ask you a very practical question. In your mind’s eye what did the 1993 Sidley Park look like?

For their E. M. Forster movies, Merchant Ivory used a much more domestic scale of architecture than Brideshead, which is really huge.

Two of my children ended up going to a school called Stowe which is a Sidley Park type of place with a park. There was a performance of Arcadia in its classical rotunda. That is how I would imagine the modern Sidley Park. But there are quite a few large country houses of that kind. There is also one called Painswick which has a lot of Heritage. It is one hour from London. I did not go there until I wrote the play. But probably your idea of Sidley is my idea of it.

An English audience is very familiar with Sidley Park as a type. You do not really have to explain it to them. It is part of English culture. Aesthetically and culturally it is a very attractive environment. Of course it is much to be deplored from a social historical perspective. That particular way of living did not emerge from an egalitarian society by any means.

Julie Vatain: I can’t resist sharing this: I had the great pleasure of speaking with Lord May who, as I understand, was your scientific advisor for this play. He has written a scientific article about bifurcation diagrams which quotes some lines from Arcadia about the goldfish in the pond and how you cannot predict the next drop in a dripping tap. I asked if he had given you those examples for you to use them in Arcadia and he answered ‘No! Of course not! I borrowed them from him!’ What did you learn writing the play?

He is a wonderful scientist but he was not my scientific advisor in that sense. I had read him but I am not sure if I had been in contact with him. At my suggestion the director asked him if he would like to come to the first day of rehearsal to speak about the science in Arcadia and so he turned up. He said he would try to explain chaos theory at the lowest possible level. After about a minute he stopped, looked around at the actors and said ‘Uh uh’. Then he really got low.

Again, you might have got things the wrong way round. Arcadia was not really a case of wishing to write about chaos and educating myself about it. It is completely the other way round. You write plays out of your enthusiasms. And on a popularisation level, I was fascinated by all kinds of subjects, including scientific subjects (among which quantum mechanics for instance). On the level of the airport paperback I was very well educated in these things - but only at that level. Do not be misled: I could not hold a conversation with a real scientist.

So Arcadia came out of the subjects that had been my enthusiasms over years and years. It has actually been the beneficiary of my subconscious and a practical example of this is the fact that when I came to write the play, the books I needed - about Byron for instance - were generally on my bookshelf and had been there for twenty years. They had accumulated, even aggregated in my life, bearing witness to the different interests I had had in different periods of my life. In some way they merged. At the time when I was writing Arcadia, I used just what I had got-on landscape gardening for instance-though I did fill the tank on what I was writing, so I probably found out more detail about these subjects. Essentially these were things which had influenced me before. Certainly most of what I have written is a product of my intellectual life. My intellectual life is not a product of my plays.

Member of the audience:Arcadia was first played at the time when Andrew Wiles cracked the Fermat theorem. Is this a pure coincidence, or were you aware of it?

I was not aware at all of Andrew Wiles’s research-even of the incomplete proof which was indeed published in 1993. I think we were just performing when he announced his results. There is something quite sinister about my plays in that regard. Syd Barrett died while we were in preview for Rock’n’Roll. He is the first person who speaks in my play. And Andrew Wiles, of whose existence I was unaware, published when we had only just opened.

Member of the audience: Did you have a source for the character of Thomasina? Could her name have anything to do with your own name?

She was not Byron’s daughter and I did not name her from me either. In fact, I am very particular about trying to get things right, even on a micro-level. Arcadia got an approving review on its science in a science magazine and that gave me more pleasure than any normal review could ever give me.

But on another level I cheat without remorse or second thought because Thomasina could not have got hold of the heat theorem in 1809. It had been the subject of a talk in the Academy of Science in Paris but there was no way that a copy of it could have been in Derbyshire that quickly since the paper had not even been published; it was just out there in the world of the intellect. On that type of detail I can get incredibly lucky and it is the sort of cheat I have no interest in hiding: for instance, the waltz came to England at exactly the right moment for me and I was not aware of that before I wrote the play.

I always thought-and sometimes say-that when things turn out right when you are trying to get the structure of a play to be organic and logical, things will fall out right. It is a very good sign for the play if the writer should feel not clever but lucky. If the writer feels lucky, something is going well in the play and if he feels clever, something is going wrong in the play.

Talking about theatre not as an object of study but as an event that is supposed to entertain people (and I believe in entertainment), I think the last performance of a play should be its best performance. If the best one is the first one, that is really bad news for the whole rehearsal process. So there is a limit to how much you can manipulate drama: you can very well make everything work and fit on the first day, but when it is on its own, it will fall apart.

