The following speech was given by WGGB Theatre Co-Chair and former President David Edgar, on 23 January 2017, at the Writers’ Guild Awards ceremony in London, hosted by Meera Syal
It’s become quite modish to describe individually written plays as old-fashioned, in contrast to contemporary and up-to-date forms of playwriting like devising.
The last five Writers’ Guild Best Play awards have gone to Rachel De-Lahay, Owen McCafferty, Rona Munro, Timberlake Wertenbaker and Caryl Churchill. Old fashioned? Uncontemporary? Out of date?
The first produced play by the writer who we’re honouring now feels as contemporary as it did when it was premiered. It contains one of the finest tropes in postwar British theatre. Two young men meet a troupe of actors on a road. To make conversation, one of them asks the lead actor about the company’s repertoire. The actor responds that they are of the blood, love and rhetoric school. Pressed, he reveals that they can do blood and love without the rhetoric, and blood and rhetoric without the love, and all three concurrent or consecutive, but they can’t do love and rhetoric without the blood. “Blood is compulsory”, the actor explains, “they’re all blood, you see”.
To which one of the young men responds, you might think reasonably: “Is that what people want?” To which the actor replies, in my view unanswerably, “It’s what we do”.
It would be convenient if that manifesto defined the recipient of tonight’s outstanding contribution award, but that would be only half true. Certainly, he has written what he wants to write, in the way he wants to write it, often in defiance of current artistic and political fashion, mostly to great popular acclaim, occasionally to critical bafflement.
However, far from being limited in range, the repertoire of his work has been amazingly wide. He has written principally for theatre, but also for film and television. There’s a story that he received a phone call from an American film director of galactic repute, who asked him to drop everything and write the screenplay for one of the most important films of its time. He replied that he couldn’t do it because he was currently working on something for the BBC. The director responded: “You mean, you’re turning this down to write for television?”. No, came the reply. Radio.
Within these various media, his work has covered a vast range of styles and subjects. Born Tomas Straussler in Czechoslovakia, his Jewish family fled in 1939, arriving in England, via India, in 1946. His father had died after the Japanese takeover of Singapore, and his mother had married a British Army officer called Kenneth Stoppard. Despite having left Eastern Europe at the age of two, Tom’s early work for the stage – including Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, about to be revived at the Old Vic – were much closer to continental absurdism than the realism which dominated British theatre.
His plays in this mode include much of the early radio, and the short plays After Magritte and The Real Inspector Hound, a spoof whodunnit which begins with the charlady answering the phone with the announcement: “Lady Muldoon’s country residence, one morning in early spring”. His play Jumpers – about a gently crumbling humanist professor in a crazed university run by an ultra-trendy Vice Chancellor obsessed with gymnastics – is also a sort-of whodunnit. The characters in Travesties include James Joyce, the Dadaist Tristan Tzara and Lenin, all of whom were in Zurich in 1917. These plays were complicated, erudite, zany and outrageously funny.
However, and despite his insistence that his plays must be “untouched by any suspicion of usefulness”, Tom’s work has at its heart a serious, sometimes searing critique of the prevailing isms of the 20th century, from the point of view of what he called a “timid libertarianism” which set him against the ascendant left of the 1960s and 1970s. Every lecturer at a new University was convinced Jumpers was a direct portrait of their institution. In the late 1970s, when engaged drama generally was entering a dip, Tom’s work became more specifically political, taking on the newspaper unions, literary correctness, and above all, the Soviet empire and its Western apologists. His teleplay Professional Foul punned on football and political morality; Every Good Boy Deserves Favour combined a full symphony orchestra (conducted by Andre Previn) with the story of a Soviet dissident incarcerated with an actual lunatic, who imagines the orchestra in his head, and whose aphorisms on the links between music and mathematics include “the trombone is the longest distance between two points” and “everyone is equal to the triangle”.
In the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s his range expanded further to the exploration of history in his double-time-scaled Arcadia, biography in his play about A E Housman, The Invention of Love, and a combination of the two in his 19th-century Russian trilogy The Coast of Utopia, his most considerable articulation of liberal humanist values, which nonetheless gives the anarchist revolutionary Bakunin at least some of the best tunes. Again directed by Trevor Nunn, he returned to contemporary Eastern Europe with Rock ’n’ Roll at the Royal Court and, in 2015, to philosophy at the National in The Hard Problem.
Meanwhile, you might say, and in addition to the radio, he has managed to slip in film adaptations of Empire of the Sun, The Russia House, Enigma and Anna Karenina. Uncredited – though I hope handsomely paid – he wrote much of the dialogue for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. His screenplay for Shakespeare in Love won him and co-writer Marc Norman an Oscar, to sit on an extremely crowded shelf of honours and awards. Among the wonderful knowing theatre gags is a difficult actor placated by being assured the title of the play he’s been cast in is Mercutio. Or, as another actor describes the play: “It’s about this nurse”.
In the 1980s, Tom’s political stance was a convenience for socialist playwrights like me, challenged on the perceived left-wing bias of British theatre, who were able to point to a major playwright who was highly suspicious of everything we thought and wrote. As the liberties which we may have not taken seriously enough have come under increasing attack, he has become more critical of his adopted country. In his eloquent 2013 speech accepting PEN’s Pinter Prize, while affirming there was still no other place he’d like to be, Tom revealed a sadness and an anger about political abuses, from surveillance and the dodgy dossier to newspaper hacking and bankers’ bonuses. I doubt if he feels the world has got much better since, and that there is any less need for his work.
In which, while there hasn’t been a huge amount of blood, there has been much glorious rhetoric, and an increasing amount of love. Like the BBC, he has educated and entertained. Like no one else, he has challenged, dazzled, and amazed.
The Writers’ Guild Outstanding Contribution to Writing goes to Tom Stoppard.
Photo of David Edgar, Sir Tom Stoppard and Meera Syal: Matt Writtle