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  • Portrait of an Artist as Proto-Chaotician:Tom Stoppard Working His Way to Arcadia
  • William W. Demastes (bio)

Mix vaudevillian slapstick with crisp, witty language. Add a song or two in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan. Try doing a whole scene in limericks. How about a shell game using humans popping in and out of shower stalls? Maybe add some really funny Communist-bloc shenanigans. Set it on a verandah in India or in the secret byways of Hamlet's Elsinore Castle. Why not open eyes with a striptease act dangling from a trapeze? Maybe parody the work of Agatha Christie, or play fast and loose with Oscar Wilde. Or how about taking on Shakespeare himself? How about a play about a rather minor, uncharismatic English academic? And make it about love. Maybe re-create a ferry-ride across the River Styx, and figure out a way to get the Greek god Pan into the modern world, using classic rock to do it.

In a nutshell, that's the theater of Tom Stoppard.

Clearly, for Tom Stoppard the world is anything but serene and orderly. But disorder for Stoppard is not only an inescapable condition; its presence is in many cases cause for celebration. His is a far cry from the ennui-ridden existentialism or absurdist despair that occupies the thoughts of many of his contemporaries. In other words, well before the phrase "chaos theory" made its way into popular discourse, Stoppard was working beyond Newtonian linearity and striving for a way to make some sort of sense of the disorderly nonlinearity of existence. In short, from virtually the beginning of his career, Tom Stoppard was a proto-chaotician. In this essay, I will explore, first, how viewing Stoppard's work from the 1960s to 1980s from this perspective enhances our understanding of his career, and, second, how once he discovered chaos theory in the 1980s, he responded to it in Arcadia in his own distinctive way. [End Page 229]

Stoppard Introduces Himself

When Stoppard first splashed onto the London stage in the mid-1960s—with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1967)—the British theater scene was dominated by two distinct "schools" of drama, one being the kitchen-sink realism embroiled in social consciousness-raising initiated by John Osborne and his landmark Look Back in Anger, and the other the distinctly anti-realistic "absurdist" minimalism initiated by Samuel Beckett and his landmark Waiting for Godot. British theater basically split into two camps, one presenting a politically-active, left-leaning vision that change can occur by utilizing devices of logic and reason, the other believing that logic and reason had exhausted themselves and had in fact generated cataclysmic outcomes (i.e., two world wars) necessitating re-assessments of logic and reason themselves. Naturalist social critique and engagement played alongside absurdist assault and disengagement, making for a vibrant theater scene lasting for the most part even up to this day.

In Stoppard's 1960s experiments in the theater, we see several poor imitations of both Osborne and Beckett (by Stoppard's own admission1) pop up, but his big first success, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, was an early signal that something and someone new had hit the stage. The play splashed onto a scene ill-prepared for a work that seemed intentionally to blur theater's two-camp distinction. Critics of the naturalist inclination saw the play as trite, empty, socially blinkered theatricality, while those of an absurdist leaning saw it as an entertaining but somewhat cluttered and ultimately insubstantial addition to the growing canon of Beckett imitators. Those who were impressed saw something important and major in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, but they couldn't quite pin down what it was.

Though Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead was first produced in London in 1967, it is quite possible that the first person to understand Stoppard's play didn't get around to explaining it until nearly a decade later. Clive James, in his 1975 essay "Count Zero Splits the Infinite," hits the nail on the head when he sees Stoppard's play engaging the fundamentals of physics itself. For all the intertextuality, metatheatricality, parody, satire, and word-play...


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pp. 229-240
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