Tom Stoppard: 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 (1982) 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.

the-real-thing

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–

9 thoughts on “Tom Stoppard: The Real Thing

  1. KevinfromCanada says:

    Very interesting thoughts, Trevor. I saw the 1982 London production of The Real Thing (didn’t see Jeremy Irons Broadway version) and have seen a couple of regional performances since. My memory of the play is that it is a wonderful vehicle for the actor playing Henry — I’ll admit the meanings you found in reading it didn’t land with me. Maybe that means I should read the play.

    I don’t think I’m going to, however, because I have been very grumpy about Stoppard since Arcadia (which would mean 15 years now). I was quite excited about seeing The Invention of Love in London — it was excruciatingly bad. Rock and Roll was even worse — we left at the interval and we almost never do that. I do think Stoppard’s early work (including The Real Thing) was good, but I also feel he has lost his course. Your review does provoke me to remember his better work.

  2. I would have enjoyed seeing Jeremy Irons play Henry. I enjoyed whoever played Henry in the production I saw, but . . .

    It’s interesting that your grumpiness toward Stoppard began with Arcadia. I can’t say as I understood it when I watched and read it, and I can’t remember what I did get out of it, but I remember enjoying it nonetheless. The Invention of Love was one I wanted to like more, but I blamed myself for my indifference – I don’t think I quite knew what was going on most of the time. I actually pulled it down from my shelf thinking maybe I’ll get it this year, but I put it back. We’ll see if I pull it down again. I’m almost finished reading Brideshead Revisited and some of the early scenes between Charles and Sebastian made me think of The Invention of Love. Instead, I saw The Real Thing and revisited it. We’ll see if I get around to The Invention of Love soon.

    Most of my enjoyment from Stoppard has also been with his early work. I have not seen Rock and Roll, and probably won’t. I also have not seen The Coast of Utopia, but mainly because I don’t have the time to do the leg-work to prepare myself for a play with a massive bibliography. From what I read, a Ph.D. in Russian history is almost necessary to get that play, though it’s quite fascinating once you get there. He definitely seems to have gotten much more erudite and obscure over the past two decades.

  3. KevinfromCanada says:

    “Erudite and obscure” is probably a very fair description. I do think Stoppard let his reputation run ahead of his ability, and that produced some not very good plays.

    I’d leave Invention of Love on the shelf — there is nothing to recommend the play. I can’t comment on Coast of Utopia — if I had the chance to see it, I probably would have, but I’ve never had the chance.

    I do think your thoughts on Brideshead would be interesting, although the current dreadful movie might make them seem cheeky. It is a very good book and a think Waugh generally is worth reading right now.

  4. I had a graduate teacher who was an expert in the Victorian aesthetic movements, and she loved The Invention of Love. But like a lot of Stoppard’s late works, it seems to require such a passionate dedication of one’s life to understand. I really can’t remember it well enough right now to know my feelings on it.

    About Brideshead: I haven’t seen the movie and don’t plan to. I think every reviewer I respect said the movie was trash and an insult to a very good book and an already superb adaptation. That part about the good book and adaptation did spark my interest, though, and I got both. I’m almost through the book and have hours and hours of excellent acting to watch in the ITV adaptation.

  5. Wow! I haven’t thought about Tom Stoppard since college, I confess, when I saw The Real Thing along with my Contemporary British Theater class. Having read your excellent reiview, I realize that the play was wasted on a 19 year old lit major. It would pack more of a wallop now that I am in my 40s and well into my second marraige. I will have to revisit!

  6. Oh, I forgot to mention that we are in The Booker Project together. So today is my day to check out the blogs of all my fellow participants. What an interesting and creative bunch of fellow readers! Keep up the good work!

  7. KevinfromCanada says:

    I guess I can understand why someone with an academic background would find parts of Invention of Love interesting, but my wife and I certainly did not.

    If you do have the DVD on the British Bridie, make time to watch them twice. You miss a lot in the first viewing, pick it up in the second — and it is equally entertaining the second time through. I admit I knew the television version before I read the book — I was stunned when I did read the book that so many hours of television had come from such a short book. Of course, I was seeing things in reverse.

    And if you do like that, move on to the Sword of Honor trilogy, both book and British TV version (which we have on DVD). Waugh had a lot of problems — but he was a wonderful storyteller.

    If you don’t know about Acorn Media, check out their website. They are the American agency for great UK television. On nights that we don’t want to read, my wife and I decree “festivals” and, when you look at the cost of dinner our and even a movie, let alone theater, buying a DVD of something you like that you will watch three or four times becomes a worthwhile expense. If you accept that logic, check out Foyles’ War — even if you don’t, find season one at a rental store and then get ready to rent four more seasons. It is a book lovers wonderful television.

  8. workingwords100 says:

    Trevor, it’s your blog, so you can write about whatever you like!

    I enjoyed your review of a play.

    It’s good to challenge the mind in many ways (First with your memories of the play, comparing the written play with what you saw, and just the act of reading a play.)

    If you want to explore more about plays, borrow a 4 DVD set of Beckett’s plays from your library.

    The cost of the set is still a tad over $100.00, so that’s a present I won’t get for myself for awhile.

  9. Thanks for your comments everyone! I’m sorry it took me a while to respond. I have been traveling for the last few days, and just didn’t have a chance to see what people were saying here.

    Rose City Reader, I’m glad to have your comments on the site. I have been off the Booker Challenge since I finished this year’s longlist – I just haven’t had the desire to read a Booker book for a while. It’ll come back.

    Kevin and workingwords, thanks for the recommendations! It doesn’t take much to persuade me, so I’m sure sometime soon I’ll be checking out your recommendations. You’ve mentioned Foyles’ War before Kevin, so I’m particularly anxious to see what it’s all about.

Leave a Reply