The Real Thing

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Editor: David M. Galens
Date: 2000
Drama for Students
From: Drama for Students(Vol. 8. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Character overview; Critical essay; Play explanation; Work overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 20
Content Level: (Level 4)

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The Real Thing


From the overnight sensation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966) to the recent success of his script (with Marc Norman) for Shakespeare in Love (1998), Tom Stoppard has been acclaimed as one of the most important dramatic writers of the late-twentieth century. The Real Thing was first produced in 1982 on London’s West End, and the cast included Roger Rees and Felicity Kendal (who subsequently became Stoppard’s second wife). Its commercial and critical success was followed two years later by a sell-out production on Broadway in New York, with Glenn Close and Jeremy Irons in the main roles. That production won several Antionette “Tony” Perry Awards.

The play focuses upon Henry, who, much like Stoppard, is a successful playwright. Henry is married to an actress, Charlotte, who is playing the lead in his current play; he has fallen in love with another actress, Annie, for whom he soon leaves Charlotte. But is his new love “the real thing?” Underlying the major themes of love and adultery are related concerns. Does art influence life? Can life imitate art (the converse of the proverb “art imitates life”)? Must art have a political and social value, as many people in Britain were then arguing, or can it stand alone, as art for art’s sake? Stoppard argues that intellectuals are taking political expression for literature, and he makes a strong case that art should be valued for its aesthetic merits alone.

Audiences in the 1960s and 1970s delighted in Stoppard’s wit and cleverness, although they occasionally Page 107  |  Top of Articlequestioned whether the playwright could apply his genius to real life problems such as love and passion. The Real Thing ended such speculation and confirmed Stoppard’s reputation for stylistic experimentalism and innovation.


Tom Stoppard was born Tomas Straussler in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) on July 3,1937. His family moved to Singapore in 1939; shortly after, his father, Dr. Eugene Straussler, was killed, and the family moved to India. There, his mother remarried a British army major named Kenneth Stoppard. When the family relocated to England after the War, Stoppard took his stepfather’s name. He left high school at seventeen and worked as a journalist on the Western Daily Press while writing television and radio plays, short stories, and his only novel, Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon (1966).

Stoppard’s absurdist play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966) made him famous. The play was originally produced by the Oxford Theater Group on the Edinborough Festival Fringe; six months later it was bought and produced by the National Theater in London. The widespread acclaim that greeted this play promised great things, and in the past thirty years, Stoppard’s reputation as a major contemporary playwright in the English language has grown by leaps and bounds.

Stoppard was first associated with Absurdism, a philosophical movement influenced by philosophers and writers such as Frenchman Albert Camus (The Plague), Italian Eugene Ionesco (The Chairs), and Irishman Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot), as well as by a host of Polish and Czech writers who lived in communist regimes. Absurdist writers perceive the world as mysterious and incomprehensible, and this perception often engenders feelings of purposelessness and bafflement. But Absurdism is not a uniformly somber philosophy nor does it produce uniformly serious art; indeed, much of the great Absurdist theater is comedy, or tragi-comedy, and it is in this vein that Stoppard’s metaphysical wit and passion for ideas found full expression.

The Real Thing, Stoppard’s twentieth play, marked a major departure for the playwright. It was Stoppard’s first play to focus upon love. Critics had previously complained that he was all flash and no substance, but The Real Thing proved that Stoppard

Tom Stoppard Tom Stoppard

could address eternal themes such as love and passion with genuine sensitivity and insight. It contains Stoppard’s characteristic investigation of an ethical problem—in this case the effects of adultery upon the vulnerable human heart—and his characteristic intervention into contemporary discussions about art—in this case the value of “political art.” But when writing The Real Thing, Stoppard abandoned Absurdist stage practice for the tenets of realist drama.

Stoppard’s life experience has influenced his writing in subtle ways. One of his plays, Professional Foul (1977) is set in his birth land, Czechoslovakia, and portrays the plight of dissidents living under a totalitarian regime. Indian Ink (1997) is set in India, during the heyday of British Empire (the early-twentieth century), and focuses upon the relationship between a liberal English woman traveler and a young Indian poet. Critics were quick to point out the identical occupation of The Real Thing’s protagonist and Stoppard and their common passion for cricket but fortunately chose not to obscure the integrity of the play by making stronger connections between “real” and “fictional” life.

Stoppard’s life-long passion for the life and work of William Shakespeare and for Renaissance drama were on display in his screenplay (cowritten Page 108  |  Top of Articlewith Marc Norman) for the phenomenally successful 1998 film Shakespeare in Love, which starred Joseph Fiennes and Gwyenth Paltrow. He continues to write for film and stage and is considered by many to be one of the most important writers of the twentieth century.


Act I

Max, an architect, is at home drinking and playing with cards, when his wife, Charlotte, returns home from a trip to Switzerland. Max questions Charlotte about her trip, but his queries are disjointed and digressive. Charlotte is confused. Suddenly he reveals to her that he has found her passport. Charlotte has not in fact been to Switzerland—her present for him, placed in a duty-free bag, is nothing but a clever prop. Max assumes she has been away with a lover. He is devastated but resorts to ironic dialogue to contain his emotion. Charlotte, profoundly alienated from him, yet neither denying nor admitting his accusation, exits.

Scene 2 opens with a hostile exchange between Henry and Charlotte. At first, the audience believes that Henry is her lover. However, the audience soon realizes that they have it all wrong. Scene 1 was actually an extract from Henry’s new play House of Cards. Charlotte, his wife, is the lead actress in it and Max her co-lead.

Charlotte is far from happy. She feels that she has landed her part in House of Cards because she is Henry’s wife and not because of her acting ability. She is also resentful about the role she is playing. She complains to Henry that he cannot write female characters, and that she functions as the “feed” for Max’s more substantial lines, which also garner better laughs. Charlotte’s comments—particularly about the audience’s groan following the revelation of her character’s adultery—are very pertinent, since the real audience has probably just reacted in such a way.

Max enters, closely followed by his actress wife, Annie. Instead of bringing a bottle of wine, Annie brings a bag of vegetables to the little gathering. As soon as Charlotte and Max have gone into the kitchen, it becomes clear that Annie is having an affair with Henry. When Charlotte and Max reenter, the dialogue moves into another level: Henry and Annie continue to talk to each other intimately, but to Max and Charlotte, their dialogue appears to be part of the larger conversation. Much of the dialogue has double entendres that only the lovers—and the audience—understand.

The scene ends after the socially conscious Annie has talked at length about her latest cause celebre: an imprisoned soldier, Brodie, has “bravely” protested against his own army’s missiles. Henry is skeptical about the value of such a cause, but Annie, who met Brodie before he was imprisoned, is determined to free him. However, for all her commitment, she reneges on a planned visit to the prison so that she can see Henry later that afternoon.

Scene 3 is a brief reprieve of Scene 1, though in this scene the action is not part of Henry’s play and it is enacted between Annie and Max. Max has found Henry’s handkerchief in the back seat of the car, where Henry left it after he and Annie made love. This revelation of the affair ends both marriages, and scene 4 finds the lovers together. However, it is clear that there are underlying tensions between them. They clash about Annie’s “faithful” devotion to Brodie. Annie is also annoyed when she fails to make Henry jealous about the male actor who is playing opposite her in a new production of Miss Julie. Nonetheless, the couple affirm their love for each other. Act I ends with Henry rushing out to pick up his daughter, Debbie, leaving Annie sorting through piles of paper.

Act II

Two years later, Annie and Henry are still living together but they are not living in complete harmony. They continue to have petty disagreements about music, and they continue to disagree about Brodie, who is still imprisoned for his act of protest. Annie is determined to produce a play that Brodie has written. She thinks that it will attract support for his cause. “A writer is harder to ignore. I thought, TV plays get talked about, make some impact. Get his case reopened.”

