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Freedom and Morality in the Plays of Tom Stoppard

Norman Barry

Norman Barry is professor of social and political theory at the University of Buckingham in the UK. He is the author of Business Ethics (Macmillan, 1998).

Most people who were dazzled by the verbal dexterity and comic genius revealed in Tom Stoppard’s Oscar-winning movie, Shakespeare in Love (his co-writer, Marc Norman, provided the idea but every line of dialogue is quintessentially Stoppard’s) do not realize that behind this extravagant frivolity is a serious, indeed political, playwright. Unusual for a British writer, Stoppard is not a man of the left; not since Noel Coward has Britain had an artist so unashamedly “right-wing.” He once famously said: “I burn with no causes. I cannot say that I write with any social objectives. One writes because one loves writing.”

He displayed a welcome hedonistic approach to life with his reply to a question on his first play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966). “What is it all about?” he was asked. “It is about to make me a lot of money,” he said. One can’t imagine Harold Pinter or Arthur Miller saying that: they are far too “serious” and morally pompous.

But all this is a little disingenuous, for Stoppard is actually much more politically acute than Pinter and Miller, and he is certainly more morally mature and intelligent. He has written at length on political themes, notably in his anti-communist plays Professional Foul (1977) and Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1977) and in his memorable dramatizations of modern philosophy, especially Jumpers (1972). All these works, and many others, reveal a deep commitment to morality and an intellectually, as well as theatrically, coherent rejection of that relativism which logical positivism and sterile linguistic philosophy have spawned. Above all there is a confident exposure of the dehumanizing aspects of Marxism and its relativistic anti-ethics.

Philosophy and Morality

Undergirding what Stoppard calls his conservatism in politics (“I am a conservative in politics, literature, education and theatre”) is a deep and uncompromising view of the morality of freedom; a conception that could almost be called natural law. It enjoins the universal precepts of human liberty and a commitment to a minimalist equality. Equally important is the idea that ultimately morality is individualist; our fundamental values cannot be submerged in a collectivist enterprise and personal responsibility ought not to be diluted by the ersatz ethics of nationalism, ideology, or an overpowering sense of religion (though this is not to say that he has no belief in God). As he said in an interview: “However inflexible our . . . beliefs . . . they owe their existence to individual acts between individuals, which themselves are derived from an individual’s intuitive sense of what is right and wrong.” Correct values are simple and immediate in their appeal. As Chetwyn says in Professional Foul: “A good rule, I find, is to try them out on men much less clever than us. I often ask my son what he thinks.”

The intellectuals have made morality socially untenable, and in Jumpers Stoppard mercilessly and comically exposes the aridity and ethically subversive nature of logical positivism (“truth is an interim judgment,” says a leading character). Set in a university, the play features yellow-clad gymnasts who reproduce physically the verbal agility of the positivists (“I have seen the future and it is yellow”). They are opposed by a believer in old-fashioned moral absolutes, Professor George Moore, who points out that the acrobatic team consists of a “mixture of the more philosophical members of the university gymnastics team and the more gymnastic members of the Philosophy School.” They are mainly positivists, empiricists, Benthamites, behaviourists, even lapsed Kantians, and they all make fantastic leaps of the imagination along with their gymnastic flights of physical fancy. Their political wing, the Radical Liberals, have just won an election but the positivists’ victory is spoiled by the murder of their most prominent member, McFee. They soon discover that there are absolute values; a circumstance the logical positivists normally find difficult to accommodate.

Even worse, McFee had already defected before his death, having himself witnessed a murder on TV. George cannot handle the slickness of the positivists and never makes the final lecture that would restore intellectual respectability to his absolutist beliefs or secure them in a plausible notion of God. George’s metaphysical meanderings seem as inconsequential as his zany wife Dotty’s badly rhymed rendition of classic musical comedy numbers (“I want to spoon to my honey I’ll croon love’s June or July”). Both seem out of touch with modernity. The positivists, in their sanitized belligerent way, are as much responsible for the misery in the world as are the overt totalitarians. As Stoppard said, in a fine refutation of moral equivalence: “The point is not to compare one ruthless regime against another—it is to set up one against a moral standard . . . and at least my poor professor in Jumpers got that right.”

