A FEW THOUGHTS ON STOPPARD’S ROUGH CROSSING

What I am about to do to Tom Stoppard and Rough Crossing would really piss Tom Stoppard off. As most of you know I am a pretentious director and, rather than just read the play and have an opinion about the words, I like to engage in a bit of literary criticism; explore the playwright, his or her themes, the background story, the details, read a lot of criticism about the work and the author and, from that perspective, begin to shape an opinion about how I want to approach the show. I’m a bit of a wanker when it comes to research and criticism and Tom Stoppard would hate me. He would very likely punch me in the face.
Stoppard has said, “It is understandable that in thinking about its own raison d’etre, the vast oracular Lego set of Lit Crit, with its chairs, lectureships, colloquia and symposia, its presses, reprints, off prints, monographs, reviews, footnotes and fireside chats should come up with something better than “theatre…it beats working for a living.”
An online biography of Stoppard says, “Tom Stoppard was born Tom Straussler on July 3, 1937 in Zlin, Czechoslovakia. His father worked as a doctor for the internationally famous Bata Shoe Company and when the Germans threatened invasion, the family was transferred to the Singapore branch because one of the parents was half-Jewish. Three years later they were forced to move again when Japanese troops captured the city. Stoppard’s father was killed and with his mother and brother, Tom was evacuated to India where his mother remarried Kenneth Stoppard, an army major. The family moved again to England in 1946. Tom was 9 years old.
Tom attended a preparatory school in Nottinghamshire and a boarding grammar school in Yorkshire. In 1954, he began his career as a journalist, working first for the Western Daily Press and subsequently, for the Bristol Evening World. As a theater reviewer for Scene Magazine, he became interested in writing for the stage. In 1960, he resigned his position, and became a free-lance journalist, writing radio plays and a novel, Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon. It was his play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, staged at the National Theater in London in 1967, that turned Stoppard from a critic and sometime playwright into an overnight sensation. In 1968 The Real Inspector Hounddebuted, followed by After Magritte in 1970. Other successes include Jumpers, Travesties and The Real Thing. He has also written screenplays for Brazil, The Russia House, Shakespeare In Love, Anna Karenina and Billy Bathgate.
At a time when the theater is de-emphasizing language, stressing performance over text, Stoppard believes in the supremacy of words. In the tradition of the great English literary wits like Shaw, Coward and Wilde, Stoppard turns the stage into forum for ideas and a showcase for inventive use of language.”
And, like Shaw, Coward and Wilde before him, Stoppard has often been accused of being clever but empty, smart but vacuous…of having a lot to say about nothing particularly important.
Philip Roberts, an English literary scholar and critic, wrote of Stoppard, “Stoppard’s work is beloved by those for whom the theatre is an END and not a MEANS…His plays assure the reactionaries and revolutionaries that theatre was (and is) just what they always trust it was…an anesthetic.”
The vast bulk of Stoppard’s stellar career has flown in the face of all good theatre reason; he is a writer without a subject, a wordsmith without anything to say, a philosopher without a concept of the meaning of life and a dramatist without any real appreciation for drama. Robert Burstein, a theatre critic, said of Stoppard’s work, “As a dramatist, Stoppard is a dandy. His plays toy with difficult subjects but they are essentially not very serious. They are pirouettes by a rather vain dancer who knows he can leap higher than anybody else but seems to have forgotten why.”
And Stoppard doesn’t seem to care. In fact, his rejection of the seriousness of theatre and his open armed embrace of theatricality for theatricality’s sake is a hallmark of his work, his attitude and his personality. When asked by a reporter what Stoppard wanted people to think about after leaving a performance of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Stoppard said, “I’m sorry to tell you that my ambitions in that direction are very modest and probably shameful. I don’t want them to think very much more than that it was money well spent.”
Stoppard writes about what he knows and what he loves; the theatre. In fact, of all of the qualities of Stoppard’s work, the one that is most consistent, most regular and most powerfully expressed is the sheer love and joy of doing theatre, of being theatrical, and of being unapologetic about it.
John Harty in his Stoppard: A Casebook writes, “Stoppard’s concern about the theatre has overridden all other concerns in constructing his plays, which are intended, primarily, to do the most obvious thing of all: to succeed as theatre.”
