Tom Stoppard is one of the most important and playwrights in the English-speaking theater of the last forty years. Since his first international success in 1966 with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, he has written dozens of scripts for radio, television, film, and, of course, the stage. His works range from the Oscar-winning film script, Shakespeare in Love, to the nine-hour trilogy on the roots of the Russian Revolution, The Coast of Utopia, and include translations and adaptations of the work of other writers—notably the Czech politician and dramatist, Vaclav Havel. In recognition of his role as a defining voice in twentieth-century English culture, Stoppard was awarded a knighthood in 1997, becoming the first British playwright in a quarter of a century to enjoy such an honor.
Ironically, this paragon of English wit and literary skill was born far from the mother tongue and the mother country, greeting the world in Czechoslovakia in 1937 under the name Tomas Straussler, the second son of a Czech physician. Two years after his birth, the Nazis invaded his native country, and his parents fled to Singapore, thus jumping from the frying-pan of Europe into the fire of Asia. In 1942 the Japanese invaded Singapore, and once again the Strausslers took flight, mother and sons heading for the comparative safety of India. Unfortunately, father Straussler remained in Singapore, and was killed by the Japanese.
In 1945, the future playwright’s mother married a British Army officer, Major Kenneth Stoppard. Four months later, Major Stoppard adopted his wife’s two sons, and the boys took their step-father’s surname.
Finally landing in England in 1946 at nearly nine years of age, Stoppard attended school in Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire, and Bristol. He declined to attend university, and instead, in 1954, began a brief career as a newspaperman—reviewing plays, among other journalistic duties. In 1960 he decided to become a playwright himself, and had an early work televised in 1963. There followed a string of modest successes with television and radio scripts, and then, in 1966, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was staged at the Edinburgh Festival, a major venue for the production of new and cutting-edge work.
The play is a brilliant act of inversion, re-presenting the events of Hamlet as they might have been seen from the viewpoint of the hapless, minor characters of the title. It received a sensational review, and moved to the National Theatre in London in 1967. Later that year it traveled to New York, where it won the Tony Award for best play.
Straussler the Czech war-orphan had arrived as Stoppard the British playwright.
There followed a string of further successes, including The Real Inspector Hound (1968), After Magritte (1970), Jumpers (1972), and Travesties (1974). All these works are marked by dazzling linguistic and philosophical playfulness, and complex plots liberally salted with high-cultural references and allusions. Travesties, for example, brings together three historical figures—the dadaist, Tristan Tzara, the revolutionist, Vladimir Lenin, and the novelist, James Joyce—in an imaginary encounter in Zurich on the eve of the Russian revolution. There they become involved in a production of Oscar Wilde’s great farce, The Importance of Being Earnest.
These plays placed Stoppard well apart from his contemporaries, whose work tended to examine political and social problems from a left-wing perspective. In contrast, Stoppard earned a reputation as a brilliant juggler of words and ideas, working in isolation from daily concerns in a sort of artistic vaudeville.
This stance of aesthetic detachment was soon to change following his first-hand encounter with the politics of the Soviet Union and its satellite state, his native Czechoslovakia. In 1976 Stoppard met a man who had been incarcerated in a Russian mental hospital for having protested the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The result was Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1977), a drama about two inmates of a Soviet insane asylum: one a madman, and one a dissident who has been confined for accusing the regime of confining dissidents in madhouses. The play also calls for a full orchestra, which plays the “imaginary” music the madman hears in his mind.
Later in 1977, following the arrest of Czech playwright, Vaclav Havel, Stoppard found himself becoming a public advocate for artists and intellectuals suffering persecution by communist regimes. He wrote another politically engaged play, Cahoot’s Macbeth, “dedicated to the Czechoslovakian playwright Pavel Kohout,” one of “thousands of Czechoslovakians . . . prevented from pursuing their careers” following the suppression of the anti-Soviet uprisings of 1968.