Henry, however, thinks that Brodie cannot write. Henry believes that writing should be valued for its literary and aesthetic worth; but Annie believes that writing should be valued mainly for its political message and its social effect. Henry argues that words are intrinsically “innocent, neutral, precise.” If a good writer uses them well, “you can build

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Henry (Roger Rees) and Annie (Felicity Kendal) have an uncomfortable confrontation in a 1982 production of Stoppards play at the Strand Theatre Henry (Roger Rees) and Annie (Felicity Kendal) have an uncomfortable confrontation in a 1982 production of Stoppard’s play at the Strand Theatre

bridges across incomprehension and chaos.” In contrast, Annie argues that if “you teach a lot of people what to expect from good writing... [then] you end up with a lot of people saying you write well.” Someone like Brodie “who really has something to write about, something real,” will therefore be unappreciated.

The audience’s reaction to Annie’s argument is complicated by the contrast between Brodie and Henry’s writing. It is further complicated when the audience learns that Henry has stopped writing literary plays, which he calls “the real stuff,” and is instead writing TV science-fiction scripts, in order to finance his current lifestyle with Annie and his alimony payments to Charlotte.

Act II, scene 2 again reprises Henry’s play, but with a dire twist: Annie embarks upon an affair with Billy, a fellow actor. Billy has read Brodie’s play, and, like Henry, thinks that it is terrible, but he says that he will act in it for Annie. Throughout the scene the two lovers quote from the seventeenth century play Tis Pity She’s a Whore by John Ford.

In Act II, scene 3, Henry and Charlotte’s daughter appears onstage. Debbie has her father’s talent for words but appears to be more realistic and pragmatic about love than him. In one telling interchange between them, Henry attempts to express his feelings about love but does so in ironic, elevated language. Debbie cuts through this: “Don’t write it, Fa. Just say it. The first time you fell in love. What?”

Their affectionate interchange is followed by a conversation between Charlotte and Henry. Charlotte, somewhat mellowed, tells her ex-husband some truths about love and commitment.

Scene 4 reveals a glimpse of Annie’s growing attachment to Billy. This is followed, in scene 5, by another reprise of Act I, scene 1, this time enacted between Henry and Annie. Henry has discovered that Annie is having an affair with Billy. But the scene is played differently from the earlier versions: neither lover walks out on the other. Instead, they try to negotiate in order to salvage the relationship. Henry is prepared to accept the affair because he still loves Annie and because Annie still loves him.

The complexity—and painfulness—of real life love is further explored in scene 7, in which the couple struggle to integrate the pain of the affair into their relationship. The final scene of the play, between Henry, Annie, and Brodie, suggests that their relationship will endure.

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Annie is an actress who is married to Max but is conducting an affair with Henry. She urges Henry to come clean about the affair but is in fact the one who reveals it to Max. In Act II Annie lands the part of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie in a Glaswegain production of that play and begins an adulterous affair with her co-star Billy.

Annie is politically idealistic, and dedicates herself to the campaign for Brodie’s release. She encourages Brodie to write an autobiographical play, believing that it will renew support for the campaign. Brodie’s play is so poorly written that Annie enlists Henry to re-write it, refusing, however, to admit to him that it is badly written. Henry at first refuses to cooperate with her but eventually capitulates. In the final scene, Annie turns against Brodie, smashing a bowl of dip into his face. At the same time she appears to give up her affair with Billy and to return to Henry.


Billy is a young actor who falls in love with Annie. He manages to sweep her off her feet with his enthusiasm and honesty, which she finds a refreshing contrast to Henry’s tight-lipped expressions of love.


The subject of much discussion and debate throughout the play, Brodie only appears onstage in the final scene. All of Annie’s claims about his idealism are finally revealed to be false. When he set fire to the wreath of the Unknown Soldier, Brodie was not seeking to make a political statement; rather, he was seeking to impress Annie, who he had just met. He is also revealed to be ungrateful and chauvinistic.


Charlotte is the lead actress in Henry’s new play, House of Cards. She is also Henry’s wife. Charlotte and Henry do not have a happy relationship. Henry’s irony seems to have alienated Charlotte; moreover, she criticizes his writing, complaining that he does not write good female characters. Charlotte is offstage for most of the play but reappears in a crucial scene between Henry and Debbie, during which she reveals to him that she had nine affairs while married to him. More important than the fact of her adultery, however, is her statement on commitment and marriage that she delivers in the same scene.


Debbie is Henry and Charlotte’s daughter. She appears in the second act, a world-wise seventeen-year-old who has a conversation with her father about sex and love. She claims that sex is not a mystery and that it does not deserve the hyperbole it attracts. Her father admires her skill with words but disagrees with her argument and labels her a sophist. Debbie’s pragmatic comments represent a younger generation’s view of sex and love.


Henry, a successful London playwright, is the play’s protagonist. Henry is married to Charlotte, the lead actress in his current play House of Cards. However, he is estranged from his wife and is having an affair with Annie. Henry and Annie leave their respective spouses and embark on a life together. But when the new couple disagree about Brodie’s play, and when Henry learns that Annie is being unfaithful, their relationship is threatened.

Henry’s verbal dexterity lands him in trouble as often as it launches him into success. For all his wit and humor, he can be bitingly sarcastic and blisteringly rude; he is also impatient with other people’s flawed logic and imprecise expression. Henry is apt to speak as if he was a character in a play, a characteristic that cripples his expression of emotion. He is most eloquent when articulating his belief in the innocence of language and when defending his conception of literature.

Henry undergoes profound change in the course of the play. He is finally able to express love and passion in real language, and his understanding of love also changes.


Max is the lead actor in Henry’s new play, House of Cards. In House of Cards he plays an architect who discovers that his wife is having an adulterous affair. Offstage, Max is Annie’s husband.

In the third and last scene in which he appears onstage, Max reenacts his character’s discovery of adultery in House of Cards, confronting Annie about her affair with Henry. He later tries, unsuccessfully, Page 111  |  Top of Articleto win her back with flowers and telephone calls. In the play’s final scene, it is revealed that he is in love again and is about to remarry. His joy in his new found love contrasts ironically to Henry’s sobered love for Annie.


Real Life vs. Art

The title of The Real Thing and its subject matter appear to lay bare Stoppard’s particular preoccupation in this play: he is characteristically investigating an ethical issue (adultery) and questioning its philosophical partner, the nature of true love. As Richard Corliss stated in a review in Time,The Real Thing announces itself as just that: a real, straightforward play about matters of the heart.” These are the central preoccupations of The Real Thing, but Stoppard’s investigation of these issues is broad enough to sweep other topics under his microscope: he also explores the nature of reality and perception.

The play’s title describes, firstly, the protagonists’ search for “real love.” Henry, for all his sarcasm and irony, is at heart an idealist and a romantic, and when he says ‘I do” he means it. But he does not allow for the presence of doubt and insecurity in his loved one’s heart and, consequently, does not provide the reassurance that his partners crave. To him, such gestures and words are unnecessary, he sees the desire for them as irrational and incomprehensible. Real love simply exists, it needs no artifice to prop it up.

Henry climbs a learning curve in love when he realizes that the fictions created by the imagination, however false, nonetheless impact the real experience of love—and adultery. Love may be “knowing and being known,” but that knowledge depends upon curbing the imagination’s sometimes crippling powers of speculation, doubt, and suspicion. As Jack Kroll argued in Newsweek: “For Stoppard, the most human urgency is the need to know, and the highest comedy is the breakdown of this process in an epic bewilderment.”

Deepening the central exploration of Henry’s changing understanding of love is Stoppard’s exploration of the nature of reality itself. Stoppard unhinges the audience’s uncertainty about what is real and fictional in the first two scenes of the play: “real life” and representations of real life collapse in the contrast between House of Cards, the play-within-a-play, and the “real” play, The Real Thing. The distinction between reality and art appears to unravel further when Stoppard mixes extracts from plays by his own fictional character Brodie with those by real playwrights John Ford and August Strindberg. These extracts blur the boundaries between reality and art by establishing closer connections between each realm. The extract from House of Cards, for instance, alerts the audience to the impending collapse of Henry and Charlotte’s marriage, while the extract from Strindberg’s Miss Julie signals to them that Annie’s affair, like Miss Julie’s, degrades her.

