An Interview with Tom Stoppard

This interview takes place:
Driving on the highway from London
In deck chairs, watching cricket
After cricket, at tea
Driving on the motorway to London

An Interview with Tom Stoppard

This interview takes place:
Driving on the highway from London
In deck chairs, watching cricket
After cricket, at tea
Driving on the motorway to London

An Interview with Tom Stoppard

Adam Thirlwell
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Tom Stoppard was born in Zlin, Czechoslovakia, in 1937, and came to England in 1946. His major plays include Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1966), Jumpers (1972), and Travesties (1974). Every Good Boy Deserves Favour and Professional Foul were first performed in 1977. Night and Day came out in 1978, The Real Thing in 1982, Arcadia in 1993, and The Invention of Love in 1997. His trilogy, The Coast of Utopia—comprising the plays Voyage, Shipwreck, and Salvage—opened in 2002. In 1998, he won an Oscar for Best Screenplay for Shakespeare in Love. He lives in London, and quite likes cricket.

—Adam Thirlwell


In cricket there are two eleven-man teams. Each is given a single innings (there is no “inning” in cricket; it is always plural, like pants or scissors), or sometimes two, at bat. While one side bats, the other bowls at them.

The batting team has only two men on the pitch at any one time—a striker and a non-striker. They stand at opposite ends of the field, on a line called the “popping crease.” Any one of the eleven fielders may serve as the bowler; he retires this role to a teammate after six balls have been delivered. The bowler starts on the far side of the pitch from the striker, and bowls to him. The striker tries to hit the ball. If he does, the two batters may attempt to run (they don’t have to) across the field and reach the opposite popping crease. If both reach the crease, a point is scored.

The bowling side is trying to get the batting side out, which is done, usually, in one of five ways: (a) the bowler hits the striker’s wicket with the ball after the striker misses a hit (a wicket is a small wooden structure made up of three posts and two crosspieces, or bails; one of the bails must be dislodged to achieve an out); (b) the bowler hits some part of the batsman’s body with the ball when, had the batsman not been there, the ball would have hit and broken the wicket; (c) a fielder catches the ball from the batsman before it hits the ground; (d) a run out—a fielder breaking a wicket with the ball while no batsman is behind that wicket’s popping crease, which puts the nearest batsman out; and (e) a stumping, which occurs when a batsman misses the ball, steps outside his crease, and the wicket-keeper (a sort of catcher—he stands behind the batsman) gains the ball and breaks the wicket before the batsman gets back behind the crease. But these are not the only ways. There are five others. The other ways are very complicated. Only one batsman can be gotten out during each ball, so only one new batsman can come on to the field at a time. When ten batsmen have been gotten out, the innings is over.



TOM STOPPARD: You know, I’d like to present myself as somebody who’s really on the case when he’s writing a play, and I rather admire—hang on a minute, where do we go? We have to go to the M25, and turn off—rather admire the theoretical writer who has an objective in mind and shapes his material in order to convey it and resolve it.

Ages ago I started to do something different from my earlier practice. My earlier practice was to try to work out as much as possible, and not to feel that I didn’t know what I was doing while I was doing the writing. But I realized that I wasn’t doing that very successfully, and without really understanding what was happening I was actually inventing things as I was coming to them. So I quite quickly became that kind of selfconscious writer—someone who has decided just → to start and keep his fingers crossed.And I still think that I ought to do that. The Invention of Love, for instance, was really quite a frightening saga. I didn’t know where I was going, and if I hadn’t got to the point where I realized that I could have a really good solid scene where the old man is literally talking to his young self, which is quite a theatrical attractive situation for the audience—they have fun with it—if I hadn’t somehow blundered my way into that, I don’t know what I would have done, frankly. When I look back on my plays I’m absolutely mystified by the fact that I ever began writing them, because I know that in the beginning I didn’t know what I was doing, and I think that—OK hang on, yes quite right, M25…

ADAM THIRLWELL: There’s a lane on the left.

TS: I do know the way, it’s just that I forget to look for the road signs.

With Arcadia, I remember writing this academic arriving at this country house and I had to decide whether the manuscript letters from 180 years before were in his briefcase or in the house. I hadn’t worked out how it was going to go—which was quite scary and probably beneficial in some way. I’m rambling. Go on. Oh yes, what I was actually trying to say about fifteen minutes ago was that I don’t have a play to write at the moment but I have at least two subjects for a play so in a way I do have a play to write, it’s just I have no idea what the story will be. And I just don’t believe in the kind of theater which I want to write—which isn’t a storytelling theater.

There are three or four things I thought, you know, might justify writing a play. I mean, they’re all quite interesting, and still are, but I have no idea of any kind of narrative or characters. Usually the problems just disappear, at least somehow—I’d be off. I took it all to France recently and read it all again: I had a suitcase full of offprints and press cuttings, and subjects and God knows what I had. I had more sort of assembled them out of pure instinct and I just kept shoving these elements around, and came home not having actually achieved anything at all. So then I got neurotic.

And then I had the realization that there was no necessity for me to write a play, nobody was asking me to. So I then cheered up and stopped trying to, and had a very good period where I was equally nonproductive, writing no play instead of not writing one, if you see what I mean…

AT: Yes.

TS: That sort of exhilaration has now died away and I’m actually going to try again.

My main thing was actually to do with what’s called “the problem of consciousness”—the very words sound like a death knell of drama,don’t they? There’s been a mild academic fight going on, for the last fifteen years, between people like John Searle and Daniel Dennett,who have different notions of what consciousness is and where it comes from. They all agree on one thing—it’s just the brain, physics. And I was just an unreconstructed dualist, actually. So, I thought, that would be interesting to write about.That was one thing. And then there was Sappho.

