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Baring The Breast -- Or 'Author! Author!'

As Pirandello's six characters famously found, the author has traditionally been absent from the theatre -- at best taking a shy curtain call to receive applause (or abuse, and sometimes rotten tomatoes) from a first-night audience. While performers have long been favorite dramatic personae, whether Hamlet's expert actors or incompetent thespians like Bottom and his crew from A Midsummer Night's Dream, up until very recently no playwright put a writer in the spotlight. True, one or two characters who write poetry appear in Shakespeare's plays; but like Orlando who carves bad verses onto trees in As You Like It, these are generally immature lovers and always amateur dilettantes, not professionals who earn their living from the pen. And then there are occasional short pieces -- Molière's Impromptu or Sheridan's The Critic -- where a dramatist launches a personal attack on adversaries.

But it is not until right at the end of the nineteenth-century in a play about theatre, Arthur Pinero's Trelawney of the Wells that a professional author first steps onto the English stage as a fully-fledged dramatic protagonist. An idealistic young playwright, he is both a semi-autobiographical and, under the name of Tom Wrench, a recognizable portrait of Pinero's mentor: the early naturalistic dramatist, Tom Robertson -- Robertson also being a well-known brand name for spanners ("wrenches" in the slang of the time) and screwdrivers. Even then, only Shaw -- that most self-advertising of dramatists -- focused on the figure of the author in any significant way, inserting a poet into the anti-Doll's House of Candida, presenting close doubles of himself in the protagonist of Man and Superman as well as in his last performed piece, the puppet-play Shakes Versus Shav, and introducing a female playwright in Fanny's First Play. The first, Marchbanks, is little more than the traditional dilettante as the unserious echoes of his name imply: an aristocratic adolescent who idealizes the woman he loves. However, Shaw's two self-projections raise serious issues. Although parodied as a puppet with strings controlling his characteristic knicker-bockered wooden figure, Shav belabors Shakespeare for romanticizing reality, asserting the social responsibility of the dramatist over aesthetic values. Tanner, the very Shavian author of the "Revolutionist's Handbook" (the playwright as writer of political manifestoes, complete with Shaw's trademark red beard in the 1905 production) and potentially Superman-material, proves unable to fulfill his function proper of raising the general level of intellectual consciousness, because he falls prey to the female life-force embodied in the girl who traps him into marriage. And in Fanny's First Play the suffragette-drama Shaw's heroine has written is an example (albeit comic) of politics in action: a declaration of intellectual independence, performed to educate her father and his bourgeois companions, which highlights the reactionary influence of the critics -- in the clearly recognizable form of three well-known London theatre reviewers of the day (who try to guess whether this anonymous play they have come to see is "unpleasant" enough to be by Shaw himself -- and has direct relevance to the burning social issue of the moment, women's liberation and equality.

If Pinero's self-reflexive characterization perhaps reflects the new hyper-consciousness of early modernism, Shaw's introduction of author figures goes further, allowing him to dramatize his views on theatre, as well as discussing questions about the role and effectiveness of the writer in modern society. Fighting for a new and specifically modern form of theatre, Shaw's primary concern was to defend his own work. Yet in doing so he also outlines some of the qualities that continue to define political drama. Ahead of their time, these plays sketch in the themes that came to preoccupy British dramatists over the last decades of the Twentieth Century.

Despite the success of Fanny's First Play, Shaw's most popular piece to date when it was first performed in 1911, the author-as-character vanished again from the British stage. Apart from Shaw's minor puppetry-skit, over the next fifty years only a single play used a writer as a central figure. This was Noel Coward's Present Laughter, where a matinee-idol (a part Coward wrote for himself, like so many of his protagonists an alter-ego designed to promote his star status) is faced by an over-earnest playwright, whose boorish imitation is the worst form of flattery, the point being to dismiss the 'play of ideas' as worthless in comparison to his own light social satire. However, from the late sixties on, the new generation of young British dramatists became fixated on the figure of the author -- to such an extent that this becomes almost a defining image, or at least a major shared subtext to their more overt political concerns.

