Books: Tom Stoppard: Count Zero Splits the Infinite |
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Tom Stoppard : Count Zero Splits the Infinite

Having made public love to Tom Stoppard by writing him a verse letter in the New Statesman and assigning him the dedication of my scurrilous epic The Fate of Felicity Fark, I feel honour bound to make the nature of my admiration clear, lest gossip columnists—whose appetite for the flesh of star playwrights has been very fierce of late—start swimming to the wrong conclusions. So this is necessarily a personal appraisal, and had better be prefaced by my disqualifications, the chief of which is a profound lack of sympathy with the contemporary theatre.

The distaste is made stronger by ignorance. I go very rarely to the theatre, for what seems to me the sound reason that anything so repellent in occasional doses would most probably be fatal if the doses were frequent: one would be more likely to share the doom of Charles Bravo than to acquire the immunity of Mithridates. Sedulous non-attendance has been my policy for years. Right from the beginning this plan paid dividends, except for an early tendency to pronounce more and more confidently upon the theatrical world the less I saw of it. But after one rare lapse, in which I fecklessly allowed myself to be present at the first night of John Osborne’s West of Suez, it was brought home to me that the critical position best befitting aesthetic non-involvement is one of silence.

Appearing on the B.B.C.’s Late Night Line-Up half an hour after the curtain fell at the Royal Court, I announced that the weaknesses of West of Suez did not detract from Osborne’s stature as Britain’s leading contemporary dramatist.

My fellow panellist Benedict Nightingale, then as now drama critic of the New Statesman, looked astonished, but mercifully waited until later—instead of blowing the whistle right there on camera—to point out that since I had not even the vaguest idea of what most of the other contemporary dramatists were up to, my assertion was largely without meaning. Mulling over this reproof at length, I shamefacedly resolved that if I were to continue staying away from the theatre, I should suit the word to the deed by ceasing to be glibly knowing about what went on there. Indifference would from now on be bodied forth as taciturnity.

And so it was until the middle of June 1974, when by a massive dereliction of duty I found myself committed to a four-week stint as a pundit on Radio 4’s Critic’s Forum, which involved seeing one play per week. This could have been a revelation of the wealth I had been missing, but in the event it was a searing exposure to mediocrity. At the I.C.A. there was some load of semi-improvised flapdoodle about speakers at Hyde Park Corner, in which actors shouted from different parts of the room while the audience wandered about from one centre of alleged interest to the other, while I wandered in the opposite direction. At the Old Vic there was a new play by John Hopkins, whose reputation was for unflinching seriousness and rock-like integrity. The piece had not a scintilla of invention in its whole length, its sole point of interest being the programme note by the author, revealing a marvellous conceit about the pain that composing the play had cost him, which could not have been half the pain that seeing it cost me. Harold Pinter was the producer, and it was difficult to say whether he had found yet deeper levels of tedium in the text itself, or had merely added some tedium of his own. The third week’s agony I have repressed entirely. Perhaps it was a whodunnit. I think I took refuge in sleep, or in trying to remember the rhyme-scene of the villanelle.

The fourth offering was hailed as a ‘blazing masterpiece’ by Harold Hobson and taken with protracted seriousness even by those critics who did not find it wholly successful. It was Life Class, by David Storey—a tub of metaphysical sludge stirred into the semblance of activity by Lindsay Anderson. As usual with any theatrical venture involving Anderson, Storey and the actor Alan Bates, the arts pages had been full for days about their collective daring and respective spiritual quests. Anderson is the master of the pre-emptive strike: he once even managed to place an article in the Observer explaining why the reviews of his forthcoming film were bound to miss its point. For Life Class the ground had been so thoroughly prepared that it would have taken unheard-of independence of mind for any of the regular critics to demur. I was regarded as eccentric for contending on Critic’s Forum that in the matter of Life Class the question of which direction Storey’s work was taking did not meaningfully arise, since the only direction this particular script should have taken was towards the waste-paper basket. The characters were half unrealized, which is not the same as universality; the dialogue was unspeakable, which is not the same as authenticity; and the theme was fumbled, which is not the same as exploration. Lindsay Anderson’s contribution was principally manifest as a not always infallible capacity, when an actor was talking, to move other actors away from in front of him.