This blurring of reality and art is intensified by the characters’ occupations: they are all paid to create fictions, either onstage or on the page. Charlotte, Max, and Annie are consummate actors, and Annie in particular uses her talents in everyday life, concealing her adultery from Max and then Henry. In a different way, too, Charlotte is aware of the carry-over from her profession into her private life: when Max appears at her home, she complains playfully, “Don’t I get a day off?” then later, more seriously, complains that she’s the “victim” of Henry’s “fantasy.” Henry, of course, is the consummate blurrer of real life and art: he fantasizes in stage dialogue about the possibility of his wife having an affair, but, just as he cannot imagine that possibility in real life, so too in House of Cards the imagined affair is revealed to have not taken place. As Charlotte says, “if Henry caught me out with a lover... his sentence structure would go to pot, closely followed by his sphincter.”

Reality, however unpleasant, invariably catches up with those who ignore it, and this is precisely what happens to Henry: art is no longer the receptacle of impossible imaginings but rather the mirror that reflects reality. Stoppard’s repetition of certain scenes (Act I, scenes 1 and 3; Act II, scene 5) suggests that life can imitate art in uncanny ways, and confirms, in the play’s structure, the overarching theme of Henry’s painful realization that art and reality cannot be kept separate from each other.

Language and Meaning

Stoppard believes that language and meaning are open to interpretation. Words in themselves are “innocent,” but they can have dangerous effects.

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  • There are several possible ways to interpret the conclusion of The Real Thing. Do you believe that Annie and Henry will be happy together? Or is their relationship, like their first marriages, doomed to failure?
  • Describe Henry’s beliefs about art and about the relationship of art to society. Then describe Annie’s beliefs about the same things. Which set of beliefs do you find more compelling? Why?
  • Discuss the relationship between the main play and one or two of the other plays Stoppard refers to in The Real Thing. What do these extracts suggest to the audience about Henry and Annie?
  • What was your response to the character of Henry? Did you feel alienated by him, or did you empathize with him? Focus your response by discussing two scenes in which he appears and using his behavior in them to illustrate your argument.
  • Can a comedy like The Real Thing really be a medium for social criticism? Focus your response by discussing two scenes in detail.
  • Research the rise of the television and media industry from the 1950s onwards. Has our new communications culture changed the way we think about reality? What position do you think Stoppard takes on this issue?

Both Charlotte and Annie find Henry’s incessant word-play oppressive at times, particularly when he becomes sarcastic. His tendency to rely upon irony and sarcasm becomes a mis-use of language when he uses these registers of humor to contain emotion and to create emotional distance—a habit that is exposed by Henry’s daughter. Henry’s “growth” in the play hinges upon finally being able to express emotions in the everyday language of the heart. As Frank Rich said in the New York Times, Henry struggles to “find the language that celebrates love.”

Despite the primary focus on matters of the heart, the sub-plot about Brodie’s play constitutes the most significant discussion of language and meaning in the play. Stoppard begins this penultimate scene in Act II with an apparently frivolous discussion. Henry says that he cannot distinguish between different classical composers and prefers pop music to opera. Annie is horrified that he does not appreciate Beethoven, but she herself cannot distinguish between the Everly Brothers and the Andrews Sisters. This seemingly inconsequential discussion is actually very telling.

Henry’s preference for pop music and Annie’s preference for classical music are an ironic contrast to their beliefs about writing. Henry believes that words are sacred. They “build bridges across incomprehension and chaos” and “they deserve respect.” Annie, in contrast, is suspicious of attaching any literary or aesthetic value to language. She locates the value of language in its effect upon the world. However, her argument is undercut by the fact that she pleads with Henry to re-write Brodie’s crude script. She recognizes, but will not admit, that writing must be well written if it is to have any social or political impact, if it has the power to, in Henry’s words, “nudge the world a little.”

By placing this discussion at centerstage, Stoppard encourages the audience to make up their own minds about an issue that was and still is very controversial. The audience have experienced the skill and power of Henry’s writing and have listened to Henry and Annie’s reading of Brodie’s play. They can thus evaluate Henry and Annie’s arguments. Should people distinguish between “good” and “bad” writing, and if so, how? They can also evaluate Henry and Brodie’s writing. Which writer is more persuasive and which is more moving? Thus Stoppard intervenes in a controversial discussion about literature and politics while leaving the question Page 113  |  Top of Articleunresolved and encouraging the audience to think through the issue themselves.



The Real Thing marks a major departure in style for Stoppard: an abandonment of Absurdist styles for an exploration of Realist technique. Stoppard’s move from Absurdism to Realism is apparent in the first scene, when Max speaks at length, and apparently without purpose, about the difference between Japanese and Swiss watches. It is a funny, albeit baffling, speech. A moment later, however, the audience realizes that the digression has real meaning. The “utterly reliable” Swiss watches are losing out to the “snare” and “delusion” of Japanese watches, just as solid, stable marriages are being replaced with no-strings-attached affairs.

Later, when Henry and Annie’s embrace is interrupted by the impatient beeping of Henry’s wrist-watch, Stoppard humorously reminds the audience of his earlier metaphor—a thoroughly modern one for time’s intrusion into love. It is a metaphor that melds modern context with eternal themes.

The characters are concerned with “real life” dramas, such as adultery, money, and family trouble, and the action takes place in living rooms and train carriages, not court yards and throne rooms. Just as the setting is realistic and contemporary, so too is the language. Henry’s cricket bat speech, in Act II, scene 1, is a good example of Stoppard’s attempt to show his audience the poetry and drama of everyday life in everyday language. “What we’re trying to do is write cricket bats, so that we when throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might... travel....”

Perhaps Stoppard’s departure from the chaos and incomprehensibility that is characteristic of Absurdism to the making sense of the everyday that is characteristic of Realism is best seen in the character of Henry. His dependence upon humor and word-play suggests that he is alienated from “real” language and incapable of expressing his emotions without being ironic.

This conundrum is most clear in a conversation Henry and Debbie have about love. “Well, I remember, the first time I succumbed to the sensation that the universe was dispensable minus one lady—.” Debbie, interrupting, tells him that he should “speak” rather than “write”: he should be serious rather than ironic, truthful rather than flippant. Unexpectedly, he responds from the heart. “What lovers trust each other with,” he tells her, is “knowledge of each other... knowledge of self, the real him, the real her, in extremis, the mask slipped from the face.” Real language, contemporary language, can express universal dilemmas as eloquently as elevated Shakespearean verse can, and real life can be as powerful an experience as hyperbolic representations of it in art.

The Play-within-the-Play

In The Real Thing, Stoppard uses a favorite theatrical device, the play-within-a-play. His most notable and extensive use of this technique is evident in his landmark Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, which centers around two minor characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and employs the classic as its backdrop (in this case Stoppard’s play is actually the “play within” that is contained within the universe of Shakespeare’s “play”). In The Real Thing, Stoppard carries this device to a new level. There are not one but four plays-within-the-play: Henry’s House of Cards, a fictional play; John Ford’s Tis Pity She’s A Whore; August Strindberg’s Miss Julie; and Brodie’s unnamed TV drama, another fictional play. Stoppard’s use of them profoundly affects the play’s meaning.

The device of the play-within-a-play works to trigger events in the play—the “Mousetrap” in Hamlet, for instance—or to comment satirically on events within the play—the figures of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, for example. The device also allows the playwright to emphasize certain themes. The opening scene in The Real Thing, for instance, prefigures the revelation of Henry’s adultery, the disintegration of his marriage, as well as his characteristic over-reliance on irony and wit to control his emotions.

The device of the play-within-a-play in The Real Thing has other functions, too, most noticeably the creation of ironic and humorous contrasts. The sophisticated bedroom drama House of Cards, and Brodie’s crude TV play that book-end The Real Thing are qualitatively a gulf apart. Henry’s language does not tell, it reveals: Henry’s mind is analytic and subtle. Brodie’s language not only tells, it hammers home the obvious and destroys any drama in the process: Brodie’s thinking is crude and simplistic. The plays demonstrates the difference between the two men’s perception of the world and Page 114  |  Top of Articletheir vision of art. The dramatic works also create a clearer contrast between the two men to whom Annie devotes herself.

