Sunday, December 09, 2007

After 25 years, Tom Stoppard's remarkable play "The Real Thing" still raises vital questions about the way we argue for political and social reform


The "cricket bat scene" with Albert Schultz
and Megan Follows in Toronto last year

"I don't think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve . . . respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you're dead."
--Henry, a playwright, in the opening scene of Act II of Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing

Yesterday in an e-mail a friend expressed her enormous enthusiasm for Tom Stoppard (seen here in New York in June collecting the Tony for Best Play for his trilogy The Coast of Utopia), and that set me to thinking about the work of his that I know best, the earlier plays. In particular I found myself reimmersed in his remarkable play The Real Thing (1982, first done on Broadway in 1984).

I confess that at some point while I was responding to my friend's e-mail it occurred to me that the issues Henry engages in what I think of as the "cricket bat scene" (for reasons that should become apparent) are so important to us would-be political reformers that I wanted to share these same thoughts with you out there. So that's what I'm going to do, in pretty much the form that I sent them off last night. (I confessed my shamelessness to my friend, who said to go right ahead.)

When I dug out the play, which I hadn't looked at in a long time (and was startled to find in exactly the expected place on the shelf, despite all those years and a couple of moves), I found myself as overwhelmed by it as ever--and the issues joined as urgent. So today I dutifully typed out some excerpts from the "cricket bat scene," which follow the e-mail:

You don't have to sell me on Stoppard. I loved the early plays, and then, back when I was taking acting classes (not to become an actor, heaven help us all, but for some first-hand experience of the performance process, for my critical writing), one of my teachers was excited by Mike Nichols' Broadway staging of THE REAL THING, and when my new scene partner and I needed a scene to work on, she suggested the scene with the "cricket bat" speech. We spent a number of weeks on it; the material was just remarkable.

Poor Henry is fighting simultaneously for his (significantly younger) wife and his life as Annie is preparing to leave him for her fiery young Scottish revolutionary asshole. [This is actually wrong. Oh, Annie is ready to break up with Henry all right, but when he eventually accuses her of being interested in Brodie, it seems clear that he's wrong. It's only Brodie's radical spirit that has gotten to her. However, the young actor who's playing a Brodie-like character in Brodie's play is another matter.] He tries to make her understand the fatuity of the revolutionary rhetoric--you don't change societies that way. And in his desperation he comes up with the analogy of the cricket bat: how difficult it is to hit the ball, and how little impact you will make most of the time, but how every once in a while, if you really get the bat on the ball, really hit it, you can producing an amazing result. Same thing with the fixing the ills of the world, Henry tries to argue--if everything goes right, you may just NUDGE it a bit, and that's the best you can hope for. [Again, this isn't quite right, as you'll see, but the spirit is sort of right.]

Of course this is only Henry's point of view, and it's always dangerous to confuse a character's point of view with the author's. But I have to say, he's awfully persuasive--though not to Annie, of course. Its applicability to the sphere of political reform, especially when you consider the massed power of the forces arrayed AGAINST change, is kind of scary.

Now, as to the scene itself, of course we won't be doing anything like justice to it, but I think there is still some value to looking at these selected excerpts.

I won't burden you with excessive plot. What you need to know is that after two years together, "40-ish" Henry, a successful playwright who's sliding into a well repressed midlife crisis of self-doubt, and "30-ish" Annie, a popular actress, have sunk into a crisis point in their relationship. The immediate battleground is a dreadful play written by a young Scottish anti-capitalist radical Annie has championed, which she actually plans to travel to Glasgow to appear in. She's gotten Henry to read it, with a view to perhaps fixing it a bit. Let's pick up, oh, here:

ANNIE: To you, he can't write. To him, write is all you can do.

HENRY: Jesus, Annie, you're beginning to appal me. There's something scary about stupidity made coherent. I can deal with idiots, and I can deal with sensible argument, but I don't know how to deal with you. Where's my cricket bat?

ANNIE: Your cricket bat?

HENRY: Yes, it's a new approach.

(He heads out into the hall.)

ANNIE: Are you trying to be funny?

HENRY: No, I'm serious.

(He goes out while she watches in wary disbelief. He returns with an old cricket bat.)

ANNIE: You better not be.

HENRY: Right, you silly cow--

ANNIE: Don't you bloody dare--

HENRY: Shut up and listen. This thing here, which looks like a wooden club, is actually several pieces of particular wood cunningly put together in a certain way so that the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor. It's for hitting cricket balls with. If you get it right, the cricket ball will travel two hundred yards in four seconds, and all you've done is give it a knock like knocking the top off a bottle of stout, and it makes a noise like a trout taking a fly . . . (He clucks his tongue to make the noise.) What we're trying to do is to write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might . . . travel . . . (He clcks his tongue again and picks up the script.) Now what we've got here is a lump of wood of roughly the same shape trying to be a cricket bat, and if you hit a ball with it, the ball will travel about ten feet and you will drop the bat and dance about shouting 'Ouch!' with your hands stuck into your armpits. (Indicating the cricket bat.) This isn't better because someone says it's better, or because there's a conspiracy by the MCC to keep cudgels out of Lords. It's better because it's better. You don't believe me, so I suggest you go out to bat with this and see how you get on. (From the script.) 'You're a strange boy, Billy, how old are you?' 'Twenty, but I've lived more than you'll ever live.' Ooh, ouch!

(He drops the script and hops about with his hands in his armpits, going 'Ouch!' ANNIE watches him expressionlessly until he desists.)

ANNIE: I hate you.

HENRY: I love you. I'm your pal. I'm your best mate. I look after you. You're the only chap.

