- Tom Stoppard: Bucking the Postmodern by Daniel Keith Jernigan
Tom Stoppard is perhaps the most challenging and most successful West End/ Broadway playwright of the last fifty years, engaging audiences and exciting critical responses with a range of plays, including Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Jumpers, Travesties, Indian Ink, Hapgood, Arcadia, Invention of Love, Coast of Utopia, and Rock’n’Roll. His career has spanned six decades, and the quality has not diminished during that span, nor have his efforts stagnated into duplication or routine. Yet his critical stature remains a curiosity of the age, as he is regularly faulted for pandering to his audiences and suffers from such [End Page 312] oversights as being excluded from major anthologies, including the likes of The Norton Anthology of Drama. Critics regularly point out Stoppard’s admitted political conservatism—or, at best, political disinterestedness—in a profession that is clearly and often actively left-leaning.
Daniel Jernigan’s Tom Stoppard: Bucking the Postmodern concentrates on another, albeit related, charge levied against Stoppard, namely, that he tends toward the philosophically reactionary by demonstrating a pronounced interest in the many perspectives and features of modernism over postmodernism. More specifically, Jernigan feeds off Stoppard’s confession to being “conservative with a small c” by arguing that he is “not only ideologically moderate, but also epistemologically, ontologically and aesthetically moderate as well,” concluding: “It would seem these are poor credentials indeed for a postmodernist” (30).
Citing Brian McHale’s Postmodernist Fiction, which concentrates on the postmodernist’s interest in transgressing ontological boundaries, and noting Stoppard’s almost trademark interest in metatheatrical devices, Jernigan argues:
While Stoppard’s early work (R&G and Inspector Hound, for instance) is postmodern, the remainder of his career essentially tracks backward from the way that McHale traces the literary chronological history of twentieth-century fiction, becoming “late modernist” through the mid-seventies (most notably in Travesties) and, finally, “modernist” in the 80s and 90s (in The Real Thing and Arcadia).(14)
His basic thesis is that
only after working through a wide variety of theatrical techniques—each of which, in one way or another was directed towards self-consciously querying the postmodern uncertainty which surrounds him—Stoppard finally finds some comfort in the relative safety of dramatic realism in order to express his various politically positivist ideals.(34)
Jernigan covers Stoppard’s major works and a selection of minor works to make his case, implying, though never announcing, that the trajectory is something of a downhill journey. Curiously, it’s an argument that could go a long way to explaining other playwrights of the late twentieth century as well (one who comes quickly to mind being Sam Shepard). In both cases, one wonders what role simple youthful exuberance plays in a playwright’s early career, which the playwright outgrows as he or she matures. In Stoppard’s case, there is little doubt that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is an engaging and intriguing case of metatheatrically cultivated, postmodernist-marked uncertainty, but—if we agree that professional chronology generally suggests improvement with maturity—are we really ready to position Stoppard’s canon as going downhill after his first big success? Jernigan’s book holds strong to the virtues of R&G’s postmodern effervescence while finding a certain reactionary waywardness in much of Stoppard’s subsequent output. [End Page 313]
Actually, Jernigan finds company for R&G in the form of Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound, a 1969 one-act play produced shortly after Stoppard’s R&G success. For Jernigan, these two works bear many of the traits of postmodern theater and are held up as evidence of Stoppard’s early postmodern inclinations after which he retrenched into progressively modernist techniques and philosophy. The problem with this argument is at least twofold. During this early period in Stoppard’s career, he was also writing a fair number of one-act and short radio plays that showed little of the postmodern flair seen in the two plays Jernigan selects. And then there’s Stoppard’s kitchen...