STOPPARD IN A MINOR MODE: Dirty Linen awash in puns

DIRTY LINEN AND NEW-FOUND-LAND and DOGG'S HAMLET, CAHOOT'S MACBETH by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Ed Berman. Presented by the British American Repertory Company at the Wilbur Theater, Boston, November 1979.

The plays of Tom Stoppard fall neatly into two categories -- major and minor -- and one tends to consider the minor works, all one-acters, dismissible trifles. This is an understandable mistake. Each of them, from the defiantly frivolous entertainments After Magritte and The Real Inspector Hound to the more somber play-for-actors-and-orchestra Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, is based on a single, though not necessarily simple, Bright Idea. By contrast, Stoppard's full-length works -- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Jumpers, Travesties, Night and Day -- are worlds unto themselves: sprawling, ambitious, contradictory, over-stuffed. It would be in the spirit of our time to proclaim here that less is more; however, in the case of the two Stoppard shows that make up the newly formed British American Repertory Company's premier season, it is safer to say that less is not bad.

Both Dirty Linen and New-Found-Land and Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth are pairs of cleverly interlocking one-acts. Dirty Linen depicts the meeting of a Select Committee formed to investigate a curious Parliamentary sex scandal -- to wit, that some 119 MPs are rumored to have misbehaved, all with the same woman, a certain "titian-haired" bombshell. The joke is that the committee's five men and one woman number among those implicated, and the stenographer sent to cover the proceedings, whose skills are less than secretarial ("You do speed-writing, I suppose?" "Yes, if I'm given enough time"), turns out to be the notorious femme fatale herself, Maddie Gotobed. While the committee attempts to draft a report squashing the rumors yet paying lip service to "moral standards," the perky enchantress interrupts with her cheerful observations that the press invents sex scandals simply to sell papers, that the people don't really care what government officials do in their spare time, and that it's none of their business anyway. The whole investigation is a farce. Not surprisingly, so is Dirty Linen.

In the middle of Dirty Linen, Stoppard manufactures a recess that allows the introduction of New-Found-Land, a monologue disguised as a meeting of two other MPs to consider an American's application for British citizenship. The monologue is a long, fantastic verbal tour of America that is at once a hilarious send-up of Walt Whitman, a compendium of American patriotic myths and literary cliches, and a breathtaking comic rhapsody. What binds this playlet to Dirty Linen is a sort of in-joke. Director Ed Berman, who also heads Inter-Action, the British community-arts organization that sponsors BARC, commissioned from Stoppard a play about America to be performed at his lunch-hour Almost-Free Theater in London. The playwright took off on a meditation about government-sex scandals, for which he had plenty of material; the Wayne Hays/Elizabeth Ray and Wilbur Mills/Fanne Foxe affairs were nothing compared to the tales of promiscuous partying that rocked Parliament a few years ago. Dirty Linen resulted, and Stoppard then wrote New-Found-Land "to re-introduce the American Connection." Both plays were performed for the first time on April 5, 1976 -- the date that Ed Berman, whose description matches that of the American in New-Found-Land, was granted British citizenship.

Similar true-life stories lurk behind Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth. Berman also runs a children's theater group called Prof. Dogg's Troupe, which is famous in London for its 15-minute condensation of Hamlet. Another friend of Stoppard's, Czech playwright Pavel Kohout -- who, like a number of his countrymen (including recently jailed author Vaclav Havel), has been forbidden to work in the theater because of his outspoken political dissidence -- kicked off his underground, self-explanatory Living Room Theater with a condensed version of Macbeth. So Dogg's Hamlet features a bunch of schoolboys whose native tongue is Dogg, a sort of skewed English ("You don't learn it, you catch it," someone eventually quips), and who are rehearsing Hamlet for some special awards-day assembly when a Cockney truckdriver arrives with a load of lumber to build the stage. Since carpentry terms like plank, cube, and block mean in Dogg things like "Ready," "Thanks," and "Here!" and since everyday expressions in Dogg seem to be Cockney insults and vice versa, misunderstandings abound. ("Cretinous pig-faced git," calls out one boy to a retreating headmaster, who wheels around, consults his pocket watch, and snaps, "Trog poxy.") Shakespeare seems to serve as a safe middle ground, and indeed the highlight of the play is a breezy but complete 15-minute Hamlet capped by a manic, two-minute "encore" version.

