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A Conversation with Tom Stoppard
February 28, 2001

Lincoln Center Theater's Platform series presents conversations with artists working at LCT before an audience of interested theatergoers. Admission is free and open to all. Platforms are held in the lobby of the Vivian Beaumont Theater. The following is a transcript, edited for clarity, of the February 28, 2001 Platform with Tom Stoppard:

THOMAS COTT: Good evening, I'm Thomas Cott, Director of Special Projects for Lincoln Center Theater. What a great turnout tonight! Thank you all for coming. I hope you didn't all show up to see the naked man from the poster… [The poster artwork for The Invention of Love features a painting of a male nude by the 19th-century French artist Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin.]

LCT's Platform series was created to help introduce the artists of this Theater to our audience and these evenings are made possible by generous grants from The Rockefeller Brothers Fund and The Rose M. Badgeley Residuary Charitable Trust. We are grateful to both of them for their support.

And now on to tonight's guest. He wrote his first play when he was working as a journalist in England in the 1960's. He was introduced to American theatergoers a few years later, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Many wonderful plays of his have followed, including Travesties and The Real Thing. All three of these received the Tony Award for Best Play.

In addition to his work for the stage, Mr. Stoppard has written a number of memorable screenplays, including one of my favorites, the film Brazil, for which he received an Oscar nomination. And of course, he won an Academy Award for his screenplay, co-written with Marc Norman, of the Best Picture winner Shakespeare in Love.

Lincoln Center Theater, for its part, has produced the U.S. premieres of two Stoppard plays, Hapgood and Arcadia, which played here in '94 and '95. Now we are proud to present the New York debut of his play The Invention of Love, which begins previews tomorrow night at the Lyceum Theatre. Please welcome Sir Tom Stoppard! [audience applause]

If you have never been to one of our Platforms before, these evenings are relatively informal -- albeit never quite so well attended! -- but I'll begin with some questions of my own and then take some questions from the crowd. To begin with, people here may have seen this play in London or at one of four regional theaters across America where it has been presented already, but since it has not been done yet in New York, I wonder if you would offer a little précis of The Invention of Love?

TOM STOPPARD: I always think of the play as being called Housman, which is its 'family name.' I hadn't gotten a title for this play yet when I asked its original director, Richard Eyre, one day, "Do you think The Invention of Love is a good title?" He said, "Yes, that's a good title." And then I went along the corridor and went to talk to somebody else about something and, within about five minutes, I began to think that I didn't like the title, but when I went back to talk to him about it, it had already been printed! [audience laughter] And so I always have to try to remember what people are talking about when they refer to The Invention of Love, because I still think of it as Housman.

Can I just slip in that I also feel entitled to welcome you myself? As Tom mentioned, this is my third play with Lincoln Center Theater. This is, in fact, the second play of mine directed by Jack O'Brien and designed by Bob Crowley. And when I go backstage or into the offices, people tend to look up and say "Oh, hello, nice to see you again" -- and I mean, my kids don't do that! [laughter] So I do feel at home again and I just want to say that I'm delighted and grateful to have my play done under the great Lincoln Center Theater banner.

[pauses, laughs] What was your question?

TC: [laughing] Hmm... what's your play about?

TS: Right. Going back to why I called it Housman. I called it Housman for the reason I called Hapgood 'Hapgood' instead of 'The Invention of…' something else.

A.E. Housman was an English poet who died in his seventies in 1936 and he is fairly well known and in my childhood was much more known in England as the author of a book of poems called A Shropshire Lad, which had its centenary in 1996, while this play was first alive and kicking.

This book of poems originally came out in an edition of 500 copies and it was dropped by the publisher. It came out in a second edition by another publisher. About twenty years later, there were hundreds of thousands of copies of these poems in the trenches of the Western front. It was a huge popular favorite with the soldiers in the trenches and indeed there was a little sixpenny edition which fitted into a battle dress pocket. This little book of poems has never been out of print.

