Tom Stoppard Elizabeth Lippman for The Wall Street Journal
Known for creating clever wordplay and intricate plots that often span decades, Tom Stoppard is surprisingly carefree about his playwriting process. “You just start somewhere and it turns out to be what it is.”
“The Real Thing,” one of two of his plays produced by The Roundabout Theater Company on Broadway this fall, begins in classic Stoppard form, with a scene that turns out to be written by a character in the next scene. The play, which opens Oct. 30, centers on a playwright, Henry, and his relationship with his actress wife, Annie, and is considered a treatise on the vicissitudes of love and marriage. First staged in 1982, the 1984 production earned Tonys for director Mike Nichols as well as stars Glenn Close and Jeremy Irons. On this, its third trip to New York, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ewan McGregor star.
“Indian Ink,” which opened Sept. 30, also exemplifies Stoppard’s storytelling. It attempts to understand artistic inspiration, colonial India, and the futility of getting history right while flashing back and forth through time. Romola Garai plays a daring 1930s poet who travels to India; Rosemary Harris plays her sister in a concurrent plot, set in the 1980s.
The 77-year-old Briton is also laid back about productions. “I’m as involved as I want to be,” he says. “When I was younger I used to sit through 12-hour tech calls. Now I’m older, or maybe lazier, but certainly older, and I’m not quite as conscientious anymore.”
From left, Ewan McGregor, Cynthia Nixon, Josh Hamilton and Maggie Gyllenhaal in ‘The Real Thing.’ Joan Marcus
Some venues are more important than others, however. “You can’t go around chasing your own plays and showing up every time somebody does one somewhere,” he says. “You just cross your fingers and hope that they’re OK. But with two plays being revived in New York, I really wanted to be with them. New York is important. I wanted to pay attention.” Below, an edited interview.
Why did it take “Indian Ink” so long to play in New York?
Carey [Perloff, the director] did “Indian Ink” in 1999 in San Francisco. She had a proper success with it and started trying to persuade Roundabout to bring it to New York. You can imagine that there were good reasons why it never happened. It’s got quite a large cast for a contemporary play, and 10 years ago there weren’t many Indian actors around. There are many more now. And then earlier this year, Roundabout said, “Can we do ‘The Real Thing?’ ” and I said, “Well, you can if you like, but why don’t you do ‘Indian Ink’ at long last, which has never been done here?”
Many of your plays have very intricate stories, yet you don’t consider yourself a “plot” person.
What I meant was, I always imagined a plot was something you worked out in advance. That was a mistake. I now am much happier getting into writing a play without really knowing how things are going to work out in it. But you’re in control, so you’re kind of massaging your way toward what you hope is a coherent, psychologically integrated story. And when you finish, with any luck you can look back and say, “Oh, that’s really quite a good plot I invented.”
If you work everything out in advance, you’re forcing the play to follow what you’ve worked out, and you will inevitably get to a point where you’re cheating on the psychology of the character. If you let the plot be determined by what you feel is in the character’s mind at that point, it may not turn out to be a very good play, but at least it will be a play where people are behaving in a kind of truthful way.
Rosemary Harris and Bhavesh Patel in ‘Indian Ink’ Joan Marcus
So what is your writing process like, if not carefully structured beforehand?
One is reading all the time one is writing, and very odd things happen. Spooky things. When I was writing “Indian Ink” I had never heard of rasa. [The concept is described in the piece as “What you must feel when you see a painting or hear music. It is the emotion which the artist must arouse in you.”] I was halfway through the play and I saw a book about Indian art in a window in a shop. I went in, looked through it, saw this rasa stuff, bought the book, read the relevant pages, and used them for my play. But if I’d been on a different street, I wouldn’t have seen the book. It sounds frankly unbelievable that that’s how a play might get written, but you just keep living your life and you pull things in which you come across, or you reach for things. And when you get to the end of the play, with any luck, everything fits together OK. If you had sat down six months earlier and made a determined effort to read up on everything you needed on Indian history and Indian art, maybe all these things would be in the play, but the play wouldn’t be any good.
You are about to premiere a new play in London. What is it about?
All I want to say is that it’s called “The Hard Problem,” and people who work in philosophy and brain science know the phrase. It refers to the problem of consciousness, and how to explain consciousness. A famous American philosopher working in England called Daniel Dennett wrote a very fat book called “Consciousness Explained,” but inexplicably the problems still seems to be here.
Ewan McGregor, left, and Maggie Gyllenhaal in a scene from ‘The Real Thing’ Joan Marcus
How do you feel about reading reviews? Are you immune to them at this point?
There’s always an anxiety because as Henry, the playwright in “The Real Thing,” says of the actors, “They have to show up every night. I don’t.” So I’m always anxious for the actors because they’ve worked very hard, and it’s a great relief if a review is complimentary about them. I’m not one of those writers who insist they don’t read reviews and don’t care much about them. I do read them and I do care about them and they’re not always what you want them to be in an ideal world.
You worked on the script for “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” How did that come about?
I knew Steven [Spielberg], I knew Harrison [Ford], I knew [Sean] Connery. What I heard was, Steven asked Connery to do it, who said, “Well, I’d like to, but not with this dialogue.” And I think he suggested I be asked to look at the dialogue, and I think Harrison said, “Well, if he’s looking at Sean’s dialogue, he damn well better look at mine.” So I ended up doing, not a huge amount, but some work on it. And it’s a nice thing in a rather fraternal way. You end up looking over the shoulder of your friend’s work, and suggesting things.