I had a period of getting excited about exploiting fragments as an art form. I mean, faute de mieux, one has these pages of Sappho, and most pages don’t make any sense. God knows whether it’s anything to do with a play or not, but it’s interesting in itself.

They used a lot of papyrus for bandages—so if you imagine one of your pages, or Shakespeare’s sonnets, being torn longitudinally into three strips, and just the middle one remains… It looks very interesting on the page, and all kinds of people have tried to write the whole poem on the basis of the fragments left.

AT: There’s an Ezra Pound one, isn’t there?

TS: Yes. There is. So that was another thing, and there were a couple of other things… And, quite perversely, I mean, without any real rationale, I decided to somehow jam them all into the same narrative, like cats in a bag fighting. And I think probably I was overambitious, which is why I didn’t even get anywhere.

I’d write a page and a half, six or seven times, the same page and a half, and then I began not avoiding cliché, and I began to think about Martin Amis’s “war against cliché.” I got sidetracked.

I began to think that he was completely wrong about that because one of the things one uses is familiarity, it’s actually a useful thing to have in one’s locker. The phrase goes home better because you don’t have to think,“Oh that’s nice and new.” So I began to look for clichés in things I liked, and I began to realize very quickly that there are a lot of things I like, where the only right word was the obvious word.That Betjeman poem about the girl in the inglenook, and he’s such a thumping crook—if you had something besides “thumping” it just would not be as good.

AT: There are writers like Betjeman who use cliché— Joyce, Ionesco, Beckett, who also do this: they don’t use the cliché without consideration; they arrange clichés musically, with care. I think Betjeman’s often the same, although he’s not seen as an experimental writer like them. He’s doing something quite clever…

TS: I don’t know how clever it is, in the sense of being conscious cleverness, but I think his instinct is right. That the poem is not a clichéd poem, simply because it’s using some cliché. But that was something else. But the fragment thing—I began to visualize the madness.

I think in the end I thought, “No, you can’t, this would have to be a film.” Then you could just cut into the middle of a conversation,and out of it—and then do it again, and then do the other bit of it, and so forth. I don’t think you can do that on the stage: I think it would be terribly irritating, and pretentious.

Yes, well, my Sappho play: nothing exists. I’m going to try again. I’m so depressed. I’m just sort of full of selfdisgust actually.This morning I weighed more than I’ve ever weighed in my entire life. Literally.And that’s really a low point isn’t it—just thinking,“I’ve never ever, in all these years, weighed as much as this.”

AT: Gaining in gravitas?

TS: Eating sandwiches and rueing the day.The fact that The Coast of Utopia turned out to be three plays was something I didn’t plan until I was on the point of starting to write—it’s just that I got addicted to the background reading and ended up finding this enormous nine-hour saga. And I was really very fascinated by the people but I was also aware that I had to massage the historical narrative into something which had some sense of being a play, having the architecture of a play.

AT: In my arrogant novelistic way I had this theory that you were borrowing from the novel—in the matter of length. A play has two hours, whereas a novelist has 450 pages in which to explore minute aspects of character. Obviously, in The Coast of Utopia, one of the things you’re interested in is irony, ironic undercutting—the way that a character’s ideas can be undermined by their behavior, and it’s intriguing that this kind of thing is more interesting and easier to do, on stage, if you’ve got more time to do it.

TS: I think that’s right. [Pause]

AT: I can give you an example.

TS: All right.

AT: One of the things I was thinking was the infidelity between Alexander Herzen and his wife Natalie in The Coast of Utopia—the way the entire theme runs throughout the play is very delicate. It’s first mentioned actually in relation to Herzen, with Natalie saying to Herzen’s best friend Nick Ogarev,“I suppose you’re going to say it was only a servant-girl.” But evidently she’s not devastated by it. She’s sad from it and hurt by it but it’s not ruined their marriage.And then later Herzen announces: “Fidelity is admirable, but proprietorship disgusting.” It’s the naïveté of Oscar Wilde in his essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”: “Jealousy, which is an extraordinary source of crime in modern life,is an emotion closely bound up with our conceptions of property, and under Socialism and Individualism will die out.” But Herzen is devastated and proprietorial when he finds out that Natalie has been unfaithful.

TS: That was completely conscious on my part.

AT: Then I think what’s lovely is that it’s complicated further so that Natalie is flighty, romantic: she’s not perfect. So that when Herzen sentimentalizes the affair after her death and says, “Her devotion to me, her remorse, her courage when she faced the madness that man infected her mind with…” that’s a falsification after the fact. And the further irony is that when Natalie Ogarev is unfaithful with Herzen, Ogarev does not mind—and yet Natalie wants to believe that he does— “He’s in pain.We’ve broken his heart. His worst enemy couldn’t have hurt him more.”

That’s an example of a theme that runs the length of two plays, and the complications and mirrorings of that would just not have been possible in a play that only lasted two hours.

TS: I think it would be possible in a play that was about nothing else.I think you could write a two-hour play that was only about that. There is something very attractive in having this vast canvas, in which you can really balance things against each other when they’re separated by all kinds of other but no less equally interesting events.

The thing you’ve just been describing became for me what I had, all I had by way of a story. That was really it. Because Herzen’s intellectual and ideological development didn’t really go very far after 1848. By 1851-52, he’s pretty much worked out what he’d been disenchanted by and where the future for Russia ought to lie—that people were just too corrupted and the answer had to be to go back home and do it with the unpolluted peasantry. So by the time we get to the beginning of the final play, Salvage, he doesn’t have anywhere to go as regards changing his mind about things, which is why I felt myself in trouble.