Arcadia was a lucky play. When I started it I did not know anything. And then you begin to see ahead so you can do a little manipulation. Suddenly you can see one thing ahead: ‘They should all be wearing Regency but you should not be able to tell the difference between the 19th-century characters and the 20th-century ones.’

But then again, you realise you should get to a point where one should be able to see immediately the different centuries just by looking at the characters. So then you can manipulate a reason for putting them all into Regency dress. There is always a kind of tension between what you manipulate and what just surprises you.

Member of the audience: You were not sure why you called Thomasina Thomasina, but do you have an idea why you called Septimus Hodge Septimus Hodge?

I cannot remember what he was called at the very beginning. Making him the seventh child meant that there must be an elder brother somewhere and I thought I would need an elder brother to edit the Piccadilly Recreation (which is what Septimus’s brother does, if you see what I mean). I did not want the connection between this periodical publishing and the author of the book review on Chater’s poems to be completely arbitrary. It strengthens the structure of the play at a certain point, when the young boy says ‘I suppose you have an elder brother’ and he answers ‘Yes, he is the editor of a review in London’. So you think it is not just a coincidence that this book review turned up in Sidley. But I cannot tell you anything about the missing five children.

Member of the audience: Where do you put yourself when you are writing a play? Do you put yourself in the role of a director? Do you ever feel that you become one of the characters? Because your sense of observation seems extremely interesting, the way you describe feelings... How do you use observation in your writing: as an outsider looking in at the play that you are writing or as one of the characters?

I do not make a conscious choice between these positions, but probably I take up one and then another without thinking about it. Certainly, I guess all writers of plays put themselves in the position of the audience in some sense, at some point. But there is a whole area of neglect in academia on the subject of stage directions. Because, what are they supposed to be? They are like the instructions on the packet, or on the frozen chicken. This is how you cook it.

There is a whole world of variety and intent in the stage direction. Samuel Beckett was a complete control freak. When you look at the stage directions of Endgame it looks like: “five steps to the right, right angle for four more steps, stops at the ladder, up the ladder, uses his right hand to open the window, and back-back-back, and then right angle back, sits down”. I understand what is going on here, and I feel quite sympathetic to it. There is a Buster Keaton element in there and you are trying to actually get what the writer wants to happen, by doing a transcription after the fact of what Buster Keaton actually did.

It is the equivalent of writing down what happens in a scene in a silent movie. It is like writing down exactly what the character does, where he goes, and how he goes. If you write that down, then you have, as it were, the stage direction for the actor to follow long after he has created it. And, in fact, the entire thing of writing a play is an oddity because – and this does pertain to your original question – the play is a transcription of an event which has not yet taken place. That is one of the ways you can look at a play script. It is the intent to write down the smallest components to a minute scale, what is said and what happens. You can get into ridiculous states of infinite regress because you’ll never give the actor and the director enough information however much you give them. And then you have to say to yourself, maybe it is a mistake to give them any information.

There are Sarah Kane plays where you do not even know how many characters are in the play because the lines are not apportioned, as in 4.48 Psychosis. I saw it in Russian, in a bar, once. It was two women and one man, but it is not always the case. Sometimes it is one woman and one man. Sometimes there is no man.

In other words, the whole notion of telling the director what he should be doing corresponds to a privileged view of what a play is. It is a playwright’s view. I talked to a playwright once at one studio workshop. And I noticed that there were no stage directions of any kind in his texts. For him, stage directions were a form of fascism, which I thought was going a little too far. But it was this strange reaction to the notion of telling an actor his job. And maybe, more interestingly, it was an extreme reaction against the director, actors, designer and the audience and their right to interpret his intentions rather than be told in advance what the intentions were. It is quite complicated, and possibly very, very boring. I do not know. It is something I never think about, because that is not the hard part.

Member of the audience: To prolong what you have just said. Do you work with actors? Do you rephrase because of the way actors have delivered the text?

On this point you have to be careful as well. The answer is: not if you want to stay friends with them. I am actually terrible with this because I just think ‘What is the problem here? Just say it the way I say it and you’ll be fine’. Otherwise, that is how things get brittle and fall apart after two weeks. That is a whole trick, and I am not interested in tricks, it is too difficult and too time-consuming. I think directing is strictly for people who cannot write. That is my view of that. Directing a play is an incredible piece of work. When an author directs a play, I can see what ought to happen. One ought to be giving an actor information, which produces the right noise. When you write a play, while you are writing it, it is making a very specific noise. You know exactly what every syllable is doing: that is the noise it makes and when I was starting off, I thought that the purpose of rehearsal was to help the actors to make this noise that you’d already heard.

