Theater: Elitist, Moi?

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

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Seamus Ryan / Camera Press

British playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard.

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Stoppard, who rolls his r's with a Continental flourish that somehow manages not to seem affected, bristles at the notion that his work is too highbrow or élitist for an ordinary audience--never mind that the New York Times felt the need to print a reading list for theatergoers who wanted to bone up before seeing The Coast of Utopia. He notes that his intellectual obsessions are hardly unique or rarefied. "The market for books about science and philosophy on the level on which I deal with things is a best-seller market," he says, pointing to authors like Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins and Richard Feynman. It tickles him when he gets good reviews for his scientific accuracy in specialist publications. Yet he insists his goal is not to lift the audience's brow but simply to explore fresh subjects that engage him. "I've got no interest in educating or instructing people. It's entirely about my getting interested in something because of its dramatic possibilities. I'm not there to do Op-Ed on Broadway."

Indeed, Stoppard has always stood apart from many other British playwrights of his generation, like David Hare, for avoiding an overtly political (usually left-wing) point of view. He describes his politics as "timid libertarian." Yet he can rev up a pretty bold rant on Britain's "highly regulated society," which he thinks is "betraying the principle of parliamentary democracy." There was the garden party he threw recently, for example, where because there was a pond on the property, he was required to hire two lifeguards. "The whole notion that we're all responsible for ourselves and we don't actually have to have nannies busybodying all around us, that's all going now. And I don't even know in whose interest it's supposed to be or who wishes it to be so. It seems to be like a lava flow, which nobody ordered up. Of course, one does know in whose interest it is. It's in the interests of battalions of civil servants in jobs that never existed 10 years ago."

Don't call Tom Stoppard a snob. But try finding a political rant in America as polished as that.

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