He met with dissidents abroad, published letters in newspapers, publicly protested the treatment of soviet Jews, and engaged in a campaign to secure the release from Russia of a 13-year-old boy who wanted to come to England to be with his mother. Meanwhile, he had denounced the National Union of Journalists, which had tried to prevent the publication in British newspapers of any writing by non-members of the Union.
Thus Stoppard was, in fact, drawn into the political disputes of his time, but on the other side of the barricades from his reflexively Marxist colleagues. He opposed the repressive policies of the socialist states, criticized an English trade-union, and affirmed the bourgeois, patriotic notions that Britain was a better place to grow up than the Soviet Union, and that its individual liberties were worth defending.
By 1980, then, there were two Stoppards: the playful aesthete of the early dramas, and the morally engaged advocate of the later plays. These two sides of Stoppard’s moral and artistic personality would continue to appear in his subsequent work, generally sharing the stage with one another, as in The Real Thing (1982), a love story with strong political overtones.
In Rough Crossing (1984), however, Stoppard exhibits his carefree self pretty much untouched by any of the demons of social anguish or moral controversy that entered his world in the mid-‘70s. Set aboard a luxury-liner at sea, this romantic comedy about theater people scrambling to untangle the knots they have tied around themselves by sexual indiscretion and jealousy is virtually pure entertainment. Which is not surprising, since the original on which it is based, The Play’s the Thing (or, literally translated, The Play at the Castle) comes from the pen of one of the master entertainers of the early twentieth century, the Hungarian author, Ferenc Molnar (1878-1952).
In a collection of Molnar’s plays published in the United States in 1929, David Belasco—known as “The Bishop of Broadway”—hailed him as, “Author, stage-director, dramatist, poet. . . . Today whether at home in his own beloved Hungary, or here, in America, a name to conjure with.”
As was indeed the case in the heady years before and after World War I. Molnar, probably the-best known and most successful Hungarian playwright in history, held center stage in theaters from boulevards of Budapest to Forty-Second Street, with a score of plays portraying both high and low life in the Mittel-Europa of the Belle-Epoque—those legendary “good old days” of our collective fantasy.
In today’s world, however, there isn’t much conjuring done with the name of Molnar, (except in Hungary, where, now that the communist ban on his work has been lifted, he’s making a come-back.) Like the universe of Austro-Hungarian aristocrats, playboys, hussars, and carnival folk he wrote about, Molnar has been largely forgotten. Ask about him in America today, and you might find a musical theater buff who knows that he wrote Liliom, the play on which Rogers and Hammerstein based Carousel. Or perhaps the odd movie fan will remember that Billy Wilder’s hilarious Cold War farce, One, Two, Three, is an adaptation of a script by Molnar. The closest we come to preserving Molnar’s style of play-making is in romantic Hollywood comedies of the ‘30s and ‘40s, directed by emigres such as Wilder and Ernst Lubitsch. Such films as Ninotchka, Trouble in Paradise, The Shop Around the Corner, or To Be or Not to Be (the Lubitsch version not the Mel Brooks remake!) capture some of the glamor, sophistication, risque sex, witty cynicism, and—paradoxically—warm sentiment, that marked Molnar’s work.
Molnar’s world is one in which adultery is still a sin—or, even more seriously, a social embarrassment; a world in which beautiful people in luxurious places pursue illicit sexual fulfillment through elaborate schemes, and—when caught out—resort to absurd deceptions. It’s a world in which stage directions frequently read like this (from The Swan): THE BALL: A magnificent, brilliantly illuminated room. Big double doors. . . . High arches. . . . Down right, a table is laid for seven. . . . When the curtain rises, Caesar is pouring wine. . . .” And in which the opening speeches often sound like this (from The Tale of the Wolf):
ZAGON. Women—beautiful women—everywhere—in the street car—in the theatre—getting out of taxis—wherever you go--
One can pretty clearly guess where this will lead—and it won’t be back to the garrison.
The Play’s the Thing (1925) is vintage Molnar. It takes place in a castle on the Italian Riviera, and features—among others—a count, a famous dramatist, a prima donna, and a footman. A young composer is in love with a beautiful singer who, as he eavesdrops in horror, betrays him with an actor. Heartbroken, the composer threatens to sink the show they’re all working on, and it requires a brilliant—and highly unlikely—ruse cooked up by the playwright to set all back in order by curtain-fall.
