Q&A with Tom Stoppard

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James Veysey / Camera Press / Retna

Tom Stoppard

Tom Stoppard's new play, Rock 'n' Roll, opening on Broadway Nov. 4, is about Czechoslovakia in the years between the 1968 Soviet crackdown and the 1989 Velvet Revolution — set against the backdrop of the rebel rock music of the era. The playwright talked with TIME's Richard Zoglin about the play, his tastes in rock and other matters. Excerpts:

On his interest in rock music:

I like pop music. I consider rock 'n' roll to be a branch of pop music. Like everyone else in the population. I loved the Beatles when they turned up, and the Stones when they turned up, and never really stopped liking them. Pink Floyd [featured prominently in Rock 'n' Roll] I actually ignored completely — my children used to listen to Pink Floyd, but I never did. I thought they were a pretentious rock band. I never took any notice of Pink Floyd until much later.

On what he listens to today:

Today I listen mostly to old stuff. But I do listen to what shows up — really out of curiosity more than anything else. It's not often that something that really gets to me. I don't know what's out there so I just buy — Arcade Fire, Arctic Monkeys, Kaisar Chiefs. Radiohead has a new album out that I guess I'll buy. I don't think one can honestly speak about favorites unless one is prepared to see them live. I think that's the mark of serious affection. And I never go and see anybody live, apart from the Stones every time they do a tour. I loved Roger Waters' tour, by the way. I actually went to an Oasis concert. I thought they were a brilliant songwriting band. I had a long love affair with the Buena Vista Social Club. So I'm eclectic and erratic and faithless.

On being called a "highbrow" playwright:

I feel overestimated. I feel that my point is being proved over and over again, by the fact that there's a lot of people that go to see my plays and sit there evidently enjoying them. It is self-evidently a contradiction to call those plays somehow for an elite or highbrow intellectual minority. The experience itself seems to me a complete refutation of that. People just go to plays up and down the street. The people who come and see Rock n' Roll are the same people who will go and see any play within 300 yards of here.

On seeing his play The Coast of Utopia, about Russia's radical 19th century philosophers, staged for the first time in Moscow:

It was quite an eloquent experience — eloquent about the place theater has in different countries. Because it was so much about its content in Moscow. There was a kind of simplicity about it. It didn't concern itself with titillating the audience's desire for beautiful pictures, and a stunning, huge production. It was quite clear that what was important about these historical characters was not just that they were onstage at all, but mostly that they were being treated with a certain amount of irony, which they were not used to. I think it was slightly shocking for many Russians. I was asked if I was writing a satire or parody. I said no, this is what human beings are like. Sometimes they do absurd things, make idiots of themselves. The play is not about politics, ideology; it's about individuals.

On writing for the movies:

It's a recurring pattern. It's very exciting and pleasant and agreeable and wonderful in the first half of the process. And then you kind of get reminded that It's still a movie, and it's not yours, and you go off and do something else, and the film comes out and it's OK but it's not what you hoped and so on.

On the state of theater today:

There is cause to be pessimistic about the [dearth of]high-end straight plays on the West End and Broadway. But the animal itself seems to be living and breathing, because the supply of new young plays seems to be as rich as ever. It seems that there's an awful lot of people under 30 who actually want to write for the theater. And I don't think it matters finally whether their plays are in a 1000-seat house or in a pub, or anything in between. The fact is that people are attracted to new work and by new work. So I'm optimistic fundamentally. As an art form I think it shows no signs of atrophy and hardening of the arteries.