Time and time again, the charge has been lodged against Tom Stoppard that, for all his clever wordsmithery, his plays lack commitment. If commitment is measured in political or emotional terms, the charge has some validity, though I would contend that, for all their facility, Stoppard’s three major works –
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Jumpers, and Travesties – burn with the author’s devotion to ideas, to what he calls his “inner debate.” And that intellectual fire, fueled by a raging comic vision and stoked by literary hijinks, is hardly a cold, blue flame.
This time, however, the Czech-born British playwright has written something passionate enough to quiet those who clamor for “commitment.”
Night and Day, which is currently running in London’s West End, tackles British journalism, trade unionism, adultery, and African independence – a grab-bag of topics worthy of the equally diversified
Jumpers or Travesties. But the play, Stoppard’s first major stage work in four-and-a-half years, is thematically of a piece with his recent television play,
Professional Foul, and Every Good Boy Deserves
Favour, the one-acter-with-orchestra commissioned and scored by Andre Previn. The target of all three: totalitarian limitations on free speech. And while Stoppard may have overcome his aversion to overt political statement, he has sacrificed none of his wit, eloquence, or concern for the complexity of the issues at hand.
Of course, before Stoppard makes any statements, he’s always got to cook up three or four intricately spiced plots, which makes summary impossible.
Night and Day is no exception. It is set in a fictional African nation called Kambawe, where an impending civil war is being covered by dozens of competitive Fleet Street types, including a cub reporter who stumbles into a sensational exclusive. This much of the plot is lifted directly from Evelyn Waugh’s comic novel
Scoop (whose hero’s name, William Boot, Stoppard occasionally used as a pseudonym during his stint as a journalist). The rest is more difficult to describe, but here goes. In the home of British mining magnate Geoffrey Carson and his wife Ruth, four visitors appear. Three are journalists – young freelancer Jacob Milne, middle-aged hack Richard Wagner, and cynical ace reporter George Guthrie – and the fourth is Kambawe’s President Mageeba, as tyrannical as Idi Amin but socially more refined. All have perfectly good reasons for being there, but Stoppard brings them together to talk about the media.
This discussion, which begins as banter and becomes increasingly intense, includes four brilliant, almost formal exchanges. The most surprising and – in logical terms – the weakest concerns unions, of which Stoppard apparently disapproves. Defending the union is the boorish older journalist Wagner, who lectures non-member Milne with leftist jargon. Milne, obviously the playwright’s mouthpiece, sidesteps the economic issues to argue that unionization, by creating the machinery to exclude dissenters, endangers a free press. And, as he tells Ruth Carson, “No matter how imperfect things are, if you’ve got a free press everything is correctable, and without it everything is concealable.”
“I’m with you on the free press,” she retorts. “It’s the newspapers I can’t sand.” Ruth has good reason to be down on the press. When she ran off with Carson, who was then married to someone else, she found herself “pursued across Shropshire by the slavering minions of a philistine press lord.” Milne sympathizes in a manic monologue that probably contains the distilled wisdom of Stoppard’s nine years in the newspaper trade. “You don’t have to tell me. I know it better than you – the celebration of inanity, the way real tragedy is paraphrased into an inflationary spiral of hackneyed melodramas – Beauty Queen in Tug-of-Love Baby Storm…Tug-of-Love Baby Mum in Pools Win…Pools Man in Beauty Queen Drug Quiz. I
know. It’s the price you pay for the part that matters.”
But the debate does not stop there. “Does freedom of the press mean freedom to choose its own standards?” inquires the beguilingly mild-mannered President Mageeba. For when his country achieved independence and he was installed at its leader,
Mageeba did indeed take control of the single newspaper. “I did not believe a newspaper should be part of the apparatus of the state; we are not a totalitarian society. But neither could I afford a return to the whims of private enterprise…I could afford the naked women but not the naked skepticism.” Mageeba opted for what he calls a “relatively free press” – that is, a newspaper edited by one of his relatives.
Finally, Stoppard’s simplest, most direct statement comes at the end, and from an unlikely source: the cynical photographer. Driving through a supposedly neutral zone, reporter Milne has been fatally shot, possibly under orders from Mageeba. Ruth, her grief rising to rage, attacks Guthrie: “Which page is it on, this thing that’s worth dying for? As far as I’m concerned, Jake died for the women’s page, and the crossword, and the racing results, and the heartbreak beauty queens and somewhere at the end of a long list I suppose he died for the leading article too, but it’s never worth
that.” “Yes, all that,” Guthrie answers softly. “But also the other thing. I’ve been around a lot of places. People do awful things to each other. But it’s worse in places where everybody is kept in the dark. It really is. Information is light. Information, in itself, about anything, is light. That’s all you can say, really.”
Perhaps it isn’t fair to dwell on Night and Day’s weightiest scenes when there’s so much sparkle to the play – which is Stoppard’s most realistic (i.e., non-stylized) drama. But those heavy-duty debates form the crux of the play. Like the professor’s scenes in
Professional Foul with the Czech dissident and later with his son, they serve exactly the same function as show-stoppers in a Broadway musical. We’ve had dense, flashy, philosophical dialogue from Stoppard before – his genius has always been in his ability (which rivals Shaw’s) to project his “inner debate” onto the stage without one side’s seeming to dominate. But
Night and Day has a humanity that Stoppard has never achieved before; for the first time, the playwright’s best moments ride not only on a dazzling flow of words but also on waves of emotion.
My only real complaint about Night and Day is that Ruth, like so many of Stoppard’s women, is a half-creature. Because the playwright can’t think of anything for her to do, he turns her into a nympho who, though seemingly as dry as a bone, has the hots for every man who walks in. One could rationalize Ruth’s character – some bored wives living in foreign countries may indeed be this shallow – but a writer of Stoppard’s stature shouldn’t need such excuses. Luckily, the part is being played in London by Diana Rigg, who fills in whatever the writing left out. What an amazing and subtle actress she is! Grumpy, funny, tender, hard – she’ll be as good as Maggie Smith before long.* And Rigg isn’t the only thing the West End production of
Night and Day has going for it. Directed (as usual) by Peter Wood, it is in almost every way definitive.
If Night and Day was the biggest thrill of my recent week in London, then Harold Pinter’s new play
Betrayal, at the National Theater, was the major disappointment. Night and day indeed. Pinter’s play is not a failure, it’s just very…lazy. It portrays a romantic triangle involving a British book publisher named Robert, his wife Emma, and his best friend Jerry, a literary agent having an affair with Emma. As she says in the first scene, “Just like
Old Times.” Betrayal’s gimmick, you see, is that the story is told backwards in nine short and, for Pinter, amazingly straightforward (straight-backward?) scenes. It begins in 1977 and ends in 1968. This has some interest, particularly in the scenes where the husband knows about the affair and the lovers don’t know he knows. Pinter captures the way in which all three carefully decide to play the game of deception. But the emotional territory is too well-trodden and the approach too undemanding for the play to remain engaging for long. Imagine waiting for one of Pinter’s trademark pauses to come along and liven things up! Imagine none coming!
Betrayal seems destined to take the same place in Pinter’s catalogue as
Dirty Linen does in Stoppard’s: it’s a very slight, very accessible, very commercial playlet written to keep the author’s name in lights – and in the papers.
Boston Phoenix, December 19, 1978
*Maggie Smith played Ruth in the subsequent Broadway