The play has no message, no gospel to propound, no aggressively redeeming social value. Instead, it sums up what Molnar himself said about his work: it takes us to “a world where nothing is quite as important as knowing what brand of champagne to order.”
Unfortunately, Molnar lived to see the utter destruction of this utopia of happy irrelevance. He fled Europe in 1939 as the Germans were invading Poland, and settled in New York. There he lived out the rest of his life. He did have the satisfaction of seeing his work revived on the Broadway stage, and of witnessing the transformation of Liliom into Carousel in 1945. But by his death in 1952, he had spent more than a decade exiled by history from the champagne-intoxicated world of his prime.
Rough Crossing takes place on a luxury liner, “The Italian Castle” (a nod to the setting and title of the original), both at sea and in port, at a time never specified. We infer, however, that it must be at some point during the first half of the last century, when people still crossed the Atlantic by boat rather than in jet planes.
The luxury of the liner is important in establishing the glamorous, affluent milieu in which the characters pursue their various goals. These people are not driven by economic need, but by desire, and thus are free to follow their appetites—one of the fundamental requirements for farce. The uninhibited pursuit of carnal yearnings leads to the breaking of taboos, which in turn leads to embarrassment and confusion: the kind of non-fatal pain that makes us laugh
There are, in addition, hard-edged economic factors limiting their freedom: five of the play’s six characters are working together to produce a new musical comedy to be staged in New York at the end of the voyage. They are free to be reckless—but only so long as their recklessness doesn’t threaten the success of the production. When a bout of hanky-panky does just that, then the luxury liner is transformed from a cushy hot-house to a floating prison where the characters cannot escape the consequences of their actions.
As in all farce, the setting provides an arena which both encourages letting-go (the giddy atmosphere of a trans-Atlantic crossing), and then provides an obstacle-course through which the libido-driven characters must carefully pick their ways.
As the curtain rises on Act One, we are faced with a view of “the private verandas of the two most expensive suites on the Italian Castle,” one belonging to the famous and successful Continental playwright, Sandor Turai, the other to Natasha, the glamorous leading lady who is to star in the musical play Turai and his partners are composing on the boat. As the play begins, the ship is docked in Southampton, England
Bustling in and out continuously is Dvornichek, a comical steward who is making his first voyage at sea, a fact apparent from his complete lack of nautical vocabulary. Joining Turai and Dvornichek is Adam, the handsome but tongue-tied young composer who is in love with Natasha, and whose music is indispensable to the success of the play they are writing. Only one emotional force can rival his attachment to Natasha: his horror of his mother, a woman imprisoned for “assault, battery, attempted incestuous rape of a minor, and committing a nuisance in a public place, namely in front of the Mona Lisa.”
Rounding out the authorial team is Alex Gal, Turai’s collaborator for more than twenty years on “countless comedies, dramas, light operettas, revues, sketches, lyrics and libretti, on five continents and in as many languages.” The trio were to have boarded the boat the following morning in Cherbourg, but, in his eagerness to be with Natasha, Adam has hired a private launch to ferry them across the Channel so that they are joining the cruise half a day sooner than expected.
While Adam dreams about Natasha, Turai and Gal fret about artistic problems with their new play. The ending isn’t working. And neither are the beginning and middle. Basically, all they have to pin their hopes on is a wonderful song written by Adam for the second act. As Gal puts it, “With Adam’s music and Natasha and the new song and a new ending . . . we shall have a wonderful success in New York if we do a little work on the middle.”
Eager to surprise Natasha with their new creation, they decide to serenade her from Revai’s veranda which, as we saw above, is adjacent to hers. Meanwhile, Natasha, not expecting Adam and the others until the following day, has, that afternoon, rashly relit a romantic flame that once burned “years ago” between her and Ivor Fish, her leading man in the new play. As she and Ivor return from dinner, we discover that Natasha regrets her earlier indiscretion, blaming her weakening on Ivor’s threat to commit suicide if she didn’t give in to his pleas. She manages to convince him that there will be no re-play of their afternoon tryst, though she does consent to allow him to stay in her cabin to kiss her goodnight.
