- The Cambridge Introduction to Tom Stoppard by William W. Demastes
Over the course of his fifty-five-year career, Tom Stoppard has written a blistering array of creative pieces: twenty-two short and full-length plays, thirteen screenplays, nine television plays, nine stage adaptations, seven radio dramas, and a novel. For the scholar tasked with creating an introduction to Stoppard’s writing, it is a daunting body of work in sheer volume alone, to say nothing of the dizzying topical diversity of the works and their grab-bag of historical, philosophical, scientific, and literary influences. William Demastes’s accomplishment in the new Cambridge Introduction to Tom Stoppard is all the more impressive for the concision and cogency it achieves in the face of such quantity and complexity. Aimed at the beginning to intermediate undergraduate, Demastes’s Introduction manages to be at once comprehensive and comprehensible, charting a clear interpretive course through Stoppard’s oeuvre without ever losing site of the underlying difficulty of the terrain. That Demastes’s study is winningly written and carefully paced further adds to the appeal. Though pitched primarily at the undergraduate reader, Demastes’s insight into the interconnectedness of Stoppard’s varied works is such that those faced with teaching Stoppard are as likely to find the book rewarding as those studying him for the first time.
Without minimizing the breadth of Stoppard’s work, Demastes’s study clearly enumerates a set of common themes and concerns around which the playwright’s work has tended to revolve over the past half-century. The introductory chapter on “Stoppardianism” seeks to identify a single core perspective at the heart of Stoppard’s lengthy and genre-jumping career, defined by Demastes as a positivist commitment to the inherent explicability of human experience. “What Stoppard suggests,” Demastes writes, “is that our general bewilderment is not the result of a meaningless universe but the result of our current perceptual and intellectual shortcomings as human beings. For Stoppard, it is the great pleasure of life to work at getting a better view and arriving at a better understanding of those [End Page 246] great perplexing mysteries of life” (3). This perspective is further developed in a chapter entitled “Keys to Stoppard’s Theatre,” which focuses on the playwright’s recurring interests in issues of language, philosophy, art, cognition, and politics, each explored in Stoppard’s plays with the unshakable conviction, in Demastes’s words, that “searching for answers may in the end be more life-enforcing than the answers themselves” (27, emphasis in original). Sandwiched between these thematically- and philosophically-oriented opening chapters is a biographical overview that charts Stoppard’s career chronologically, paying admirable attention to his oft-neglected early years before the success of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead—a six-year journeyman period that culminated in the “overnight” triumph of that pivotal work. Taken together, Demastes’s opening sections paint a picture of Stoppard as both a searching philosopher-playwright and a proud denizen of the working theater, an artist with an acute intellectual perspective, and a writer wholly immersed in the contemporary life of the theatrical medium and its sister arts of radio, television, and film.
These preliminary considerations lay the groundwork for the five chapters that form the core of the book and that divide the study of Stoppard’s major works into sections on his early efforts, his metatheatrical plays, and his works on the topics of science, love, and politics. The first of these chapters offers a thoughtful introduction to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead as a template for much of Stoppard’s later work and, somewhat more rarely, also presents an extended reading of his only novel, Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon, as both a refraction of Stoppard’s theatrical concerns and an indication of a direction his career might have gone were it not for the runaway success of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. What is perhaps most uniquely valuable in this chapter, however, is the substantial attention given to Stoppard’s very first two plays: The Gamblers and A...