AT: Writers who are stylists are often writers who dislike ideas.And one of the things that I was thinking, in The Coast of Utopia, is that essentially you’re sending ideas up. Ideas are things which people take very seriously, and yet there is this area of ordinary domestic experience which somehow manages to upend them— which washes over and ironizes the theoreticians in The Coast of Utopia. So you get Bakunin, say, the prophet of libertarianism, who’s simply a domestic despot.

In The Coast of Utopia, the same idea is uttered by more than one character, but in different contexts. I imagine that this is to show that ideas are like suitcases, as it were: an idea is a suitcase into which you pack your own clothes.

TS: Yes. It’s interesting,actually. We have to look for a gate on our right. It’s to do with the bad fit between private and public demeanours. It doesn’t spring from a sense of confrontation. I mean what I write about—it doesn’t spring from an urge to refute or to detach oneself. It’s much more to do with recognizing, or feeling that I recognize, a displacement between public and private utterance, and public and private posture; that people find it quite difficult to match up the private arena and the public arena so their emotional and domestic lives sometimes seem quite irrelevant to their intellectual lives. Hang on. Hello. My name is Tom Stoppard, is this the cricket?


AT: Where were we?

TS: Yes, where were we?

AT: Turgenev. Herzen and Turgenev.

TS: I think Turgenev had a good sense of what he himself was capable of doing. He had a good sense of what he was put on earth to do. And he also had a good sense of his ultimate usefulness rather than uselessness. His fictions lived longer than Herzen’s essays; they didn’t have an obvious and direct utilitarian function, but they did have a function—Bazarov and so on became part of the language of a crucial movement. Because he’s clear-eyed and honest, and an artist, people return again and again to the stories he wrote: the mortar between the bricks seeped into people’s thinking. So Turgenev played a larger role than Herzen, the way things went in Russia.

They were both people who enjoyed and liked having the finer things in life, and they were aware of the anomaly. Herzen was aware of it. Herzen was actually the rich guy among this crowd: he inherited his father’s estate, he never had any money problems, and he was aware of some kind of contradiction and referred to it occasionally. But his humanitarian and egalitarian instinct was extremely strong: a sense of justice and fairness. He was willing to have it all taken away from him, because he could see that it was unfair, and that’s rather wonderful, because he was working against his own class, ultimately. At that stage, he had a sort of faith in other people’s humanitarian impulses.Turgenev looks a bit cynical compared to Herzen.

AT: I think it’s Turgenev’s brand of skepticism that I find interesting. A militant aestheticism, as it were, has to be completely skeptical at all points of political action or political ideology. It’s constantly aware of all the contextual motives. It isn’t idealistic. And certainly someone who believes in the value of politics is going to find Turgenev rebarbative. There’s a toughness to Turgenev: a rigor in his relativism.

TS:Turgenev had an absolute horror and terror of violence.Turgenev was a monarchist if the alternative was violence. And when Turgenev was under some kind of suspicion by association, he absolutely panicked, and wrote to Moscow saying: “Look, you know, everyone knows I’m utterly against anything like that,” and so on.

Herzen is possibly trying to dissociate himself from apparent shared values with the system of Turgenev— although he did share a certain level of living, he enjoyed the same things and valued the same things, and liked them to survive.

Oh, it’s very difficult to get at this one.

Turgenev is a bit like that story about John Braine in the southern states of America, at a cocktail party, with an Episcopal bishop, having a glass of sherry. And Braine said:“This is the most wonderful country in the world—America.” And the other man said: “Well, not if you’re black.” And Braine looked slightly bewildered and said: “But I’m not black.”

I think Turgenev was saying: “Yes, but I am a Western liberal, who was brought up to enjoy opera.That’s what I am. How else can I see anything? I’m not a Sandwich Islander. I can only function from this point of view.” Whereas Herzen was not doing that, not saying that: he had a much wider view and a deeper view of the context. But in the end—it’d be cruel to say he was ineffective, as people continue to get inspiration from him, so it wasn’t as if he were dead—but he got overtaken by the traffic, just sort of run down, it came up behind him and squashed him. Turgenev made sure he wasn’t in the road.

AT: This relationship, or nonrelationship, between the political and the literary, is there in your work, too. It intrigues me, say, reading Kenneth Tynan’s New Yorker profile of you where, although it’s full of love and admiration, there is this tiny undertow of Tynan thinking: “Why isn’t this guy writing Brechtian plays?”

TS: I know. The thing is that he had the bad luck to write his profile just before Professional Foul. And then a month later Every Good Boy Deserves Favour was published.

AT: Did you ever discuss those plays with him?

TS: No, I didn’t really. The truth of the matter is that he was broke and was terribly glad to have a long profile paid for with a lot of money. He asked Harold Pinter to cooperate for a profile. Pinter said he wouldn’t. So then he asked me. I found out later. His main motive was to write a profile of somebody. Having written it, I don’t think he was that interested in the fact that I followed with two plays about politics.

AT: The argument in the profile seems to center on Wilde.

TS: I used to have these conversations with Tynan about Wilde’s essays, particularly “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.” I was slightly dishonest with him because I pontificated about Wilde on the basis of the plays I knew, and nothing else. Tynan would then say,“This is all nonsense, this wonderful essay ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism,’blah blah blah.”So I would think,“Oh, Christ, I better read that.”And then I’d read it, as it were, with demolition in view—to undercut any effect.I’d dismiss it as being simply another form of his pirouetting.