Additionally, much of the play’s humor derives from the contrast between theatrical representations of life in The Real Thing (the extracts from Miss Julie and House of Cards) and Stoppard’s representation of real life in The Real Thing. In Act II, scene 2, Billy and Annie rehearse a love scene from ’Tis Pity She’s A Whore. Annie stops rehearsing when Billy becomes “less and less discreet,” but he continues to read from the script. The contrast between her colloquial language and his elevated language, between him continuing to rehearse and her ceasing to, intensifies both the humor and the passion of the scene. The device of the play-within-the-play is thus central to the overall development of themes and characters.


Britain in the Early-1980s

In the 1970s Britain had been torn apart by industrial action and economic depression. Garbage men went on strike; milkmen went on strike; British Rail employees went on strike. Garbage piled up in the streets, milk was not delivered, and people could not rely upon the trains to arrive at work on time. Due to the OPEC boycott (a western abstention from the oil produced in the Middle East), the price of gas skyrocketed. Compounding all these problems was the undeniable fact that British industry was in decline.

Many of Britain’s economic problems in the 1970s had their origins in the Postwar period. After the end of the Second World War, great sections of London had to be re-built and strict food and supply rationing continued well into the 1950s. Although money poured in to Britain to aid the economic recovery, the government channeled much of it into retaining control of the British colonies, the parts of its vast (though soon crumbling) empire. In the long-run, this was a disastrous decision. The British Empire gradually collapsed, and the home economy continued to flounder.

In 1979, after a period of immense social and political turmoil, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s conservative Tory party took power in Britain. Mrs. Thatcher promised to end social disruption and to improve industry profitability. The Tory party retained control of Britain for fifteen years and dramatically altered the fabric of British society.

In 1982, Britain and Argentina’s dispute over the Falkland Islands, an obscure island group off the coast of Argentina, escalated into full-scale war. Britain’s victory over Argentina seemed puny in the international scheme of things, but the war galvanized nostalgia for British imperial might and encouraged many people to feel, as Thatcher proclaimed, that “Great Britain is great again.” Nonetheless, within Britain there was a small, vocal group of people who opposed the war.

In the same year, Prince Charles’s wedding to Lady Diana Spencer provided the public with a fairy-tale spectacle that brought the monarchy’s popularity to an unprecedented height.

However, not everyone was happy with the direction in which Britain was moving. The eighteen-month long coal-miners’ strike in this same period brutally reminded both British and international observers that economic change had come at great social cost. Homelessness became common in Britain’s major cities, and the low-cost housing estates in the inner-city that had been built in the Postwar period became notorious poverty traps. Racism, too, was a constant problem, as Britain struggled to integrate recent immigrants into a sometimes hostile society. The period in which Stoppard wrote The Real Thing was a mixed bag of goods and attitudes towards the tremendous social and economic change depended very much upon whether one was benefiting or suffering as a result of them.

The British Artistic Tradition of Social Criticism

British artists have a venerable tradition of combining social criticism with artistic innovation, and many people who were unhappy in Thatcher’s Britain looked to the theater and to film for critical representations of contemporary society. Film was a popular medium for the British artistic tradition of social criticism. Screenwriter Hanif Kureshi’s film My Beautiful Laundrette laid bare the racist cancer at the heart of the inner-city, and Richard Attenborough’s Ghandhi presented the Indian perspective on British colonialism and empire building.

In the dramatic realm, John Osborne protested against middle-class convention and brought working-class

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  • 1982: The Dow Jones Industrial average, a barometer of stock market activity, tops the 1000 level for the first time.

    Today: In 1999 the Dow Jones Industrial average tops the 10,000 level for the first time, reflecting a booming American economy, record low unemployment, and stable interest rates.

  • 1982: President of the Soviet Union Leonid Brezhev, ruler for eighteen years, dies. He is replaced by former KGB chief Yuri Andropov (who dies the following year).

    Today: After the introduction of “peristroika” by President Mikhail Gorbachov, the Soviet Union abandoned communism and centralization in favor of market capitalism and devolution. The current leader of Russia is Boris Yeltsin, whose initially charismatic presidency has since become characterized by erratic behavior and an inability to control economic chaos and endemic corruption.

  • 1982: Britain goes to war against Argentina over a territorial dispute involving the Falkland Islands. British forces defeat Argentina after a ten-day battle. Margaret Thatcher declares that “Great Britain was great again.” In Argentina, the defeat leads to mass demonstrations and rioting that eventually topples the military government.

    Today: Britain maintains an active military presence in the Falklands. It is also heavily involved in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) military actions in the former Yugoslavia, including Serbia and Kosovo.

characters onto the stage in his decade-defining drama, Look Back in Anger (1956). A decade later, Edward Bond, a working-class playwright, attracted enormous controversy with his play Saved (1965), a grim depiction of urban violence and social decay in which a baby is stoned to death in its pram. Harold Pinter, in plays such as The Birthday Party (1958) and The Caretaker (1960), chose not to speak the language of the people but to create his own rhetoric to express the fractured reality he perceived. Stoppard, too, contributed to the British tradition of social criticism with plays such as Professional Foul (1977), which is set in Czechoslovakia and focuses on political dissidents living in a totalitarian society, and Night and Day (1978), which takes place in a fictionalized Africa and examines the role of the press under a dictatorship.

However, at first glance, The Real Thing seems removed from contemporary controversy. But after a more thoughtful examination, it becomes clear that the play takes issue with two pressing social items. In his presentation of Henry and Annie’s relationship, Stoppard touches upon the changing status of marriage, and in the sub-plot about Brodie’s imprisonment, he attacks segments of the anti-war movement.

Attitudes towards divorce have changed greatly in the second half of the twentieth century. In the 1950s and early-1960s, it was a social taboo to divorce one’s spouse. Times have changed, and the play’s imagined “society” can accept Henry and Annie’s decision to leave their respective spouses with a degree of understanding. But the price of such social change, Stoppard suggests, is that the post-divorce unions are frequently plagued by uncertainty and distrust.

The other important social issue Stoppard explores in The Real Thing is the British anti-war movement, which focused upon the presence of American bases on British soil and upon Britain’s involvement in the manufacturing and sale of nuclear missiles. One of the most famous anti-war protests during this period was the permanent women-only demonstration outside the Greenam Common missile base. The women’s movement and the antiwar movement often shared the same umbrella, and Page 116  |  Top of Articleit is upon this loose alliance that Stoppard turns his rhetorical guns.

In The Real Thing, Annie is active in the antimissile movement. She meets Brodie, a soldier, when she is on her way to a demonstration. He tries to impress her by lighting a fire on the Cenotaph but is promptly arrested. Annie and Max interpret his action sympathetically: Brodie is “an ordinary soldier using his weekend pass to demonstrate against their bloody missiles.” To them, the bases are reprehensible both because they demonstrate society’s commitment to war and because they are evidence of American imperialism.

Henry does not agree. To him, Brodie is an ignorant, thoughtless “vandalizer of a national shrine,” and his character—and his “cause”—is further damaged by his loutish stupidity and goggle-eyed leering at Annie. Stoppard paints Brodie in the most unsympathetic light. He also does an injustice to the movements that Annie espouses: her quick cancellation of a political appointment for sex with Henry, her championing of Brodie because of his infatuation with her, and her ill-conceived idealism, all suggest that her politics are founded on vanity and egoism more than upon carefully reasoned beliefs. Thus some of the play’s central characters, and much of the conflict and the relationships in the play, depend upon Stoppard’s depiction of the antiwar movement; not incidentally, Stoppard actively opposed the Falklands War during the period in which the play debuted.


When The Real Thing first premiered in London in November of 1982, there were two distinctly different reactions to the play—reactions that have come to characterize critical reaction to Stoppard’s work. While all reviewers of Stoppard’s writing, right from the first ecstatic reaction to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in 1966, have exulted in his wit and cleverness, some of them have complained that his writing lacks emotional depth.