But that is not the purpose of rehearsal. The purpose of rehearsal is for the actors to arrive at a truthfulness, by making the journey, and not by simply being told where they have to arrive. But sometimes I cheat. I should watch it not quite happening properly and then, whatever the line is... “the cat sat on the mat”... In the end I will say: ‘Look if you could try landing on the word “sat” rather than “mat” and see what happens’, which is just devious, because I know you have to land on “sat”. But you want the actor to find out.

Member of the audience: At what point did you decide to have Thomasina die? Did you feel that she would have changed the course of science if she had lived?

Yes. I think that was part of it. I felt I had to account for the fact that we had to wait so long for chaotic algorithms, for the mathematics of chaos. Because it is not difficult as Valentine says (or is it Hannah?): you do not have to be Einstein to have the idea of feedback, the idea of the algorithm which just operates on itself. The problem was that there were not enough pencils or paper or time to do it often enough. To do it so many times that the pattern emerges. The droit d’auteur is about the life and death of characters. Thomasina was this little avenue of knowledge coming to an abrupt end. That was one thing that her death accounted for.

I can’t honestly say that I know of any other reason. I suspect that it felt right emotionally as part of the general narrative. It probably felt right emotionally that her death was, in a way, the first ending of the story. I do not think the logic of the plot would operate without her death. Because it is her death which turns Septimus into the Hermit and produces the evidence of what is thought to be the algebra of a lunatic. Bales of paper covered in algebra. I do not think one should go too deeply into what was on these thousands of pieces of paper because I do not really know.

Member of the audience: I was not questioning the logic of what you had done. But I was just thinking that in a way you keep tragedy out of the play, although it is emotionally very moving to have her die. It remains outside the frame of the play. We were discussing tragedy earlier on, and it is not really the object of the play.

What is the object of any play? It is to remove yourself from yourself and give you some kind of felt experience, where you abandon your own identity, even if only for a moment. By which, I mean that you have to include a certain kind of objective cold-bloodedness in the playwright because he is not writing a narrative poem, he is not writing an essay, he is not writing a novel. He is writing a story which takes the form of actors enacting it in a room watched by a certain number of people, as theatre has always been – essentially.

I think even the author of Winter’s Tale must have had a sense of the event itself and the way it operates on an audience. You are in charge of the event. It is a work of fiction, you can do anything you like. Nobody dies actually. It is just a work of fiction and theatre is a narrative art form, it is a story-telling art form, and storytelling is an art. It is not a transcription of somebody lying on a psychoanalyst’s couch. It is not the transcription of my dreams, for example. It is the transcription of an attempt to create a work of art. And a work of art requires the author to be extremely more conscious of his goals, unless you believe in automatic writing, which was a fashion eighty years ago, or in a kind of psychoanalytical accident: you might tie a brush to a dog’s tail, dip the brush in paint, run the dog around and see what happens. There are various interesting or uninteresting things which one can think about in terms of accident. It is a pure random accident. You might put a frame around it or you might actually put it on the stage. You might do anything with it. But you are actually dealing with what happened accidentally. I didn’t do that here. It is just not what I do. What I do is something colder perhaps as well as warmer. The warm part, you honoured me with that. The cold part is that I want to work on your emotions in a self-conscious way as well as exploit my own immured subconscious.

Member of the audience: I was wondering if there is a way in which you feel Arcadia should be staged. You have probably seen many productions of the play. We were talking about the comic or tragic aspect. I was wondering if you were particularly interested in certain productions that you might have seen, maybe disappointed in others, emphasising (or not) this comic aspect. I was wondering what you thought of the comic aspect of the play. Because I thought the comic aspect is very emphasized in certain productions.

In the English theatre (by which I am including New York and Sydney or wherever), my sense of things is that you get hooked on laughs, when you are working a play. Everything I have written gets much more laughter in London, and indeed in America, than certainly in translation. But then, you have to accept that there is always going to be some kind of a loss involved in translation.

