Theater: Elitist, Moi?

Tom Stoppard isn't trying to be highbrow. To prove it, his new play is about rock music ... and revolution

  • Share
  • Read Later
Seamus Ryan / Camera Press

British playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard.

When his interviewer arrives, Tom Stoppard is standing outside the Broadway theater where his latest play, Rock 'n' Roll, is about to begin previews. Sporting an open white shirt with the sleeves partly rolled up and tousled (if graying) hair that still gives him the look of an overage college student, he's enjoying a cigarette in a circle of warm spring sunshine that has managed to find a hole in the Manhattan skyline. But he really should be off his feet. A few days earlier, in the rush to catch a plane to New York City, Stoppard stubbed his toe hard in his London apartment. He has just come back from the doctor, who told him the toe is broken and ordered him to stay off it as much as possible--after which, Stoppard walked 13 blocks to the theater.

The spectacle of Tom Stoppard hoofing it through the theater district on a bum foot would be disconcerting to people who think of the playwright as something of an élitist. Ever since his sensational stage debut in 1967 with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead--his absurdist riff on a pair of minor characters in Hamlet--Stoppard has become almost a genre unto himself, taking intellectual, often abstruse subject matter and turning it into challenging yet playful drama. His game, frequently, is the oddball juxtaposition: moral philosophy and gymnastics (Jumpers); Fermat's last theorem and Byron's love poetry (Arcadia); James Joyce and Vladimir Lenin (Travesties). "Tom said to me once that he decides on one play, and then shortly after decides on a different one," says Trevor Nunn, director of Rock 'n' Roll and several other Stoppard plays. "And then he lets them crash into each other." The Coast of Utopia, his nearly nine-hour trilogy about Russia's radical political thinkers of the 19th century, was a relatively straight-ahead historical journey (which is why this critic, at least, didn't rank it among his best), but it was an unexpectedly huge hit, playing to sold-out crowds during its run at New York City's Lincoln Center last season and winning seven Tony Awards, a record for a straight play. And that gives him the right to hobble into any Broadway theater with a play on just about any subject he wants.

With Rock 'n' Roll, which took London by storm last year and opens on Broadway Nov. 4, Stoppard is exploring two more of his passions, one old and one relatively new. The play spans a couple of decades in the lives of a group of Czech political activists and British academics and shuttles back and forth between Cambridge and Prague in the years between the 1968 Soviet invasion and the "velvet revolution" of 1989. It's an exploration of political repression and commitment (with a typically Stoppardian digression into Sappho's poetry), but also a celebration of the rebel rock music that, in Stoppard's view, was as potent a force for revolution as Vaclav Havel's speeches. Scenes are punctuated with the sounds of groups like the Rolling Stones and the Plastic People of the Universe, a Czech band imprisoned during the Soviet crackdown--with a special nod to Syd Barrett, a founding member of Pink Floyd, who was ousted by his band over his erratic, drug-fueled, near psychotic behavior.

Rock 'n' Roll is the first stage work Stoppard has written explicitly about Czechoslovakia, where he was born in 1937 but which he left as a baby when his parents fled the Nazis, moving to Singapore and then India before landing in Bristol, England.

Until the fall of communism, he returned only once to the country, in 1977. "I began to have more identity as a Czech comparatively recently," he says. "To tell you the truth, I think it was my mother dying about 10 years ago that gave me permission to be Czech. Because my mother's whole attitude was to leave the past behind. So I tended to kind of just respect her attitude." A pause. "That's not the whole truth. The fact is, I loved being English. I was very happy to be turned into an English schoolboy."

Those schoolboy days ended at age 17, when Stoppard went to work for a newspaper in Bristol. He covered the police beat and routine local news, but he also got to interview visiting celebrities--New Orleans jazz musicians, British movie-glamour queen Diana Dors. "I was so thrilled being a reporter," he says, "because it gave you the kind of access to people that you wouldn't ever get to meet." After a few years, he moved to London, where he continued to write reviews and celebrity profiles. In 1960 he talked his way into a trip to New York with a group of architects visiting the city's buildings and did a story for the Yorkshire Post on Lenny Bruce, whom he saw at the Village Vanguard and corralled outside for a 10-minute interview. Stoppard was taken by the irreverent comic (he even recalls some of his jokes, like Bruce's plea for world peace, urging all the nations of the world to get together and "kick the s___ out of the Polacks"). "His act was very scatological by English standards," he says. "But I was amazed by him."

Stoppard's passion for rock music dates from his days in Bristol, where he would see most of the touring music acts that came to town--among them Frank Sinatra (who played the Bristol Hippodrome in the early '50s and didn't sell out), the Everly Brothers and Eddie Cochran, the rockabilly singer whose British tour ended when he was killed in a car crash in 1960. Like everyone else, Stoppard embraced the Beatles and Rolling Stones when they came along, but he admits to being a late bloomer when it came to Pink Floyd. "I ignored them completely at first," he says. "When Dark Side of the Moon came out, a friend of mine, a photographer, came over with the record and said, 'Please, listen to this. There's a play in this album.' I put it on top of this big wooden filing cabinet, and it stayed there for a year."

The twice-divorced Stoppard, who turned 70 this year, is a grandfather now, but he keeps up with groups like Arcade Fire and the Arctic Monkeys. "I listen to what shows up, really out of curiosity more than anything else," he says. "It's not often that something really gets to me." He goes to concerts only rarely--for the Stones when they tour and an occasional experiment like Oasis (a "brilliant songwriting band"). "I'm a very boring person," he insists. He doesn't go to movies, he says (though he writes plenty of them; see box), and spends most of his spare time reading--most recently Janet Malcolm's biography of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. His chief recreational passion is trout fishing, which he does four or five times a year, usually in Hampshire, England, but with periodic ventures to more exotic climes like New Mexico and Wyoming.

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2