Sunday, March 13, 2011


In the Arts and Leisure section of the March 13 New York Times, I find an article about Tom Stoppard and his active involvement in the forthcoming New York revival of his Arcadia. That is a wonderful play, though like much of Stoppard it is hugely cerebral. Which is not to say it isn’t accessible enough to be manna to a civilized audience, but it does make me personally regret not having a scientific enough mind to comprehend it fully. The Times article informs me that “during the 1990s it was one of the most frequently produced plays around the world.” How much of it did or do audiences really get?

What struck me most about that article was that Stoppard is preoccupied with trying to cut three minutes from the first act of the current revival, and having a hard time figuring out just what to cut. So he is postponing the painful surgery till after previews begin, and he and his director can determine from the audience reaction just where to apply the scalpel.

Still, three minutes? What earthly difference can three minutes more or less make to a play? Shakespeare, a dramatist thought to be the equal of Stoppard, has been cut much more than that or not at all, and either way made out quite well. This concern tells us something about Stoppard. Is he a fabulous perfectionist, his brain so discriminatingly fine-tuned, that he can actually be discomfited by such a minuscule difference? Or is he a fussbudget like that fabled princess who couldn’t sleep because of a pea under her
multitudinous mattresses? Or, worse yet, is he a show-off, expecting to call attention to his giant cerebellum and hypertrophic sensitivity, setting him off from lesser playwrights who couldn’t care less about whether and where to cut three measly minutes?

Can you, in all honesty, imagine any of our successful boulevard playwrights shedding a single tear over three lost minutes? I can, though, visualize someone like Tony Kushner yammering about not being allowed to add three minutes of extra garrulity to his existing text. Such addition might not even be a bad idea in a demanding play like Arcadia, which, as the Times puts it, “discusses iterated algorithms, quantum mechanics, and chaos theory.” I myself couldn’t even distinguish between an iterated and an uniterated algorithm, should one of them poke me in the ribs.

There is, by the way, a bit of irony in the Times story’s observing that at the 1995 revival of Arcadia, Stoppard offered the cast “a tutorial in the play’s mathematics and science himself,” rather than having, as at the London premiere, an Oxford don dispense such instruction. When a cast member asked the author to explain the Second Law of Thermodynamics, as Stoppard tells us, “his mind went completely blank.”

It’s honorable of Stoppard to bring up this incident, but blanking out on that law is the equivalent in physics to blanking out in history on who won the Civil War. Or, in grammar, drawing a blank on the difference between an adjective and an adverb. To be sure, the average American college student may not know the answer to that, but then he wouldn’t have written Arcadia either—to say nothing about understanding chaos theory, beyond personifying at least the chaos part of it himself.

Still, it is impressive to have a playwright grapple in his oeuvre with scientific, historical, and political issues the way few if any American dramatists do. It does not make him superior to his equally brilliant British colleague, Alan Ayckbourn, who may not even know what quantum mechanics is—or are—but who turns out no less dazzling plays in even greater number. And while Northern Ireland is still not totally disconnected from England, there is the marvelous Brian Friel, which gives Britain a trifecta leaving most American playwriting eating Albion’s dust.

So overerudite or not, more power to British drama. What do we have to counterpose? Lanford Wilson seems to have stopped writing; Sam Shepard is both too obsessive and too regional; Donald Margolies one would wish more prolific;  and even the Alps are more even than Albee. What we do not have is a truly intellectual playwright, such as little Austria had in Thomas Bernhard, and tiny Switzerland in Duerrenmatt and Frisch. Whatever his shortcomings, Stoppard does fill that role.

Beware, however, of the pseudointellectual playwright. Such a one may be talented, as Kushner and Albee are, but not without some pretentiousness or even megalomania that spoils the brew. On the other hand, a playwright may do wonders without major intellectual aspirations, as long as he  has acute insight and unstinting empathy. We did have one of that kind, a long-lived and productive one: Horton Foote. His only flaw is being dead.


  1. John, when discussing current American playwrights, we should not forget about Kenneth Lonergan. His writings are idiosyncratic, musical, and deeply human.

  2. This is the sort of piece that I expect from John Simon. I must admit I am not at all interested in what you have eaten. I want to be taught as only you, of all American critics in your generation, are able to teach, with wide comparisons to writers, composers, filmmakers in other countries and in other languages.