Harty goes on, “Each of Stoppard’s plays is designed with the theatrics of ‘show business’ in mind; one finds  in Stoppard’s plays murders, real and feigned madness, women disrobing, symphony orchestras, acrobatics, the genre of the thriller, suspense, vaudeville routines and stage magic…”
His is a mimic, relying on the core constructions of burlesque, mockery, farce, parody, high society and lampooning…not at all unlike Oscar Wilde.
There are lots of people saying lots of things about Tom Stoppard, and among the most important are the comments directly related to Stoppard’s unapologetic love for the theatre and all things theatrical. He is unabashed in his love of what we do, of the people we are, of the people we know in the theatre, the types and tropes that are second nature to us:
  • The pretentious actor who struggles and grapples with his process;
  • The over-preening dandy;
  • The musical theatre hoofer suddenly thrust onstage as Hamlet;
  • The self-effacing and vicious wit that we most often turn against each other as a way of endearing ourselves to our colleagues;
  • The fear, the insecurity, the glamour, the unbearable egos, the stupidly strange personal ticks, personal hygiene, food fetishes and idiosyncrasies that only actors can possess, the hetro-and-homosexual sexual tension that permeates every cast, and the recognition that what we do, at its most basic, central core is… actually… completely ridiculous andthe single most important thing in the world…both things at exactly the same time.
Stoppard said, “Really, without any evidence of any talent in other directions, I find it very difficult to turn down offers to write an underwater ballet for dolphins or a play for a motorcyclist on the edge of the wall of death…”
Anthony Jenkins, in his book “The Theatre of Tom Stoppard,” writes, “Despite their box office successes, Stoppard’s plays have often aroused academic and critical hostility, his detractors accusing him of cold intellectualism or frivolous showmanship….and this is the special problem of Stoppard’s playfulness.” Is he discussing serious ideas or just showing off?
For Rough Crossing, the answer is actually quite simple. He is just showing off.
I came across an interesting dilemma while researching Rough Crossing; almost no academic or literary critic has anything at all to say about it, other than to reference it, out of hand, as “one of Stoppard’s translations.” In one of the academic texts about Stoppard’s work, the author writes, “This book is an attempt to understand the themes and techniques Stoppard employs throughout his all of his work (except, of course, the translations such as Rough Crossingwhich are not to be considered part of Stoppard’s great body of work.)” Another says, “Despite a prolific career creating original works, Stoppard dallied, for a time, with adaptations and translations of other plays which, for our purposes, we need not be concerned with…”
The majority of the writing analysis of Rough Crossing comes in the form of theatre reviews, and not all of them are kind. One of my favorites is from Mark Fisher in The Guardian in 2010, reviewing a production at Pitlochry Theatre in Scotland. Fisher writes,
“Let us agree: theatre does not have to be about big ideas. Let us accept it can be a brilliantly executed artifice… Let us acknowledge it can be lightweight, frivolous and throwaway – fun for fun’s sake.
But having allowed ourselves that, can we also make a case for Rough Crossing? What is the purpose, whether it be ambitious or modest, of Tom Stoppard’s free reworking of Ferenc Molnár’s The Play at the Castle? Is there any reason it should exist?
There is nothing especially wrong with Richard Baron’s production that a little less shouting and less of a mismatch in the casting wouldn’t cure, yet even by the standards of daft comedy, the play simply fails to entertain. Once Stoppard has fielded a few meta-theatrical ideas, strung out a joke about a speech impediment and endlessly repeated a gag about the waiter always getting the writer’s drink, we are left with nothing but a bunch of self-satisfied toffs, a bad play-within-a-play and an inconsequential romantic tiff.
You could write it off as a dull night out, if the play didn’t seem so smugly enamored of its own emptiness. That makes it not just pointless, but offensive, too.”
Here is another, from Nick Green of The Chicago Times on The Writer’s Theatre’s production in 2008:
“Tom Stoppard double-crosses the audience in this flamboyant 1985 adaptation of Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar’s 1924 The Play’s the Thing. A pastiche of low comedy styles jumbled together with egghead observations, Stoppard’s script is part Rodgers and Hart musical comedy, part slapstick farce, and part metatheatrical exploration of reality and fiction. Yet Rough Crossing, about two writers on an ocean liner, never really bridges the gap between light entertainment and intellectual confrontation: physical comedy constantly undercuts the smart stuff while unnecessarily florid dialogue gets in the way of some impish fun. The result suggests a dismal failure of Stoppard’s own imagination.”