I think that 9/11 and the Iraq war are events which… You can’t behave as though they changed nothing, you know? Everything has to be changed in some way: your thinking is changed, your thinking about what you should be writing about, certainly. Well, I’m thinking about it.Well, put it this way: while the emotion is at its height, while the consciousness is at its most acute about what’s happening, while you’re living in that kind of atmosphere, your view or your assessment of the purity and validity of that sonnet somehow… It doesn’t mean you think, “Oh I have to stop, there’s no point in writing sonnets anymore, that’s all over.” It’s not that. But the decades which led up to the end of what Fukuyama would call “the previous history” went on for so long. Occasionally there’d be a bit of a frisson called Cuba, but generally speaking it just went on for so long that it became the climate. You felt that Max Beerbohm would have written what he’d written, in the same climate.

I kept very quiet after 9/11. Everybody sort of bounced into print in a self-questioning way—and I can understand why, I felt much the same—but I thought, “Don’t say anything because the times are distorting: they’re distorting your ability to think clearly at the moment.”

AT: I think I feel that the two are perhaps incommensurate.

TS: Go on with that one.

AT: Well, there are things that I care about concerning art, and that is evidently, on one level, a very important concern, and on another level an absolutely minuscule and irrelevant concern. Evidently art is a luxury. And so were I to be reduced to living in fur, in Siberia, tomorrow, I would not be caring particularly about Oscar Wilde and style.

It seems to me that sometimes there is a melodrama of self-questioning about art: if you believed before 9/11 that it was important to care about not using cliché, say, then there’s no reason why 9/11 might change that. It might make you think that sometimes you should be thinking about other things as well, but then it surprises me that it would take something like 9/11 to make you realize that: the actual concern seems to me to remain…

TS: It alters the emphasis you put on it, doesn’t it? For a while.

AT: I just think that there can be a tough kind of aestheticism, a pragmatic type—which thinks that obviously these concerns are limited within their own sphere, but that doesn’t mean that the entire sphere has to disappear just because there are other things of importance. It’s evidently true that the other things of importance will always rise and fall—so that at some point suddenly it will seem imperative to be thinking about terrorism, or thirty years ago to be thinking about communism—but it seems to me also that in the end the really good writers do have a slight autism to them, an earned independence.

I think sometimes you can see this kind of problem where writers try to make a link between being a good writer and being a good person, or a good reader and a good person. But there’s no reason why there should be a correlation between your ethical ability and your aesthetic ability—and that kind of statement is made by someone haunted by the unnecessary worry that art needs to be justified on a further, moral level.

TS: No, I agree with that. Things get more interesting when the artist uses the event as his subject matter. I mean, in the trenches of the first World War, there were tens of thousands of copies of Housman.There’s an edition published in a size you could fit into a battle-dress pocket.That’s a different thing from, say, David Jones’s In Parenthesis, which was an attempt to bring his aesthetic values to the subject matter.And there of course nobody has a problem—basically they say, “Well that’s what artists should do, that’s what they’re for, they must remember, and relive, and see more clearly.” And what you’re saying is,“What about the guy who wasn’t there, and wants to continue perfecting his sonnets?” And what I’m saying is that whatever the values one invests in the work he’s doing, the fact that he’s doing it is a moral statement. It’s not like saying, “I’m not actually committing myself here”: in a way you are making a statement by detachment, by detaching yourself.

AT: The guy who makes bicycles—you would think it was rather odd if he were to say to you: “I’ve had to rethink everything I’ve been doing since 9/11.”

TS: Yeah, that would be odd, wouldn’t it?

AT: And I’m not sure how different that is from the idea that the guy who writes plays, say…

TS: But you see,this is exactly where one sees that artists are not bicycles. I mean, PEN doesn’t have a committee for pastry-cooks in prison, or bicycle-makers in prison. So you think,“Well, what the hell is this? What’s going on here? When did society constitute itself in such a way that this figure of the artist had some kind of special status? How far back does that actually go?” And the answer seems to be, it actually goes back to the beginning.

AT: I wonder how far this problem of art is really a category mistake, of people wanting a word to mean more than one thing.

TS: A lot of questions which present themselves as problems turn out to be a failure of vocabulary. Decent shot, wasn’t it?

AT: There was one thing you said earlier. I said that style was the most important thing for me. And you said that the idea never grew on you. Do you mean that actually now you don’t believe that style is all important, that you grew out of it—or that you instinctively knew that it was something you never had to ponder?

TS: The question is, what do I mean now, or what did I mean then?

AT: Well, it could be either. Either is fine.

TS: What I would say is that it’s different for a novelist.

I thought when I was young, and I think now, that a style-signature is why you read somebody.And, when I was young, finding and keeping and impressing that style-signature led me into a liking for certain kinds of writing in an attempt to emulate or simulate certain kinds of style-writing—which maybe put a strain on what I was writing. I mean when I was starting off I remember a short story I wrote that had a one-legged person in it, and I remember some translation showing up and I was thinking, “Well, this actually says in English ‘intrepid uniped’—what is the point in Lithuanian, there’s simply no point in saying it, if you can’t have fun with the language.” And I think that there are writers for whom that’s not an important issue.Writers who are possibly very great writers, writers I revere—Hemingway for example. I imagine Hemingway in German would be absolutely fine. But there are writers for whom that can’t possibly be true.

And I still feel that a writer’s style, if that’s the word—tone, signature, whatever—is the reason for reading him. But, where it stops is you begin to realize that the way a play can work upon you—event, physical event—is very effective indeed. When you refer back to the source of all this—the page—it doesn’t seem to be there. Furthermore, there’s no authorial voice in a play, every single voice is a person—and how can it be, why should it be, that each of these people should have a style? People are not, on the whole, stylish speakers. So one has to be careful of the word. Although as you perceive a thought, there always seems to be one more corner to go around.You might then say,“Well, look at Mamet, for example.” Yes, well, look at Mamet! I mean, the artifice in that! The care that goes into every utterance! I think that when I started off, I probably didn’t have enough confidence in myself to suppose that I could capture and hold the attention unless there was something startling going on all the time—and the notion that the attention would be held by something deeper than that struck me, but I didn’t know how to do it, or felt I didn’t know how to do it. So I always turned, somehow without even willing it, into comedy. But I may have got the chicken mixed up with the egg, actually.