Even a cursory list of some of the plays that present writers as their major characters shows the scope of the motif. Poets -- some imaginary modern figures, others historical and going back to the renaissance, but most from the nineteenth-century Romantics -- started appearing with Ann Jellicoe's Shelley, or the Idealist in 1965, and multiply through the 70s and 80s. Edward Bond alone deals with historical poets in no less than four out of his first nine plays: Narrow Road to the Deep North and The Bundle (in both of which the classical Heiko poet Basho appears), Bingo (which takes on Shakespeare) and The Fool (starring the mid nineteenth-century peasant-poet John Clare). John Arden contributes The Bagman (a quasi-autobiographical sketch), Armstrong's Last Goodnight (involving the Scottish medieval poet John Lindsay) and Island of the Mighty (with no fewer than three poets in Arthurian England). One of David Hare's first short plays was about Blake, as is Adrian Mitchell's Tyger and Liz Lochhead's Blood and Ice. Byron makes the front running with Romulus Linney's Childe Byron, Charles Barron's Road to Missolonghi, Howard Brenton's Bloody Poetry (where he appears along with the Shelleys) and even Stoppard's Arcadia (where he doesn't actually appear at all, except through the competing prisms of a popular historian and an academic biographer). Christopher Hampton focuses on late Romantics such as Rimbaud and Verlaine in Total Eclipse, and on his own development as a writer in an openly autobiographical play, The White Chameleon. Novelists are centre-stage, along with other types of literary figures in Stoppard's Travesties (James Joyce and Tristan Tzara, as well as Lenin as the author of political manifestoes) and in Indian Ink (a more modern version of the Victorian travel-writer Emily Eden), to say nothing of his most recent play, The Invention of Love, which signally brings together the poet A.E. Houseman, the comic novelist Jerome K. Jerome and Oscar Wilde -- who also appears (though more perhaps as a homosexual martyr than writer) in several plays, including Hare's The Judas Kiss. Brenton's A Sky Blue Life deals with Gorki, as does Robert Bolt's State of Revolution, while David Edgar's The Shape of the Table presents a thinly disguised picture of Vaclav Havel: the writer as successful political activist, who overturns the state. Other more imaginary writers appear in David Storey's Early Days, Simon Gray's Hidden Laughter, Harold Pinter's No Man's Land, Hare's Map of the World, and Patrick Marber's Closer. Dramatists start appearing even earlier with Osborne's Epitaph for George Dillon (written in 1955) and are central in Hampton's Tales from Hollywood (Odon von Horvath and Bertolt Brecht, as well as the Nobel Prize-winner Thomas Mann), and in Peter Barnes' Laughter, as well as in Stoppard's The Real Thing (to say nothing of Bond's evocation of both Shakespeare and Ben Jonson in Bingo, or Stoppard's highly successful film Shakespeare in Love, which also includes Marlowe and Webster). Then there are journalists -- who, if hardly qualifying as creative artists, are at least the most directly political of writers -- in Stoppard's Night and Day, Wesker's The Journalists or Pravda by Brenton and David Hare. Other kinds of artist-figure also appear as displaced surrogates for the dramatist, as with painters in Storey's Life Class and Peter Barnes' Leonardo, or Pam Gems' Stanley (based on the British painter of religious scenes in everyday modern life), or composers (Prokofiev and Shostakovich) in David Pownall's Masterclass.

*

The trend, as with so many other elements of contemporary playwriting, originated with Beckett. In Endgame Hamm is, of course, a ham-actor; but he is also a story-teller, making up his own world, manufacturing monologues as a defence against oblivion:

It's story time, where was I ?

(Pause. Narrative tone.)

The man came crawling towards me, on his belly. Pale,

wonderfully pale and thin, he seemed on the point of --

(Pause. Normal tone.)

No I've done that bit.

(Pause. Narrative tone.)...

It was an extra-ordinarily bitter day, I remember, zero by the thermometer... It was a glorious bright day, I remember, fifty by the heliometer, but already the sun was sinking down into the...down among the dead.

(Normal tone.)

Nicely put, that... There's English for you... no forcing, it's fatal (Pause.) I've got on with it all the same (Pause.)