And so a month which had passed like a year in hospital came to an end. All my suspicions of the theatrical world having been confirmed in spades, I promised myself faithfully never to go near it again in all my life. But scarcely another week had gone by before this contract was rescinded. My agent rang to say she had a ticket going begging for the first night of Tom Stoppard’s new play Travesties. My reaction to such generosity would have been an instantaneous and foul-mouthed refusal, if it had not mercifully occurred to me that Stoppard—none of whose plays, not even Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, I had ever seen—was generally famed for being devoid of the qualities which those authors whose latest triumphs I had just suffered through were supposed to possess in such abundance. People whose seriousness I had good cause to dread had told me that Stoppard’s plays were only revue-sketches. That sounded promising. True, Harold Hobson’s oft-trumpeted insistence that Stoppard was brilliantly entertaining persuasively suggested that he wasn’t, but not even Hobson can be wrong all the time. Like Saint-Exupéry wooing the one last crash that would prove fatal, I fell into a taxi and headed for the Aldwych.

Before John Wood was half-way through his opening speech I already knew that in Stoppard I had encountered a writer of my generation whom I could admire without reserve. It is a common reaction to Travesties to say that seeing it is like drinking champagne. But not only did I find that the play tasted like champagne—I found that in drinking it I felt like a jockey. Jockeys drink champagne as an everyday tipple, since it goes to the head without thickening the waist. Travesties to me seemed not an exotic indulgence, but the stuff of life. Its high speed was not a challenge but a courtesy; its structural intricacy not a dazzling pattern but a perspicuous design; its fleeting touch not of a feather but of a fine needle. For me Travesties was a personal revelation, which is one of the reasons why I have begun with a personal note. But caveat lector: my knowledge of the theatrical world is not much wider than it ever was. And the other Stoppard plays, though I will certainly see them when the opportunity arises, I have so far only read, so there are two likely sources of distortion: an estimate of Stoppard’s place in the theatre based mainly on Stoppard, and an estimate of Stoppard’s drama based mainly on the text. A double-dyed literary approach.

Ronald Hayman’s profile of Stoppard in the New Review for December 1974 is the best thing on its subject which has thus far appeared. It would be supererogatory, as well as very difficult, to cover the same ground on my own account, and a good deal of what I think about Stoppard I owe in the first instance to Hayman, who in turn owes a good deal to Stoppard, since no author has ever done a better job of explaining himself—he is a dream interviewee, talking in eerily quotable sentences whose English has the faintly extraterritorial perfection of a Conrad or a Nabokov. Extraterritorial and perhaps even extraterrestrial: in this respect as in so many others, Stoppard can sometimes give you the impression that he is from Out There.

Unless you knew that all its stars lie at different distances and are of different intensities, it would be impossible to guess that the constellation called the Plough does not look like a plough. Equally, unless you knew that from a certain point the appropriate picture forms, it would be impossible to guess that the same aggregate of stars does look like a plough, and acquires a name. Either kind of knowledge, or else a bewitching combination of them both, is constantly at work in Stoppard’s writings.

In After Magritte the curtain rises on an inexplicable-looking stage picture which is explained piece by piece, thereby gradually ceasing to be that picture. When the picture reforms, we know what has caused everything in it: more intelligible, it is less coherent, riddled by our awareness and with all its virginity spent. The escalating bravura—the playwright’s enthralling ability to keep on casting light on the unlikely until there is nothing left of it—compensates for the declining mystery, until finally the disappointment of having no puzzle left to solve is transmuted into the pleasure of seeing how perfectly it has all come out. So one kind of childish pleasure modulates into another, with Stoppard knowing very well how children like to be teased: twenty-three pages after we first see them, we are told just enough to enable us to deduce for ourselves that Harris’s waders are employed for changing light bulbs—and so we are surprised by our own perceptiveness at the very moment when the extraordinary becomes ordinary.

Similarly in the radio play Artist Descending a Staircase, a seemingly random stretch of jumbled talk and noise bit by bit becomes comprehensible, exchanging one kind of vividness for another, since by the time we learn that the smacking sound means Beauchamp is trying to swat a fly, it is time for us to assume that Beauchamp is trying to swat a fly when he is actually thumping a desk. We had the experience but missed the meaning. (Almost any quotation you can think of from Eliot—or from Joyce or Beckett—is relevant to Stoppard, who is soaked in all three.) But then Stoppard takes the device a further stage, into a territory which we ought to recognize, I think, as entirely his. The original smacking sound returns, but this time it means that Donner is hitting Beauchamp.