Oh that’s a just beautiful shot. [Claps] I’m always mystified by drives, the cover drive, which hits the bat higher up than I feel I could cope with. A cover drive which comes off the bottom three inches of the bat I understand. One which comes off the middle of the bat I find very hard to work out.

AT: A comment I love about dialogue in the novel is a moment where Lampedusa is talking about Stendhal. He says that in Stendhal “the fault of so many novels has disappeared, this fault which consists in revealing the soul of the characters through their dialogue…” Whereas in Stendhal, “there is no famous dialogue.” It’s just, “How are you?—I’d like some scrambled eggs please.” And I was thinking this is impossible for a dramatist—if you didn’t reveal the soul of the characters through their dialogue in some way, the play’s going to be impossible.

TS: Yes, yes. But the power that a play has over its audience, I think, in the end is not in the dialogue. It’s the situation. I’ve always envied playwrights who are knock-out situationists—Ayckbourn is, for example. Who probably would be delighted to be bracketed suddenly with Stendhal, but I say this equally as the same compliment: he doesn’t write memorable lines, but you’re absolutely gripped by the situation on stage. I recognized this very early on, and I’ve become aware that plays of mine which worked better are the ones where the style element just becomes a bonus. But it’s good if you find that your wisecracking people are actually in a situation which has the audience agog, and not really feeding off the style of utterance at all.

AT: I think somewhere else you said that the problem with your plays was that for a long time everyone spoke the same.

TS: Well, I did use to say that; I used to think it.

AT: But I think it’s arguable about even your early plays, and it’s certainly not true of plays from even The Real Thing onwards…

TS: I think it was true early on in some ways. I have an African dictator, in one play—and I remember thinking to myself, quite cold-bloodedly, “I’m going to have to find a background for this guy, which will enable me to write his dialogue, because I sure as hell can’t write African dictator dialogue. I can only write the dialogue for somebody who was at the LSE and then went back to Africa.” Which is more or less what I did.

I think that it’s a slightly out-of-date quote. I think I learned to do things as time went on, or perhaps I just discovered they weren’t as difficult as I assumed that they would be.

AT: I think that realizing how little you need to create a character’s voice is an interesting thing: I think I always believed that it requires an incredible ingenuity of invention, that you had to be able to think up seventeen things that this character—

TS: It requires an ear—it’s not actually inventing, if you’re remembering it. And some people are better than others. I’m very bad at it. I know that from the way that I can put on a record, an album, which I’ve heard fifty times—it’s a long way into the track before I work out which one it is. Or something comes on the radio, and I think, “It’s one of my favorite records, which one is it, which of my favorite records is this?” And I’m sure for writers there’s a strength there or a weakness, and I simply don’t think of it as being a strength of mine at all.

There’s another way of putting this.

How do you avoid being boring when you’re writing a boring character? Well, the answer is really that we don’t have a boring person in a play unless the point is that he’s boring, and then you’ve got a situation which is interesting or funny or whatever because the boring element is there for a particular reason. There’s a Peter Nichols play I remember where people show up at somebody’s house and there seems to be—in my memory—reams and reams of dialogue on how they got there, which road they took—“Oh, no, you should have taken the A35.” This is a conversation without any redeeming interest, either in subject or phrasing. But of course it was hilarious because—it’s to do with recognition, isn’t it?

Let’s go and have a cup of tea.


TS: I’ve got a nice after-lunch feeling now.

AT: What is it you think is charming about cricket? I think I like its unpredictability—that this is a game which is played as a game of skill, but is essentially a game of chance.

TS: I never think of cricket as being anything to do with chance. It seems to me entirely about skill. Yes, the weather might intervene. But that’s not really about cricket, that only possibly impinges on the result of a particular match, but the actual cricket is something separate.

But my involvement with cricket came through playing, not through watching it. I’m not sure I ever found it terribly interesting to watch. But being inculcated from the age of eight or nine, cricket—no more than any other sport I played—became interesting from the point of view of doing it. I was never that good at it, but I did aspire to being a wicket-keeper.

There’s something about the position of wicketkeeper which appealed to me very deeply—I was very bad-tempered if I had to play in a match where while fielding I wasn’t allowed to keep wicket. Cricket seemed more or less pointless to me if you weren’t actually a wicket-keeper.And I could see that it might be a viable game if you opened the bowling and continued to bowl for the entire course of the innings.That also could be interesting, I suppose. I loved being involved in every ball bowled—which is your situation when you’re keeping wicket. It isn’t even true, really, of somebody who’s bowling, who gets a rest every six balls.And consequently I hero-worshipped, in succession, Godfrey Evans, Alan Knott—I suppose I was too old to hero-worship people by the time we got to Jack Russell. But I find when I’m watching cricket on television even now—I rarely go to cricket—I still find myself mostly fascinated by what the wicket-keeper’s doing.

It’s partly to do with the fact that every ball is frightening, if you’re keeping wicket, because there’s a very good chance that you’ll have to deal with it if the batsman doesn’t. And, as you know, when it comes to catches being offered, probably three out of five go to the wicket-keeper, generally. So you feel that there’s a lot of responsibility on you, and one is constantly frightened of publicly shaming oneself—by dropping an easy catch or missing an easy stumping—which of course happened to me all the time, but nevertheless that’s what I liked doing.

