I’m reading Tom Stoppard’s biography by Hermione Lee. I never thought I could read 900 pages on a subject previously unimportant to me with such delight. It is a marvelous book. Stoppard’s life is interesting and eventful, it provides a good glimpse into the world of culture and entertainment in the last quarter of the 20th century. Plus, Lee’s analyses of Stoppard’s plays are masterful.
One thing that comes out of Lee’s biography of Stoppard is how independent-minded he was, and how—as opposed to many of his colleagues—he never conceived of himself as a guru, nor a “joiner” of good causes. For example, when some of his fellow playwrights signed a letter to endorse a ban on all performances to segregated audiences, so as to signal their support for the anti-apartheid fight, he chose not to. “His instinct was against ‘isolationism’. He preferred to give his royalties to an anti-apartheid organization” but allow people to see his work.
Lee reports this comment from Stoppard to the campaigner who wanted him to join: “Of course the idea of a segregated audience is abhorrent. So too is the idea of a playwright being imprisoned or otherwise victimized for his work—but did any of your signatories, I wonder, ban productions of their plays in this time last year in Czechoslovakia, or in Poland?”. Stoppard was shocked at the hypocrisy at the invasion of Prague in 1968 and was critical of the simultaneous disdain for Western institutions and total blindness to what was happening behind the Iron curtain so common in those years among intellectuals in the “free world”.
Stoppard is hardly an “unphilosophical” writer. His work is filled with profound philosophical riddles. I never saw a performance of “Jumpers”, perhaps his most philosophical play, but after reading Lee’s book I know that, as soon as theaters come to life again, I’ll search for it. Nor did Stoppard stay away from political engagement. Quite the opposite. But his politics were quite different than many others’. See this intriguing piece by the late Norman Barry. On politics, he had a great line, used more than once in his plays: political opinions are often, and perhaps entirely, a function of temperament.
Moreover, Stoppard was not convinced that good theatre is only an occasion for a writer to show off as a good person – or an erudite one. He maintained that “a theatre’s job is to prevent people from leaving their seats before the entertainment is over”.
My acquaintance with Stoppard’s work is limited (I am not much of a theatre-goer), but the book leaves you thirsty for more. So I ended up watching and re-watching a few films to which he contributed his writing (though he preferred theatre to the cinema). I was struck by Shakespeare in Love, which I watched as a kid and found amusing, and found amusing again today. It is a constant stream of wit and jokes and deals lightly with some very important subjects, beginning with: can theatre, and art more generally, show us the nature of love?
Lee points out that “the most joyous parts of the film are the challenges of getting a play funded, cast, written into rehearsal and onto the stage. It’s a loving, comic tribute to the theatre”. There is an element in the plot that I think can be considered as subtly McCloskeyan. It hasn’t to do with Shakespeare per se, but rather with “the challenges of getting a play funded”. Most of the works of the bard “sing of honorable aristocrats or comical peasants or sweet shepherds” in spite of the fact “his audience included a big promotion of the merchants and apprentices of businesslike London” (McCloskey, Bourgeois Dignity).
In “Shakespeare in Love”, impresario Philip Henslowe is in debt to the ruthless moneylender Fennyman. At the beginning of the movie, the latter is hardly a commendable person. But he is struck by the magic of theatre. He profoundly connects with the beauty of Romeo and Juliet, perhaps more than Henslowe, for whom the theatre is routine. Fennyman becomes a committed investor, a friend of actors, and, for a brief and hardly memorable moment, an actor himself. I suppose some people may consider his story a sort of redemption via art. I consider it quite differently. I think it is great for Shakespeare in Love to show us that business people are not blind to art and can actually grasp it better than others. It emphasizes their humanity. On the contrary, the most dislikable character in Shakespeare in Love is Lord Wessex, who marries for money, is both aristocratic and quite dishonorable in his actions, and is totally oblivious to artistic expression. In the movie, Stoppard of course celebrates those who understand art and beauty whatever class they belong to, as if they were members of a fraternity that includes usurers, apprentices, nurses, and Queen Elizabeth herself. A great celebration for art but also an indirect appreciation of the profound humanity of those who work with money and yet can be sensitive souls too.