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
[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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
TS: Are you an actor? [laughter]
AM #4: I study acting, yes.
TS: No, I only make one demand of you: clarity of utterance.
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
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."
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
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
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
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
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,