She leaves the veranda to change into her nightgown, and Ivor stands gazing at the sea. At that moment, Adam, Turai, and Gal stealthily creep out onto their own balcony. Just before they break into song, Natasha returns, ready for bed, and Ivor immediately begins again to beg for her favors. As Turai and Gal listen with professional dismay, and Adam with a lover’s horror, Natasha fondly recalls past scenes of passion between them:
Give me your hands—I will remember your hands, such clever, wicked hands too, when I think of what they have done. . . . [Y]ou will always be the first. I was a girl and you made me a woman. If I had ten husbands no one can take your place.
Despite the warm memories, she does finally manage to get him out of her cabin. However, the damage to Adam, is done. Jealous and distraught, he decides to leave the ship first thing in the morning, when they arrive at Cherbourg. He will abandon Natasha and wreck the play, thus crushing the hopes of Turai and Gal for another hit.
With catastrophe looming, Turai grows thoughtful and begins making notes to himself. Seemingly satisfied with his jottings, he springs into action. It’s clear he has just devised a plan for saving the situation, and the remainder of the play consists in our watching it unfold.
First he spends the night at his desk, feverishly at work on an undisclosed piece of writing.
Next, the following morning, he informs Natasha and Ivor that Adam has overheard their romantic tete a tete. While Natasha is heartbroken and remorseful, Ivor is terrified that the information will find its way to his daunting wife. Having them both over a barrel, Turai can force them to cooperate in the scheme he has cooked up overnight. They will do his bidding.
Finally, he must prevent the disillusioned lover from leaving the boat at Cherbourg. This he accomplishes with the help of Gal, who arranges to send Adam a fake telegram allegedly from his mother, announcing that she will be dockside to meet him when he disembarks. Rather than face up to mom, Adam decides that he will have to stay on board, and face instead the unpleasantness of a five-day voyage with the woman who has betrayed him.
Thus, as the curtain descends on the first act, Turai, with all his players in place, is ready to begin his game of deception.
Which turns out to be simple but ingenious. Turai instructs Natasha and Ivor to claim that, knowing how desperately the play they are working on needs revision, they have written a new scene while they were waiting aboard ship to be joined by the others. They ask to stage a rehearsal of this scene with Adam and the others watching.
As it proceeds, Ivor and Natasha begin to recite exactly the same lines they had spoken to each other on Natsha’s veranda the previous evening: Ivor pitches woo, while a resisting Natasha fondly remembers their passionate past. Adam is thunderstruck, now believing that what he overheard was not his fiancee betraying him with her leading man, but rather two professional actors working together on some new dialogue.
Of course, that is exactly what Turai has intended him to believe. The wily playwright is in fact the author of this deception. He has dropped the guilty scene of seduction and betrayal—like a cheap diamond—into a dramatic setting that conceals its flaws. The words and actions of Ivor and Natasha, placed in this new context, now seem like innocence itself. And so Adam, fooled into believing that Natasha is blameless, throws himself fully into the work of concocting a hit play for his fiancee and his partners. Despite the rough weather they have been through, as the curtain falls, the travelers look forward to smooth sailing for the rest of the voyage.
As in most farces, the characters in Rough Crossing are each defined by one or two clearly expressed traits and desires.
Ivor is an egotistical leading man who lusts after Natasha, but who also fears his wife. Any threat to reveal his dalliance with the former to the latter easily brings him into line. As Gal says of him, “he’s a middle-aged clod with a wife and four children.”
Natasha is a temperamental leading lady, eager for adulation and fame, who nonetheless feels that she is sincerely in love with her fiancee, Adam—thrilled that he considers her his “Madonna”--an odd quasi-Oedipal thought.