Technique, you know. [i]

Hamm's "chronicle" not only echoes Beckett's novels, his dramatic situation also overlaps Beckett's as an author. And this connection becomes explicit in his next play, Krapp's Last Tape, where the isolated protagonist is explicitly a writer, retelling and refining the story of his life on endless spools of tape in a way that directly echoes Beckett's own approach. For Beckett "the only possible spiritual development is in the sense of depth. The artistic tendency is not expansive, but a contraction. Art is the apotheosis of solitude". Krapp is indeed completely alone, and all his compositions are variations on previous recordings: art reflecting only itself. Krapp's Last Tape presents Beckett ironically as one of his own universalized tramps -- a disreputable white-faced clown with the purple nose of a drunkard, who slips on a cliché banana-peel -- and the connection is underlined by incidents from Beckett's own life being incorporated into the "shadows of the...opus magnum" that Krapp dictates as his autobiography. [ii]

In fact, the subtext in many of Beckett's plays is the problematic nature of literary creation, right up to Ohio Impromptu in 1981, where the autonomy of text and the relationship between art and life is put under a microscope: two identical figures face each other across a table, and one reads from a book that narrates the reading of a book by one man to another. And, even if by no means so purist or pared-down as Beckett's imagery, the same questioning of form and function occurs -- on a more political, rather than philosophical level -- in almost all the other plays about writers by the following generations of contemporary British dramatists. The choice of an author as a protagonist clearly signals that this is a play to take special note of, if only because the dramatist himself is so closely involved with the character, while the focus almost automatically represents a questioning of the playwright's function or authority. As at the beginning of the century, when Shaw was campaigning for a new type of theatre, it is clearly expressing an awareness that the function of drama is changing and that there are new conditions of public reception, which require redefining the role of the theatre.

In that light, the striking concentration on writers and actors in recent British drama is highly significant. As with the earlier figures they certainly register the sociological status of theatre in a general sense. However, what's at stake in the majority of these plays (following the line set by Bernard Shaw) is particularly the political responsibility of the dramatist. A good example is Arden's 1970 radio play The Bagman, where the narrator-playwright -- specifically identified as "John Arden (thirty-eight)": Arden's own age at the time -- tries to subvert an oppressive and corrupt regime. But his "revolutionary theatre" only serves to entertain the populace, distracting them from the real political situation, while the authorities label it as harmlessly "Educational". At the beginning the playwright had declared: "[drama] is my weapon". Now he is forced to acknowledge that "All I can do is to look at what I see". [iii] Direct revolutionary action, which was Arden's aim as it was for almost all the younger 1970s generation of British playwrights, is unwillingly admitted as being outside the sphere of a dramatist: a recognition that Hare and Edgar only came to over a decade later, in the Thatcher era. Indeed The Bagman suggests that even creating the conditions for political change through an accurate analysis of social repression is ineffective within the established cultural framework; and even though Arden's subsequent plays became ever more stridently revolutionary, after picketing the RSC premiere of his next play (The Island of the Mighty) in 1972, he withdrew from the conventional stage.

Hampton's Tales from Hollywood (1983) is almost an exact counterpoint to this position, reversing Arden's socialist principles. Dealing with the German exiles in America during the Second World War, three contrasting writers are represented (following the same schema as Arden in The Island of the Mighty). The conservative -- Thomas Mann, who supported Hitler -- is of course discredited. But Brecht, the Marxist, is equally isolated since (with a Fascist Germany) he has no people to write for; and Hampton's sympathies are clearly with the liberal Odon von Horvath -- even though, since Horvath was already dead before the action of the play takes place, he appears only as a ghost whose words none of the other characters can hear, and has no power to change society. In Tales from Hollywood the best any writer can do is to assert humanistic values, even if society is incapable of even hearing what he has to say. Hampton and Arden are clearly taking sides in an ongoing argument, the fullest treatment of which comes just a year later in Brenton's Bloody Poetry.