Just such a reaction characterized Irving Wardle’s hostile review of the premiere of The Real Thing in the London Times. In “Stoppard’s Romance in a Cold Climate,” Wardle complained that “the cumulative effect of The Real Thing is one of cleverness with its back to the wall.” Wardle took a dim view of the debate between Henry and Annie about Brodie’s play. He admitted that it was “a classic statement of the art versus truth debate” but felt that it was part of an over-riding tendency towards “self-laceration” on Stoppard’s part. Wardle clearly took Henry as a stand-in for Stoppard, and to an extent he was encouraged to do so by Stoppard himself, who less than a week after he had finished writing the play declared to an American audience that he would read Henry’s cricket-bat speech “as though” it were “mine.”

In contrast to Wardle’s cool review, the Guardian ’s Michael Billington offered a highly favorable appraisal. Far from criticizing Stoppard for continuing to write “cold” plays, Billington praised the play as “that rare thing... an intelligent play about love.” Billington acknowledged that the territory Stoppard covered was familiar but argued that the play was worthwhile because of Stoppard’s intelligent commentary on ideas connected to the theme of love. Billington’s only quibble was that Stoppard had come down too hard on the then-fashionable genre of political drama. He disagreed with Stoppard’s assumption that “impassioned political drama is irreconcilable with irony and finesse.”

Nonetheless, Billington’s review was influential, for it established the dominant interpretation of the play, that by the end of The Real Thing, Henry has changed for the better: “pain has transmuted him; and the assumption is that he will be a better writer and a richer man.” Much of the later commentary upon The Real Thing followed this line of interpretation.

Paul Delaney, writing in Critical Inquiry a few years after the initial production, supported Stoppard’s response to the then British infatuation with political drama. Delaney suggested that Stoppard “praises art which ‘works’ aesthetically whether or not it ‘works’ in terms of social utility.” In effect, Delaney identified Stoppard as a cultural conservative: someone who believes that art and literature can be evaluated from a universal standard and that there is a great gulf dividing popular culture like TV, Hollywood films, comic books, and romance novels, from “high” culture like opera, theater, art films, and intellectual novels.

Delaney thus dragged Stoppard into the so-called “Culture Wars.” This debate was fought largely within the universities, although it also effected high school curriculum battles, too. The battle was divided between two fronts: on the one hand, people who felt that the curriculum should be more inclusive, and that texts should be read for Page 117  |  Top of Articletheir social and historical value as well as their aesthetic value; and on the other hand, people who argued that the curriculum should stay as it was, that the “new” writers critics were trying to promote were not good enough and that aesthetic values were all that counted when it came to assessing a novel, poem, or play. Delaney enlisted Stoppard on his own side—the conservatives—although with hindsight, readers might ponder the play’s ending, when Henry capitulates and re-writes Brodie’s play, and wonder if Delaney was justified in doing so.

More than one critic picked up on the implications of Stoppard’s stance against the political value of art. The New York Times’s Benedict Nightingale, reviewing the Broadway premiere of the play, pointed out that “every British dramatist seems to be expected to flaunt his social conscience these days.” Stoppard’s commitments, Nightingale suggested, were only “to be the freedom of the writer to ignore the day’s prejudices, choose his own subject-matter, and treat it with all the honesty and artistry he can muster.”

Nightingale wrote approvingly of Stoppard’s attack on “political correctness,” but not everyone was so quick to praise the playwright’s representation of the relationship between art and politics. Frank Rich, also writing for the New York Times, thought that Stoppard had loaded all his guns and given his opponents only faulty ammunition: “Throughout the play, Henry’s ideals about art and language are set against those of a fledging playwright... who writes poorly, but, unlike Henry, champions a social cause. Whatever the relative merits of polemical playwrights versus ‘pure’ writers, no light is shed here. By painting Brodie as a moral fraud and loutish philistine, Mr. Stoppard lets Henry demolish him without contest—and reduces a complex debate to a smug, loaded dialectic.”

Some critics saw Stoppard’s sketchy representation of Brodie as yet another example of his inability to create nuanced characters. Leo Sauvage, writing in the New Leader, felt that Stoppard put his characters through all sorts of hoops only in order “to find a spur for the changes in Henry.” The characterization that most suffers as a result of the playwright’s steel-eyed focus on Henry is Annie, whose “bizarre” mixture of “superficial political militancy” is apparently compatible with “her whimsical enthusiasm” and her status as “a sort of updated symbol of l’eternel feminin.

The critical reception of Stoppard’s twentieth play was thus fairly positive, although a few prominent critics did express some reservations about the work. Most critics applauded Stoppard’s complex exploration of adultery and love and were unanimous in praising his wit and humor. A few argued that the playwright’s characteristic prioritization of ideas and technique over emotions and characters weakened the characterizations and the plot development.


Helena Ifeka

Ifeka is a Ph.D. specializing in American and British literature. In this essay she argues that in The Real Thing Stoppard takes issue with contemporary pressures to politicize art. Ifeka assesses the persuasiveness of his attack.

Critics seized upon The Real Thing as if it were a rainstorm in a drought, proclaiming that Stoppard had at last written a play with real characters who experienced human emotions. Precisely why they should be so enthusiastic about the playwright’s tardy conversion to realism when they once enthusiastically applauded his innovative Absurdism is not clear; nor is it clear why Stoppard has been burdened with the ridiculous smear that his writing was, up until he supposedly proved otherwise in The Real Thing, cold and unemotional.

Stoppard had always been a playwright whose intellectual curiosity mirrored his passion for language; he had not been particularly interested in squashing his energy into a realist or naturalist dramatic form but rather had invested time in unpicking the very fabric of such genres. His decision to pick up the realist garment finally and to fit it to his own devices deserves a better response than patronizing applause. It seems unlikely, too, that Stoppard would abandon his passion for the play as a vehicle for ideas, and, indeed, close examination of The Real Thing demonstrates that while the dominant theme may well be that of love, Stoppard’s underlying concern is with contemporary debates about language and art.

Hillary DeVries was on the right track when, in reviewing the play, she wrote that it covers “familiar Stoppard territory... whether our views of art, politics, and emotion have any reality beyond our own perceptions.” It is no accident that the play’s protagonist is a playwright. By identifying him as such, and by providing an example of his writing,

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  • John Ford’s Tis Pity She’s a Whore (1633). This passionate seventeenth-century play is the masterpiece of Caroline theater. The dominant theme is as shocking today as it was then: the incestuous love of the siblings Gionvanni and Arabella. Ford delights in exploring the ethical paradoxes created by this love.
  • August Strindberg’s naturalist drama Miss Julie (1888) is now a staple of mainstream theater, but in its own day it was banned by the Danish censor. In the play, Strindberg explores the theme of cross-class love.
  • Stoppard’s Arcadia (1993) is an entertaining play about the Romantic poet Byron’s disappearance from Britain in 1809 and other unanswered riddles of Romanticism. It spans two different time periods. Arcadia was heralded as Stoppard’s most intellectually ambitious play yet.
  • Yasmina Reza’s Art (1997) is a wildly successful French play, translated into English, about three friends’ different reactions to a new painting (a black canvas) that one of them has purchased.
  • Shakespeare in Love by Stoppard and Marc Norman (1998). See this Oscar-winning film to learn more about Stoppard—and about Shakespeare’s plays Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night.
  • American novelist and essayist Norman Mailer wrote the naturalist novel The Naked and the Dead (1948), about the fates of thirteen infantry men who survive the invasion of a Japanese-held island in World War II, as well as the Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction work, The Armies of the Night (1968) about a pacifist march on the Pentagon in 1967.
  • Alan Ayckbourn’s A Chorus of Disapproval (1984) is a good play to compare to Stoppard’s The Real Thing, for both plays were written within a few years of each other and both use the device of the play-within-a-play. Ayckbourn’s play is set in a small provincial town and is about the antics of an amateur musical society.

Stoppard tells the audience that the key events and developments in the play will hinge upon Henry’s gifts as a writer and upon his perception of writing. Henry’s profession will determine the play’s plot and themes. If this is a play about love, then it is a play about Stoppard’s life-long love affair with language.

