Jim Jarmusch – remember I wrote about him? – did Paterson his way.
The guy I am about to talk about also did it his way.
I did and I didn’t. I did it my way to the extent that identifying fragments of me slipped into my work, in my assigned work and inevitably more so when I was in charge. But I never blew the doors off and reinvented the wheel in my own image if it were round and had spokes and if I reinvented it it might not.
Not to dwell on this matter too long, but I’d say the reason I did not ignite a creative explosion was because of fear of firing, fear of failure, sure; but primarily, I think, it was because of a basic deficiency in “originating vision.” (You can see why I don’t want to dwell on it too long.)
I carefully studied my predecessors and when my opportunity arrived, I provided my variational “take” on what had already been done. Did I break any sitcomical new ground?
The gentleman I am about to talk about did. And for that glittering achievement I salute him, as well as Jim Jarmusch and everyone else who, despite the pressure to conservatively “stay the course”, plotted their own artistical courses and the world is immeasurably upgraded for their efforts.
I was originally introduced– not in the sense that I actually met the guy but introduced through his work – to longtime playwright (now Sir) Tom Stoppard while I was living in England in 1967. In those felicitous days when you could get seats to productions at the National Theater for less than (the equivalent of) a dollar, I would sometimes, instead of shivering through the winter in my Hampstead bedsitting room (where landlady Mrs. Tompkins rationed the heat) or blowing my substitute teacher’s paycheck buying rounds of drinks at the Horse and Groom (I myself only drank one round, so I was – “Retroactive Sour Grapes Alert!” – buying considerably more alcohol than I consumed), I hopped onto the London underground and I went to a play.
It was then that I saw the original production of Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.
And it unequivocally blew me away.
(Note: Two plays awakened me to the possibility that comedy could be funny and smart at the same time: Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead and Herb Gardner’s A Thousand Clowns. I laughed heartily at both shows and would have laughed even harder had my jaw not been locked in the immovable “dropped” position associated with responses of awe-strickenness, incredulity and delight.
Tom Stoppard writes magnificently about ideas. I can imagine his agent, urging him – for his own good – to trod more commercially palatable terrain, but he didn’t.
“Come on, Tommy. ‘Love triangles.’ The audience eats that up with a spoon.”
“I am interested in ideas.”
“Wake up and smell the box office. You’re a playwright, not a philosopher.”
“Could it be possible I’m both?”
And so he was for, now, going on half a century, as he continues uncompromisingly plying his trade. (While supplementing his theatrical income with lucrative uncredited rewrites of the likes of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Soup, or whatever.)
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead concerns the trembling uncertainty of human existence. (“But with a little sex in it”, as suggested in Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels, a gent who, by the way, marched to his own inimitable drummer? No.)
Stoppard dramatizes the random unreliability of life by having the two peripheral characters from Hamlet engage a betting game of “coin flip” in which, to the consternation of the participants, the coin turns up “Heads” ninety-two times in a row.
The lack of foreseeable predictability becomes so torturously discombobulating to this increasingly frustrated duo, they wind up being uncertain about everything, triggering exchanges such as the following:
ROSENCRANTZ: The sun’s going down. It will be dark soon.
GUILDENSTERN: Do you think so?
ROSENCRANTZ: I was just making conversation.
That’s what I saw in 1967. Flash Forward to 2016, and here’s (now Sir) Tom Stoppard, cusping on eighty, still energetically working his side of the street, delivering an intellectual exercise of a play I saw recently and enjoyed though not as much as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead entitled The Hard Problem.
What’s it about?
It’s about the question: “Is there a discernible distinction between the mind and the brain?”
But with a little sex in it?
Again – and still – no.
(There is a stage direction in which after a sexual interlude, the female character Hilary is described as “wearing only a T-shirt, which is long enough for modesty.” You can sense the uncomfortable playwright blushing while he was typing that.)
Do you remember the movie Cocoon? At the end where some people climb onto a spaceship and some scareder people do not? That’s me and the “creatives” who unswervingly do their own remarkably individualized thing.
Though unable to join them,
I root exuberantly from the sidelines.