Focusing on the relationship between Byron and the Shelleys, Brenton explores Shelley's claim that "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind". But, as Brenton clearly demonstrates, being exiles without a contemporary revolutionary movement to write for these poets are unable to escape the dissociation of words and actions, feeling and sense, that characterizes Romanticism -- and by extension affects all the modern writers, who are in a similar situation, including Brenton's own work. Indeed, Brenton accuses himself (in Byron's words) of diverting political energy into aesthetics:

All this writing about tyranny, eh? In the end you get itchy fingers. Violent verses pale. You want to actually put a bullet in a fat neck. [iv]

At the same time, a possible solution is offered by the central image in Bloody Poetry -- Plato's cave, in which mankind lives, unable to see the shapes moving outside because the sun is too bright, and mistaking their shadows cast by the light onto the rock-walls for reality. As Brenton interprets this through the mouth of Shelley, the cave is the oppressive society created by industrial capitalism (the illusory shadows cast on the rock wall), and it is only the blazing light of the poet's vision which is capable of producing political change by creating images of true reality ("the future of mankind...the absolute good"). As individuals these Romantic poets are bound to fail, literally haunted by personal guilt in the shape of Shelley's first wife, who is driven to suicide. But the funeral pyre that burns the drowned corpse of Shelley is clearly intended as a beacon to the future. As Byron proclaims, it's "A great big, bloody, beautiful fire!" [v]

Byron himself is at the point of setting off for Greece, and one is reminded that as a symbol his death was of more service to the cause of Greek freedom than any heroic action he might have accomplished. The assumption -- emphasized in the play -- that ideas can kill, provides a moral imperative for literature. Either poetry works directly to change the world through redefining human nature, or it blinds people and serves as an instrument to enslave them. The Promethean ideal is by no means easy to achieve; and a title such as BLOODY Poetry sums up the contradictions in the writer's position and the human cost of acting as the conscience of society.

Byron is a key model for modern political dramatists because he triumphed through failure. Byron died of fever without firing a single shot -- yet his self-sacrifice inspired the Greek freedom fighters, and his dying image brought the international support that led to the Turks' withdrawal and Greek independence. This is the explicit subject of Road to Missolonghi, while Linney's Childe Byron depicts writers as Romantic rebels in portraying Byron as living the life of the hero in one of his own poems. Indeed, wherever the Romantic poets appear, they are used as figures asserting the moral value of the political playwright -- but (with the exception of Byron) the image is generally one of failure, however noble. In Ann Jellicoe's play Shelley's uncompromising idealism is self-destructive; just as in The Fool Bond shows the peasant poet John Clare driven insane by the injustice and oppression of nineteenth-century society. If the Romantics are credited with tragic nobility -- political virtue in a world not yet ready for their message, which in some cases shades into an affirmation that now, a century or more later, the time is ripe for poets (in the shape of Bond or Brenton) to be acknowledged as the "legislators of mankind" -- the opposite is almost always the case when naturalistically treated writer-figures from other historical periods appear.

These are almost always completely negative: awful warnings of the moral corruption that follows when a writer aligns himself with an oppressive society. Thus in Armstrong's Last Goodnight by John Arden, the sixteenth-century Scottish poet Lindsay serves as executioner, and destroys a rebel who had been his friend. Similarly, in Edward Bond's The Bundle, the classical Japanese poet Basho sells out his art for wealth, and becomes the major force of oppression that the revolutionaries have to fight against, while in Bingo Shakespeare is driven to madness and suicide, because he realizes that he has betrayed his poetry, and his art has only served to prop up an unjust social system. Still more explicitly, in Brenton's Sky Blue Life, where Gorki is staging a play based on his own memories the author is unable to control his drama, and "the characters have taken on a life of their own, are going in a direction Gorki did not intend, and so he scribbles on the wall trying to bring the play back so that it says what he wants it to say". Indeed the relevance of A Sky Blue Life to Brenton's own self-doubts is clear when Lenin reject's Gorki's art as irrelevant to revolutionary reality:

LENIN You know what I read now? Daily? Lists. Lists.

