Tom Stoppard’s Plays: Patterns of Plenitude and Parsimony has the following content:
Reflecting the Prologue of Travesties, the introduction explains the reasons for writing the book and sets out the twin objectives of explaining the content of Stoppard’s plays within an overall framework for describing Stoppard’s views and the themes that support them.
The key chapter in the book explains who William of Occam was and what his mediaeval principle of parsimony says. It describes how Stoppard has referred to Occam’s razor and explains how he has applied it. He does so in the way he writes, constructing plays by marrying together unlikely unions of subjects, such as gymnastics and moral philosophy. The chapter provides a worked example from After Magritte as to how a complex structural situation can be reduced to a single, satisfactory explanation and uses the same play to demonstrate how a complex situation can be created in the first place by reversing the process of the razor. It describes how Stoppard applies the razor to the arguments contained within his plays – both metaphysically, as in the case of Jumpers, and methodologically, such as in Indian Ink or Rock ‘N’ Roll.
The chapter ends by arguing that reversing the principle of parsimony leads to the thematic elements that define and underpin Stoppard’s plays. It, therefore, provides the basis for the remaining chapters in the book.
The Stoppardian Stage Debate
What distinguishes the drama in Stoppard’s plays is that it comes not from character but from debate, largely adhering to the Shavian concept of the drama of conflict. Eventually, Occam’s razor is applied to condense the arguments down to the core issue. The ideas are batted around in the form of intellectual ping-pong. Examples of how Stoppard does so are described and evaluated, ranging from the debate in Travesties about whether an artist can be a revolutionary to Alexander Herzen’s views in The Coast of Utopia trilogy about the nature of government and society and the role of history.
The Vehicle Versus The Idea
The process of the application of Occam’s razor leads to the linking of disparate subjects which produces Stoppardian plays in which the idea is typically borne along by a narrative vehicle, such as how the subject of quantum mechanics is discussed in a play about spying in Hapgood. The vehicle may be a picture, as in Artist Descending a Staircase, or a man and a Latin poem, as in The Invention of Love. Repeatedly – in The Real Thing, Dogg’s Hamlet Cahoot’s Macbeth, The Real Inspector Hound and Shakespeare In Love, for instance – it is a play-within-a-play, that most theatrical of devices. Stoppard’s ethical stance is carried in Professional Foul by a colloquium in Prague and in Jumpers by the rehearsal of a donnish speech. The chapter explains and critiques how the vehicle and idea interlink to form the play.
Stoppardian ethics is a very complicated business, but the application of Occam’s razor reduces Stoppard’s vast consideration of it to a simple contrast between that of moral absolutism and relativity. Stoppard’s moral debate runs right through from an early play, Another Moon Called Earth, via Jumpers and Darkside to his play of 2015, The Hard Problem. The chapter on ethics traces Stoppard’s views in both his plays and his interviews and other writing and explores how they feed into other related moral issues, including: the existence and role of God, the nature of truth, the role of press freedom in Night And Day, an individual’s right to freedom in Every Good Boy Deserves Favour and the role of the artist in society.
Duality – Illusion And Reality
For Stoppard the duality of his moral outlook – absolutism versus relativism – is mirrored in duality per se. The most acute example of this dualism is the nature of illusion and reality, so apparent in Hapgood, a play about spying, or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and The Real Thing, both plays about acting. Stoppard sees duality everywhere, particularly in the nature of individuals, beginning as early as Enter a Free Man, a play he wrote in the 1960s, and culminating in his exploration of the two forms of brain consciousness in The Hard Problem.
Regarding a play as an event, Stoppard endows his productions with all forms of entertainment which turn out to be the dramatic glitter and tinsel which Occam’s razor has to remove in order to reveal the core meaning of his plays. The chapter reviews all Stoppard’s wordplay – double entendres, puns, malapropisms, etc. – and forms of comedy – such as farce in On The Razzle, cross-purposes, the satire of Dirty Linen and the parody of New-Found-Land – and his use of visual, musical and poetic devices and explains how they both reinforce the ideas of his plays, form part of their vehicles and engender the intellectual content for which Stoppard is known. The chapter also assesses the literary and other influences on Stoppard. In particular, it analyses the impact of three other playwrights on Stoppard’s work – Beckett, Chekhov and Shakespeare.
Stoppard’s Time Shifts
A salient feature of many of Stoppard’s plays – and one that Occam’s razor is called upon to unpick – is the time shift. In Arcadia the play bifurcates between the early eighteenth century and modern day in the Croom family house. Indian Ink and its radio counterpart, In The Native State, oscillates both period and location while The Invention of Love sees an old Housman interrogate his younger self. The time shift allows Stoppard to reinforce his arguments and add perspective, a key ingredient of relativism.
As in the Coda in Jumpers the final chapter provides a very brief summary of what has gone before and concludes that by applying Occam’s razor to Stoppard’s canon the result it distils it all down to is – Occam’s razor itself.