Renowned playwright shares his wit and wisdom as the Maynard Mack Lecturer
In a talk before a full house in Yale’s University Theatre — the same theater where his play “Arcadia” will open on Oct. 3 — Tom Stoppard spoke about his creative process, the “phenomenon” of live theater, and how playwriting requires a certain amount of bravery.
Stoppard’s informal conversation with Murray Biggs, adjunct professor of English and theater studies, was the 24th annual Maynard Mack Lecture. The award–winning playwright said that he tends to disappoint actors when they ask him what he looks for in a good actor. “My invariable reply is clarity of utterance,” Stoppard quipped.
“I have no interest in writing any kind of theater which is not merely grasped by an audience but actually entertains an audience,” said Stoppard, explaining that he considers theater to be a recreation that can be put to the service of deep or wide-ranging social or political matters.
“I think that is why, to a lot of people’s surprise, live theater is not dead yet,” said Stoppard. “And I don’t think it’s going to die as a matter of fact. There is something quite spooky about the phenomenon of live theater that it is constantly by its survival contradicting cultural commentators.”
Stoppard told the standing-room-only audience that when he sits in on rehearsals for productions of his plays he is constantly adjusting things based on the fact that years have gone by since he wrote the play and tastes change over time. “A smart remark I wrote back in 1980, well, 30 years later I want to get under my seat, so I cut it.”
The playwright, who has a new work debuting at the National Theatre in London in January 2015, said that audiences do not need to have an inherent knowledge of certain customs to appreciate one of his plays. “Audiences should come into the theater with the attitude that they want to see this play and not another play and lean forward to meet it. They have to have zero, ziltch, nada, knowledge of the play. They only need to be alert and receptive. Anything they need to know the play will tell them.”
“I’ve never written anything that is not designed to get a laugh at any moment,” noted Stoppard, in reply to an audience member who commented on the witty nature of his works during a question-and-answer session following the talk. “Mostly, you end up with more humor or jokes than you really wanted.”
Stoppard said that when one of his plays is produced in a foreign language, the humor often doesn’t come across — perhaps because of a nuance in the structure of a sentence or an allusion that is not translatable into another language. “My plays don’t get those laughs, and it’s strangely satisfying not to get them,” joked Stoppard. “It can be quite unnerving before you get used to the idea that you’ve written this play that everybody laughs at a lot and then suddenly not at all.”
In response to a question from an audience member about how he writes his plays, Stoppard explained that his creative process does not include using a computer. “I sit writing with a fountain pen.”
Stoppard noted that he develops new ideas for plays by gathering a large reservoir of information about a topic that he finds interesting and that he had no prior knowledge of but that he thinks might make a good topic for a play. He added that at some point he has to stop researching the play and start writing it. “What I feel about that moment is: You just have to be brave and step off of the edge.”
Stoppard, who wrote the screenplay for the 2012 film adaptation of “Anna Karenina,” said that his first love is the theater. “I think of other work as work I do when I haven’t got a play going,” he said.
“Stage plays are the real thing. I started off as wanting to be a writer for the boards,” said Stoppard, tapping his foot on the University Theatre stage. “And it never changed. I feel exactly the same way now.”