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Aesthetic Distancing in Tom Stoppard's Drama

Aysegül Yüksel

Ankara University

Tom Stoppard's dramatic writing is interesting to read and also promises a good "spectacle". Each play by Stoppard has been conceived with an aim to engender fresh semiotic energy on the stage, suggesting brand-new perspectives to actors, directors, and stage-costume-lighting designers, as well as a new mode of perception to the spectator.

Highly verbal and spectacular all at once, the Stoppardian "play-text"serves as a bridge between the "spectacle" and the "context" that interact through a constant process of association and dissociation. The pleasure to be derived from a production of a play by Stoppard hinges on the artist's and spectator's capacity to keep up with the varying doses of "attachment" and "detachment" that the dynamic structuring of the stage-event requires.

This kind of structuring both feeds on and deconstructs various canonised genres of drama and defines Stoppard's post-absurdist/ post-epic position, which he daintily polishes with verbal wit. He arrives at this position by employing particular methods of "aesthetic distancing" that makes his drama exclusively Stoppardian.

Stoppard's dramatic work is considered to be post-absurdist in the sense that "he appropriates the spirit of absurdity rather than the technique." (Simard 1984: 52) He introduces on the stage either a seemingly straightforward story or an absurd situation, each arousing different expectations in the spectator. Then by an unexpected treatment of both kinds of exposition, he makes sure that the audience needs reorientation for consuming his product. Accordingly, his celebrated Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead gives one the immediate impression that it is an absurdist play with its Beckettian mood, characters, dialogue and silences, while it actually involves a Pirandellian discussion about the truth concerning the actor, the character, and man. In Travesties, Joyce, Lenin and Dadaist Tzvetan Tzara, each with their particular modes of literary or political discourse, are incongruously packed together within the Wildean medium of high comedy. The Real Inspector Hound, a kind of Agatha Christie-like whodunit, turns into a surrealistic piece about the rivalry of theatre critics. Hapgood, on the other hand, is a spy story that focuses on the confusion such fiction involves, rather than leading towards the usual solution of a complicated plot. After Magritte moves from a seemingly absurd situation to one that is plainly ordinary and realistic. Cahout's Macbeth, one of his short pieces, is not about a certain director's version of Macbeth, but about the arbitrariness of language and suspicion with which theatre in general and universal playwrights like Shakespeare in particular are looked upon in a totalitarian regime. Indian Ink, a recent play that on the surface aims to bring out some striking biographical truth about a female English poet's experience in India, keeps the audience busy with funny, sad, absurdist and realistic glimpses of colonial India gradually moving away from the British Empire. In short, by a theatrically contrived juxtaposition of realistic and absurdist elements within the framework of the same play, Stoppard shakes our firm stand as to what is to be considered "realistic" or "absurd".

Stoppard also holds a post-epic position in that, while utilising -in modified form - a few of Brecht's stage techniques for the so-called verfremsdungeffekt, he also employs his own devices to maintain an aesthetic distance that serves to hinder emotional involvement and invites intellectual response. Brecht maintained that in order to avoid the spectator's automatic perception, the playwright had to show him familiar things in an unfamiliar way (like showing the inner mechanism of a clock, instead of the "automatically perceived" object, the clock itself) so that he would perceive it as if he were seeing it for the first time. Stoppard seems to share a similar outlook, although his concern with play-writing could hardly be considered Brechtian.

Stoppard's frequently quoted anecdote about a friend seems best to explain Stoppard's idea of aesthetic distancing: "...somebody I know" he says, "had a couple of peacocks in the garden, and one escaped while he was shaving ... he had to cross a main road to catch it, and he was standing in his pyjamas with shaving cream on his face holding the peacock, when the traffic started going by." (in Hayman 1978: 86) People would not believe their eyes if they happened to observe this "unfamiliar" sight while they were passing by in a car at that very moment. Referring to this anecdote Christopher Innes states that "Even the most extravagantly fantastic spectacle turns out to be ordinary once the context is understood" and considers Stoppard's "challenging the way we see what we see" to "underlie the displays of overt theatricality that are the hallmark of his plays." (Innes 1992: 332) A typical example is the opening scene of After Magritte. In his stage directions Stoppard describes the initial position of the room and the characters as follows:

Most of the furniture is stacked up against the street door ... MOTHER is lying on her hack on the ironing board ... her downstage foot up against the flat of the iron. A white bath towel covers her from ankle to chin. Her head and pan of her face are concealed in a tight-fitting black rubber bathing cap. A black bowler hat reposes on her stomach. THELMA HARRIS is dressed in a full-length ball-gown ... THELMA is discovered on her hands and knees ... staring at the floor ahead, ... REGINALD HARRIS is standing on the wooden chair. His torso is bare, but ... he wears black evening dress trousers. His hands are at his sides. His head is tilted back directly below the lampshade ... and he is blowing slowly and deliberately up into the recess of the shade (Stoppard, 1996: 50-51). Once aesthetic distancing has been accomplished, however, Stoppard gradually lets out a logical explanation to this fantastic sight. The mother, suffering from a hurt back is lying temporarily on the ironing board because there is no place else to lie; the bathing cap and the towel are explained by the fact that she will soon be taking a. bath. Thelma is on her knees picking the scattered pieces of the light fixture. Reginald is blowing at the blown bulb which is too hot to touch. He is half naked because his shirt is going to be ironed. Both husband and wife are dressed elegantly because they are about to participate in a professional dance show. The floor has been cleared of furniture so that they could do their dance practice.