It isn’t so much that the one sound contains multiple meaning, as that it has different meaning in different places Stoppard is at his weakest when his Joycean ambiguities are just that and no more—leftover puns from Finnegans Wake, slipping from one sketchy context to another just for the sake of proving their mobility, as if the Philosophical Investigations needed further illustrating. But he is at his strongest when one precise meaning is transformed into another precise meaning with the context full-blown in each case. It is an elementary point to prove that a word can mean anything we choose it to mean. Many of us must have sometimes felt, when reading the later Wittgenstein, that he is not really saying anything about words which Lewis Carroll didn’t say equally succinctly. The later Wittgenstein is in this regard the obverse of the early one, only instead of saying that a word is attached to something in the world he is saying that it is not. The early position refuted itself, and the later one needs no proof—artistic endorsements of it are doomed to triviality.

But Stoppard is not really concerned to say that words can mean anything. That is what is supposed to be wrong with Beauchamp’s musique concrête—it tries to mean anything and condemns itself to meaning nothing. It is the plurality of contexts that concerns Stoppard: ambiguities are just places where contexts join. And although Stoppard’s transitions and transformations of context might be thought of, either pejoratively or with approval, as games, the games are, it seems to me, at least as serious as Wittgenstein’s language games—although finally, I think, the appropriate analogies to Stoppard’s vision lie just as much in modern physics as in modern philosophy.

Even among those who profess to admire his skill, it is often supposed that there is something coldly calculated about Stoppard’s technique. By mentioning his work in the same breath with modern physics one risks abetting that opinion. But there is no good reason to concede that modern physics is cold, or even that to be calculating precludes creativity. Guildenstern is not necessarily right when he tells Rosencrantz (in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) that all would be lost if their spontaneity turned out to be part of another order—one of the play’s themes is that Chance, while looking deterministic if seen from far enough away, is random enough from close to. Both views are real, just as the two different views of the Plough are real. It could even be assumed that each viewpoint is fixed. That would be a Newtonian picture of Stoppard’s universe, and like the Newtonian picture of the real universe could go a long way towards explaining everything in it.

But physics, to the small extent that I understand it, ceased being Newtonian and started being modem when Einstein found himself obliged to rule out the possibility of a viewpoint at rest. Nobody could now believe that Einstein did this in order to be less precise— he did it in order to be precise over a greater range of events than Newtonian mechanics could accurately account for. Mutatis mutandis, Stoppard abandons fixed viewpoints for something like the same reason. The analogy is worth pursuing because it leads us to consider the possibility that Stoppard’s increasingly apparent intention to create a dramatic universe of perpetual transformations might also spring from the impulse to clarify.

It is perhaps because there is little recognizably mystical about him—scarcely a hint of the easy claim to impenetrability—that people are inclined to call Stoppard cold. It might have been a comfort to them if Stoppard had rested content with merely saying: listen, what looks odd when you stand over There is perfectly reasonable if you stand over Here, whereupon the place you left begins looking odd in its turn. That would have been relativity of a manageable Newtonian kind, which anyone patient enough could have hoped to follow. But Stoppard added: and now that you’re Here, you ought to know that Here is on its way to somewhere else, just as There is, and always was. That was Einstein’s kind of relativity—a prospect much less easily grasped. In fact grasping doesn’t come into it. There is not much point in the layman trying to grasp that the relative speed of two objects rushing away from each other at the speed of light is still the speed of light. What he needs to realize is that no other explanation fits the facts. Similarly with Stoppard’s dramatic equivalent of the space-time continuum: it exists to be ungraspable, its creator having discovered that no readily appreciable conceptual scheme can possibly be adequate to the complexity of experience. The chill which some spectators feel at a Stoppard play is arriving from infinity.

Critical talk about ‘levels of reality’ in a play commonly assumes that one of the posited levels is really real. By the same token, it would be reasonable to assume that although everything in a Stoppard play is moving, the play itself is a system at rest. But in Stoppard’s universe no entity, not even a work of art, is exempt from travel. The Importance of Being Earnest is moving through Travesties like one stream of particles through another, the points of collision lighting up as pastiche. The same kind of interpenetration was already at work in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, through which the play Hamlet made a stately transit like a planet encountering a meteor shower, and with the same pyrotechnic consequences.

‘Every exit’, the Player tells Rosencrantz, ‘is an entrance somewhere else.’ The idea holds true for both space and time. In The Real Inspector Hound Felicity repeatedly enters at the same moment to instigate different versions of the action. In Travesties Tristan Tzara enters up-stage to begin a scene and later exits stage-right uttering the same initial line, so that the exit becomes an entrance in a play (the other play) speeding away from us into the off-prompt wing. It isn’t helpful to call such effects dazzling, since they are not meant to dazzle nor be effects—they are glimpses into the kaleidoscope of possibilities, devices by which you see further. They are Stoppard’s own and growing artistic realization of the hero’s view from on high in the radio play Albert’s Bridge, whose text is perhaps the most easily approachable example of Stoppard’s fascination with the long straight lines—curves of infinite radius—leading up to and away from here and now.

