Friday, October 4, 2002

Stoppard’s “Night and Day”: a Critical Response


“Night and Day” was my first introduction to Tom Stoppard the playwright. I’ve been hearing about Stoppard’s genius for years, as my partner Neil, who was in a local production of “The Real Inspector Hound”; he recently met Stoppard at UC Berkeley and he was raving about Stoppard’s genius. Because I found the reading of the play both dated and tedious— I will address this later—I also took it upon myself to scan a few of his other plays including “Indian Ink” and “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead”. I loved Stoppard’s innovative plots and ideas, restricting the amount of information Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have access to, and embedding bits of Hamlet within the framework of the play, or having two dueling critics riding shotgun throughout the play in “The Real Inspector Hound.”

However, the difference between “Night and Day” and Stoppard’s other plays was literally night and day. In the other plays, I got a better sense of the famous Stoppardian farcical style. Moral: don’t judge a playwright by only one play—certainly not the dated “Night and Day”. But this raises another issue: shouldn’t a work of art stand alone and not be supported by the oeuvre and charisma of the artist?

I admit some of my difficulty with reading “Night and Day” had to do with a wandering attention span. Perhaps my mind went narcoleptic because of the datedness of the material, but some of this has to do with my inability to fully visualize a play on the page. I am a practicing dyslexic. I have trouble visualizing the actions of words on the page. I have to see a play or a poem on its feet. I have to hear the spoken word first in order to appreciate them on the page. I have to hear a surrogate author’s voice in my head.

For example, the first time I read Martin McDonough’s “The Beauty Queen of Lenane” I hated it, I really thought the script stunk but when I saw it produced at Berkeley Rep, I gained a better appreciation of the play (though I found the pacing and the bad Irish accents to be amateurish and tedious—not up to usual Berkeley Rep style—but it was early in the run. They did improve with time.)

Which brings me to the cult of Stoppard vs. the play, “Night and Day.” Before I saw the ACT production, I attended the special ACT Prologue interview with Stoppard and I also heard the Michael Krasny radio interview on KQED. I fell in love with the brilliant wit and self-deprecating style that Stoppard is justly famous for. This swayed my judgment so much that I enjoyed the production more than I expected and the storyline as well.

Some of my enthusiasm was because the set was so simple yet dazzling. Clever idea to have the house open up like a clam to reveal the living room but when it wouldn’t close again due to mechanical failure, the actors did a stellar job of carrying on with the play, though many of the outdoor scenes took place in the living room. A surrealistic touch I hardly noticed...except for Francis’ incongruous pillow gathering, the journalists jamming up in the door of the office and the “other Ruth” walking offstage from behind the office, seemed a little odd. I remember being vaguely puzzled by their odd activities, but I was still engrossed enough in the storyline to maintain a suspension of disbelief, though the timing also seemed to be a bit off. And the inconsistent use of spotlights on some of the other “Ruth”’s asides also confused me—especially when Ruth is talking to Jason Milne. I thought she was blurting her subconscious thoughts which was pretty funny as we all have that fear.

What I learned from this Stoppard play, is that if the direction and the pacing are good, a less than stellar play can indeed shine. As with “House of Blue Leaves”, I missed much of the juxtaposition of dialogue and timing cues during my first read. John Guare said that timing is so critical in farce—even a 30-second delay can disrupt the flow of the scene. And Stoppard, like Guare, has a superb sense of timing. Besides, they’re just plain funny playwrights. It comes through in their writing.

One tip that was enormously helpful to my appreciating “Night and Day” was Stoppard’s own comment that he likes to present differing points of view, and that all the voices, including Mageeba’s, are really the playwright’s voice. Once Stoppard confessed this, I breathed an enormous sigh of relief. It gave me permission to step back from the play and listen to Stoppard’s subtext. I used to think that having running arguments in my head was uniquely Catholic trait. Something the nuns hammered into us about God and the devil struggling over your mind except that God was actually too busy to be involved in the archetypal struggle of free will among the vast populace, so he sent guardian angels along instead. Do not lead us into temptation...and all that.

Stoppard’s theatrical timing is superb at building suspense. Though I knew that President Mageeba was going to hit Wagner, I was on the edge of my seat waiting, so that the strike was a bit anti-climactic, as if MY timing was off...and I realized that throughout the play, Stoppard is in our heads, playing with our timing, throwing us off balance from the very beginning. The opening scene is a Checkovian microcosmos of metaphor that echoes and reverberates throughout the play—something lovely I completely missed until after I saw the play and then reread it again.

On some level, I suspect an audience wants reassurance that the author is indeed in control of his subject matter so that they can trust him to set defined perimeters so that they can suspend their disbelief and enter into the somewhat voyeuristic partnership of observer/observed. I think this has to do with audience expectation and the dual role of the predictability / unpredictability factor.

Perhaps a surreal digression will back light a murky point I’m trying to make on audience. A psychologist friend and I once sat at a pub window in Amsterdam’s Red Light District, observing a tableaux before us. I was struck by the sheer theatricality of hookers gyrating behind blacklit windows, pantomiming to an eager audience of trench-coated johns in the alley. It was a predictable play. The johns strutted in for the climax of the show, but minutes later, they slunk back out seeming more depressed than anything. Meanwhile the shopworn hookers bounced right back in the picture windows, right on cue for scene two.

We as audience come to the theater with certain expectations. We eagerly anticipate and sincerely hope to be entertained.. But what is our role in the larger play of things? To be teased and titillated or to bear witness? What about catharsis? But if John Guare is right, that theater is where we come to find the truth (versus the sheer entertainment value of TV and film), how do we access a deeper truth when portions of a play have become timeworn and stale? Supporters were raving about the timeliness of this dated play, I found this to be a contradiction.

Poet Wallace Stevens wrote: “it is difficult getting the news/ from poetry/ but men die miserably/ every day/ /for lack of what is found there.” Unfortunately “Night and Day” is a prosaic play. There is a certain timeliness to Stoppard’s play in that news is sensationalism—show biz as it were. Why bother to do this play now? We already know all about yellow journalism, narcissistic self-worship of print media’s altar-ego (stet.) and the minuscule media bytes of cable network news. So what’s the NEW news that we as audience are supposed to come away with? What new truth is unveiled? Perhaps it’s unfair to judge the play, an artifact of its time, against today’s current events—it’s a fossil relic of the news machine of the 1970s. Historicity repeating itself?

If the subject matter of the play, that is, journalism itself, is not the news, then I am led to words as artifacts. In “Night and Day,” Stoppard heavily relies upon didacticism as his modus operandi to carry the play. There is more than a fair amount of belabored didacticism and rhetoric that hinders and slows down the action of the play—especially during Wagner and Mageeba’s exchange. Didacticism’s role is to instruct. I am thrust back on Aristotle’s maxim that learning should be pleasurable, and that theater should provide catharsis for the audience.

What else, besides subject matter, dates a play? The anachronism of the telex didn’t bother me, but the didacticism did. Perhaps the didacticism didn’t seem quite so tedious when the play first opened in 1978, when a maturing generation of angry young playwrights strutted their stuff. But the nature and duration of catharsis is ephemeral. How quickly a fresh idea becomes clíchéd. So, why produce “Night and Day” now? To borrow a cliché, we have witnessed that history is condemned to repeat itself. That much is certain.

Oct. 12, 2002
CW 810, Thorstenson
Assignment #5

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