Of course Annie knows that the script isn't very good. But can't Henry perhaps "cut it and shape it"? ("Cut it and shape it," he says. "Henry of Mayfair.") The problem, Henry says, isn't just that Brodie can't write, but that it's all "balls."

HENRY: When he gets into his stride, announcing every stale revelation of the newly enlightened, like stout Cortez coming upon the Pacific--war is profits, politicians are puppets, Parliament is a farce, justice is a fraud, property is theft . . . It's all here: the Stock Exchange, the arms dealers, the press barons . . . You can't fool Brodie--patriotism is propaganda, religion is a con trick, royalty is an anachronism . . . Pages and pages of it. It's like being run over slowly by a traveling freak show of favourite simpletons, the india rubber pedagogue, the midget intellectual, the human panacea . . .

ANNIE: It's his view of the world. Perhaps from where he's standing, you'd see it the same way.

HENRY: Or perhaps I'd realize where I'm standing. Or at least that I'm standing somewhere.

Henry argues that when it comes to abstractions like politics, justice, and patriotism, unlike a real object like a coffee mug,
there's nothing real there separate from our perception of them. So if you try to change them as though there were something there to change, you'll get frustrated, and frustration will finally make you violent. If you know this and proceed with humility, you may perhaps alter people's perceptions so that they behave a little differently at that axis where we locate politics or justice; but if you don't know this, then you're acting on a mistake. Prejudice is the expression of this mistake.

And it doesn't matter, Annie asks, "who wrote it, why he wrote it, where he wrote it"?

HENRY: They don't matter. Maybe Brodie got a raw deal, maybe he didn't. I don't know. It doesn't count. He's a lout with language. I can't help somebody who thinks, or thinks he thinks, that editing a newspaper is censorship, or that throwing bricks is a demonstration while building tower blocks is social violence, or that unpalatable statement is provocation while disrupting the speaker is the exercise of free speech . . . Words don't deseve that kind of malarkey. They're innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other, so if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos. But when they get their corners knocked off, they're no good anymore, and Brodie knocks corners off without knowing he's doing it. So everything he builds is jerry-built. It's rubbish. An intelligent child could push it over. I don't think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you're dead.

Now I don't say we have to agree with Henry, or at least not all the way. But then, this isn't a polemic, not a Socratic dialogue, it's a play. And if it hasn't yet been driven home to the audience that Henry is fighting for his life, for something to hold on to, the depth of his despair is about the become obvious. Annie fights back with the weapons at her disposal. This follows immediately from those last words of Henry's:

(ANNIE goes to the typewriter, pulls out the page from the machine and reads it.)

ANNIE: 'Seventy-nine. Interior. Commander's capsule. From Zadok's p.o.v. we see the green glow of he laser strike-force turning towards us. BCU Zadok's grim smile. Zadok: "I think it's going to work. Here they come!" Kronk, voice over: "Hold your course!" Zadok:--'

HENRY: That not words, that's pictures. The movies. Anyway, alimony doesn't count. If Charlotte [Henry's ex-wife] made it legal with that architect she's shacked up with, I'd be writing the real stuff.

(ANNIE lets the page drop on to the typewriter.)

And now Annie drives the stake in. Every time I read this exchange, I'm overwhelmed by the incredible pain it involves, in different ways, for both Annie and Henry. Back when their relationship was new and thrilling, and all things seemed possible, Henry promised to write Annie a play worthy of her acting talents. Now, again we proceed without interruption, from Henry saying that if he were relieved of his alimony burden he'd "be writing the real stuff."

ANNIE: You never wrote mine.

HENRY: That's true. I didn't. I tried.
I can't remember when I last felt so depressed.
Oh yes. Yesterday.

That's not the end of the scene, which is even more depressing, but I'll leave that to you to deal with. I do want to add a postscript, though.

Naturally while I was working on the scene for class I didn't want to see the play. But when we'd had our fun with it, of course I did. And I hated it.

Not the play, which I knew too well to disparage. I loved that play--and returning to it now I'm just as amazed and excited by it. However, the performance I saw was so slick, and seemed so unconcerned with the burning inner urgencies of these characters, that if I hadn't already known the play fairly well, I don't think I would have picked up on its remarkable qualities.

Of course Jeremy Irons was and is a brilliant actor, and I suppose he and director Mike Nichols could justify his imperturbability as Henry--laconic to the point of emotional absence--as the character's own fortress-like repression. I suppose this is a defensible choice in human terms, but in dramatic terms it seems to me a catastrophically wrong choice for communicating the lives of these people at this particular point in time. I would have thought that the whole point of Henry's participation in the play is that his accumulated as well as immediate life circumstances are bringing his entire life crashing down around him. He's fighting for everything he believes in, fighting in effect for his continued existence.

And Laila Robbins, who had succeeded Glenn Close as Annie, and who I later learned is an actress of considerable sympathy and flexibility, and can give us vulnerability as well as strength, seemed stuck in two dimensions, communicating hardly any sense of the character's stake in escaping Henry's engraved-in-marble world of impeccable good sense in favor of the reckless excitement of youthful man-the-barricades idealism.

Of course this was well into the play's New York run, and it's possible that the production had succumbed to the old plague of eight-performances-a-week routine. But it sure had the look of a production that was designed to use a bag of special-effects tricks to sell a play that's built in good part on the power of carefully and meaningfully crafted words.

In my battered old copy Real Thing, I was startled to discover that in London the role of Henry was created by Roger Rees, who I can imagine being even icier than Jeremy Irons. But the original Annie was that most irresistibly warm and involving of actresses, Felicity Kendal. Man, I'd have loved to see that!

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Don't forget the brilliant 2000 Broadway Dillane/Ehle production. Astonishing performances.

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