Everybody who knew about Housman knew that about Housman. I didn't know anything else about him until maybe twenty years ago or less than that when I learned somehow that as a poet he may have been venerated and celebrated, but as a scholar of classical text, as a textual critic of the texts of antiquity in Latin and Greek, he was more than celebrated and was reckoned by at least some of his peers as one of perhaps two or three of the greatest of such scholars who had ever lived and worked in the field of Latin and Greek texts.

His job can be quite simply described, and indeed is quite simply described in the play. It consisted of trying to recover the original intentions of these long-dead authors, because, by the time these texts had been copied, one at a time, sequentially through many generations of copies on papyrus and later on vellum, they of course developed idiosyncracies and a large number of inaccuracies. This generation and regeneration and aggregation of inaccuracy finally got to a point where printing was discovered and these many, many bad guesses and mistranscriptions were at that moment frozen into type.

If you think of Shakespeare's sonnets as having been written many, many years before printing had been invented, you would have all manner of corruptions in the text. So it's quite easy to see that if you were that way inclined, it's an absolutely fascinating business trying to recover what no longer exists -- the author's holograph.

This was the largest part of A.E. Housman's life; he devoted his life to it. At the same time, he devoted himself and his emotions to a fellow student he met when he was about 18 years old at the University of Oxford in the late 1870's. Housman fell in love with Moses Jackson, a jock who didn't know about any of that nor could he care less, and Housman remained devoted to Jackson for the rest of both their lives. Jackson died in 1923... Housman a dozen years later. It's an extraordinary love story, and the play, of course, ought to be described as a love story, because that's really the level on which I approached it.

[pause] Well, for somebody who wasn't going to speak really, but only answer questions... We might have time for one more. [laughter]

TC: I have at least one more. The late Jack Kroll, who was the critic for Newsweek, said that your "unique genius is to humanize ideas, to show how they are part of our flesh and bone" and I'm wondering if you would agree with that assessment? Is that part of what you set out to do -- to dramatize, to find emotion in topics like classical scholarship?

TS: No. [laughter] I'm not saying that that's not a reasonable observation about plays of mine, of this play or that play; it may be a perfectly reasonable observation, but it's not the way writers think and work. At least, I believe that's the case with most writers, that's certainly the case for me. What you're doing is something completely different.

Theater is a storytelling art form and you have a story to tell, with any luck. This might be a story which grabs you, because it's very comical and involves a lot of people losing their trousers and falling down the stairs . It might be a story which involves the story of Oedipus. It might be tragic or melodramatic or farcical. Whatever it is, theater is a storytelling narrative art form. I also think that, whatever else it is, theater is a recreation. I don't think, by the way, that this is a universal view; I don't think it's that rare either, but I'm aware that I'm only speaking personally on this particular matter.

I believe that theater's primary aim is for release; perhaps that's an even better word for it than recreation. I don't think of theater as having a necessarily didactic function, though that would not be excluded. I think its primary purpose is something which goes back a long way, before people began to put culture through an educative filter; so that whatever kind of play you wrote, there's an idea that there is something hidden in there which you can learn from, which is fine. It has also given rise to the notion, which in my case is not quite so fine, that the author put it there with malice aforethought and then hid it. And then all these kids have this agony of… "oh my god", and… I get letters from a lot of students whose premise is that art is some sort of cryptogram to which the author has the key. [pause] This is not how it works. [laughter]

TC: That's reassuring! I do think that some people come to your plays thinking that they have to study up for a while before they see them. Do you think that's fair…? After all, you've done a lot of research yourself in preparation for writing this play.

TS: That's a harder question to answer than I would like it to be. In the first place, it would be an act of folly to write for a popular art form in ways which presuppose that the audience will be privy to a number of allusions in a play -- that the audience will have some kind of background which educates them towards understanding aspects of the play. These things may or may not be so. I write plays which appeal to me; you know, we are what we write, you can't get out of that one.

