The Enigma of Tom Stoppard

written by Lea-Katya Gorny 

 Mentioning Tom Stoppard among my friends is like tossing the topic of pineapple on pizza into the conversation – it’s an instant recipe for debate. On one side, you have the Stoppard lovers, like myself, who practically levitate with excitement at mentioning his name. On the other, the Stoppard skeptics would rather watch paint dry than endure one of his plays. “It’s stuff for English majors and those who use ‘summer’ as a verb,” they groan, not entirely without merit – Stoppard’s plays do layer complexity like a gourmet chef layers flavors.

Yet, here’s where I stand up for Stoppard’s genius: his work is more than intellectual showmanship. It’s not merely the brainy dialogues but how he masterfully weaves narratives that transcend time and thought. Take “Arcadia,” for instance. Stoppard isn’t just juggling two timelines; he’s weaving them into a rich tapestry, exploring the intricate dance between past and present, science and emotion. 


 At the heart of “Arcadia” is Thomasina, a young genius whose curiosity and innocence slice through the complexities of chaos theory and thermodynamics. She’s a beacon of raw intellectual hunger, embodying the pure joy of questioning ‘why.’ Her story, unfolding in the early 19th century, resonates with present-day scholars unraveling the mysteries she left behind. This juxtaposition is more than clever storytelling; it’s a poignant exploration of our relentless quest for knowledge and the indelible marks we leave in time. 

A healthy attitude is contagious but don’t wait to catch it from others. Be a carrier.

Stoppard’s “Arcadia” transcends a mere cerebral exercise. It delves into human emotions and connections, portraying romantic entanglements across eras, illustrating that the quest for love and understanding is as unpredictable as a mathematical equation. This blend of intellect and emotion is what makes the play universally resonant. 

Vogue. Tom Stoppard, 1967

Furthermore, Stoppard’s humor in “Arcadia” showcases his skill in making complex concepts understandable and genuinely entertaining. His wit is integral to the narrative, facilitating an engaging journey into sophisticated ideas with laughter and relatable scenarios. This approachable humor ensures the play is inviting, offering both a challenge and a delightful reward.

In essence, Stoppard’s work, particularly in “Arcadia,” is a multifaceted exploration of ideas and emotions. It invites audiences from diverse backgrounds to engage, ponder, and connect. This is the true mark of genius – the ability to enlighten, entertain, and evoke empathy simultaneously. 

Better a fallen rocket than never a burst of light. 

“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” further showcases Stoppard’s appeal. Elevating minor characters from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” to the forefront, it weaves a narrative exploring existentialism and free will, peppered with humor yet rooted in the relatable turmoil of seeking purpose. Adrift in a more significant history, these characters mirror the universal human experience of searching for meaning in a chaotic world. Stoppard’s talent lies in making intricate ideas both approachable and engaging. 

 That said, Stoppard’s humor is akin to a fine Scotch – an acquired taste, undoubtedly. His plays are like a gym for the brain, challenging you to flex mental muscles you didn’t know you had. They’re highbrow reality TV, filled with drama, elaborate language, and existential crises. At times, it can feel like being stuck at a party with a newly enthusiastic wordsmith.

But what about Stoppard’s lesser-known plays? “The Real Thing,” for example, showcases Stoppard delving into the complexities of love and fidelity, revealing a more emotional side. It’s as though he’s saying, “I’m not just about clever wordplay and philosophical puzzles; I have a heart, too!” This play contrasts his more intellectual works, offering a more emotionally accessible but equally impactful experience. And then, there’s “The Coast of Utopia,” his sprawling trilogy that’s akin to Stoppard’s version of the Marvel Universe but with 19th-century Russian intellectuals instead of superheroes. This epic journey through history, ideas, and revolutions is akin to a time-traveling roller coaster, a long but exhilarating ride for those who commit to the trip. 

Image: BBC One

 In the context of 2023, Stoppard’s plays, with their blend of wit, wisdom, and whimsy, feel remarkably relevant. In an era where ‘unprecedented times’ has become a common phrase, the themes in plays like “Arcadia” resonate profoundly with its exploration of chaos theory and entropy. It’s as if Stoppard left us hints: “Expect the unexpected – and perhaps brush up on your thermodynamics.”

Life is a gamble, at terrible odds. If it were a bet you wouldn’t take it.

Then there’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” In a year where existential dread is often the mood, the play’s exploration of fate, free will, and life’s randomness feels more pertinent than ever. It’s as if Stoppard anticipated our era of endless existential meme-scrolling and thought, “Let’s stage this but with an Elizabethan twist.”

Moreover, Stoppard’s plays delve into the complexities of communication and miscommunication, a theme all too familiar in the era of digital conversations and misunderstood texts. His works remind us that, be it a letter in the 19th century or a tweet in the 21st, the potential for misinterpretation is a timeless human comedy – and occasionally, tragedy. 

Image: Bryanston School 

 Perhaps the most striking aspect of Stoppard’s relevance today is his ability to provoke critical thought about our world. In an age when we are bombarded with information, his plays encourage us to pause and reflect, like a friend who asks an unexpected question that makes everyone stop and think. 

It is a defect of God’s humor that he directs our hearts everywhere but to those who have a right to them.

As we navigate global challenges and personal dilemmas in 2023, Stoppard’s plays serve as mirrors, magnifying glasses, and sometimes escape hatches. They remind us that amidst the chaos, there’s always space for humor, intellectual curiosity, and the power of a well-crafted story. In a way, Stoppard’s works are not just contemporary plays; they are a witty survival guide for the modern world. 

Image: Open Magazine 

 To conclude this Stoppardian journey, let’s agree: Tom Stoppard is akin to that unusual, sophisticated cocktail you tried on a whim. It’s complex, surprising, and not to everyone’s taste, but for those who appreciate it, it’s an unforgettable experience. Whether you’re a die-hard Stoppard fan or would prefer reading the phone book to watching one of his plays, one thing is sure: he has significantly stirred the world of theatre. So, let’s raise a glass (or an eyebrow) to Tom Stoppard – the playwright who keeps our debates as lively as his plays. 

All your life you live so close to truth, it becomes a permanent blur in the corner of your eye, and when something nudges it into outline it is like being ambushed by a grotesque. 

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