In a body of work which is otherwise conspicuously impersonal, Albert is probably the character who comes closest to representing Stoppard the artist. Albert is at a point detached enough for arbitrariness to look like order. Fraser, Albert’s opposing voice, might usefully be held to represent Stoppard the man—Stoppard when he is not detached. Fraser lives down among the chaos, where he sees it to be a sheer fluke that the right number of people who do not want to milk cows do want to fill teeth and vice versa. Finding the perception intolerable, he chooses suicide. But climbing the bridge in order to jump off it, he sees things from Albert’s viewpoint, loses the desire to die, and goes back down, where he sees it to be a sheer fluke that the right number... and so on, in a reticulation as endless as painting the bridge. Neither Albert nor Fraser can be right alone.

Here and now in Stoppard is a time and place defined by an infinite number of converging vectors each heading towards it at the speed of light and steadily slowing down to nothing before passing through it and speeding up again. Ignoring for the moment that the still point is itself moving, here and now is what things tend towards, with a tantalizing slowness as they swell into proximity. In this resides much of the significance of Stoppard’s fascination with Zeno’s paradox—the asymptotic frustration by which the hare never quite catches up with the tortoise. In Jumpers, George Moore the philosopher (the other George Moore the philosopher) concludes that since the arrow could not have quite reached Saint Sebastian he must have died of fright. It is a fabulous joke but there is fear in it—the awe of watching a slow approach down long perspectives.

Guildenstern says that the more witnesses who attest to the remarkable the thinner it gets and the more reasonable it becomes until it is thin as reality. Here and now is Zero—a word which rings like a gnomic tocsin in Beckett’s End game and arrives in Stoppard’s plays as a developed vision. (The word itself passes through like a micro-meteorite during the Farjeonesque game of bridge in The Real Inspector Hound.) Stoppard has gradually become more and more capable of bodying this vision forth, but the vision was there at the beginning of his drama and indeed before the beginning. In his novel Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon, Mr. Moon is sick with his secret knowledge of the long perspectives, just as Rosencrantz feels sick when he looks into the audience (an echo, but more than an echo, of Clov’s similarly bleak gaze in End game), or Gladys the T.I.M. girl feels sick when she looks down the well of time in the radio play If You’re Glad I’ll Be Frank, But not even madness can make a coherent whole of all Moon sees. Moon is appalled by the shift of a glacier that leads to a man straightening his tie. ‘But if it’s all random’, he asks Lady Malquist, ‘what’s the point?’ And when she replies ‘What’s the point if it’s all inevitable?’ he can’t deal with the answer.

Moon can’t take a side for fear of disappearing into it. He takes both parts, ‘refuting myself and rebutting the refutation.’ Moon is a guarantee that the supposedly passionless intricacies of Stoppard’s plays have all unfolded from a preliminary intuition of extreme intensity. Moon is Stoppard before Albert and Fraser separated and met each other on the bridge. ‘He held the vapours in his cupped hands but they would not crystallize.’ In the plays, they do.

From Enter A Free Man to Travesties is a long way. Stoppard’s habit of cannibalizing old situations to make new ones tends to suggest repetitiveness but really he has been expanding his scope all the time. Take the meticulously extended preparation for the gag about the Rule Britannia clock in Enter A Free Man. In that apprentice work such devices are at first sight tangential enough to seem merely cosmetic. But hindsight reveals that they constitute the play’s real originality. Otherwise the plot is like one of Ibsen’s turned on its head, with the daughter continually telling her father the truth about himself, instead of the saving lie. The eccentric atmosphere suggests Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life, which in its turn was more solidly in the Broadway tradition than people thought at the time. If Stoppard had never written anything subsequently, we might think of Riley’s indoor rain as being a nod to N. F. Simpson, and the concern with Time to be like J. B. Priestley’s, or Christopher Fry’s, or, at best, T. S. Eliot’s. But in retrospect the architecture looks like decoration and the decoration looks like architecture.

In all the subsequent plays the texture is composed entirely of interweaving preparation. By the time of Jumpers it takes the whole play for the separate stories of the tortoise and the hare to catch up with each other—Zeno’s paradox resolved at the intersection of long lines of coincidence. And in Travesties we find the long lines turning into curves, the planes curving into spheres, and the spheres making music.

