One starry, starry night at Manhattan's Tavern on the Green in 1995, at the after-party marking the arrival of his Arcadia from London to Lincoln Center, Tom Stoppard was asked the name of his latest play. "Indian Ink," Sir Tom replied crisply. He began to walk away when the journalist in him decided, in the interest of accuracy, that the answer needed an asterisk. "Like 'pen and ink,'" he qualified, "not like incorporated."
Almost two decades later, this long-overlooked opus is finally getting the big New York drum-roll all his other plays have received when it starts previewing Sept. 4 for a Sept. 30 opening at Roundabout Theater Company's Laura Pels Theatre. "It's still," post-scripts Stoppard, "like 'pen and ink.'"
Carey Perloff, who directs this production, gave the play its premiere stateside at her American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco in 1999, and a Washington, D.C., production followed suit eight months later. There was even an Off-Off-Broadway edition at Walkerspace in 2003, courtesy of the South Asian troupe Alter Ego.
Why the delay? Stoppard has his theories: "One reason is that, when the play was more or less a new play, it was much more difficult than it has since become to cast a play which needs quite a number of Indian actors. That's one reason. I think the other reason is that it has quite a lot of characters, and probably it may seem like a risky play to put on. Carey has been trying to persuade Roundabout to do it for a long time, and it finally came together." In fact, the Roundabout has "doubled down" on their Stoppard offerings this season, presenting his acclaimed Tony-winning hit The Real Thing at one of their two Broadway outposts, the American Airlines Theatre, beginning Oct. 2. Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ewan McGregor, Josh Hamilton and Cynthia Nixon (who appeared in Real Thing's Broadway premiere in 1984 opposite Glenn Close) comprise the starry cast.
Indian Ink, like Stoppard's Arcadia and The Invention of Love, straddles two different time zones — India in 1930 and England in the mid-1980s — and struggles in the present to find the truth of the past.
"Setting a play in two periods gives you the opportunity to let the audience be ahead of the action and behind the action at the same time," explains Stoppard. "It's quite a well-known idea that we don't get a pure recollection of the past. That's certainly true of historians writing about the distant past. It's also interesting how the same event can be remembered differently by two people."
The focus of the play's investigation is Flora Crewe, a controversial British poetess who posed for Modigliani, partied with Communists and purposely dispensed racy prose. She goes to India for her health, wards off the ardor of a British Raj's son and settles for friendship (possibly more) from an Indian artist, Nirad Das, who paints her while she composes poetry — all this during the last days of British colonialism in India.
The "possibly more" notion surfaces a half-century later when her wannabe biographer, an annoying academician named Eldon Pike, seeks the truth of her final years from her younger sister, Eleanor Swan, who instead saves that for Das' son.
The inestimable Rosemary Harris, whose daughter Jennifer Ehle has Stoppard to thank for her two Tony Awards (for The Real Thing and The Coast of Utopia), is Mrs. Swan, and Flora marks the New York stage bow of Romola Garai, who started in films as the young Judi Dench in the 2000 TV-movie, "The Last of the Blonde Bombshells." Supporting them are Firdous Bamji, Neal Huff, Bhavesh Patel, Bill Buell and Carolyn Lagerfelt.
True to the Stoppard stratagem in recent years, Indian Ink takes a heady route to the human heart. "I've been reading the play recently, for obvious reasons, and I hope it's touching and funny and emotional and all the things one wants the play to be." It is an acutely personal play for him. "I tend to write plays which don't come out of my own experience, even my own indirect experience. Indian Ink is much closer to me than, say, Arcadia or The Invention of Love, because I was in India and I knew a lot about India. I used to dream about India for years after I came back to England."
India was, in fact, the halfway house of his boyhood. Born Tomásˇ Straussler in 1937 in Zlín, Czechoslovakia, he and his family fled to Singapore the day the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939. His father was killed two years later. When Japan invaded Singapore, he along with his mother and brother moved to India, where in 1945 she wedded British army major Kenneth Stoppard. A year later, they settled in England.
"I've always had a great nostalgia for India," he says. "I guess I was interested in the British Raj, although we weren't part of that because we were Europeans in India, and Europeans in India had a long, interesting history, some of which is in the play."
Indian Ink is the only time he drew on that experience for a play. What stirred these creative fumes was a trek back, when he was in his 40s, to that hill station in India.
Until Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman hopped "The Darjeeling Limited" there in 2007, Darjeeling was known to many as Vivien Leigh's birthplace. Now it's the place where Tom Stoppard started his schooling, and he found it untouched by time. "Everything was just the same. It was tremendously moving to be back."