I write plays for pleasure and stimulation and recreation -- plays which are, in a way, based on ideas rather than character. I've written more than a couple of plays about historical persons. This is not a policy or principle nor solution, but I can see dimly that on some level I might have been trying to avoid having to invent people [laughter] or at any rate have something to go on in reinventing them.

I think that the plays that I've written myself cover quite a lot of waterfront. I mean one of the plays that we've been talking about, Hapgood, did exploit in certain ways some certain scientific ideas. I've also had other plays in New York -- The Real Inspector Hound would be an example -- which, really… it's a wind-up toy. It has no intellectual content of any kind, but of course, many have found that it does. [laughter]

TC: Talking about biographies and reinventing the stories of historical persons, do you have any concerns about adapting the stories of real people's lives?

TS: Well, you wouldn't go to a play for the authentic biography -- there'd be no point, either for the audience or the playwright. It's a difficult one. I mean Housman is maniacally accurate in some degrees and quite cavalier in others, in different places. I'm engaged in a new work now which is again about historical persons. And what I try to do is to know everything, so that when I'm straying from strict chronology or sequential fact, I know I'm doing it and I know why I'm doing it. It's very time-consuming preparation. And really, this mixes up with your previous question of what is the audience expected to bring to it.

I'm not sure if I quite finished answering that question. I said it would be an act of folly to write a play which was dependent on such a relationship between the audience and the material, and I don't think my plays are like that. I think that there's no getting away from the fact that there's not a large degree -- but some degree -- of enjoyment to be had from this play or that play, which depends on knowing something that the play itself is not telling you.

TC: One of the things you did add to A.E. Housman's story is the interpolation of Oscar Wilde into Housman's life. In real life, they were contemporaries but, I believe, they never met. Do you want to talk about the inclusion of Wilde in this piece?

TS: I now think of the play as representing the notion that Housman lived in the age of Wilde. This is not a thought I had when I entered into thinking about the play, let alone writing it. I didn't really think about Wilde at all until I was well into the process -- by the way, we're talking about a time span of about 3 or 4 years.

My response to Housman in the first place was mysterious to me. I knew absolutely and without question I wanted to write a play about 'the poet who was a scholar and the scholar who was a poet.' As a matter of fact, Arcadia, which I wrote just before this, has itself something to do with the supposed dichotomy between romantic and classical sensibilities.

Anyway, I knew instantly that I would definitely -- God knows how -- write a play about Housman long before I was anywhere near knowing where the play was… if there was a play. Picking up Tom's point here, I do remember, I think, pretty much the moment that I began to think about Wilde in context of the time that Housman lived through. From that moment, I felt for the first time that I was getting somewhere and there was something to work on now.

Pretty soon I began to see that there was something attractive in having Wilde off stage -- and rather present in the play off stage -- and ending up with a meeting between Housman and Wilde where, as Tom said, they never actually met.

I was out doing some errand in London in my car and it suddenly occurred to me that the first year that Housman went abroad, in 1897, was the year in which Wilde went abroad after leaving prison. I remembered that Wilde had gone to a place near Dieppe and then he had gone on to Naples and Rouen. I began to think "Oh, Housman was in Naples in 1897!" And then I began to realize that the whole thing had landed in my lap. It was going to be Travesties all over again! [Stoppard's play Travesties features the fictional meeting of some real-life figures.] Housman and Wilde in Naples… eating spaghetti and being witty and all that song-and-dance.

I couldn't wait to get home. I forget what I was doing, but I drove home and rushed upstairs and got the books out -- and they had missed each other by two weeks! [laughter] So I was disconsolate as though the entire play had somehow dismantled itself and turned into Wheatabix [a British cereal] in front of my eyes. And then I recovered. One has this unscrupulous recoil. One says finally, rather quickly, "Oh, to Hell with it! I'll just do it anyway!" [more laughter]

TC: Excellent! Let's get some questions now from the audience...

Audience Member #1: Did you always want to be a playwright, and if you didn't, how did you go from journalism to playwrighting?

