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Pragmatic Theatre by Tom Stoppard

Pragmatic Theatre
Tom Stoppard

[The following is based on a speech given at the New York Public Library, subsequently reprinted in The New York Review of Books, Sep. 23, 1999.]

There’s a man on the stage and a woman on the stage. The man says, “Would you care for a drink?” The woman says, “Yes, I think I might. I’ll have a whisky and soda.”

This mildly uninteresting exchange becomes more interesting, more dramatic, depending on the information we have. It’s more interesting if she’s a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s more interesting if we know the man to be a successful poisoner; most interesting of all, perhaps, if we have already seen the man’s roommate use the Cutty Sark bottle for a urine sample.

It strikes me now that that’s what technique must be: the control of the information that flows from a play to its audience, and in particular the ordering of the information. We interfere with that at our peril, don’t we? Actually, no, we don’t. I can think of a dozen productions of Shakespeare where the order of information is subverted (it’s harder to think of productions where it is respected). I’m thinking now of one of Trevor Nunn’s first great successes, his Comedy of Errors. The play begins in the city of Ephesus, with the duke explaining for our benefit that Ephesus is the enemy of the city of Syracuse and that anyone from Syracuse found in Ephesus is in for the chop. One of his hearers turns to us with an expression of dismay. He has no lines yet. What he has, however, is a Syracuse T-shirt, and at that instant Nunn’s story got itself in front of Shakespeare’s.

Directors of Shakespeare do this all the time for fun and profit, and a much weightier example was Richard Eyre’s Hamlet (again, many years ago), in which the ghost of Hamlet’s father was interpreted as a projection of young Hamlet’s neurosis, existing only in Hamlet’s mind. He conjured up his own ghost scene, the actor speaking both roles in different voices. It may already have occurred to you that this poses a difficulty about the first scene of the play, in which the ghost is present, but Hamlet is not. The consequence, or the solution, was that this opening scene was omitted, and the play began with Scene Two, a court scene with a low level of adrenaline. In the real Hamlet, the real first scene kicks the play off like a motorbike—short broken lines, fear in the air.

Was that Shakespeare’s technique? If so, did he know he had a technique? And does it matter? In truth, we don’t like to think of genius employing technique. It almost feels like a contradiction.

How many of the audience at a Shakespeare play (or, for that matter, any play which is being revived) are hearing the story for the first time? Sticking to Shakespeare, one might suppose that the audience at a school production is mostly coming fresh to the play; at the National Theatre the proportion would be very much lower. For the next few moments I want to consider only that part of the audience which knows the story before the play begins. For those people “ordering the flow of information” is a meaningless exercise. To bring the point nearer to home, I’m considering for a moment an experience of my own, a revival of my play The Real Thing, in which the first scene turns out to have been written by a character (a playwright) who appears in the second scene.

When the play was new, I recall hours of anxious discussion about, in the first place, guarding the surprise, and, in the second place, springing it. It was frustrating—both in London and New York—that we never quite seemed to find the moment when the whole of the audience (over whom we like to assume control) “got it” at the same time. Seventeen years later, in rehearsal again, there seemed to be something absurd about this approach. I had no idea whether the story of the play would already be known to a tenth of the audience, or three tenths, or—on certain nights—nine tenths, but the mathematics were irrelevant: in fact, I realized that my original gambit was itself irrelevant. The whole idea of cunningness, of ambush, of revelation, which 17 years earlier seemed to be the fun, now was simply boring. I began to think it would be more interesting to tip the audience off from the start.

Following this thought through, I begin to discern that a play which depends on keeping its secrets isn’t worth seeing twice, so whatever it is that makes it worth seeing twice, it is not, after all, “storytelling” in the way I used the term. I should have known this. I once watched a professional storyteller at work (I could only watch because the language was Iranian) and—as with most of us at most of Shakespeare most of the time—I realized that the “show” was about telling a story which the audience already knew. Indeed, there is something self-limiting about “dénouement” when dénouement is the very point, the only point, rather than the texture of the telling. We can read Damon Runyon 10 times over with some pleasure. Can we read O. Henry twice? Or see The Mousetrap? When it comes to mystery stories I am in agreement with Edmund Wilson—“Who Cares Who Killed Roger Akroyd?”—and this part of my thesis offers an obverse to technique: namely that whodunits would be more interesting to watch if Playbill named the murderer.

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