And if the music of the spheres sounds cold, would it be more convincing if it sounded warm? There is abundant evidence in Stoppard’s plays to show that he is as capable of emotion as anybody. In Enter A Free Man Linda is a finely tuned moral invention whose equivalents we might well miss in the later plays, if we really thought they should be there. The mainspring of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is the perception—surely a compassionate one—that the fact of their deaths mattering so little to Hamlet was something which ought to have mattered to Shakespeare. And in the radio play Where Are They Now? there is a flaring moment of generous anger against the school system which turned childhood into a hell of pointless competition. ‘Where are they now?’ people ask about all those young winners, and Gale, putting things in perspective on behalf of all the losers, bitterly asks ‘Where were they then?’

There is plenty to indicate that if Stoppard had done no more than employ the drama as a vehicle for moral messages, he would still have been a force in the theatre. The playwrights who grapple with those issues supposedly too weighty for Stoppard’s frivolous talent are likely to have been inspired by a view of their task which is not only less comprehensive than Stoppard’s but less penetrating. Stoppard leaves them behind not because he can’t do what they can do, but because he can do what they can do so easily. (‘What’s wrong with bad art’, he told Ronald Hayman, ‘is that the artist knows exactly what he’s doing.’)

In fact the weaknesses of Travesties, such as they are, seem to me to crop up in those places where Stoppard atavistically makes concessions to the standard theatrical conception of human warmth. This, I think, is the real problem with the Lenin role, which is recognized by everyone—including the author—to be a small but troublesome spanner in the play’s glistening works. It is generally supposed that there is not much in the part for an actor to bite on. My own view is the opposite: I think there is too much. As it happened, the part was wrongly cast in both runs of the production. In the first run Lenin was too sympathetic and in the second he was too diffident. (It is a measure of the play’s robustness, incidentally, that it could survive weak casting even among the principal roles. In the second run James Joyce could neither sing nor dance and threw away his key speech on the first night.)

But even if Lenin had been played up to the full power inherent in the role he would still have stood revealed as a personality conceived in terms of showbiz meatiness, with a built-in conflict to suggest complexity. In Travesties Lenin is polarized rather too easily between ruthlessness and an appreciation of creative achievement, the latter quality having apparently been extrapolated from his well-known contention that the Apassionata moved him to tears. But the real-life Lenin was not divided along so elementary a line. Stoppard emphasizes Lenin’s self-contradictions at the expense of playing down his monolithic purposefulness—a purposefulness which we can scarcely begin to contemplate without raising the question of Evil. There is less to the complexity, and more to the force, of Lenin’s personality than Stoppard allows. Lenin’s historical significance doesn’t even begin to be reconciled within a scheme that adduces Tristan Tzara and James Joyce as revolutionary exemplars, and by suggesting that it does, Stoppard starts a hare which really never can catch the tortoise.

This is not to say that Stoppard is disqualified from treating tough subjects. Quite the reverse. In my admittedly limited experience it has usually been the playwrights already famous for treating them who are disqualified, and in the long run it is more likely to be Stoppard who says what counts on the subject of, say, the Final Solution—even if he never approaches it more than tangentially. But Stoppard’s is an aesthetic which demands an unfalteringly sensitive apprehension of the real world. A moment’s coarseness and the game is lost: astrophysics becomes Construct-O-Straws.

At their best, Stoppard’s heady dramatic designs impress us not as deliberately sophisticated variations on the reality we know but as simplified models of a greater reality—the inhuman cosmos which contains the human world, the amoral vastness in which morality is a local accident, the totality from whose perimeter we look like—Zero. (‘Nothing’, Lord Malquist tells Mr. Moon, ‘is the history of the world viewed from a suitable distance.’) Stoppard’s triumph—which he does not share with Priestley, Fry or Eliot any more than he shares it with Star Trek or Dr. Who—is to have created this impression not through vagueness but through precision. When Stoppard tells One Pair of Eyes that ‘Tom Stoppard doesn’t know’ he doesn’t mean that he sees virtue in confusion but that he sees the actual as a realized possibility. If his speculative scope recalls modern physics, his linguistic rigour recalls modern philosophy. It is a potent combination whatever its validity.

And if the whole vaultingly clever enterprise turned out to be merely intuitive—well, what is so mere about that? It might be only in Stoppard’s enchanted playground that the majestic inevitabilities of General Relativity can be reconciled with the Uncertainty Principle or quantum physics, but Einstein’s life-long search for the Unified Field was the same game, and he believed in intuition. He also believed in Einfühlung—the intellectual love for the objects of experience. Just such a love, it seems to me, is at work in Stoppard’s writing, lending it a poetry which is as far beyond sentimentality as his ebullient detachment is beyond the arrogant solipsism which commonly passes for commitment.

(Encounter, November 1975)