Stoppard famously tends to be inspired by an idea rather than an image or a story. The Real Thing began with an idea or rather a question: could he “structure a play by repeating a given situation—a man in a room with his wife showing up—three times, each differently.” Implicit in this question is an understanding of “reality” as something one attains, defines, creates, rather than as a material “given.” Stoppard is not interested in peeling away layers of meaning in order to reach, finally, the kernel of truth but rather in the way language transforms lived experience. It is in language and in all that language can do—the “bridges across chaos” that it can build—that Stoppard is most interested; love—its veracity and its pain—is simply the new season’s ball that Stoppard throws through this eternally intriguing hoop.

Bouncing along with this question is one of the most pressing issues in contemporary Britain, that of the relation between art and politics. Henry and Annie’s conflict over Brodie’s play asks the audience to consider several controversial questions. Should artists use their talent for political purposes? Can art change the “real world” in positive ways? What is the value of art if it has no overt political content? This issue was pressing in Britain for many reasons. Britain had long had a much stronger

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A scene from a Donmar Warehouse production of The Real Thing featuring Jennifer Ehle as Annie and Stephen Dillane as Henry A scene from a Donmar Warehouse production of The Real Thing featuring Jennifer Ehle as Annie and Stephen Dillane as Henry

support of socially progressive art than America, and British theater has long produced cutting-edge politically conscious drama.

But British liberals were out on a limb in the early-1980s—locked out of political power by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party and seeking platforms upon which to voice their concerns. The tremendous social changes of the 1960s and 1970s had radicalized both the theater population and the left wing in general and led to acceptance of the belief that “the personal is political.” It naturally followed that this applied not only to how one lived one’s life but what one did in one’s occupation. Amidst this noisy fray Stoppard dared to wag his finger and say “no.”

He uttered that defiant syllable through the conflict between Henry and Annie over their different perceptions of the occupation of writer and the writer’s material, language. Ironically, in their different ways they both see language in the same way. Annie believes words are worthless unless tied to politically meaningful freight; Henry believes them to be “innocent” and “neutral” until shaped, carefully and lovingly, into a bridge across chaos. They

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do, however, differ about what the motivation of the writer should be. Annie believes that words should be strung together either to lob a hefty bomb at order (the government, the state, the military) or to express a truth that defies those same forces of law and order (oppression of an individual, a person’s innocence, group solidarity). Henry, however, has no interest in the relationship between language and society. As far as he is concerned, a relationship, or many relationships, may exist, but what the writer should be concerned about is each word’s connection to the next word.

Irving Wardle, in his review of the London premiere of the play, assumed Henry was Stoppard’s mouth-piece, a view expressed by Stoppard himself, who less than a week after he had finished writing the play declared to an American audience that he would read Henry’s cricket-bat speech “as though” it were “mine.” Stoppard’s arguments were a welcome change from the pressure to politicize art that dominated British theater and the arts in the 1980s. His arguments remain a strong assertion of the power—and the integrity—of the human imagination, which, after all, should not have to leap through lion’s hoops on demand but should instead be free to roam about in whatever territory and with whichever companions it delights in. Be that as it may, there are weaknesses in Stoppard’s splendid sophistry.

Henry’s arguments fall down when Annie asks him whether he cares in the least about “who wrote it, why he wrote it, where he wrote it.” To Henry, these considerations simply “don’t count.” Henry’s position is made to seem more reasonable because of the crassness of Brodie’s writing and because Brodie is such an unappealing character. Indeed, if Brodie and Annie are meant to be the wall against which Henry batters his bleeding head, then Stoppard has given his protagonist too many cushions. As Frank Rich remarked in the New York Times, “the particular left-wing playwright who arouses Henry’s ire proves a straw man—a boorish fraud who’s ‘a lout with language.’ Arguing at length [against] such a pushover of an antagonist” is no difficult feat, and the same might be said of the vehicle through which Henry batters the unseen Brodie, Annie, who is indeed, as Charlotte says, “a feed” for Henry’s views. Annie’s naivete encourages the audience to ask why her considerations should, indeed, “count.”

But count they should, albeit not in the ways that Stoppard suggests. Henry’s “bridges across incomprehension and chaos” enable the writer to “nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you’re dead.” But fame is not every poet’s ambition, and the bridges that were created in one lifetime can mean a different thing in another. This is precisely the beauty and wonder of language—that different people in different times and places can look at the bridge and see it in a different light—but it also means that the questions of “who, why, where” are fundamentally important to the reader—if not to the writer.

It is at this point that Stoppard’s straw man trips up, because Henry is a writer, not a reader, and Annie is an actress, not an audience member. Each character speaks about language and the profession of a writer from the perspective of the creator and the doer, rather than from the perspective of the listener and the watcher. Both, of course, touch upon these perspectives—Henry in his attempt to create art that will outlast his “mortal coil” and Annie in her hope that her art will also leave its mark upon the world—but their debate is rooted, fundamentally, in their own experience. “Who, why, where,” are valuable considerations, for taken together with the art work they can often offer the reader an altogether fresh voice.

Does it help the reader to think about Aphra Behn’s identity, and the time in which she was writing, when watching The Rover? Does it help the reader to consider August Wilson’s background and his relationship to black and white culture when reading The Piano Lesson? Undoubtedly, the experience of reading and watching and listening without asking these questions is still a rich one, but holding both birds in one hand makes it richer still.

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Stoppard’s intervention into the muddy forays of British cultural politics is a daring and a commendable one: one, indeed, that more writers in the period should have had the courage to follow his lead. Ideas, if unquestioned, can be illogical and indeed oppressive, no matter how progressive they appear. Stoppard’s essential argument, voiced through the debate between Henry and Annie about the value of the writer and of language, is that language is “sacred” and “innocent” and that its value accrues only in use. It is a logical and a persuasive argument. Its second half, however, that the identity of the writer is meaningless, is less so. Writers should certainly not be valued simply for their identity alone: no one wants to sit through three hours of diatribe if they will not be entertained or moved. But if pursued to its logical endgame, the argument Henry advances would mean that the identity of the writer—their race, their gender, their class, their family circumstances, their relationship to their culture’s language—would simply be discounted altogether.

Source: Helena Ifeka, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.

Robert Brustein

In this favorable appraisal of Stoppard’s play, Brustein commends the playwright for turning his dramatic talents to matters of human emotion.

It has sometimes been said of Tom Stoppard, by others besides me, that there is nothing going on beneath the glossy, slippery surface of his bright ideas and arch dialogue. With The Real Thing (Plymouth Theater), he has decided to confound his more skeptical critics by chipping a hole in the ice for us to peek through—under the proper conditions, no doubt, suitable also for fishing. You’ve probably heard by now what’s swimming around this chilly pond. The “real thing” is Stoppard’s amorous equivalent of the “right stuff”—grace and style in the performance of a difficult task, in this case conducting erotic relationships.

In short, Britain’s leading intellectual entertainer is now exhibiting a highly publicized, well-congratulated capacity not just for verbal and literary pyrotechnics but also for feeling, in that his characters can actually experience such human emotions as jealousy, envy, sorrow, and passion. Hearing these exotic emotions expressed, I was reminded of Racine’s Phèdre, where the lovesick heroine has been assuming all the while that Hippolytus is

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frigid, only to discover that he has actually been in love with the young Aricie. “Hippolytus can feel!” says the astonished Phedre, “but not for me.” Mr. Stoppard’s aberrational display of sentience left me equally bereft and isolated.

The Real Thing begins with a scene from House of Cards, a love triangle written by a successful playwright named Henry, enacted by his actress wife, Charlotte, and his actor friend, Max. Brittle enough to be a genuine piece of Stoppard invention, this is nevertheless not the “real thing” but rather a play-within-a-play (selections from Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore later form another of these Chinese boxes) about a man exposing his wife’s adultery. After Henry’s apartment comes in on a revolving turntable, we learn that the “real thing” is actually about the adultery of a husband. Henry has been having it off with Max’s wife, Annie, another actress, though one with a bit of social conscience—she has befriended a young soldier arrested for arson at an antimissile demonstration. By the second act, Henry has left Charlotte and moved in with Annie.

