We went to see The Real Thing last night at the Old Vic (me excitedly refreshing the liveblogging of the debate through the interval). I thought it brilliant, very raw, funny of course, thought provoking.

What tends to wind me up about the Stoppards I’ve seen – and writers like Iris Murdoch – is that they never seem to escape their own little world.  “I wonder what a philandering playwright married to an actress would think at this point” does not seem to be raising the bar much.  Ditto for Oxford philosophers and old Iris.  But the thoughts they have – and their language – make the failing seem trivial.

My favourite scene was the one with the cricket bat, where Stoppard/Henry makes a powerful case for, well, intellectual snobbery and entry barriers  stopping just anyone from being able to get published.  He compares perfect writing to the bat:

This thing here, which looks like a wooden club, is actually several pieces of particular wood cunningly put together in a certain way so that the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor. It’s for hitting cricket balls with. If you get it right, the cricket ball will travel two hundred yards in four seconds, and all you’ve done is give it a knock like knocking the top off a bottle of stout, and it makes a noise like a trout taking a fly… (He clucks his tongue to make the noise.) What we’re trying to do is to write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might … travel

But what I actually loved most was  the accurate viciousness with which he mocks Brodie’s earnest, right-on, lefty diatribe of a play:

Because it’s balls. Mary’s part is the least of it – it’s merely ham-fisted. But when he gets into his stride, or rather his lurch, announcing every stale revelation of the newly enlightened, like stout Cortez coming upon the Pacific – war is profits, politicians are puppets, Parliament is a farce, justice is a fraud, property is theft… It’s all here: the Stock Exchange, the arms dealers, the press barons… You can’t fool Brodie – patriotism is propaganda, religion is a con trick, royalty is an anachronism… Pages and pages of it. It’s like being run over very slowly by a travelling freak show of favourite simpletons, the india rubber pedagogue, the midget intellectual, the human panacea…

Nowadays, of course, Brodie would have a blog.  How many words has Stoppard written in 50 years?  How many do we put down in a year? I ought to end this post with a plaintive cry for restraint, but I am already hypocrite enough.

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3 thoughts on “Stoppard’s The Real Thing – and the importance of barriers to entry

  1. While I share unease at Hampstead art in general, that’s a bit unfair to Stoppard – you make him sound like he’s Stephen King, writing story after story about formerly alcoholic horror writers involved in traffic accidents. I think he might say that his plays are about ideas that concern everyone and anyway he probably wouldn’t be very good at expressing them in the form of a story about a homosexual nymphomaniac drug-addict involved in the ritual murder of a well known Scottish footballer any more than Shakespeare would benefit from being advised to stop writing about bloody kings. Except he would say it in a more articulate manner.

    I also would guess he probably does write a similar amount of words to any given blogger. It’s just that he keeps most of them in a drawer. Perhaps not so much a barrier to entry to being published as a higher level of personal revulsion at the guff? How many bloggers spend a weekend writing a detailed 2,000 word post and then stick it in a folder for a year before showing it to a select few?

    1. I don’t know Stephen King, but would like to defend Shakespeare a bit (what am I saying? like he needs it). Like Tolstoy he seems able to cover a huge volume of characters from the kings and generals to the bootpolishers, coining phrases from street slang up to the most ringing Homeric verse. People should stick to what they did best; but somehow S did it all best. He seldom included writers in his work, as far as I could see, and often just as parody (mocking bad plays). Perhaps the only accusation I can think of is that he repeated the “world is a stage” idea more than once.

      1. I don’t know if Shakespeare needs defending from an aside remark that was meant to be an example of an unfair criticism of him as part of a brief comment that is only half-heartedly making a minor defence of a decent playwright on a blog devoted more to economics, but I would say that although he does write outside his circle his other ranks are interlopers, comic relief and plot advancers and that his genius is that, like Tolstoy (who is not above putting himself square in his works), like Dickens, he endows them with life, not that he writes them. Even so it’s Macbeth not The Third Murderer, Henry IV Parts 1 + 2 not My Friend Falstaff, Henry V not Howlin’ Captain Fluellen and his Fightin’ Regional Stereotypes, and Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, not Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

        He doesn’t include writers in his plays, to be sure, but that’s partly because he’s not writing in postmodern late 20th century, partly because that’s what the sonnets are for. However, imagery involving writing and play-acting is present throughout, there are plays – and masques and whatnot – within plays and honestly can you get much more meta-aware than those soliloquies?

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