PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Tom Stoppard

News   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Tom Stoppard
 
It's been roughly 40 years since Tom Stoppard debuted on Broadway with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and the playwright is still very much in the thick of it.
Tom Stoppard
Tom Stoppard Photo by Aubrey Reuben

His latest work, Rock 'n' Roll, bowed on Broadway in November to general enthusiasm. It will very likely net a Tony Award nomination for Best Play, as have six of his previous plays, including four — Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Travesties, The Real Thing, The Coast of Utopia — that won the prize. Given his body of work, it comes as a surprise to learn that the Czechoslovakia-born, English writer only works on one thing at a time, and hasn't penned a new play of his own for three years. The polymathic author — whose plays have addressed everything from Russian intellectual movements to the collision of art and ideas in World War I Zurich to the nature of love — took a few moments to talk to Playbill.com about plays past, present and future.

Playbill.com: A lot of people have said Rock 'n' Roll seems like a more personal play for you. Do you agree with that?
Tom Stoppard: Not particularly. I'm Czech by birth and a lot of the play takes place in Czechoslovakia and is about Czech matters. But as regarding it's being personal — it is personal, but then other plays are personal to me, too. On the whole, it's a bit deceptive. I don't think that I see myself as being a version of the leading character.

Playbill.com: Are there certain plays in your oeuvre that you consider more personal that others?
TS: Well, The Real Thing is about a playwright, so that seems like a good start. The main character in The Real Thing gets a lot of things off my chest. I think he does. But I don't really think I'm a particularly personal kind of writer. I'm not that interesting in writing about myself through this prism or that prism.

Playbill.com: You're more interested in looking at things objectively, examining parts and people of history…?
TS: Well, there are two answers to your question. One is that, on the whole, I write about everything except myself. But the other half is I think you are the plays you write and you can't escape that.

Playbill.com: You've written about many different things. How do you go about choosing the subjects of your plays?
TS: It's difficult. When I feel it's time I write something else, I try to remember how it was that I got into the last one and where it came from. And I find that I cannot remember. It's an odd thing. Even with Rock 'n' Roll, which is the last play I wrote, I find it very hard to actually recall how I got into it. It's something that one is thinking about, sometimes unconsciously, for a long time. And then little bits and pieces of it start to crystallize and there comes a day when you just kick off. But as for choosing subjects, I think I probably rely on what I read. I'm not talking about great works of literature or great works of nonfiction. I'm a newsprint junkie, essentially. I often have a feeling that, though I'm not consciously looking for a play, I feel every time I open a newspaper or a magazine, I might find a play in it. And sometimes I think I have, but it turns out to be a false promise. And sometimes I get some things from somewhere else entirely. I can remember how The Coast of Utopia began. I remember reading an essay about one of the characters in the play and something in his story made me want to write. Playbill.com: I imagine that you — a person in your position, whose work is so well known — often have people approach you with suggestions for plays.
TS: Yes. You're quite right. The problem with that is, they're going on what you've already written. Whereas, for the writer, he's looking in areas where he hasn't written anything.

Playbill.com: A new frontier.
TS: Yes. A new area, anyway. It never works, offering a writer ideas. The last thing they're looking at is what they've already done. And that's all other people know about.

Playbill.com: Have you started cultivating your next area of interest?
TS: I'm afraid not. I'm actually translated a Chekhov play at the moment. It's Ivanov. I don't have a thing of my own, but I'm hoping to move on soon.

Playbill.com: You've used several directors over the past 20 years — David Leveaux, Jack O'Brien, Trevor Nunn. Do you use different directors for different sorts of plays?
TS: It's very hard to answer that. I'm not sure what makes a good fit between a director and a play. You work with certain people, you have certain kinds of experiences, and there comes a time when you'd like to repeat it. I haven't worked with Trevor all that much. I just think he's a very great director and I hadn't worked with him since Arcadia and I thought, "I'd like to work with Trevor again." I had a wonderful time with David Leveaux twice and I'd like to work with him again. But I'm not saying it's any particular kind of plays that fits the case.

Playbill.com: Once you've written a play — for instance, The Coast of Utopia — do you retain an interest in the play's subject matter after the play is finished? Do you, say, still read about 19th-century Russian intellectuals?
TS: Up to a point. Of course, there's a kind of carryover that lasts quite a long time. But, I think it lasts until the moment you get interested in your next play. And then you become quite fickle about your former love.

Playbill.com: Your plays are often set in past time periods. Is that more attractive to you than writing something that is set in the present day?
TS: No. It's the kind of thing that doesn't even cross my mind. I'm just grateful for anything that interests me. There's nothing special about writing in the historical past. I don't think it changes the way you write. There's certain kinds of voices that I like writing for. The Invention of Love was about the poet A.E. Houseman and I loved writing for his cadences.

Playbill.com: You have a great body of work at this point. Do you have a play or two that you feel is somehow neglected?
TS: No, I don't think I can say that. I was talking about that only today. I mentioned the play Indian Ink, only because it's been done in different cities in America, but not in New York. But I don't consider that to be evidence of neglect. [Note: Indian Ink was actually given a small, Off-Broadway production in 2003 by the company Alter Ego Productions.]

Playbill.com: Do you ever think of writing a memoir?
TS: No, I haven't. I've never written one. And it's not something I think about. I don't keep a journal or diary, so it would be a pretty defective memoir. I imagine it would quite an enjoyable thing to do, but I never have the time to do it. Maybe that's the last thing you do.

Playbill.com: Is there anything else you're working on at this time besides the Chekhov adaptation?
TS: Well, I only do one thing at a time. And that's the job I've got on at the moment, and I haven't got a job to go to beyond it. I hope I'll think of a play to write. It's now 2008. It's been three years since I was actually writing Rock 'n' Roll.

Playbill.com: That surprises me. I have this picture in my head of you continually writing. You've produced so much work.
TS: Yes, but it's been produced over many years.

Playbill.com: True. And you'd have pretty consistent success throughout it all. It's really quite a remarkable career where playwriting is concerned, especially these days. Do you feel fortunate?
TS: I do. I do.

Playbill.com: You even have this place in New York, Lincoln Center Theater, where you can almost always be assured of seeing your plays produced.
TS: I think that's true. I've got a very close friendship with Lincoln Center [Theater]. It's a place where I feel I could bring them anything. Actually, I've even got a kind of — it's not exactly a commission. [LCT executive producer] Bernie Gersten one day will be retiring, no doubt, and there's an idea that I'm trying to find a play to write to mark the occasion for him, because I'm very fond of him.

Playbill.com: You mean a full-length play?
TS: It's a suggestion that Lincoln Center might commission a play. I've thought from time to time that something I haven't done, which I'd like to do, is write an American play. A play set in America about Americans.

Playbill.com: That would debut in America.
TS: That would debut in America. It was a thought in my mind. So the board [of Lincoln Center Theater] suggested that they should commission this to honor Bernard. So I'm very enthusiastically going along with this idea, though all it lacks at the moment is a subject. (Laughs).

Today’s Most Popular News: