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Finding the Real Thing

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“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?

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Desert Island Discs

Desert Island Discs is a British radio program started in 1942 that continues to the present. A well-known person is asked the question: “if you were to be cast away alone on a desert island, which eight gramophone records would you choose to have with you? Assuming of course, that you had a gramophone and an inexhaustible supply of needles.”  In addition to eight pieces of music, the “castaways” were allowed to choose one book and one luxury item of their choice, as long as the “luxury” could not help them escape the island.

Famous “castaways” have included Noel Coward, John Cleese, James Cameron, Colin Firth, Margaret Thatcher, and all Prime Ministers and potential Prime Ministers. John Cleese got special dispensation to have Michael Palin as his “luxury,” as long as Palin was stuffed.

Tom Stoppard appeared on Desert Island Discs on January 12, 1985, near the end of the The Real Thing’s original West End run. His choices:

Bessie Smith, “Careless Love”
Avon Cities Jazz Band (from Bristol, England), “Jump For Joyce”
The Beatles, “Love Me Do”
William Balkein, “Graceful Ghost” (a ragtime tune used in
Stoppard’s Travesties)
Sondheim and Bernstein, “America” (from West Side Story)
André Previn, score for Every Good Boy Deserves Favor
Vaughn Williams, “Fantasia on a Theme” by Thomas Tallis (which
Stoppard called “the most English sound one could possibly have”)
Keith Jarrett, Cologne Concert

Biographer Ira Nadel writes that Stoppard “chose a book in two languages, with a dual translation from English into Italian, ‘something like Dante’s Inferno,’” and his luxury was a “small plastic football for him to kick repeatedly without it hitting the ground, a practice he has often followed when he has the ‘delusion that a change of activity and scene would unblock me’ when writing.”