AT: Whereas for me the thing I hated about fielding was the knowledge that at any point this thing could come towards you.

TS: But, when fielding, somehow you feel that there are so many other directions that the ball may go in. Whereas with wicket-keeping, if the batsman doesn’t hit it, it’s yours. And I loved, I suppose, the gloves and the pads and all that, and the sound the ball made going into a glove. It’s quite a complex little thing, keeping wicket. And this tremendous sort of pride in standing up to a bowler who wasn’t particularly slow, if you got to know him very well.

AT: It reminds me—talking of weather and cricket and chance. In The Coast of Utopia, in the second play, Shipwreck, Herwegh says: “Stoical freedom is nothing but not wasting your time berating the weather when it’s bucketing down on your picnic.” And in Salvage, Herzen mentions “picnics ruined by rain” in his list of things he’s moved beyond. And the final scene is of an outdoor party where it’s starting to rain. Is this a deliberate pattern?

TS: No, it’s not. It was unknowing, I think. I mean, even if it wasn’t unknowing, it wasn’t supposed to mean anything. But it’s nice that there is a pattern.The thing is, Adam, that things that are sort of spottable in that way are, as it were, rare—and sometimes are conscious. But they’re there like jokes for the attentive reader, they’re not there to provide vital clues to the thrust of the play, or a vital piece of symbolism—not to me, I don’t think.

AT: It’s true that it’s not the key to the play, but it does link up to a larger theme: things happen beyond our control, as it were, the future is not reliable. Herzen says that people mistakenly want to believe that they can own the future. That was the pattern that I thought it linked up to, you plan a picnic, but you have no idea if it’s going to be pissing down.

TS: No, I completely see that, and I absolutely feel the same way about it as you do, but also from the same perspective as you do.These things emerge, and you think, “Oh, that’s good because it’s X,Y, Z.” What it is not is somebody sitting down with a piece of graph paper at ten in the morning and thinking,“Now how can I plant something which will convey, perhaps, no no no…” So it’s all true but it’s not that significant, that’s all. I think it’s very flattering, I think it’s a great compliment when you come across somebody in conversation or print who actually has remembered a detail in a play. It’s hardly what one expects but it’s very nice.

AT: You said you aren’t the kind of writer who has an objective in mind and shapes the material in order to convey that. And I don’t like that kind of writer, either, who simply has a thesis and wants to expound it. But there’s still scope for artistry, for organization, for theme, for formal play—and it’s as if you are also trying to shut that off as well.

TS: Well, I think I know where the truth lies. What I mean is that I can sort of see why I’m contradicting myself. When you’re writing the speech about picnics ruined by rain, you’re not thinking,“Ah, I’ll have a picnic later where it starts to rain.” What is going on is that you find yourself at a picnic and you remember it would be a good fit if it rained. So, you know—it’s true from one angle and untrue from another angle.

I actually rather relish—in other people if I can spot it, and certainly enjoy it in my own things—echoes which bounce back at you, or echo down the play. I like that happening, and in fact occasionally I stumble into something which becomes actually structural, like the penknife in Voyage.

The great thing about the penknife in Voyage for me is that I didn’t know that I’d be able to do this until things emerged, and then it becomes the nicest thing in Voyage for me. It’s not premeditated, but it’s very knowing when you do it.

AT: I absolutely know what you mean, that no good writer is going to be thinking in terms of a play’s architecture as a whole, at every moment. And yet although some of the formal tricks that I love about your work are things that might be lovely flukes, some things are too intricate.

It’s interesting, say, following the penknife. If you think about the structure of Voyage, progressing forwards in time, twice, filling in the gaps from the first half in the second half—I love that the first time you hear about the penknife is actually when you don’t know you’re hearing it—when Tatiana says, “Did you catch anything?”You assume she means a fish.

TS: Yes, it’s backwards.

AT: The penknife is a lovely miniature of the play’s structure.

TS: One has seen quite a few good documentary drama plays where you’re just shown what happened and what people said as near as one can endeavour that way. And what I remember thinking and feeling and I still feel the same way now, is that there’s something disappointing, something missing, if that’s all you manage to do. So, I’m intensely encouraged and cheered up by finding things which are not happening on the level of history, but which are happening on an entirely different level, like the penknife, because they seem to me to save the play. To put it another way, they make it a play. That odd bit of artifice, odd bit of shimmer in the silk, I think saves the situation for the writer.

AT: They also link to one of the main themes in The Coast of Utopia: the misinterpretation of the present.

TS: There’s something about shuttling back and forth, through time in the case of Arcadia, which I adore. I just love things which aren’t exactly written at all—that in Arcadia a twentieth-century apple is cut by a nineteenth-century knife and fed to a tortoise.

I find that more theatrical than three-quarters of a page which took a week to write.And although I always claim that I like to come out of a different box each time, actually I think that the things they have in common are greater than I’ve allowed for. Although there are no time threads in The Real Thing, the same thing’s happening as is happening in Arcadia: there’s a man in a chair, and he gets a present from a woman and he opens it up and picks up the box and that’s the end of the scene—and it’s different and the same each time. It’s that layer which I think separates a play from its fellows. Because one thing for sure is you don’t change very much as a writer: the actual jokes you make, the kind of metaphors you like, the way people talk, that doesn’t change very much, frankly.

I sound as though this is a very interesting subject. I can see it’s objectively quite interesting, but it’s not something which I think about much. Is that true? I think that’s the problem at the moment, probably. I mean, it’s not true. I think the reason that I’m a mess at the moment is that I’m too conscious of the things I’ve just been talking about.