TS: I wanted to be a journalist. I loved being in journalism. I was in journalism for about ten years, in a very unimportant capacity, mostly in the west of England, in Bristol, where I was living with my parents when I left school. I adored being a reporter. The younger I was, the more I liked it. After perhaps seven or eight years, I had done most of the things available to me. [To TC:] You kindly referred to me as a drama critic, I think -- or perhaps it wasn't you -- today's got a bit mixed up….

TC: Actually, I didn't mention it, but you were a drama critic…?

TS: I reviewed plays. That's not quite the same thing. But I did profiles and I did court reporting and funerals and, well, everything. Just about the time -- I guess it took about ten or twelve years, really -- just about the time where I began to think perhaps -- and I never got to Fleet Street [where London's leading news organizations are mostly located] ….I never made it that far, I went for a couple of interviews. Just about the time my ambition was to be a London hot-shot reporter, just about that time, I began writing a play and little by little, I sort of sloughed off the journalism.

I had an interview with an editor in London once and he asked me if I was interested in politics and I said 'Yes, I was' -- it seemed to be the answer to give. He asked me who the Home Secretary was, and I had no idea. [laughter] And I said to him, "I only admitted an interest in politics, I didn't say I was obsessed with it!" And that was the closest I got to getting a journalism job in London.

TC: Since you opened the door on the topic of drama criticism, I'm curious if you read reviews of your own plays? And does your experience writing reviews give you a different sensibility about how people review your plays?

TS: I used to read reviews quite a lot and as soon as they were available. I'm less inclined to do that now. It's not just reviews, it's any stuff about me and the plays. I went from being voraciously interested in anything written about, say, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern or whatever, to being just mildly interested and then neutral. For one reason or another, I just flinch when I see my name in a newspaper at all. But of course, I do read reviews.

I never understand people who say they don't read reviews. It's just very interesting to know what somebody has got to say about what you've written, not just what you've written but the actors and everything else. But what I don't do anymore, I think this is probably the underlying note in your question, what I don't do anymore is feverishly stay up and grab early morning papers and open them with trembling fingers. Oh, those were the days! Now, I just go to bed with a cup of Ovaltine and don't think about it. [laughter]

AM #2: Have you made any changes to the play as it appeared in London?

TS: Not really. I'm sure there are some details which have changed, but not because the play's come here. I make small changes to plays whenever I'm around, if they're being revived or performed somewhere. If you mean "have I altered it in someway for an American audience?"…absolutely not, no. I don't hardly ever need or wish to do that.

TC: Have you been involved in all the different American productions of this play?

TS: No. I was in San Francisco, at ACT, for part of their rehearsals, and I was very briefly in Philadelphia… And I think it's been done at the Guthrie, but I wasn't there. I've seen this play done in German, too.... But the play's still in its infancy, I hope…

AM #3: Housman was characterized by some people as cold and aloof… how do you think Housman would critique this play?

TS: Actually, as long as he felt it to be accurate as far as it can be accurate, that's all I would worry about.

As to what he would say? I imagine that he would consider the play to be an impertinent intrusion into his privacy, and indeed I would not attempt to do it while he were alive. [laughter] I would like to think that when it came to, for example, an explication of what his work consisted in, I hope I'd get a beta plus.

TC: Because Housman lived in a different time, he lived as a closeted homosexual, but in many respects some people think of The Invention of Love as a "gay play". Are you comfortable with that assessment? And do you think of Housman as a gay hero?

TS: I'm so naïve -- I didn't know Housman was gay, all that I knew was that he had written a book of poems. And then I knew he was a scholar. I had a copy of his datebook and there was a page in it… I knew very quickly that he'd fallen in love with a fellow man at Oxford. I was a little taken aback for a day or two; I wasn't quite sure how to proceed.

I'd been hoping, I suppose, that Housman's emotional life would offer some kind of parallel with the emotional poems which he spent so much time studying, and which were, in two or three cases, written by Roman poets who were the slaves of beautiful older women. I thought "oh well, it would be great if A. E. Housman was a slave to a beautiful, older woman…" but what a glib play that would have been!