Now, I haven’t seen either of these productions, but I will say that a failure to be funny in performance is not the same thing as performing an unfunny script. What these two reviews point to, very clearly, is that Rough Crossing sits right on the line between Stoppard’s fascination with grand ideas and his obsession with wit and wordplay. Exactly like all the rest of Stoppard’s early work. Exactly like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, just like Travesties, just like all of the other plays. The only difference? Rough Crossing is a “freewheeling adaptation” of someone else’s work.
IF what these two critics, and the rest of the academic theatre world, are implying about Rough Crossing is that is it bad or not worth their time to analyze because it is an adaptation….well, you can imagine exactly how I feel about that. Those people can bite me, and bite Tom Stoppard. Adaptation isn’t quite so easy, or quite so frivolous, as one might think.
Luckily, not all of Stoppard’s critics or academic devotees have the same opinion about adaptation including my very best friend that I’ve never met in the whole wide world, Katherine Kelly, who edited the Cambridge Companion to Tom Stoppard. Katie (I know her well enough to call her Katie) writes, “Stoppard’s habit is of recycling prior texts, which inform virtually all of his works and which draws the reader/spectator into a process of transformation by presenting them with familiar literary language, visual imagery, styles and forms made strange by an unfamiliar dramatic context. We both hear and then re-hear quotations from the literary past as Stoppard mines the imaginary museum of Western art.”
In other words, Stoppard is making everything old new again. By referencing prior texts, stories, tropes, styles, character types, and plots and placing them in new contexts, Stoppard is asking his audience to consider them anew, to think about the familiar in new ways, and to provoke in his audiences NEW responses to old, worn out materials. THIS is something that I approve of very, very much.
Katie-Kat (which is my pet name for Katherine Kelly because she is my best friend in the whole world), writes, “Stoppard’s audiences collaborate by first anticipating and then recognizing familiar texts, but see them as transformed.”
Stoppard is telling us old stories in new ways, and it doesn’t take a literary critic to know that Stoppard is writing in the grand and incredibly familiar tradition of some of the very best, very funniest, very wittiest English playwrights like Shaw, Wilde and Coward. We are, essentially, doing a modern adaptation of an Oscar Wilde play.
Kate writes, “Stoppard’s playwrighting has benefitted from a series of teachers and Oscar Wilde is his crucial influence…Stoppard’s best writing is that which most closely aligns with Wilde’s avoidance of naturalism…Stoppard, like Wilde, is interested in the singularly unique, the eccentric, the individual…” and is not at all concerned about whether or not his plays are real, natural or commonplace. Quite the contrary, Stoppard’s work is singular, eccentric, and stands alone.
“We should treat all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.”- Oscar Wilde
Is Rough Crossinga great play? Not really. Is it funny, entertaining, full of sparkling wit and a few interesting statements on the nature of love and life, filled with the possibility of physical comedy and hilarious wordplay? Yes. Is that enough? Hell yes it is.
Stoppard is the next evolution of the British dramatic wit, but like his predecessors, his most pressing concern is entertainment. Although not true of all of his work, it is without question true of Rough Crossing. Is it trying to be a musical comedy? Yes, and no. Is it trying to be a show about philosophical questions related to the blurred line between reality and fiction? Yes, and no. Is it trying to be a modern-day Shakespeare-style play within a play comedy? Yes, and no. Does it do any of these things well? Yes, and no.
What is Rough Crossing? It is a romantic musical comedy exploration of the blurred line between reality and fiction which uses a Shakespearean-styled play within a play as a conceit. Does it do that well?
It does THAT better than any play ever written.
-Scott Palmer
Artistic Director
Bag&Baggage Productions
ROUGH CROSSING by Tom Stoppard
May 9 – 26, 2013
The Venetian Theatre, Downtown Hillsboro
www.bagnbaggage.org – 503 345 9590