What I think I mean is that there is a distinction between talking about work, and presuming to explicate it in some way. The most famous question in modern drama is, “Who is Godot?” What a total and utter calamity it would have been if Beckett had said,“Oh, it’s the collective unconscious,” or, “It’s the inspector of highways,” or, “Jehovah.” What an appalling thing to happen to that play, because it just shuts off what that play actually does—which is that it’s about what happens to you while you’re watching it, isn’t it?

But the actual reason why I came back from France without having started is that I didn’t know what the plot was, or who the people were.

AT:I think sometimes that plot is a slight embarrassment, to a writer who cares about form.Without a genuinely interesting story, any amount of formal experiment is irrelevant.

TS: I could write a play tomorrow, no problem, if my take on it was that the audience would be so fascinated to know what I was going to do next that they would be very happy just to see what these people were talking about for a couple of hours. I’m up to here in cognitive science, no problem. But it’s not possible.The gulf which is supposed to separate the next Hollywood film from the next fringe drama is actually quite narrow. Both of them need a good plot. Because, unless you want to turn the page, you’re not really winning, are you? This thing of the page turner—it’s true of Hamlet. So, however clued up I am, and however brilliant I am, having speeches about neurons, unless someone’s saying, “Yes, but what happens next?,” you’re dead. I don’t think I used to realize that. I don’t think I wanted to.

AT: But form can make something interesting, too: a lot of interest is the plot’s form, not its content—the organization of the material.

TS: I suspect that the whole trick is to undermine the audience’s security about what it thinks it knows at any moment.I think that one has to try to do it on the smallest scale as well as the largest.When I got going on The Coast of Utopia, I was very aware of this. I think I lost sight of it somewhat.The first scene ends with somebody saying: “One thing for sure, we’re not going to let this marriage take place.” And then, the first line of the next scene is:“The newlyweds are here.” And then you think: “Oh, well, he was wrong about that.” And then think: “Oh no he wasn’t, it was somebody else.”This thing of undermining the audience’s sense of what’s going on— I think it is drama, a lot of drama is that.

AT: I think it’s in one of your conversations with Mel Gussow where he says to you,“I’m not suggesting that you should write like Hemingway. I’m just trying to understand the admiration.”

But I have a theory why you like Hemingway. Which is in this kind of occlusion.There is the famous thing Hemingway says:“It was a very simple story called ‘Out of Season’ and I had omitted the real end of it which was that the old man hanged himself. This was omitted on my new theory that you could omit anything as long as you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.”

His writing is based on occlusion. Is that something similar? You like presenting characters, and the audience, with a situation they don’t quite comprehend? You like pushing things to the side, so the reader or audience has to infer the rational situation that is going on.

TS: It’s true. But you must know the people you like really have very little to do with what you like to write yourself. And anyone who loves Hemingway the way I love him would be well advised to just get past it, you know: do your Hemingway pastiche and move on. I did mine actually—short stories and things, really embarrassing. I was at a Hemingway conference once, where they have a Hemingway library, and I read my Hemingway short story without telling them who’d written it. A self-humiliation.

AT: Do you believe there could be a good play with bad technique?

TS: I worked out once that technique was actually about controlling the flow or the trajectory of information—from the play to the audience—just controlling it, so it gets there in a certain order, in certain stages: a lot of it boils down to that.


TS: Do you think that most people are integrated and coherent about what they are as writers? The way it works with me is that I stumble across some kind of formulation which has a certain persuasive quality, and because I get used to how to say it, I get very good at delivering that line. And then after a while, time goes by, and I no longer think it—if I ever did think it. I was just delivering the line because I knew how. Did you ever read the New York Review talk I gave in the New York Review of Books?

I just couldn’t do it. I stood up there and did my usual thing, and they all said it was fine but I knew it wasn’t. They sent me the proofs, and I sat down and wrote new stuff and gave it back to them. They printed that as what I’d said. So anybody who’d been present would have thought, “Oh, what a terrible memory I have, I don’t remember him saying any of this”—and I hadn’t said any of it.

But, in writing it, I discovered things I thought, completely new thoughts, which I’ve hung on to ever since, and think,“Oh, yes, that’s what I think.” Some of them were quite central. One of them was getting sick of the whole dénouement idea. I fell into this thing, and by the time I’d come out of it, I emerged with this completely coherent intact philosophy, of the anti-dénouement writer, and it hasn’t actually collapsed yet. I still think that’s what I think.

AT: One of the things I love in your work is a running joke—it’s there in Travesties and it’s there also in The Coast of Utopia—where you use Wilde for revolutionaries. So that in Travesties Lenin says:“Really, if the lower orders don’t set a good example what on earth is the use of them?! They seem to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility! To lose one revolution is unfortunate.To lose two would look like carelessness!”And then Bakunin says in Salvage—“Our first task will be to destroy authority. There is no second task.” Which seems to me to point to a continuity. You’re replacing political belief with paradox and contradiction: aestheticism replaces sincerity.

TS: Do you think writing something because you feel it invests writing with a quality that distinguishes it from the unfelt?

I’ll try and pose this in a get-at-able form.To somebody who is unaware of either, is there actually a real difference between Henry James and Max Beerbohm’s parody of Henry James? What actually distinguishes them? We know that in the case of James there is sincerity and in the case of Beerbohm there is no sincerity, but can you find that difference when you look at the two?

AT: I think the interest of a parody is that, like all works of art, it is and is not like the thing it’s representing. A parody exists in the same relation to a work of art as a work of art exists in relation to reality. It’s a joke on the same theme.When you read Beerbohm’s James parody, would you really believe it was by James? I’m not sure you would. Because James’s style has a subject but Beerbohm’s subject is only a style.

