The winter of Tom Stoppard's wit

Or, age 39 vs age 82

If you suffer from a compulsive, illogical attraction to expensive printed media and accumulate more of it than you could ever possibly read, you should seek professional help. And on your way to said help, do try to pick up the year-end issue of The Spectator. It’s a particularly good one, with a big profile of Sir Tom Stoppard, the brilliant playwright who rarely sits for an interview.

Stoppard, 82, has written dozens of clever plays, popularized the game of verbal tennis (here performed by Tim Roth and Gary Oldman), won four Tonys, projected a radio drama on top of Dark Side of the Moon, and infamously punched up the dialogue in the Star Wars prequels before George Lucas punched it back down. He once said he wrote plays “because dialogue is the most respectable way of contradicting myself.” 

Stoppard is an institution — and in his old age, he talks like one. “He speaks slowly, carefully, constantly turning over and self-correcting his words as he caresses and then smokes the first of a steady stream of cigarettes,” writes Douglas Murray in the Spectator piece, solemnly headlined “I aspire to write for posterity.”

Compare that to this terrifically freewheeling interview he did at age 39 with New York magazine’s Jon Bradshaw way back in 1979. The headline then: “Tom Stoppard, Nonstop: Wordgames With A Hit Playwright”

“I’m always interviewing myself,” he told his interviewer back then. “Or at least I used to. I don’t have to interview myself anymore because people come and do it for me. Mind you, they don’t do it as well as I do.”

He proceeds to dissect the problems with profiles, chiefly that they ask straightforward questions about ever-changing subjects. That led to this exchange:

“If you ask me how tall I am, I’ll say six foot one and tomorrow if you ask me again I’ll say the same thing … unless of course I’ve grown. But if you ask me what I think of Virginia Woolf, then the answer would have a different status.”

“What do you think of Virginia Woolf?”  

“Well, in my opinion, Virginia Woolf was the tallest woman writer of the twenties.”

‘Are you quite sure?”

Yes, yes. My information is that Katharine Mansfield was only four foot eleven and Edith Sitwell was only five foot three. But Virginia Woolf was six foot eight, a fact not commonly known.”

Much of the piece seems rehearsed, not that it’s less effective for it.  “I have a weakness for wisecracks which I don’t sometimes have the tact to withhold,” Stoppard says. “I always think that mere untruth is a very poor reason for restraint. Let me rephrase that. Accuracy is a high price to pay for truth. End of epigram.”

Forty years on, the epigrams have pretty much ended. Now, he notes that “all the good bits are subconscious — they truly are.” And to underline that fact, today’s Stoppard says: “Delivering yourself of opinions of any kind is somehow robbing your own pantry.” He knows better than to toss out his best stuff for a waiting journalist to use under his own byline. 

Old Tom goes on to describe Young Tom’s mental state, and it doesn’t sound particularly pleasant. After he found success, he was shocked by the fact that he could and should be successful:

“[U]ntil then I hadn’t understood that that kind of thing could happen to people like me, and as soon as I realised it had happened it kind of went through the floor. … After that I was very anxious about it. I remember being very, very nervous for succeeding opening nights right through the 1970s, most certainly the 1980s. But nowadays, because I suppose I don’t feel I’ve got anything to prove, I’m just happy if the event happens the way we rehearsed it.”

So what does this say about the wit in winter? Now that he’s definitely said something, he no longer needs to say everything. His age of anxiety is over; he can take some deep breaths. His latest play, billed as his most personal yet, opens to sold-out houses on the West End next month.

In 1979, Stoppard said, “before being carried out feet first, I would like to have done a bit of absolutely everything. Really, without any evidence of talent in those other directions, I find it very hard to turn down offers to write an underwater ballet for dolphins or a play for a motorcyclist on the wall of death.”

Now, having done variations on all of the above, he’s got a simpler wish: “I would like my plays to be done occasionally, not just be done when they’re brand new. I like the idea of them being part of the furniture.”

Here, then, is how our aspirations age: Young Tom wanted to be Evel Knievel; Old Tom just wants to be an ottoman. 

Quick quips; lightning

Three more sparkling context-free Stoppard lines from the 1979 interview:

“You see, I want to demonstrate that I can make serious points by flinging a custard pie around the stage for a couple of hours.”

“Early on in my career, I had an interview with Mr. Charles Wintour, the editor of the Evening Standard. At one point, Mr. Wintour asked me if I were interested in politics. Thinking all journalists should be interested in politics, I told him I was. He then asked me who the home secretary was. Of course, I had no idea who the current home secretary was. And, in any event, it was an unfair question. I’d only admitted to an interest in politics. I hadn’t claimed I was obsessed with the subject.”

“My kind of joke is a snake in a funny hat eating its own tail.”

So ends the 26th issue of Get Wit Quick, your weekly ouroboros haberdashery. My book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting is currently being adapted into an underwater ballet for Jar-Jar Binks. Let those Edith Sitwell truthers know her real height by tapping the ❤️below.