She is also sentimentally self-regarding, ready in an instant to excuse her infidelity with an explanation that flatters her own moral vanity: “I’m the victim of my own generosity. Ivor is so pathetic—he keeps bursting into tears telling me to remember the old days. . . .” In other words, her sins are really virtues in disguise and ought to be excused, if not rewarded.
Adam. Like many comic characters, Adam is saddled with a physical oddity or infirmity. In his case it is a peculiar speech defect: he suffers from conversational retardation. That is, he is perfectly capable of speech, but all his responses arrive late, in answer not to the question or comment of the moment, but to the one just before it. For example:
Dvornichek: I trust your cabin is satisfactory.
And so on. Apart from creating the opportunity for many verbal jokes, this disability sets Adam apart from the highly articulate actors and dramatists among whom he works, suggesting that in seeking happiness among them he might be on the wrong track.
The origin of this handicap is revealing: it came over him suddenly one night while he was performing at the Chapeau Rouge. “I looked up in the middle of my first song and there at a table in the front row was my mother. . . . I hadn’t realized she’d got out of gaol.” Together with his attachment to Natasha, this horror of his mother forms the core of his personality. Which adds a certain piquancy to the fact that Natasha sees herself as his “madonna”—a term we associate with history’s most famous mother.
Gal has collaborated with Turai on innumerable works for the stage, bringing to the partnership, it seems, mordant wit and a sense of restraint. Thus, we have this exchange, prompted by Turai’s exasperation at Ivor and Natasha for their bungling of the new scene:
TURAI: It is agony for an artist to discover that the fruits of his genius have been delivered into the hands of a couple of wholesale greengrocers. . . .
And there is this moment, when Turai mentions the name of a fictional ship in their play:
TURAI: The cruise ship Dodo has arrived at Casablanca--
A third example of Gal’s wit pops up when the boat experiences some heavy weather, making the “rough crossing” of the title quite literal:
(GAL . . . has gathered up a few necessary provisions from the buffet and is taking his leave.)
On his return, he remarks “feelingly,” “The women and children on this boat don’t give an inch.”
Turai, in contrast, is the more mercurial and passionate of the playwriting duo, the one who lights the emotional fires that Gal damps down with his wit. He is particularly expressive on the subject of the shortcomings of actors, as we can see from this withering attack on Ivor and Natasha:
TURAI: So. It seems that my legendary good nature towards petulant children, rabid dogs and actors as a class, coupled with my detestation of sarcasm and mockery in all its forms, especially when directed a the mentally disabled, has lulled you into impudence and given you a misplaced air of indispensability, what I like to call a sine-qua-nonchalance. I am to blame for this. I have mollycoddled you. I have made obeisance to your exiguous talent. . . .
And so on for several more lines. Although the stage direction for this tirade says it is to be delivered “calmly,” it is clear that under the surface, Turai is nursing a sense of rancorous anger towards performers, whom he regards as “mentally disabled,” egotistical blockheads who thwart his designs as an artist. This attitude is a recurrent theme in the lore of the performing arts. Alfred Hitchcock, the great film director, once famously said, “Actors are cattle.” Turai has something of this attitude, the sense that the real creativity in the theater is the property of writers and composers, not mere performers.
Dvornichek is a pure comic confection, a sort of laugh machine, whose major function is to astonish us with his all-knowing unflappability, his capacity to consume endless quantities of brandy, and his constant confusion over nautical terminology.
The brandy-drinking is a running-gag throughout the play. It goes as follows: Turai or Gal orders a drink from Dvornichek; the latter arrives bearing the cognac on a silver tray; but, because of some verbal misunderstanding, the steward is led to believe that he has been invited to consume the liquor. Here we see the drink-joke and the nautical-terminology joke skillfully combined.
(DVORNICHEK enters with a cognac and a boiled potato on a tray.)
Some variant of this joke is repeated about every ten minutes, a pattern that creates an expectant audience guaranteed to laugh every time Dvornichek enters bearing a drink.
