Tom Stoppard: A Believer?
June 29, 2012 Leave a comment
When something in literature is convincing, I often, unhelpfully, assume it’s autobiographical. This doesn’t speak well for my imagination or my faith in the imaginations of others. But reading Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing (1982), I never thought Henry, though a playwright, might be a version of Stoppard–never until the play’s final moment, when the action onstage gives way to the Monkees’ hit “I’m a Believer.”
It was only at the end that I saw pop music as intrinsic to the play, nearly as intrinsic as it is to Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll (2006), about the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution, in which pop music is shown as a political force. Surely Stoppard, having written two plays about the power of pop, feels this power.
One of the first things we learn about Henry in The Real Thing is that he loves pop music, specifically ’60s rock. When we meet him, he’s searching desperately through his records to prepare to go on Desert Island Discs, a radio show on which celebrities discuss their favorite records. He wants to choose records that will disguise his true taste, convinced that his lack of feeling for classical music shows him to be an intellectual fraud.
I’m going to look a total prick, aren’t I, announcing that while I was telling Jean-Paul Sartre and the post-war French existentialists where they had got it wrong, I was spending the whole time listening to the Crystals singing “Da Doo Run Run.”
He’s not sympathetic to the argument that no art is better than any other, that everyone should just like what they like. When it’s suggested that the only reason for preferring his own plays to the clunky first script of a political activist is that people have been taught to prefer Henry’s kind of writing, he goes for a cricket bat.
This thing here, which looks like a wooden club, is actually several pieces of particular wood cunningly put together in a certain way so that the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor. It’s for hitting cricket balls with. If you get it right, the cricket ball will travel two hundred yards in four seconds, and all you’ve done is give it a knock like knocking the top off a bottle of stout, and it makes a noise like a trout taking a fly… (He clucks his tongue to make the noise.) What we’re trying to do is to write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might… travel… (He clucks his tongue again and picks up the script.) Now, what we’ve got here is a lump of wood of roughly the same shape trying to be a cricket bat, and if you hit the ball with it, the ball will travel about ten feet and you will drop the bat and dance about shouting “Ouch!” with your hands stuck into your armpits. (Indicating the cricket bat.) This isn’t better because someone says it’s better, or because there’s a conspiracy of the MCC to keep cudgels out of Lords. It’s better because it’s better.
Henry makes an effort to learn to appreciate Bach’s cricket bats more than the Righteous Brothers’ lumps of wood, but at the end of the play he’s more moved by the Monkees than by an acquaintance’s joy at impending marriage, and we share his delight in letting the bouncy simplicity of “I’m a Believer” overwhelm the messy complication of the characters’ relationships.
Pop, Henry complains early in the play, moves him
the way people are supposed to be moved by real music. [italics Stoppard's]
The real thing of the title (meant with at least a touch of irony) is love, but Stoppard seems also to be saying that good pop music is the real thing.