But that is not all. Soon after the seemingly absurd situation has been normalised by all this logical explanation, there arises further confusion in the room and the play closes upon as surrealistic a sight as at the beginning.

In attaining aesthetic distancing Stoppard employs the artifice of the theatre as abundantly as possible. The "play within the play" technique is the one practiced most often. In Rosencrantz and Guldenstern Are Dead, the two already dead characters borrowed from Shakespeare's Ham/ct, not only act out the off-stage portions of their roles in Shakespeare's story, but they also watch the Players perform the end of their predestined lives. In Travesties the action of the characters and the play within the play (Wilde's Importance of Being Earnest) are interwoven in the hazy memory of the protagonist-narrator. In The Real Thing, a play written by Henry, the protagonist, serves as the fictional model on which he will base the future course of his life. In The Real Inspector Hound the characters in the audience are finally merged into the plot of the play performed on the stage. In Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth the abbreviated forms of Shakespeare's drama serve as the play within the play.

The characters too are often involved in game-playing, an act that brings out the "playful" nature of Stoppardian drama. In Hapgood and Dirty Linen, spies in the former, and members of the parliament in the latter are constantly involved in playing games. In Every Good Boy Deserves Favour a political prisoner kept in a lunatic asylum, is forced to play a double game: with his room-mate who claims that he has an orchestra and his interrogator who forces him to make a choice between being permanently labelled as a lunatic and making a proper confession. What led Stoppard to write Jumpers (a play about moral philosophy) was the idea of presenting a pyramid of acrobats on the stage and a rifle shot directed at one of the acrobats...

Another device Stoppard commonly employs in bringing about aesthetic distancing is the use of pastiche. In Travesties he cleverly adopts the style of Wilde's high comedy in dealing with historically true characters Lenin, Joyce, and Tzvetan Tzara. In After Magritte, the silent opening and closing scenes are designed after the style of the surrealistic paintings of Magritte, the Belgian artist, while a good number of scenes in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead echo the style of Beckett's Waiting for Godot. In Dirty Linen, the female secretary who serves diverse functions for Parliamentary MP's, is at certain intervals made to freeze in a "pin-up" pose in the typical style of photo-modelling for men's magazines. It goes without saying that The Real Inspector Hound is styled after the typical crime-detective story.

There is also a good amount of parody in the final scene of The Real Inspector Hound when the rival theatre critic appears through deus ex machina as the real Inspector Hound and gets the best girl, while his murdered colleague pours out his envy in his last breath. The police chief in After Magritte is obviously parodied as the victim of his own investigation, which is reduced to mere mockery, since, after all, no serious crimes have been committed. In Travesties Tzara's method of writing poetry as well as Joyce's Irish outbursts are parodied in good humour. Though generally treated with sympathy and pathos, Ros and Guil also receive their share of ridicule in a good number of instances, mainly when, confused by everybody confusing one for the other, they also get confused about their own identities. The encore of the school production of Hamlet already reduced to nine pages in Dogg's Hamlet, becomes a parody of itself when it is further reduced to two pages. In Hapgood the playful relationships among the spies turn the whole idea of spying into a mere joke.

Stoppard has been labelled jokingly as a master plagiarist due to the fact that a good number of his plays have intertextual ties with a good number of master works. He is defended wholeheartedly by Hanna Scolnicov, who asserts that "intertextuality is a methodology that topples the notion of the text as autonomous, discrete and independent." For Scolnicov "the essence of the text is seen to reside in the web of relations it forms with other, surrounding texts." (Scolnicov 1995: 19). Stoppard's use of other texts serves a pragmatic purpose in the sense that his drama is based on the juxtaposition of diverse elements so as to create aesthetic distancing and bring out his unique theatricality as well as his particular means of conveying ideas.

In intertextualising his texts Stoppard certainly owes most to Shakespeare. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead can perhaps be also enjoyed without a thorough knowledge of the text of Hamlet. Yet it would be a pity to miss the links between Shakespeare's tragedy and Stoppard's play at so many different levels. On the hand, Stoppard's intertextual operation in juxtaposing Waiting for Godot against Hamlet within the framework of his play, not only serves his own aim of aesthetic distancing, but also paves the way to a reviewing of the particular works by the two master playwrights: "the sound and fury" disguised in the pathetic silences of Waiting for Godot and the silent suffering of the pain of living disguised by the articulateness and the "sound and fury" dominating the tragedy of Prince Hamlet.

In Dogg's Hamlet the Shakespearean lines of a ruthlessly abbreviated Hamlet that English schoolboys are about to perform is juxtaposed against the Dogg language they use while they are preparing the stage for the performance. Here, Stoppard is aesthetically distancing the audience by the schoolboys' use of common English words to mean something different than they normally do. The result is an altogether incomprehensible language, since signifiers no longer point at their accepted signifieds. However, the audience slowly begins to learn this language as it is constantly repeated and accompanied by gestures. When the school performance starts, the audience is directed back to the language that is their own. "But is their language really more comprehensible?" asks Hanna Scolmcov, "These verses from Hamlet have been quoted so often that their significance seems to have been lost." (Scolnicov 1995: 31-32)

In the immediately following twin play, Cahoot's Macbeth we are taken to Czechoslovakia, Stoppard's homeland, where writers and actors who had signed 'Charter 77' were forced, after the fall of the Czech President Dubcek in 1968, to leave their theatres and do menial work. The only way they could produce plays in a police state, then, was by means of a Living Room Theatre in private homes. Founded by Pavel Kohout, this kind of theatre circulated in Prague. Kohout's Macbeth was produced to this end, and lasted seventy-five minutes and was played by five actors. The absence of free speech led these theatre people to express themselves through Shakespeare's verse, thus producing an intertextuality between what they were not allowed to say and what Shakespeare has said. But Shakespeare was not free from suspicion either:

Shakespeare - or the old Bill as we call him in the force - is not a popular choice with my chief, owing to his popularity with the public, or, as we call it in the force, the filth. The fact is, when you get a universal and timeless writer like Shakespeare, there's a strong feeling that he could be spitting in the eyes of the beholder when he should he keeping his mind on Verona ... You know what I mean? (Stoppard, 1996: 192) The play continues by the entrance of Ease, a character from the previous play and his introduction of the Dogg language to the actors, who in turn carry on the performance of Macbeth in that language. The language of the play has changed but Shakespeare's text is still there.

Aside from the obvious intertextual tics Travesties has with Oscar Wilde's Importance of Being Earnest, the comedy arising from the mistaken exchange of Tzara's and Joyce's folders can best be enjoyed through the knowledge of the baby misplaced in a handbag and left at Victoria Station in Wilde's play.

After Magritte can no doubt be more fully appreciated through acquaintance with Magritte's paintings, especially since the characters in the play have just returned from a visit to a Tate Gallery exhibition of the Belgian artist's works. The Real Thing includes passages from John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's A Whore. Indian Ink is set against a textual background of all English fiction and films about the British in India, while Arcadia is bound up with texts and movies set in the early 19th century and early 20th century English mansions.

Stoppard takes one step further and intertextualises his own plays. One example is his "turtoise" which in After Magritte functions as an illusion arising from mistaken perception and is carried out through Stoppard's canon up to the recent Arcadia, where it is objectified as a live paperweight.

A further device employed by Stoppard in attaining aesthetic distancing is his playful attitude towards time and space. Most of his plays are episodic and rarely follow a linear direction. In Travesties it is quite impossible to follow and put the events into correct order, while Ros and Guil keep on moving into and out of Shakespeare's text. In Indian Ink the action continuously swings between the past and the present as well as between India and England. In Arcadia the different characters that inhabit the same house at two different periods are finally brought together in the same scene toward the end of the play.

One last device of aesthetic distancing frequently employed by Stoppard is his juxtaposition of his themes against different areas of art or science. The theme and action of Arcadia are associated with thermodynamics as well as the history of English landscape design, while in Hapgood particle physics becomes a metaphor for a spy's life. In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead the fate of predestined characters is tested against the law of probability and in Jumpers acrobatics is juxtaposed upon philosophy (mental acrobatics). In After Magritte surrealistic painting is employed as a theatrical device in conveying the playwright's message. Every Good Boy Deserves Favour is a play not only for actors but also for an orchestra.

Rodney Simard holds that "Stoppard's work is a comedic and farcical presentation of serious thought" that "reflects postmodern existence by its celebration of multiplicity, by its presentation of alternatives" (Simard, 1984: 50-51). True enough. Stoppard aims at involving his audience in an intellectual activity while also producing an entertaining show. He fulfils both aims by the employment of a wild variety of devices to attain aesthetic distancing. He thus deprives the spectator of the convenience of automatic perception and/or neutralisation that usually serves as a practical aid in decoding theatrical semiotic systems. Still, one cannot help feeling that for Stoppard "the play's the thing" (more than anything) and that his interest in writing for the theatre is directly proportional to the extent he can exert his magical powers in creating "a good spectacle."


Hayman, Ronald. Tom Stoppard. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1978.

Innes, Christopher. Modern British Drama. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Scolnicov, Hanna. "Stoppard's Intertextual web" Assaph C, No.11, 19-37,1995.

Stoppard, Tom. Tom Stoppard: Plays One. London: Faber and Faber, 1996.

Sirnard, Rodney. Postmodern Drama. New York: University Press of America, 1984.