Stoppard’s first theatrical onslaught against Marxism is in the extraordinarily adroit Travesties (1975). Three famous people, James Joyce, Tristan Tzara (the founder of the anarchic artistic movement, Dadaism), and Lenin are all in Zurich at the same time (1917) and are involved with a British civil servant, Henry Carr, in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Here one of the targets is Lenin’s materialism (“people were a sensational kind of material object”) and his dehumanizing theory of art and revolution. Lenin almost sobs with admiration at hearing Beethoven’s “Appassionata,” but quickly relapses into an ideological harangue against Western capitalism, for example, a free press will be “free from bourgeois anarchist individualism.” For him art’s only role is to be the servant of the class war. This small speech constitutes an instructive vignette on the depredations of ideology.

As it turns out, Carr is the real hero of Travesties. He may have somewhat jejune old-world British characteristics and an odd dress sense, but he does espouse Stoppard’s own beliefs in genuine artistic freedom, civil liberties, and a modest patriotism. And the important point is that these values are not negotiable; they are the universal standards by which we assess the secondary claims of art and politics.

The Political Plays

Stoppard was originally criticized for his alleged indifference to contemporary social issues; compared to the tedious moralizing and posturing of fashionable left-wing theatrical ranters, his retreat into cleverness, sheer verbal wizardry, and literary adroitness were a welcome relief. But two important plays in 1977—Professional Foul (written for TV) and Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (with music by André Previn)—firmly established him as an anti-communistic and pro-West writer. Stoppard had long been involved with Czech dissident movements (he was born in Czechoslovakia in 1937 but his family moved two years later) and his political views were not unknown—but he had not let them interfere with his professional work in the theatre.

Professional Foul nicely blends philosophy and politics. Anderson is an orthodox analytic philosopher who believes that ethics are mere conventions and not really worthy of intense speculation apart from the linguistic puzzles they might generate. He is on his way to Prague to pursue his real interest, football (soccer). There is a game on during a philosophy conference to which he has been invited to give a paper. His smug equanimity is disturbed by his meeting a former student, Pavel Hollar, who has been reduced to a cleaner’s job because of his political views: he wants to have his thesis smuggled into the West. Anderson’s complacent detachment is counter-poised by the moral absolutist, Chetwyn, and the conceited, amoral Marxist, McKendrick.

But circumstances, mainly the arrest of Hollar and the threat to his son, compel Anderson to engage in substantive moral issues. He changes the subject of his paper from a tame analytic enquiry about nothing important into a ringing declaration of human rights and a strident denunciation of communist tyranny. Against the subjectivism that had previously dominated his metaphysics he now says that “there is a sense of right and wrong that precedes utterance” and, in a neat paraphrase of a famous aphorism of Wittgenstein’s, maintains that “whereof we cannot speak, thereof we are by no means silent.” Anderson discovers that ethics are not club rules we can change at will; and at some risk to himself, as well as at the cost of missing the football game, he manages to get the thesis out of Czechoslovakia. In a gesture of supreme irony, Stoppard arranges for it to be placed in the luggage of McKendrick. There is redemption for philosophy after all.

In Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, Stoppard mercilessly parodies, with deadly intent, Soviet psychiatry. Mental hospitals are really prisons (“your opinions are your symptons”) and the dissident Alexander finds himself alongside a genuinely mentally disturbed patient, also named Alexander, who thinks he is conducting an orchestra. Indeed, an aberrant triangle functions as a discordant element in the grisly order of communism, as well as allowing Stoppard to make some complex wordplay on geometrical configurations. Again, correct morality is presented through a child, Alexander’s nine-year-old son Sacha (“Papa doesn’t lie”).

The ending of the play, in which a KGB official appears to confuse the two Alexanders so that both are released, caused some controversy at the time it was produced. It was said that Stoppard had concocted a bureaucratic bungling to effect a tame happy ending. But this was not so; it was a genuine decision by the regime. It did not want the embarrassment of continuing to persecute a famous dissident. That was the only relief available from the horrors of communism, but as Stoppard well knows, it was a poor consolation for the thousands of unknown victims of tyranny.