Cahoot's Macbeth takes place in a Prague parlor. A streamlined version of the tragedy is underway when a sarcastic government inspector (a sinister reincarnation of Inspector Hound) barges in on the illicit performance. Between making amusingly acerbic remarks on theater in general and commending the actors on their recent performances as waitresses and street-cleaners, the villainous inspector delivers a warning that unless the show is halted the performers will be arrested. After he leaves, they continue undaunted and when he returns to make good his threat, the day is saved by the sudden appearance of the Cockney truckdriver, now speaking fluent Dogg. The actors pick it up and finish Macbeth in this meaningful gibberish, to the enraged bewilderment of the Inspector.

These two evenings of theater are remarkably alike. Each is a linguist's delight, full of puns, stylized language jokes, and the word-wizardry for which Stoppard is famous. Each uses comedy to convey a moral fable and has its own tricky theatricality. Neither play, however, achieves the integration of wordplay, story line, character, and commentary that characterizes Stoppard's masterworks (the best of which, Night and Day, makes its Broadway debut later this month). But to complain that dirty Linen and Dogg's Hamlet are not Travesties is perhaps to miss the point. The insidious invasion of privacy and the trivia-mongering that go on in the name of "the people's right to know," and the cowardly hypocrisy officials resort to rather than defending their right to live their own lives, are worthy targets for satire; Stoppard addresses them in Dirty Linen with just the right mixture of seriousness and silliness. And Maddie Gotobed not only is an updated female equivalent of the Restoration comedy stud who services all the townswomen but also is a wonderful inversion of the stereotypical "dumb blonde." She knows more than anyone else about power, politics, and propriety, and she's not ashamed of her liberal sex life. Likewise, Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth cuts right to the futility of government attempts to control free expression.

To sing these plays' praises is not, however, to overlook their deficiencies. Dogg's Hamlet and especially Cahoot's Macbeth seem quite flawed. The latter leans too heavily on Shakespeare to no narrative purpose; it covers the same territory as Stoppard's TV play Professional Foul without the same force; and it often begs minimum credibility, as when the character Cahoot suddenly begins speaking to the truckdriver in Dogg (where did he "catch" it?). The best points made in their pair of plays are about language. The notion of florid Shakespearean English as a foreign language is novel and not without oddball accuracy, and there is some subtle Stoppardian irony at work when we strain to understand the characters speaking fractured English in Dogg's Hamlet but accept without questioning the illogical theatrical convention that foreign characters like the Czechs in Cahoot's Macbeth speak perfect English. What should be Stoppard's neatest trick -- teaching the audience a new language in the first play that it'll have to know to get the second play -- doesn't quite work. The audience doesn't really learn enough Dogg to make a difference, so the idea remains an intellectual proposition.

Intellectual propositions are also forced to sustain Dirty Linen through stretches of very labored wordplay. An ongoing tongue-twisting exercise involving the names of London restaurants isn't even funny; and the recurring appearance of extra pairs of panties pays off when the committee chairman wipes the blackboard with his undershorts and deposits them -- where else? -- in his briefcase. (Mr. Stoppard, please!) The best running joke, and a longtime Stoppard obsession, springs from the pretentious (and peculiarly British?) practice people have of dropping gratuitous foreign phrases into regular speech; this one peaks at the end, when one committee member, the lone holdout against sexual permissiveness, announces, "It seems I am presented with, to put it in plain English, a fait accompli." Of course, only Tom Stoppard -- who is peerless among today's English-speaking playwrights -- could provoke criticism for having an excess of witty wordplay and intellectual propositions, which many playwrights seem never to have heard of. I can't imagine anyone who loves theater passing up the opportunity to see any Stoppard plays.

I feel as if I should have something significant to say about the British American Repertory Company -- the first troupe composed equally of English and American actors and approved by Equity in both countries -- but I don't. It's a good idea, and it's about time the unions got around to cooperating with one another, but I've seen better productions (these seem lumbering, as if tired of living out of suitcases) and certainly better actors. Most of BARC's are competent, but Alexander Spencer is egregiously bad in Dirty Linen. Stephen D. Newman, John Challis, and Peter Grayer are excellent in everything, and Davis Hall's spell-binding recitation of the "O America!" speech in New-Found-Land steals the show. Still, the star of BARC's first tour, without a doubt, is Stoppard.

Boston Phoenix, November 6, 1979