Finding the Real Thing
“Entire generations falsify themselves to themselves; that is to say, they wrap themselves up in artistic styles, in doctrines, in political movements, which are insincere and which fill the lack of genuine conviction.” José Ortega y Gasset (1883 - 1955), quoted in W. H. Auden, A Certain Time, under the heading “Commitment.”
From its premiere, The Real Thing has challenged Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead for the title of “Tom Stoppard’s most popular play.” Although Night and Day had ventured into similar territory, The Real Thing was more recognizably “realistic” in both setting and character psychology. Affairs of the heart take precedence over intellectual brio and sparkling wordplay. In an interview with critic Mel Gussow, Tom Stoppard suggests that the initial inspiration for writing The Real Thing was the Ortega y Gasset quote prefacing this note. Much has been written about the ways in which The Real Thing differs from other works by Stoppard (and more will be coming shortly), but this origin story points to something that makes this a very “Stoppardian” play. What is “the real real thing”? How do you know it? How do you prove it?
“I don’t know if it’s autobiographical, but it certainly is auto something.” - Tom Stoppard
The Real Thing is the closest to an autobiographical play Stoppard has written. He shares many features with his protagonist Henry, although
several would constitute spoilers for anyone new to the play. Like Henry, Stoppard has always had a deep love for pop music. Like Henry, Stoppard has always been a niggler for grammar. When the play was revived at the Old Vic in 2010, Stoppard told an interviewer that he’d only recently stopped writing to newspapers to complain about the misuse of “who” for “whom.” “It still goes through me like a knife.”
The play is one of only three plays by Stoppard set entirely in the present (Arcadia splits its scenes between its present and Regency England). This made the play very accessible for its initial audience, but has led Stoppard to revise it numerous times, most recently for its 2010 London revival. The story’s nature still requires elements that might be unclear to a 21st century US audience: a large hinge for the play’s plot is the stationing of nuclear-armed US cruise missiles in Great Britain, which triggered massive demonstrations across the isle. Relatively few will also remember that in those early days of Margaret Thatcher’s England the BBC was often called the “Bolshevik Broadcasting Service” by cultural and political conservatives.
The most important impact of The Real Thing on Stoppard’s critical reputation, however, was the sense that he was “finally” dealing with emotions and “not just ideas.” It might be more accurate to say that, because of the subject matter, Stoppard had to deal with the connection between emotions and ideas. The Austrian writer Peter Handke once wondered at the notion that ideas and emotions stand in opposition, saying he couldn’t remember a strong emotion he’d felt that wasn’t somehow connected to a strong idea, and vice versa. Stoppard’s work since The Real Thing has usually combined both, with the emotions being primary: even his most intellectual characters have deep emotional connections to the ideas they expound so articulately. What he’s remained suspicious of are the ways and times in which people continue, as Ortega y Gasset suggested, to “falsify themselves to themselves” to “fill the lack of genuine conviction.” As A.E. Housman says in The Invention of Love, Stoppard’s other play directly about the heart, “life is in the minding.”
Image credits (from top to bottom):
Stoppard at work on the terrace at the Windamere Hotel in Darjeeling, India, 1990; photo by Karan Kapoor
A sketch of Stoppard by his wife Miriam, 1982
British anti-nuclear demonstrators in the early 1980s; photo by PA