In a more than 50-year career, Tom Stoppard (1937-) has established himself as perhaps England’s greatest living playwright. The funny thing is, like many previous members of the club, he’s not English at all. Born to a secular Jewish family in what was then Czechoslovakia, the boy named Tomáš Straüssler spent his early life as a war refugee. On March 15, 1939, the day the Nazis invaded Prague, his family fled for Singapore. Eugen, Tomáš’s father, died in the ensuing Japanese occupation. The surviving Straüsslers escaped to the Indian Himalayas, where mother Martha met and married Kenneth Stoppard, a British Army Major.
Stoppard has credited this English identity with a deep but subtle sense of alienation. His plays always search for meaning in a world of chaotic collisions. Less obviously, this childhood spent in mortal terror may have also led to a deep-seated allergy to totalitarianism and a just as instinctive libertarian impulse.
Kenneth Tynan, writing in the New Yorker in 1977, quotes a conversation with Stoppard that exemplifies his political Weltanschauung: “I don’t lose any sleep if a policeman in Durham beats somebody up, because I know it’s an exceptional case. […] What worries me is not the bourgeois exception but the totalitarian norm. Of all the systems that are on offer, the one I don’t want is the one that denies freedom of expression—no matter what its allegedly redeeming virtues may be. The only thing that would make me leave England would be control over free speech.”
One year later, Stoppard wrote Dogg’s Hamlet and Cahoot’s Macbeth (1978), two one-acts designed to be performed together. Written in the margins of Shakespearean texts, they explore the genre that Stoppard had both invented and perfected with Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. But they also betray his fierce moral passion for the rights of man.
Dogg’s Hamlet stages a paradox from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (1953), in which two groups of builders who speak different languages are able to communicate, unaware their respective mental pictures are completely different. Following this Wittgensteinian logic, Stoppard invents a language, “Dogg,” which is spoken by a group of prep school boys rehearsing Hamlet. The cleverness of the piece lies in is its use of Shakespeare as a lingua franca (Shakespeare provides the only “straight” English), as well as its understanding of the politics of language. When the workmen and students are both mistreated by their fascistic schoolmasters, they are united briefly in a Dogg’s eye view of the world.
In Cahoot’s Macbeth, we are in Soviet Prague, where a group of actors are putting on Macbeth in someone’s living room. The work was inspired by Stoppard meeting Czech playwright Pavel Kohout, who had written just such an adaptation of “The Scottish Play.” The actors are observed by the secret police, much as the critics observe the action in The Real Inspector Hound. As Newsweek wrote of the works, “The incorrigibly playful Stoppard has never been more serious than in this most playful of his works. Like George Orwell, Stoppard knows that language and liberty are intertwined: when language is perverted, corrupted or forcibly repressed, so is liberty.”