Of course, the answer is, 'love is love', and you ignore the detail of homosexuality and heterosexuality. Love is love.

And no, it's not a play about a gay hero. Funnily enough, you have almost stubbed your toe on something else. The play apposes -- not opposes -- but apposes Housman and Wilde. And of course, the gay hero of our time is Wilde, the one who crashed in flames, not Housman, the one who lived with some timidity about his sexuality.

AM #4: When you write your plays, do you have stringent ideas about the characters, or do you rely on the actors to bring some of their own self to the performance?

TS: Are you an actor? [laughter]

AM #4: I study acting, yes.

TS: No, I only make one demand of you: clarity of utterance. [applause]

AM #5: Can you talk about your writing process? Do you find certain things easier to write than others?

TS: The problem is always about getting to the next line somehow. I've never been to a playwriting class or attended one as a pupil or teacher or anything like that. I'm not sure what happens in them, but I would think that there is something going on besides inspiration and all that. It does get highly technical, and it's technical in a way that you would expect to be.

A scene with three people speaking is probably easier to handle than one with eight people involved. A scene which is about one thing -- and I'm talking as though I know something; I'm trying to remember something and I don't know anything about this process.

There's a scene in this play that we call 'The Cocoa Scene,' and from the first time it was rehearsed -- although nothing is that straightforward -- it was, relatively speaking, a trouble-free scene. All the lines and words seemed to be in the right order and the emotional up-and-down seemed to look after itself.

I was forcibly struck by this, because I know that scene just fell off the end of my pen. It just fell out. You know there's stuff which I'm doing eighteen times and it's not right, and this little scene I probably did once and it has never been changed since. I suppose that there is some correlation between the fact that it was easy to write, and it looks after itself.

AM #6: In an interview in The New York Times, I seem to remember you talked about something called the "Stoppard Theory of Equilibrium"…?

TS: It's actually a line from a play, a reference to a character in The Real Thing. He says to his daughter -- she's got the words 'Happiness is a Warm Puppy' on a T-shirt or something and she asks him what happiness is and he says to his daughter, "Happiness is equilibrium. Shift your weight." [laughter]

AM #7: Can you discuss how you have evolved as a writer? Do you find it's easier now.. do you do more or less research now… are you more confident in your writing?

TS: As for research, I don't do any research at all, unless a play happens to be about something which happened in the past and I have to find out about, or if the play has characters who are in some scientific profession which I need to know about.

You know, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern was not the first play I wrote, but thinking about that one… the research was to get to know Hamlet very well… I'm trying to figure out how to answer your question…

TC: Well, if you were to try to write that play now, would you approach it differently or would it be the same process?

TS: It would be the same process, because I'd be there at the top of page one, thinking of how I'd kick off and then at the top of page two, I'm thinking, "where do we go…"

[to AM #7] I think I know what you're talking about now. Sorry. Thanks. I have altered in one respect. I now try to know less about where I'm going, though I do like to know quite a lot about where I'm going to actually end up. But the journey I like to leave a little open.

It's kind of a trick and it's harder than it sounds. I find it's really difficult, because you don't know what you're doing and where you're going without writing it and you can't write it without knowing where… so it's like trying to watch the light in the fridge go out. [laughter] You really don't know when it stops. And in some quantum-mechanical way, you just get in there and of course. [pause] Are you a writer?

AM #7: Yes.

TS: Well, why are you asking me? [laughter] I'm sure you'll find that the same thing is true. The more you have behind you, I was going to say the easier the rest is. But what I really mean is, there are fewer options, the further you go. Do you find, like I do, that the first page is rewritten the most times and the last page has only one possible version of it?

AM#7: Hmmm….yeah, I guess. What I notice mostly is I have more confidence as a writer, the more I write…

TS: And you can't be worried about the next one being as good as the other or keeping up your standard or, you know… it's nothing to do with that. You don't write a play at all unless something gets you, bites you, and then you're grateful and you work on it in isolation, almost insulation. The problem is, on the page, it doesn't have any relatives.