As to his all-knowingness, Dvornichek can recite the most arcane details of the most complicated situation at the flip of a verbal switch. For example, before drinking one of his early cognacs, he offers this toast:
. . . to three passengers who have honoured the steamship Italian Castle by their embarkation at Cherbourg tonight bound for New York. To Sandor Turai and Alex Gal, world-famous playwrights and men of the theatre, friends and collaborators over twenty years and countless comedies, dramas, light operettas, revues, sketches, lyrics and libretti, on five continents and in as many languages, joint authors, as ever, of the new comedy with music, The Cruise of the Dodo! And to their discovery, friend, protégé, the young maestro, plucked from obscurity to imminent fame, their new composer, Adam Adam! Coupled with their lovely leading lady . . . Natasha Navratilova—Oh, and her leading man in D4, the matinee idol, Ivor Fish! Both of whom are now at dinner . . .
Etc., etc., etc., for another dozen lines. Dvornichek also applies this talent to the recitation of dramatic scenarios, such as that of the ever-changing play-in-progress being re-written and rehearsed aboard ship. Indeed, he seems to have a firmer grasp of its plot that the playwrights themselves, a fact that places him in a long line of comic servants—Scapin, Figaro, Jeeves—who are far cleverer than their masters.
In 1494 Sebastian Brandt, a German moralist, published a book called The Ship of Fools, the story of a boat filled with and navigated by fools, headed for a destination called Narragonia, the fools’ paradise. It became the most popular work of German literature of the 15th century, and spawned a genre of writing called “fool’s literature.” It also inspired a famous painting of the same name by Hieronymus Bosch, and, several centuries later, a novel by Catherine Ann Porter, and a 1965 film directed by Stanley Kramer.
The original story is an allegory of human experience: life is a voyage, and in our ignorance and viciousness, we are steering our way to disaster. G.B. Shaw touches on a similar idea in his play, Heartbreak House, written in the shadow of World War I. There, the main character, a retired mariner named Captain Shotover, warns the guests at his house—fitted out to resemble a ship—that, thanks to the folly of its leaders, England is headed for the rocks.
Nothing so dire can be inferred from Rough Crossing, but it certainly does remind us of this tradition of shipboard folly, not least because the actors, playwrights, and crew of the Italian Castle are all caught up in the game of fooling Adam.
Not only that, but as theater people, their entire profession is a species of deception, a kind of foolery aimed at convincing audiences of the truth of what they are seeing. Of course, at one level, art is true, even when it is concocted of costumes, makeup, and cardboard scenery. Perhaps especially then, because if the “ship of fools” allegory has any validity, we must believe that life is essentially a mad delusion. If that’s the case, then theater is its truest reflection.
Rough Crossing also reminds us of Stoppard’s first great success, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, a reinvention of Hamlet from the point of view of his two hapless friends from Wittenberg. In both Shakespeare’s original and Stoppard’s extrapolation, the central scene is a play-within-a-play—a re-enactment of a crime for the purpose of exposing the criminal who is in the audience, watching and reacting. “The play’s the thing,” Hamlet declares, “wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”
In Rough Crossing also the play’s the thing, not for catching the conscience of a murdering king, but for duping a wounded lover into believing that his fiancee really didn’t betray him—in other words, for making him believe that what happened didn’t happen. Remembering that an earlier English version of Molnar’s original was called The Play’s the Thing, we can perhaps speculate on what drew Stoppard to this particular piece of Hungarian dramatic pastry.
Might he have been scanning titles of old comedies, and been intrigued by the Shakespearean title? Did he find in Molnar’s theatrical conceit—creating a scene which erases a real betrayal by rewriting it as fiction—something that appealed to his own love of literary gamesmanship? And was he particularly enthralled by the Hamlet-like nature of this device? Especially since Molnar’s play-within-a-play creates an effect exactly the opposite of Shakespeare’s: rather than revealing the truth, it conceals it. Shakespeare shows us the theater “holding the mirror up to nature” and thus disclosing the world’s secrets. Molnar/Stoppard show us theater as a fun-house reflector, a device that turns the world upside-down.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION.