American Conservatory Theater artistic director Carey Perloff didn’t mince words when introducing playwright Tom Stoppard Saturday morning at a Koret Visiting Artist Series event. She called him the “greatest writer in the English-speaking language.”
Indeed the 70-year-old Stoppard, outfitted in light-brown slacks and jacket with vibrant red socks, has an extraordinary body of dramatic work, stretching back to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in 1967 to his latest Broadway hit, Rock ‘n’ Roll, which follows closely on the heels of last year’s New York triumph, the Tony-winning, three-part epic The Coast of Utopia.
Much of Saturday’s discussion, in front of a full house, centered on Rock ‘n’ Roll, which takes Stoppard back to his native Czechoslovakia. Here are some highlights.
On writing Rock ‘n’ Roll, which goes from Prague Spring in 1968 to the fall of Communism in 1990: “A play writes itself, but you give it a lot of help. The play tells you what it wants to be about and which way it wants to go. Rock ‘n’ Roll is largely about Czechoslovakia, but threaded through is a love story, which is actually out of sight too long, That’s what it’s really about. I intended to push the plot forward to 1997, but by the time the love story is played out in 1990, the play had no interest in going beyond that.”
On his favorite thing written about Rock ‘n’ Roll during its London run: “A journalist wrote that after the play, she cried all the way home. That’s what you want a play about politics to do.”
On the art of dramatic storytelling: “Almost every story is two stories enfolded. You have the play going on, which is transient, ephemeral. In Rock ‘n’ Roll, when the play begins, it’s 1968 and the Soviet Empire is a fact of life. It looks permanent, but it’s not. Then there’s the other story that has entirely to do with human behavior and the way of being human. That’s why the love story made it impossible for the political story to have any juice left.”
On the writing process: “The older I get, the more I sense that you really have to be brave enough to know less than what you think you need to know to write the play. If you start telling it, you end up with something brittle. I’ve written work like that. I know I have. The difference between a good play and a bad play or a good production and a bad production is that the good ones get better as they age and the not-so-good ones get worse. Plays that are true to themselves are never quite ready, but they get more ready the more you do them.”
On going back to Czechoslovakia after the fall of Communism: “I had never been back to my birthplace. My mother had died five years earlier, and her death released me, gave me permission to go. While she lived she didn’t want to look back. There’s so much I didn’t know about her and her family. It was ignorance I was happy to live in. I didn’t care to invigilate my mother.”
While in Czechoslovakia: “My father was a doctor, and as Hitler was getting closer, the chief doctor got all the Jewish doctors out of the country. We ended up in Singapore, just before Pearl Harbor. Ten years ago, when I was back in Czechoslovakia, I met with the chief doctor’s daughter. When she was five, she put her hand through a glass pane, and apparently all the children asked for my father. He sewed up her cut, and she showed me the scar. The scar on this lady’s hand is the only thing I’d got from my dead father…There’s real life handing me a superb novelistic or dramatic trick.”
On consistent threads through his work: “I now see I identify this mania for cross-reference in a given play. That seems to be something I find deeply attractive dramatically. My plays are full of shuttle-and-loom back and forth.”
Perloff reminded Stoppard that he once answered an ACT MFA student’s question, “What do you most value in an actor?” with “Clarity of utterance.” Stoppard elaborates: “That ought to be a given but seldom is. Actors, on principle, refer to say “if” at the beginning of a sentence. They think they say it, but they never do. If fuzzy logic has its place in the world, I supposed fuzzy dialogue has its place.”
Perloff: “But not in your plays.”
On working on an adaptation of Chekhov’s Ivanov: “I love doing it, searching for the utterance – how to say it. It’s an immensely difficult thing. I don’t read Russian and work from a literal translation. I know this work has a deep significance, but I’m not exactly sure why. I sit at my desk (I tend to work at night) putting the literal translation into exactly right English. I go to bed thinking, `That went well. As good as I can get it. Chekhov would be delighted.’ Come back in the morning, and it’s as if the Polish au pair girl had re-written it. I can only do this work for a couple of hours at a stretch or I lose contact with the English language. You’re either too close to it or too far away.
On something strange happening while working on the Chekhov: “I’m interested in the aside. Ten years ago, adapting The Seagull, Dorn (the doctor) is alone on stage talking. I worried about whom he was talking to. Do you look the audience in the eye or just say the speech? I found that breaking the fourth wall doesn’t break the play. The play carries on undeterred, and that goes against logic.”