When Max learns of Annie’s infidelity, he cries. Henry, who finds Max’s misery “in not very good taste,” also cries when he discovers later that Annie has betrayed him as well with a young actor. Obviously, Hippolytus can feel—but Stoppard is less interested in these lachrymose calisthenics than in demonstrating how it is possible to reveal sentiment without losing one’s reputation as a wit. For despite the intermittent weeping, the strongest emotion in the play is a passion for the construction of sentences, and Stoppard (ignoring Max’s rebuke that “having all the words is not what life’s about”) is never more fervid than when Henry is celebrating his own verbal felicity. Defending himself against Page 122  |  Top of ArticleAnnie’s charge that “You only write for people who would like to write like you if only they could write” (note that even his critics speak in carefully polished tropes), Henry replies that language is sacred, even if writers are not, and “If you get the right words in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.”

At this point, he has been nudging the world in the direction of quietism by ridiculing soldier Brodie’s loutish effort to compose a protest play. Stoppard, whose name was recently used in an ad by British conservatives praising our invasion of Grenada, is as tone deaf before the dissonant inflections of Western political protest as Henry is in the presence of serious music (though he is profoundly sensitive to stirrings of dissent in Eastern Europe). After Annie has rewarded Brodie’s bad manners by administering some cocktail dip to his face like a slapstick pie, the play ends with a reconciliatory kiss between husband and wife, Henry writhing to his favorite rock record and Annie entering the bedroom to undress. Thus, love conquers all—even casual adulteries and messy social dissent.

Considering how few people can resist a sophisticated love story, The Real Thing is destined to be one of the big hits of the Broadway season, and, when the rights are released, a reigning favorite of middlebrow theater companies. I found it rather coldhearted in its good-natured way, a frozen trifle with little aftertaste. Stoppard has doubtless made some effort to examine his own personal and literary problems, and his writing is rarely defensive or self-serving. But despite the autobiographical yeast leavening the familiar digestible cake mix, The Real Thing is just another clever exercise in the Mayfair mode, where all of the characters (the proletarian Brodie excepted) share the same wit, artifice, and ornamental diction. Even Henry’s teen-age daughter, at the very moment that she is teasing her father for writing always about “infidelity among the architect class,” is fashioning sentences (“Exclusive rights isn’t love,” she says, “it’s colonization”) apparently designed for inclusion in a Glossary of Post-Restoration Epigrams. No wonder Stoppard has her refer to herself as “virgo syntacta.”

I think I might be less immune to the charms of this admittedly harmless piece of trivia were it not being tarted up everywhere to pass for, well, the real thing. It comes no closer to reality than any of those other adultery plays recently exported from England—and it doesn’t even possess the mordancy of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal or the ingenuity of Peter Nichols’s Passion. Born in Czechoslovakia, Stoppard has managed to perfect an expatriate’s gift for mimicry—allied to his ear for language is his unique capacity to imitate playwriting styles. But if he began his career impersonating Beckett and Pirandello (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) or Bernard Shaw (Jumpers) or Joyce and Wilde (Travesties), he has recently, along with a large number of contemporaries in the English theater, come entirely under the influence of Noel Coward’s witty sangfroid. The question is whether this is a style more appropriate to simulating reality or creating escapism, whether, at this critical point in world history, we are more in need of rhetorical artifice—or poetic truth.

Mike Nichols’s production is as beautifully manufactured as the play and, at times, equally contrived. Nichols has always gotten the best out of good actors, and his casting instinct has not failed him here. Still, there is an element of spontaneity occasionally missing from the current production—as if the cast were being corseted in Stoppard’s language. Jeremy Irons, looking like a dissipated D’Artagnan, bearded and baggy eyed, has a plummy time with Henry’s dialogue, and commands the stage with authentic theatrical grace but Glenn Close, as Annie, tries too hard to charm us out of recognizing that this is one unpleasant lady. An attractive actress with auburn hair and sunken eyes, Miss Close seems at times too easily persuaded of her own radiance. She smiles too much, and she has a habit of hugging herself, which injects a strain of sentimental self-love into these rather hardhearted proceedings (it is also highly unlikely, though this may be a fault of the writing, that she would be playing the young Annabella opposite a considerably younger Giovanni in ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore). As for Christine Baranski as Charlotte and Kenneth Welsh as Max, they, like the rest of the cast—and like Tony Walton’s scenery, Tharon Musser’s lighting, and Anthea Sylbert’s clothes—function as well as possible to fulfill the assigned task, which is to reflect back the showy brilliance of the two leading characters, not to mention the breathtaking contrivances of their author, in his flamboyant exhibition of what it means to be “real.”

Source: Robert Brustein. “Hippolytus Can Feel” in the New Republic, Vol. 190, no. 4, January 30, 1984, pp. 28–29.

John Simon

Simon offers a mixed review of The Real Thing, marveling at Stoppard’s theatrical skill while lameriting Page 123  |  Top of Articlethe mental gymnastics required to keep pace with the playright’s language.

The playwright hero of Noel Coward’s story “The Wooden Madonna” has been called by critics “a second Somerset Maugham,” “a second Noel Coward,” and “a second Oscar Wilde.” I am sure that Tom Stoppard has been hailed as all that and more, and with some justification, even though unlike those three he is heterosexual. Surely his new play, The Real Thing, is as literate (barring the occasional grammatical lapse), witty, and dizzyingly ingenious as anything you will have seen in a long time, except for Noises Off, which, however, is farce rather than high comedy. In fact, Stoppard is as clever a playwright as you can find operating today in the English language. Therein lies his strength and also, I am afraid, his weakness. But do not let anything I am about to say deter you from seeing the play happily, profitably, gratefully.

In Stoppard’s novel, Lord Malquist & Mr. Moon, there was a question so urgent that it had to be italicized: “That’s what I’d like to know. Who’s a genuine what?” In the intervening seventeen years, things have become more complicated, and the question is not only who but also what is a genuine what. It is as if The Real Thing took place entirely between two facing mirrors, Life and Art, reflecting what they see back and forth to infinity (mirrors playing an endless game of Ping-Pong), except that one cannot be quite sure which mirror is which. And in trying to establish what they are reflecting with any certainty, one is forced to keep turning one’s head from one mirror to the other; yet the final answer resides in the last image, the one in infinity, to which neither the dramatis personae nor the audience will ever penetrate. So both have to settle for accepting one uncertainty as a working hypothesis. But which one?

I am giving away an open secret when I say that the play begins with a scene of marriage and infidelity. Or, rather, illusory marriage, for this is a scene from House of Cards, a play by Henry Boot, the hero of The Real Thing —and illusory infidelity, for the adultery in question, we later learn, was merely putative. The actors are Charlotte, Henry’s real-life wife, and Max, their real-life friend, who is married to Annie in real life (I am speaking, of course, as if The Real Thing were real life, and as if real life existed), who, however, is in love with Henry, as he is with her. But “real life” is also a house of cards, and soon marriages collapse—painfully

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for some, happily for others—to re-form in different configurations. Will they last?

For example, Annie, likewise an actress as well as a militant pacifist, has, after her marriage to Henry, met on a train from Scotland a simple soldier called Brodie—himself, it seems, an ardent pacifist. Upon setting fire to a wreath on a militaristic monument, he gets six years in jail for arson. To help release him sooner, Annie persuades him to write a play about what happened, a play that, being plain reality, is so bad that the extremely reluctant Henry has to be argued into rewriting it, i.e., putting enough illusion into its bare, rude truth to make it artlike, performable, real. (“I tart up Brodie’s unspeakable drivel into speakable drivel,” Henry says.) Aside from being debated acrimoniously enough to break up a marriage, this train ride with Brodie will be seen, at least in part, enacted as it might have happened, as Brodie wrote it, as Henry rewrote it, and as, presumably further revised, it was done on TV. And this isn’t even the main plot of The Real Thing, though it impinges on it, or vice versa. Which mirror are we looking at? The events of life are reflected, somewhat distorted, in art; the events of art, somewhat travestied (or more tragic?), are echoed by life. And, of course, affairs and adulteries and marriages are everywhere, but which, if any, are real? Not necessarily the real ones.