Those to be shot, those to be fed... (joking) The true literature of revolution. [vi]

Like Brenton's Gorki, many of these historical writer-figures are barely disguised projections of the authors themselves, John Clare, for example, being precisely the sort of peasant-poet Edward Bond like to see himself as; and imaginary dramatist-personae are even more likely to be autobiographical. Barnes Laughter!, for example, opens with a figure who is announced as "the Author", and while trying to address the audience about the corrupting effect of comedy, is subjected to every comic indignity:

A hand slaps a large custard pie straight in his face. As he wipes it off a laughing Voice declares: It's going to be that sort of show, folks!

Replying to this anonymous slapstick, the author declares

No it isn't... Comedy itself is the enemy. Laughter only confuses and corrupts everything we try to say...

only to find himself assaulted by further clichééd practical jokes:

His bow tie whirls round and round; he angrily pulls it off... His trousers fall down to reveal spangled underpants. [vii]

Since all Barnes' plays use comic, even farcical techniques (like this) to attack class hierarchies and social injustice, he is whipping himself in the figure of "the Author". It is clearly a personal expression of his own sense of failure.

Quite obviously all these plays are directly reflect the political situation in Britain. During the 1950s and 60s the disappointment that the Labour Party -- of whom so much had been expected when the first Labour government was elected in the aftermath of the Second World War -- had failed to create a socialist society in England; and in the 1970s and 80s a deepening sense of political crisis as Thatcher continued to reshape British society. They are a measure of the dramatists' feelings of impotence, as the electorate appeared to move ever further to the right. With David Edgar's The Shape of the Table in 1990, the year of Thatcher's resignation, a more hopeful picture of the writer is reintroduced. But even then the example Edgar chooses is very much a special case, related to the breakdown of communism in Eastern Europe and the unique figure of Havel, which in effect emphasizes how little influence British writers have by comparison.

*

Political dramatists -- almost by definition -- are forced to search for new theatrical approaches to break the mould of the standard forms accepted by the mainstream (Establishment) stage, and measure their success by social change. So one might expect, as their work becomes adopted and inevitably to some degree subsumed by the RSC (like Arden and Barnes) or the National Theatre (as Hare, Brenton and Edgar were), while at the same time the political tide swings ever more strongly against their message, that they would begin to question their role, even the function of drama itself. And -- as Shaw did at the beginning of the century -- it is logical to find them discussing this in their plays through the use of authors as protagonists, who exemplify their dilemmas. However, the playwright most identified with author-characters is one who, while emerging together with the most radical of British playwrights, right from the first escaped from political categories. This, of course, is Tom Stoppard, with well over half of his full-length plays being devoted to writers.

Even though Stoppard has continued to assert the non-alignment of his work, that is not to say he has closed his eyes to political themes: his plays include a revolutionary coup (though by the Lib-Dems!), Lenin setting out for the Finland Station (even if disguised as a dumb blonde -- a farcically autistic Swede!) and (in the minor pastiche of Dirty Linen) satire on government corruption. And even if Beckett's or Pinter's plays might be so abstract as to escape criticism Stoppard, while Beckett's closest follower in England, has found himself under (at times vicious) attack from his politically committed contemporaries, by whose standards he appears a right-wing conservative. Perhaps it is in response to this that writers and artists are so frequent in his work. Yet Stoppard goes far beyond political reflection to address more directly creative issues. In addition to the painters, poets and novelists in Artist Descending A Staircase and Travesties, there are scribbling philosophers and social scientists in Jumpers and Professional Foul (TV, 1977), dramatists in The Real Thing and Rough Crossing, even theatre critics in The Real Inspector Hound, to say nothing of a whole orchestra in Every Good Boy Deserves A Favour. And artists continue to appear in all Stoppard's plays over the last decade: a poet, an academic biographer and a painter in Indian Ink; a critic, an amateur historian and a poet (albeit absent) in Arcadia; burgeoning to the whole spectrum of writers, from a popular humourist to great Victorian cultural essayists, plus a poet, journalists and a playwright in The Invention of Love. Through these figures Stoppard pursues an on-going argument: not only about the nature of his drama, and its social function, but also about the style of theatre appropriate to contemporary experience and the post-modern age.

