There are writers who leave me dumbfounded, so thoroughly dazzled by their inventiveness and command of language that I can’t help but speculate on what it must be like within the interconnected passages of their brain. I make no claim on an exhaustive knowledge of the voluminous works of Tom Stoppard, especially since most of the touchstone efforts are best experiences from a seat positioned to face a stage. Still, whenever I come upon one of his landscapes of intricately interlocking ideas, I feel humbled and blessed in equal measure.
Like most, I suppose, my welcoming entryway to Stoppard’s art was in the form of brilliantly reconceptions of Shakespeare, drawing on the enduring elegance of the Bard’s dramaturgy and engaging it with a playfulness that exposes the continuing relevance of the historic works better than any modern-dress gimmickry ever could. I think the critical appreciation for Shakespeare in Love has faded significantly since it unexpected claimed the Best Picture Academy Award almost twenty years ago, but it’s worth remembering that Stoppard’s screenplay was justly considered a feat, as fine and cheeky a consideration of how life informs art and vice versa as anyone is likely to compose. Then there’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, which brightly imagined the hidden corners of what many consider to be the greatest work of literature ever created and wisely, wonderfully scored it with vaudevillian farce. Viewed today, it even anticipates the hunger to constantly expand familiar stories. Call it the unrealized launch of the Shakespeare Cinematic Universe.
As I tap out these words, my intellect is still quivering with the aftershocks of a staging of Stoppard’s Arcadia, a play that made its debut in 1993. Early in its lifespan, British critic Charles Spencer wrote, “I have never left a play more convinced that I had just witnessed a masterpiece.” That makes for a nice summary of my own reaction, albeit years later, well after the the work claimed a cemented place in the modern canon. It is the totality of Stoppard’s genius contained within a single play: the agitated interplay of art and science, the compelling philosophical flights, the language that curlicues into hyperverbal streamer blasts, and a depiction of human emotion that shows how cynicism can shift to hopefulness with the opposing states both fiercely true. It’s astonishing.
Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.