TC: Let's talk about your experiences in movies. Do you see yourself doing more films -- especially now that you're an Oscar winner? And is it true that you're going to make a movie of Cats? [laughter]

TS: I wrote a script for Cats years ago for Trevor Nunn to do…. [pause] Movies are… a very strange world. It can be very enjoyable and I like movies. There are a lot of movies I wish I had written, but I've never 'written' a film, you understand, in the sense that I've written plays. I have adapted other peoples' novels on many occasions; even Shakespeare in Love, which was an original screenplay -- I wrote it from a previous screenplay. So I've never -- well, Rosencrantz would be the exception, in a sense, because it was all mine -- I've never had an idea and thought, "oh, I want to write this as a film." That's never happened to me. Never.

So my film career is…I don't know quite what to say about it. It's got nothing to do with my real life as a writer, and it's a skill which I don't do that well. Shakespeare in Love was a special kind of a script, it was a real 'talkie', but even so, it depended enormously, much more than a stage play does, on the authorial influence of the director.

I now know people in the film business, and occasionally someone calls up and, rather like knocking on the door and asking for a cup of sugar, they say, "Can you help out with a movie for a week or two?" and quite often I do. So movies interrupt my life as a writer, in the special sense that I'm always working on somebody else's work.

There is a line in a movie which I wish I had written. It occurs in The Fugitive with Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones. You probably know the story: Harrison Ford is suspected of murdering his wife, he's on the run, and a cop -- Tommy Lee Jones -- is trying to track him down. And of course, Harrison Ford is innocent. And at one point he gets cornered, he doesn't know where to go and he turns around to this policeman -- Tommy Lee Jones -- and Ford says "I didn't kill my wife!" and Jones says "I don't care!" That was a line that I would have liked to have written.

AM #8: When I saw Arcadia here at the Beaumont, everyone around me was buzzing about what actually happened in the story. Do you care if the audience was either confused or had differing opinions about what actually happened?

TS: Well, you know there are some things which happen in or around the events of Arcadia, and I don't really know myself what happened. [laughter] I think I know what happened, but it spills into the kind of play it is. Which makes it sounds more irritating than I hope it actually is.

You know, I don't know anything that you don't know. The only authentic evidence is what's on stage, what do you see and hear up there. People say to me, "Why does the young boy never speak? In what sense is he a mute?" And I don't have a secret about this, it's not something I'm holding back on. I have a sense that he's not clinically mute -- he doesn't want to talk, that's why he doesn't speak. That's all I know.

TC: Bob Crowley, in a recent interview, said about The Invention of Love, "You can't understand all of this play. But it's like Shakespeare, in that you don't have to understand it all in order to experience the event." Does that seem pretty fair to say? That everyone will have their own experience with your play, no matter how much knowledge they bring to it?

TS: That is technically true, you know, there's half a dozen lines which are in Latin, and if you don't Latin, then you don't know what the guy's saying probably. That's technically accurate. It's also true that the play has in it characters who, 100 years ago, were quite well known. If you don't know who they were, all you have is the information which is there.

I'm just thrown by talking about Shakespeare. Shakespeare isn't mysterious in that way. He just isn't. And I resist the notion that there's a hierarchy of potential audiences for The Invention of Love. I don't think of it like that at all. It's one event for a community of those two or three hours, it's one event for that commonality. It's not a piece which has to find its way up and down the gradations of a hierarchical audience. It's for the people in this room.

TC: Well, certainly after tonight's chat, I hope we'll all be a little more prepared to see the show, which starts previews tomorrow evening. [to the audience:] I hope you all come to see it! Unfortunately, we have to stop now so Tom can get downtown to the dress rehearsal. [to TS:] Thank you so much, Tom, for coming to speak with us all tonight! [applause] Good night, everyone...

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