On the political level his statement is consistent throughout: art can only work obliquely. Even Night and Day, which deals directly with issues of journalistic freedom and the potential for creating social change through factual reportage, demonstrates that a play is different in kind and effect from documentary activism: "one is doing a short-term and one a long-term job . . . art can't do what World in Action does." 24 This comment from a 1978 interview is a direct response to the accusation that he had "sold out" to the Establishment; and the point is made still more explicitly in The Real Thing, where the question of "the moral matrix" is at the center of the discussion -- and the literary model is Stoppard's own drama. The action demonstrates that emotional reality exists, even beneath the artificial surface of the opening play-within-a-play, "House of Cards": a title embodying the two-dimensional lack of human depth that has frequently been criticized in Stoppard's work. This self-defence is paralleled by an attack on the assumption (exemplified by Arden, Bond and the radical Agitprop movement of the 1970s) that only direct political activism makes theatre significant.

Stoppard's example of this left-wing theatre is a television docudrama. Written in prison by a semi-literate soldier, and recounting his own actions and arrest as an anti-nuclear protester, the television script is a rather over-literal demonstration that open commitment makes drama socially ineffective. Private Brodie's dramatization lacks any credibility because it is so one-sided. As "the real thing" (at least in so far as it represents the lowest common denominator of life in the streets) its dialogue is crude and unliterary, exactly mirroring the ordinary and uneducated nature of its fictional author. But this unsophisticated language reduces its representation of society to simplistic slogans.

As Stoppard asserts, drama's relationship to reality is always symbolic; and ironically Brodie's assault on the political Establishment -- setting fire to memorial wreaths at the Cenotaph -- is purely theatrical. Instead of a real action, this is no more than an empty gesture; and even Brodie's political motivation turns out to be pretended, since he was only hoping to impress a TV actress (Annie) whom he met on the way to the march. Stoppard's alter-ego, the professional playwright Henry, points out the flaw by listing Brodie's themes:

war is profits, politicians are puppets, Parliament is a farce, justice is a fraud, property is theft . . . It's all here [in Brodie's script] . . . patriotism is propaganda, religion is a con trick, royalty is an anachronism . . .

His point is that social structures and institutions are not objects which can be changed by action, but ideas coded in language. So change can only be achieved on the level of personal behaviour, through conditioning individual perception. This depends on verbal precision, which is the opposite of such radical clichés:

Words don't deserve that kind of malarky. They're innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other, so if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos . . .. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little . . .

The Real Thing is a point-by-point illustration. Emotional truth, and its expression in the characters' personal relationships, is the reality to which the title refers. The playwright-protagonist's speeches are displays of wit that continually focus on the accurate use of words, while his own drama ("House of Cards") provides the model for the love triangles of the "real" play, which demonstrate that the "real thing" -- people's emotion -- can only be articulated through "completely artificial" dialogue. Indeed, Henry -- who finds it impossible "to write love . . . it just comes out embarrassing. It's either childish or it's rude" -- has to use lines from Strindberg's Miss Julie; and his actress wives both transpose their roles from Tis Pity She's A Whore into affairs with their leading actors. This double imaging, simultaneously emphasizing the influence of art on life and the importance of form, follows the principle behind "The House of Cards" and lifts "adultery out of the moral arena [to] make it a matter of style". [viii]

These themes are extended in The Invention of Love, where the contrast is between classical Rome, conjured up through its poetry by A.E. Houseman the leading classical scholar of the time and the poet of "The Shropshire Lad", and the Victorian age represented by Ruskin and Walter Pater, the two most important art historians of the period. Together with Oscar Wilde, Houseman is caught between these two poles. Yet there is also another writer who is the key to interpreting the action (even though -- epitomizing Stoppard's principle of obliqueness -- he is a very minor figure, mainly present through images from his most famous book Three Men in a Boat). This is the popular comic novelist Jerome K. Jerome. Not coincidentally, Jerome was also the journalist whose articles incited Lord Queensbury to leave the card "to Oscar Wilde, posing as a Sodomite" that led to the famous series of trials. In addition we are reminded that Wilde started his London career writing for the Pall Mall Gazette, whose editor W.T. Stead is presented as personally responsible for the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 outlawing child prostitution (to which an amendment was added criminalizing "indecency" between males) under which Wilde was convicted. [ix] This also provides the context for Houseman's unacknowledged lifelong love for a fellow undergraduate who was his polar opposite: a scientist and athlete.