But it is not just the matter of translation: I think that there is something unhealthy, and dependent about the way in England, you worry about, “Why didn’t I get that laugh? What went wrong?” There is something unhealthy about it because that is not what you are there for. But it is not entirely unhealthy because the reason one gets sometimes fixated on getting or not getting a laugh is that the laughter is a signal of comprehension. Not getting a laugh does not mean “Oh! That’s not funny” but “Oh! I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand it” or “I didn’t hear it”. So it has to do with comprehension.

But, on balance, it is a relief when I see a play of mine in translation. The last time I saw one was in Russian actually. You realize that there is just a different à la carte here. It feels more grown up. I think the reason I would not know how to answer you is that everything I have ever written is supposed to work on a comedic level, on one level or another, whether it is overt or not: I have written one or two plays which are essentially farces, and I have written one or two things which are essentially tragic. Every Good Boy Deserves Favour is a tragic subject; there is no question about that. It is about the period when Russian dissidents were locked up in psychiatric hospitals. But it is done with puns and jokes of all kinds. And, as a matter of fact, it has just very recently had its first performance in Russian. I wasn’t there. But it is pretty certain that, especially there, the event would have been much more about people listening, just listening, without needing to express a reaction or a response of any kind until it was over. That is something to be welcomed.

I do not write tragedy in the sense that you may have meant it. Your question, in a way, is a kind of false premise because I do not know that you can separate comedy from tragedy, when they are both in the same play: they help each other. I am sure they do.

Member of the audience: I would really like to ask a question about tortoises, because there are various tortoises in several of your plays. And I was wondering: why a tortoise in Arcadia? How did the idea come to you to have a tortoise as a link between the two periods?

I cannot remember. I cannot even remember whether the tortoise was even there at all in the first draft. Probably he was but in the end it actually became necessary, because, in the detective story level of the play, it was the Hermit having a tortoise, which just reinforced the Septimus/Hermit linkage. And then, it became a way for Hannah to get that last bit of evidence she needed with the drawing of the tortoise. What is so marvellous about any kind of creative activity is that you cannot legislate for everything. But with luck you will feel lucky. It is hard for me to feel one hundred per cent responsible for Arcadia, because I cannot remember doing some of it. So it is as if somebody else did some of the thinking.

Member of the audience: I just thought to myself if it could have been from Lewis Carroll and his phonetic pun between “taught us” and “tortoise” in What the Tortoise Taught Us. I am wondering if that kind of connection happens to you. Or do you think about it later?

It is not my kind of connection. It is not the sort of thing I go for. Sorry about this. That is not my bag. There was also a tortoise in Jumpers and in After Magritte. It is all the same tortoise everywhere probably. Tortoises are cheap, they do not run around the stage, and they do not make any noise. They do not squeak, or bark, or meow. So it is a very good dramatic animal for a dramatist.

In Jumpers the tortoise is memorable because a man steps on it. This is the other thing about theatre I forgot to mention: that so much of it is technical. In another play, a man accidentally steps on his pet tortoise and, if the sound department gives you a really good crunch noise, the audience gets really – really – electrocuted.

Maybe it is something I should finish on. This subject encompasses what has been happening in this room today and my own activity as a playwright. The task of imagining the plot writing the play is being done in a state where you are completely self-sufficient. It is as self-sufficient as a sonnet. It does not need anything except these words in the right order.

From the moment it leaves the insularity of your desk and your room, and becomes a shared event, it completely loses its self-sufficiency. It can be utterly ruined by technology and can be saved by technology. During the actual practical preparation of the play, all your obsessions turn into obsessions about technical matters. You forget all about this sonnet, and everything starts to depend on the timing of that entrance, on the level of that sound cue, on the intensity of that light cue and whether that light cue was one second too early, or one second too late. A thousand things like that seem to have taken control of this insular entity which you have been talking about all day. In a strange kind of way the technicality has been left out of the equation as I experienced it.

It is not a note I want to leave you on because the occasion has been very nice to me. But the very first time I actually found myself speaking about my plays to an academic audience – I am talking about 1970 –, without malice aforethought of any kind, I mentioned to this vast gallery of students that I had never written anything for study. A ripple of panic spread across the room, because there, in the American Midwest, study was precisely what you did to plays. Going to see them was an esoteric activity which very few people indulged in – or were able to.

So, there is a bifurcation (isn’t there?) between the theory and the practice of theatre. But, as we know from Arcadia if you just pursue it, it will all merge into a unity of chaos, into an island of order.

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Tom Stoppard, « A Conversation with Tom Stoppard », Sillages critiques [En ligne], 13 | 2011, mis en ligne le 14 décembre 2011, consulté le 20 janvier 2017. URL :

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