TS: I think you’re absolutely right—you know James wouldn’t have bothered to expend his style on this.

AT: I suppose the reason why the parody works is that sometimes James is examining velleities of feeling that basically don’t exist, or only exist to Henry James, and therefore Beerbohm has this space to work on: sometimes you feel that James is giving too much emphasis to things which no one thinks about really.

But on the other hand, he’s also brilliant at showing people that actually they think far more closely about very minor things than they thought they did.You have to revise what you mean by important or unimportant when you read James.

TS: For me, the reason it’s become more political, now… A desire for the play to be moving was not part of my thinking in any way. I was interested in abstract ideas and I liked making jokes. From the very beginning, even Rosencrantz talking about being dead [in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead] wasn’t an emotional moment. It was, as it were, just logic-fun or word-fun or think-fun. But for the last fifteen years, I found myself writing things which moved me at a certain point, and move other people, and now I don’t want to write a play which doesn’t.

So I sit in France and I’ve got all these bits, and I can manipulate them quite cleverly, for a couple of hours, and that’s what I would have been doing I suppose—but now, I can’t start because unless there’s some kind of human pain here, or redemption, I don’t want to do it, or don’t want to bother. In Indian Ink there is a moment about a woman brushing petals off her sister’s gravestone, so she could read the name on the stone, and then she says goodbye to her dead sister, and I remember having a bit of a gulp when it was being acted, even though I’d written it.

And this is quite a good way to close one of these circles,because the actual phrase was,you know, par excellence, without style, without finesse. It consisted of three words,“Bye bye darling”: that was it. But because of the situation—this is what we were talking about—because of the situation it sort of made one gulp a little bit, and, if I’ve made any kind of journey at all, it’s the journey from discounting that—discountenancing, I suppose I’m trying to say, that—to a place where it’s central to the point of writing a play, the desire to write a play.

I think that’s the one thing which has emerged from the chaos of conversation, from all our very enjoyable chat, as something which I do recognize has happened. I understand why I can’t be bothered to write the play yet, because there isn’t this emotion… available in it.

AT: There’s a lovely thing Nabokov says, defending Dickens’s Bleak House against the charge of sentimentality: “I want to submit that people who denounce the sentimental are generally unaware of what sentiment is.” The problem is that sentiment is so close to sentimentality.

TS: It’s very close, it’s a hair’s breadth, isn’t it? I’m always doubting myself when I think I’ve brought off a moment of sentiment—and I think,“Oh, God, this is actually TV.”

AT: If you take The Invention of Love, say, the title’s ambiguity refers to both sentiment and sentimentality. It’s about the fact that literally you invent the love object, so that Jackson and Bosie are both inadequate to the emotion expended on them, and yet the love for them is entirely real, entirely irrational, and entirely right.And completely true.

And this is very similar to Housman as a scholar. Whether you’re in love with Moses Jackson, or doing an edition of Manilius, both involve “useless knowledge”— but that doesn’t make them wrong or invalid. But the second sense of the title is brought out in the way you use Wilde at the end. Like Housman, Wilde is in love with a boy who is not worthy of him. But Wilde is also shown to be sentimental—when he says, “Once, I brought a huge armful of lilies in Convent Garden to Miss Langtry, and as I waited to put them in a cab, a small boy said to me, ‘Oh, how rich you are!’… ‘Oh, how rich you are! [He weeps.] Oh—forgive me. I’m somewhat the worse for cake.’” It’s slightly theatrical— the sentiment has become sentimentality.And it links to the earlier moment where AEH describes “False nostalgia”—which he glosses later: “all the risks—archaism, anachronism, the wayward incontinence that only hindsight can acquit of non sequitur…”

This seems to me the core of the play: how far a genuine love, the sentiment, can somehow in retrospect get shaded into nostalgia, into sentimentality.

TS: It’s not a bad interpretation. If you think of love letters, other people’s or your own, there’s tremendous— there’s a sort of, there’s a, there’s a, there’s a tremendous, Jesus God—there’s a tendency for them to veer off into the most embarrassing pathos and sentimentality which is all too evident in retrospect but which at the time of writing seems to be an accurate expression of feeling. So it makes one wonder whether there’s something which is relative to the observer which is not the same thing which is relative to the writer. And I think when I said they always seem to be a hair’s breadth apart, it’s that difference between how it is being felt by the writer and how it is being received by the audience.

AT: The thing is—this examination of sentiment, of feeling, is there in all your plays. Often you’re described as a playwright of ideas: but most of the people called playwrights of ideas are people with very definite ideas: their plays prove ideas.Whereas in your plays, although there are a lot of people coming up with ideas, the interest is never for the ideas—it’s to do with the process by which they come up with them, the emotions which are creating the cerebral theories.

TS: It’s also to do with how one might rebut those very same ideas. But you can see that there is—God help me I’m not wrong about this, am I?—that there is the ghost of a promise of a play if I… There’s this poem written in roughly 600 B.C. about a woman looking at the woman she loves talking to a man, and she just actually describes the symptoms and they’re very precise: there’s this wonderful phrase about how thin fire races under the skin.There are all these physiological things which happen to the narrator of the poem. So you can see that to explore or undermine that by describing it in terms of what’s happening in her brain at that moment, in purely physical terms…

I’m sure there’s something quite strong in feeling being the refutation of thinking: that the feeling that she expresses—in some way—cannot be accounted for by the neurologist, cannot actually be fully described and accounted for by the scientist.

And this… So there’s a play there. There… There must be.

This interview, along with more than twenty others like it—many appearing in print for the first time—will appear in The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers, available in October 2005 from Believer Books.

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