During the play we are continually reminded that love itself is a literary invention, defined by the first love poems ever written (possibly by Catullus who wrote to Lesbia -- a suggestive name to contemporary ears), and that for the Victorians "Nowhere was the ideal of morality, art and social order realized more harmoniously" than in Plato's Greece. However Classical Greece honoured love between men, while the Nineteenth Century (represented by Ruskin as a Great Victorian) outlawed any suggestion of homosexual love; and this contradiction forces the artist to become, as Wilde asserts, the "secret criminal in our midst . . . the agent of progress against authority". Since the Victorians, while believing themselves heirs of classical civilization have completely reversed the values of Greece and Rome, redefining virtue as "what women have to lose, the rest is vice", Wilde's self-sacrificial martyrdom for "the love that dare not speak its name" is presented as making "art a philosophy that can look the twentieth century in the eye" . [x]

Wilde, of course, was also the high-priest of Aestheticism, for whom (in the words of a character from The Importance of Being Earnest) "in matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing" -- and indeed Stoppard's earlier play Travesties demonstrates that style is what gives coherence to chaos, even when the disruption and destruction is as extreme as that of the First World War. Tristan Tzara, the most flamboyant of the new Dada anti-art movement, and James Joyce, then at work on his stream-of-consciousness masterpiece, Ulysses, argue for aesthetics, with Tzara asserting "the right to mictuate in different colours" and Joyce categorically stating "From Troy to the fields of Flanders, if there is any meaning in any of it, it is in what survives as art", while Lenin (also a writer of a sort, since he was drafting his polemic on "Imperialism" while in Zurich) stands for sincerity. Yet when Lenin lectures on the necessity for subordinating art to ideology, he stands

as though leaning into a gale, his chin jutting, his hands gripping the edge of the rostrum which is waist high, the right hand at the same time gripping a cloth cap...a justly famous image

and Stoppard is careful to note that "This is the photo, which Stalin had retouched so as to expunge Kamenev and Trotsky who featured prominently in the original". [xi] It is an illustration of the way "reality" is an artificial construct; and the whole play reinforces this, with the action not only being conjured up by the uncertain memory of its narrator, now in the present day a senile old man, but also transformed by Oscar Wilde, since as a consular official in Zurich in 1917 the doddering Carr had taken part in a performance of The Importance of Being Earnest, and consistently superimposes Wilde's play on the characters.

All Stoppard's plays are displays of overt theatricality that tend to take literature rather than life as their point of reference. The premise of Travesties in particular -- echoing Oscar Wilde's famous aphorism: "Life imitates Art more than Art imitates Life" -- forms a justification for this; and this is extended in his most recent play, The Invention of Love, where oblique references to Alice in Wonderland take the place of The Importance of Being Earnest, together with Three Men in a Boat. The structure contrasts youth and age -- with the dead Houseman (AEH) transported to an Elysium that turns out to be "the Oxford of my dreams, re-dreamt", where he meets his earlier self as an 18 year-old freshman. As such it is a reprise of Travesties (indeed the main roles in both plays were initially performed by the same actor, John Wood), and is structured in a similar way -- although Houseman's uncomfortable memories are all too accurate, unlike those recalled by 'Carr of the Consulate' -- with the action mirroring what AEH describes as his own mental state:

archaism, anachronism, the wayward inconsequence that only hindsight can acquit of non sequitur, quietus interruptus by monologue incontinent in the hind leg of a donkey class . . . and the unities out of the window without a window to be out of . . . [xii]

In a typically Stoppardian extended pun, based on the Oxford habit of referring to the Thames where it flows through the University as the river Isis, Charon's ferry meets Jerome K. Jerome's three men in a boat (here doubling for Houseman and two undergraduate friends, one of whom forms the unrequited passion of his life). Even the subtitle of Jerome's well-known book, To Say Nothing of the Dog, carries through in a stray rescued by the three, which replaces Cerebus the triple-headed hound guarding the Underworld, and becomes the object of a demonstration that in Latin it is only word-order that decides who loves whom. The whole play revolves around this multiple elision.