Even the recorded music, classical or popular, that gets played on phonographs or radios extends this state of reflections, echoes, multiple bottoms on and on. A trio from Cost fan tutte comes from an opera about infidelity that proves not infidelity—unless, of course, semblance or intention equals reality. Also there’s a bit of La Traviata on the Page 124  |  Top of Articleradio, about a formerly light woman who now pretends to be unfaithful—actually is unfaithful—but only because she believes it will benefit the one man she adores and keeps adoring. All of which comments on the action of the play. And so on. If this makes your head spin, rest assured that in watching The Real Thing, the head-spinning is greatly assuaged by spectacle and mitigated by wit—more wit than you can absorb, but what you can is amply sufficient. There is also something from time to time approaching real drama, real feeling, but this is not quite the real thing. Never mind, though; it, too, fascinates.

Yet, undeniably, there is loss. Cleverness, when it is as enormous as Stoppard’ s, can become a bit of an enormity, especially when it starts taking itself too seriously—either because it is too clever or because it is, after all, not clever enough. Wilde, you see, had the cleverness in The Importance of Being Earnest (from which an earlier Stoppard play, Travesties, takes off) not to take anything in it remotely in earnest. Congreve, in his differently but scarcely less clever The Way of the World, which does have serious overtones, had the good judgment not to make all the characters, situations, and speeches clever or funny. There is genuine dumbness, oafishness, evil in it. Conversely, Pirandello, the grand master of illusion, often isn’t being funny at all. But Stoppard’s hurtlingly, and sometimes hurtingly, funny cleverness is an avalanche that sweeps away even the chap who started it.

In The Real Thing, the semiautobiographical Henry Boot and, in life, the unavoidably autobiographical Tom Stoppard state or have stated their inability to come to grips with and write about love. Yet here, even more than in Night and Day, a less successful work, the subject is largely love, and though Stoppard has some pertinent things to say about it, his pertness militates against the pertinence. Take a woman’s complaint that so much has been written about the misery of the unrequited lover “but not a word about the utter tedium of the unrequitee,” where, as so often here, the very diction undercuts the cri de coeur, sometimes, but not always, intentionally. These characters go about their infidelities—really testimonials of love meant to make the other person feel—in a jokey context, with anguish ever ready to melt into epigrams. In Peter Hall’s Diaries, Sir Peter attends a performance of Shaw’s Pygmalion with Tom and Miriam Stoppard, and carps that this play is “love without pain.” In its more serious moments, The Real Thing seems to be pain without love and, finally, pain without pain.

And remarkable as the wit is, one gasps for respite. Must even a very young girl have adult wit? Must even a common soldier be a laughing philosopher? Must one wife be more clever than the next? And though much of the wit is golden, e.g., “You’re beginning to appall me—there’s something scary about stupidity made coherent,” there is much that is merely silver and tarnishes in the open air. Thus there is rather too much of what I’d call the joke of the displaced or vague referent. For example, a wife says she deplores all this humiliation, and when the husband says he regrets its being humiliating to her, she rejoins, “Humiliating for you, not for me.” If her father worries about daughter Debbie’s being out late in a part of town where some murders have been committed, Mother quips that Debbie is not likely to kill anyone. The archetypal form of this occurs in: “I’m sorry.” “What for?” “I don’t know.”

Still, it is all civilized and much of it scintillating, even if Stoppard’s heart seems mostly in the unfeeling jokes such as the diatribe against digital watches—a long tirade whose every barb works like clockwork—than in the more feeling ones such as “Dignified cuckoldry is a difficult trick, but I try to live with it. Think of it as modern marriage.” (I may have got this slightly wrong, but so has Stoppard.) The play has been greatly rewritten since it left London and is, I am told on good authority, much improved here. Certainly the production could scarcely be bettered. Any laugh that Stoppard might have missed, Mike Nichols, the ingenious director, has quietly but dazzlingly slipped in, and Tony Walton’s sets are charming and suggestive, and can be changed with a speed that redounds to their glory and the play’s efficiency. Anthea Sylbert’s costumes look comfortably lived in, and Tharon Musser’s hard-edged lighting matches the author’s wit.

I have never before liked Jeremy Irons, but here his wimpy personality and windy delivery work wonders for him in creating a Henry who can rattle off jests at breakneck speed, then put on the brakes to achieve heartbreaking slowness. Weakness of aspect and personality become touching, and there is throughout a fine blend of shrewdness and fatuity, irony and vulnerability. Despite his musical illiteracy and assorted pip-squeakeries, this man, in Irons’s hands, makes you believe that he is an artist of talent, and that under the flippancies, deep down in his flibbertigibbety soul, he cares about something. Page 125  |  Top of ArticleAs his two wives, Glenn Close and Christine Baranski are both highly accomplished comediennes, who can get under the skin of comedy as easily as under that of another character. Close’s English accent is better, but both look very much like English actresses, which is both apposite and aesthetically unfortunate. As Debbie, Cynthia Nixon manages to be precocious without being obnoxious. Kenneth Welsh is a marvelous Max, wonderfully different on stage and on stage-within-stage. As the young actor Billie, Peter Gallagher slips superbly from difficult accent to accent, and combines pliable ease with solid manliness. In the only somewhat underwritten role of Brodie, Vyto Ruginis nevertheless creates a fully fleshed character.

The one problem with the play is that those two mirrors are so damned clever they can reflect away even with nothing between them. That would make Stoppard another Wilde—not bad. Now how about trying for another Molière?

Source: John Simon. “All Done with Mirrors” in New York, Vol. 17, no. 3, January 16, 1984, pp. 64–65.


Billington, Michael. “High Fidelity” in the Guardian, November 17, 1982, p. 9.

Corliss, Richard. “Stoppard in the Name of Love: The Real Thing Brings Romantic Comedy Back to Broadway” in Time, Vol. 123, no. 3, January 16, 1984, pp. 68–9.

Delaney, Paul. “Cricket Bats and Commitment: The Real Thing in Art and Life” in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 27, no. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 45–60.

Kroll, Jack. “Lovers and Strangers” in Newsweek, Vol. CIII, no. 3, January 16, 1984, p. 83.

Nightingale, Benedict.” Stoppard As We Never Dreamed He Could Be” in the New York Times, January 15, 1984, pp. 5, 26.

Rich, Frank. “Stoppard’s Real Thing in London” in the New York Times, June 23, 1983, p. C15.

Rich, Frank. “Tom Stoppard’s Real Thing: Love Lost and Found” in the New York Times, January 6, 1984, p. C3.

Sauvage, Leo. “Where Stoppard Fails” in the New Leader, Vol. LXVII, no. 2, January 23, 1984, pp. 21–22.

Trussler, Simon. Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Theater, Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Wardle, Irving. “Stoppard’s Romance in a Cold Climate” in the London Times, November 17, 1982, p. 16.

Zozaya, Pilar. “Plays-within-Plays in Three Modern Plays: Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, and Alan Ayckbourn’s A Chorus of Disapproval” in Revista Alicantina de Estudios Ingleses, November, 1988, pp. 189–201.


Billington, Michael. One Night Stands, Nick Hern Books, 1993.

This collection of the Guardian’s famous theater critic contains a good selection from two decades of criticism.

Brook, Peter. The Empty Space, London, 1968.

Brook was one of the most influential theater directors in Britain in the Postwar period. He was long associated with the Royal Shakespeare Company. His directorial style showed the influences of Antonin Artaud and Bertolt Brecht. His essay collection analyses the basic problems facing contemporary theater and influenced many British and foreign directors.

Gordon, Robert. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Jumpers, and The Real Thing: Text and Performance, Macmillan, 1991.

This series focuses upon the plays in performance and is a useful guide to students of performance studies.

Trussler, Simon. Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Theater, Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Trussler’s well-informed and forthright history of British theater from the Roman period through to the present is a very readable source book.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2693300018