The Real Thing
by Tom Stoppard (1982)
Faber & Faber (1982)
112 pp

the-real-thing

While this blog has primarily reviewed novels (and will continue to do so), I thought it might be a nice change of pace to throw in a play every now and then (and maybe a book of poetry, just for kicks). I don’t pretend to be really knowledgeable about plays, especially the acting side, but I have studied modern drama and theory in a few all-too-short classes, and there was a time in my life when I was able to attend the theater twice a week (being a student in London has major perks), so I at least have been exposed to it enough to know I enjoy talking about it. Perhaps that time when I can go to the theater twice a week will come again. I hope so, for seeing a play acted out by a superior acting company is much better than merely reading its script, or, for that matter, seeing the movie if one has been made.

With Tom Stoppard, however, I have often found that watching and reading is a necessity to fully appreciate his work. Often, to watch his play is to engage in a metaphysical activity in real-time. There is nothing quite like it. However, much like, say, Hamlet, to truly engage with Stoppard’s work it is almost necessary to examine the text — at least that is the case for me. While The Real Thing is perhaps one of his more straightforward plays, it also pays to visit the text itself. Had I not read The Real Thing, I would never have seen how adept Stoppard is at using the formal aspects of his play to construct and elaborate this play’s large themes.

As I said above, The Real Thing is basically straightforward, though it takes a few minutes to understand the relationship between the main characters: Max and Charlotte, and Henry and Annie. The play begins with Max and Charlotte. As is typical with Stoppard, part of the fun is seeing how he sets the stage before the dialogue begins.

MAX doesn’t have to be physically impressive, but you wouldn’t want him for an enemy. CHARLOTTE doesn’t have to be especially attractive, but you immediately want her for a friend.

Max is building a house of cards on a drawing table. Charlotte shuts the door and the cards tumble. It’s a rough scene that follows when Max, with biting wit, accuses Charlotte of having an affair. Hurt, she leaves. The scene shifts. However, so does the characterization:

HENRY is amiable but can take care of himself. CHARLOTTE is less amiable and can take even better care of herself. MAX is nice, seldom assertive, conciliatory. ANNIE is very much like the woman whom CHARLOTTE has ceased to be.

This strange shift in the characters of Max and Charlotte becomes apparent quickly. The first scene, it turns out, was a play. In reality (but this is kind of the fun part), Charlotte is married to Henry, who wrote the play. Max is married to Annie. Max and Annie have come to visit Charlotte and Henry. While there, Annie and Henry begin to bicker about her involvement in what he considers to be a sentimental activist group.

The characters shift again, however. Henry and Annie end up alone and we find out that there fight was not real. They were merely acting. In reality (there’s that word again), Henry and Annie are having an affair. As the play moves to the close of Act I, Charlotte and Max find out about the affair and leave their spouses, allowing Henry and Annie to be together, though Annie questions how strongly Henry feels toward her since he doesn’t seem to be jealous:

ANNIE: You don’t love me the way I love you. I’m just a relief after Charlotte, and a novelty.

HENRY: You’re a novelty all right. I never met anyone so silly. I love you. I don’t know why you’re behaving like this.

ANNIE: I’m behaving normally. It’s you who’s abnormal. You don’t care enough to care. Jealousy is normal.

HENRY: I thought you said you weren’t jealous.

ANNIE: Well, why aren’t you ever jealous?

HENRY: Of whom?

ANNIE: Of anybody. You don’t care if Gerald Jones sticks his tongue in my ear — which, incidentally, he does whenever he gets the chance.

HENRY: Is that what this is all about?

ANNIE: It’s insulting the way you just laugh.

HENRY: But you’ve got no interest in him.

ANNIE: I know that, but why should you assume it?

HENRY: Because you haven’t. This is stupid.

ANNIE: But why don’t you mind?

HENRY: I do.

ANNIE: No, you don’t.

HENRY: That’s true, I don’t. Why is that? It’s because I feel superior. There he is, poor bugger, picking up the odd crumb of ear wax from the rich man’s table. You’re right. I don’t mind. I like it. I like the way his presumption admits his poverty. I like him, knowing that that’s all there is, because you’re coming home to me and we don’t want anyone else. I love love. I love having a lover and being one. The insularity of passion. I love it. I love the way it blurs the distinction between everyone who isn’t one’s lover. Only two kinds of presence in the world. There’s you and there’s them. I love you so.

I don’t want to give away too much here, but I have to set the stage for Act II, just because I think it’s what makes this play so brilliant. It’s been a few years, and Henry and Annie are still together. But whatever romance or passion they first experienced is no longer there. During a visit at her home, Henry is confronted by Charlotte who tells him that she had multiple affairs during their marriage.

CHARLOTTE: And look what your one did compared to my nine.

HENRY: Nine?

CHARLOTTE: Feel betrayed?

HENRY: Surprised. I thought we’d made a commitment.

CHARLOTTE: There are no commitments, only bargains. And they have to be made again every day. You think making a commitment is it. Finish. You think it sets like a concrete platform and it’ll take any strain you want to put on it. You’re committed. You don’t have to prove anything. In fact you can afford a little neglect, indulge in a little bit of sarcasm here and there, isolate yourself when you want to. Underneath it’s concrete for life. I’m a cow in some ways, but you’re an idiot. Were an idiot.

Henry, filled with jealousy, returns home to confront Annie, sure she is having an affair.

And somehow, in this wonderful play, I learned a lot about what makes relationships continue, what makes them worthwhile, what makes them real, how to let the “mask slip from the face.” This might sound incredibly romantic and maybe even idealistic. I don’t think that it is, however. It’s not all pretty, and it’s not all “love will overcome all.” Not at all. It’s much better than that. But, fortunately, we get some of Stoppard’s nice romantic lines (even if the line is tinged with a bit of failure):

Well, I remember, the first time I succumbed to the sensation that the universe was dispensable minus one lady–

Liked it? Take a second to support The Mookse and the Gripes on Patreon!