*

From this viewpoint aesthetics have a central ethical importance; and perception is crucial, both in the way Stoppard represents reality on stage and in the challenge to the audience. Each of these plays is an extended riff on competing styles of modernism and the way these condition contemporary views of the world. Indeed perception -- and the distorting effects of subjectivity -- is a central theme in Travesties. Joyce needs heavy spectacles for his astigmatism; Tzara sports a monocle; Carr's memory is particularly unreliable. But then, as the photo of Lenin shows, supposedly documentary history is no less questionable. It is also worth noting the significance of Stoppard's title: a travesty is not simply a parodic burlesque. As Linda Hutcheon has pointed out,

Irony makes these intertextual references into something more than simply academic play or some infinite regress into textuality: what is called to our attention is the entire representational process -- and the impossibility of finding any totalizing model to resolve the resulting post-modern contradictions. [xiii]

And Travesties fits this perfectly. The Spiegelgasse, where Lenin, Tzara and Joyce intersect, is a metaphor for the hall of mirrors in which art and politics are interchangable with Oscar Wilde's play. Stoppard's dramatic structure combines the Dadaist principles of simultaneity and spontaneity with the Joycean mythologizing dislocation of language and time, subsuming both in the artificiality of Oscar Wilde. And Travesties ends on an open, and deliberately unanswerable question: "whether the words 'revolutionary' and 'artist' are capable of being synonymous, or whether they are mutually exclusive, or something in between", while final scene of The Invention of Love -- revolving round the issue of artistic responsibility and emotional integrity -- is equally unresolved. Each play, while dealing with major literary figures from the beginning of the modern era, offers a post-modernist model.

While Stoppard's author-personae strike a positive note, establishing new styles of theatrical relevance, those presented by the more political British dramatists may appear a cohort of failure, on the surface marking a retrograde inability to find a way of addressing contemporary experience. But even here the element of self-questioning aligns their drama with post-modern complexity, lifting these plays out of the enclosed and single-voice frame of politics. And it is also their plays focusing on writers that -- as with Stoppard -- tend to be most stylistically experimental. As a nation, the British may be typecast as self-effacing and stiff upper-lipped; however baring the breast has been undeniably productive for British theatre, which in sharp contrast to most of the rest of Europe has remained a vital force. Indeed I would argue that it is precisely the dominance of the author as a dramatic theme that has made the last few decades one of the most interesting periods in British stage history.


[i] Beckett, Endgame, New York: Grove P, 1958. pp.50-51.

ii Beckett, Proust, New York: Grove P, 1931. p.47, and Krapp's Last Tape, New York: Grove P, 1960. p.17.

[iii] Arden, Two Autobiographical Plays, London 1971, pp. 37, 63, 65, 85, 88.

[iv] Brenton, Bloody Poetry, London: Methuen 1985, pp. 74, 76-77.

[v] Ibid., pp. 38, 82.

[vi] Brenton, Three Plays, Sheffield: Sheffield P, 1989, pp. 40, 45.

[vii] Barnes, Collected Plays, London: Heinemann, 1981, p. 343.

[viii] Stoppard, The Real Thing, London: Faber and Faber, 1983, pp. 53, 54, 44, 62.

[ix] A clear example of Stoppard shading historical fact to fit his dramatic theme. Although Stead and the Pall Mall Gazette were certainly part of the campaign, in fact it was initiated in 1879 by the Quaker activist, Alfred Dyer, who was publisher of The Sentinel.

[x] The Invention of Love, pp. 17, 79, 99-100.

[xi] Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, London: Ernest Benn, 1980, p. 14, and Stoppard, Travesties, London: Faber and Faber, 1975, pp. 61, 62, 84, 84.

[xii] The Invention of Love, London 1997, pp. 104, 27, 96.

[xiii] Hutcheon, "The Politics of Poetry", The Politics of Postmodernism, New York: Routledge, 1989, p. 115.


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