Both plays reflect Stoppard’s concern to stress the dependency of politics on morality. As he said: “All political acts have a moral basis to them and are meaningless without it.” This basis is objective, and Stoppard is disgusted by those people in comfortable situations in the West who think otherwise: Marxism and relativism “are now the quite familiar teachings of well-educated men and women holding responsible positions in respectable universities, and the thing to say about such teaching is not that it is “radical” but that it is not true. . . . It is silly. Daft. Not very bright. Moreover, it is wicked.” He knows, and has articulated very well, the absurdity of Marxist economics and sociology. But what he thinks has not been expressed strongly enough is its bankrupt and dehumanizing non-morality.

Stoppard, of course, has had the inestimable advantage of not going to university, yet he is undoubtedly thinking of those contemptible fellow travelers in Soviet Studies at Ivy League universities who were defending communist regimes as late as 1990.

Chaos and Order

In addition to the political implications of his objective ethics, Stoppard is also interested in some more general philosophical themes. An abiding concern is his sometimes comic exploration of the relationship between order and chaos and the possible unreliability of conventional scientific truths. His plays themselves are often constructed out of seemingly bizarre concatenations of events. There is an order out there, but it often has to be imagined, and although he is conservative about science, as in everything else, he is very much aware of the inadequacy of simple linear theories. It explains his recent excursion into chaos theory in his much-acclaimed play Arcadia (1993). But some of the themes here are presaged in his first stage success, later made into a movie, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

One recalls the opening scene where the two hapless Shakespearean courtiers from Hamlet keep spinning a coin, which keeps coming up heads. As well as effecting a mild redistribution of income this phenomenon obviously breaches the laws of probability and introduces us to what was to become a familiar Stoppard theme: uncertainty even about our most firmly held and apparently well-established convictions. The play itself is Hamlet seen from the wrong end of a telescope: characters come in and out of the action, they do unexpected things, and yet some semblance of order (though indescribable) is maintained. People die as they should, if not quite in the place and at the time that Shakespeare originally intended. Moviegoers will notice how Stoppard uses a similar technique in Shakespeare in Love; the Romeo and Juliet theme is a convenient peg on which to hang his invented relationship between Will Shakespeare and Viola.

The theme of order out of chaos is much more fully explored in Arcadia in which, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, a 13-year-old but precocious schoolgirl, Thomasina, discovers chaos theory while doing her math homework. What is described is a non-linear world that is also further exemplified by a modern character’s study of the breeding of grouse: the play is set in two different time periods, nineteenth-century England and the present day. The world may not be Newtonian but it is orderly, a theme that Stoppard directly borrows from James Gleick’s book Chaos. But in his own imaginative reconstruction of the theory, Thomasina shows how simple rules and equations, which contain apparently no random elements, can generate extraordinary complexity. Also, they have much greater explanatory power than conventional scientific theory.

Stoppard himself veers toward an understanding of the world in terms of a kind of order, though he clearly appreciates the dramatic power that chaos can create: “iterated algorithms” and other paraphernalia of modern mathematics adorn the play. The only philosophical omission in all this is the absence of any consideration of what the debate might imply for freedom. But the implication from his other work is that in politics he is an indeterminist; after all, his fierce anti-collectivism reveals a deep commitment to liberty and personal responsibility.

But Arcadia itself is wonderfully complex. Stoppard manages to work in a purported explanation of the mysterious disappearance of Lord Byron after a duel in 1809 alongside the pyrotechnics. The order/chaos dichotomy is further explored with the description of the changes in English social life as evinced by the transformation of the garden from classical symmetry through to “picturesque” disorder. It also contains some of Stoppard’s delightfully witty comments on sex, which rival those in Shakespeare in Love: “Is sexual congress like love?” Thomasina asks her tutor innocently. “Oh no, it is much nicer than that,” he replies knowingly.

Freedom and Literature

It is doubtful that the success of Stoppard will lead to a renaissance of “conservatism” in English literature. Already Shakespeare is being subtly removed from many courses (he was, of course, a racist and a sexist), so what chance does an avowed Thatcherite have of getting on the syllabuses of left-dominated schools? The class war and communism may be over in the regimes Stoppard has so brilliantly, and poignantly, pilloried, but they go on in their enervating ways amongst the British intelligentsia, especially in the arts.

But none of this matters. Stoppard does not work in the subsidized theatre. Nobody who has lived parasitically off the state could venerate freedom as much as he does. He would dazzle us with his verbal dexterity and theatrical innovations even if there were no political problems to worry about. And that, I am sure, would be his own Arcadia.

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