Arts: Tom and Peter meet their match

'Oh God, what a great idea!' In 30 years, only one play has aroused Tom Stoppard's envy: Peter Shaffer's 'Black Comedy'. Now it's being paired with 'The Real Inspector Hound'. The playwrights talk it over
ONE-ACT plays can be a little like lonely hearts: single, GSOH, WLTM long-term companion. This month, two one-acters in their thirties have a blind date in the West End. Sam Mendes's new company, Warehouse Productions, an off-shoot from the Donmar, unites two hits from the Sixties: Peter Shaffer's Black Comedy, which premiered in 1965 as a National Theatre production at Chichester with Maggie Smith, Albert Finney and Derek Jacobi; and Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound, which premiered in 1968 at the Criterion with Richard Briers and Ronnie Barker. In this new double bill, directed by Gregory Doran, one cast - which includes Desmond Barritt, Anna Chancellor and Sara Crowe - appears in both plays.

Tom Stoppard and Peter Shaffer are downstairs at Pegs, a club in Covent Garden of which neither is a member. While the photographer takes the pictures, these two - who have known each other for more than 30 years - have been chatting about the masterclasses you receive when you work with Peter Hall. As the photographer clears his equipment, the lights go out. We are in darkness while the club staff search for the right switch. This, as we will see, is an apt moment.

Could I take you both back to the time when you wrote these one-act plays, and the ideas that prompted them?

Shaffer: In my case it was Chinese theatre. It was the Peking Opera, which came to London in 1955. The excerpt from the Chinese play that I had seen - I think the play was called Where Three Roads Meet, I knew nothing about what the play was about - this excerpt was a scene in a country inn. It involved only two people, a warrior, who went to bed, and through an open window - the window was merely sketched - a bandit appeared. This man heard the noise of the bandit and reached for his sword and they fought. The point of it was that it was performed in the brightest possible light - white light, pouring light - that was representing, of course, darkness. And it was very scary, because the swords missed each other by a tiny hair's breadth. They were quite obviously real swords. Did you see it, Tom?

Stoppard: I saw it on film. Not the whole piece. But I have seen what you are talking about. It was a section of a film that was generally about Chinese theatre. I remember just seeing a few minutes of the fight in the dark and it was breathtaking.

Shaffer: Breathtaking.

Stoppard: And the swords were just swishing by.

Shaffer: It was terrifying. And that was fascinating, because the audience was sort of laughing, but in a hysterical way. And I began to think of farce being so like melodrama in this kind of feeling.

Stoppard: I remember one part where they were creeping around the room, not knowing where the other was, and they were approaching each other back to back. They were terrified of being hit by a sword at any moment, and then their backs must have touched, and they just sprang apart.

Shaffer: That's right. Even then, I was terribly aware of this electric feeling in the audience. They were divided between hysterical laughter and laughter of fear. I remember thinking what fun it would be if one could adapt, in some way, that convention to an English farce. I always wanted to do an English farce. That's to say, to play a game with almost stock picture cards - the peppery colonel, the comic foreigner, the timid spinster.

Stoppard: Cluedo characters raised to art. Did you say 1955?

Shaffer: Yes.

Stoppard: I was going to say, you sat on this for 10 years.

Shaffer: I didn't think anything about it until Ken Tynan said Maggie Smith and Albert Finney were wanting to do Miss Julie at Chichester, which is an awkward length. It's an hour and 20 minutes - it's a bit awkward asking people to come all the way down to Chichester for that time. Have you anything in your bottom drawer? And I said, no, I don't really. But as we were talking I suddenly thought, it's awfully gloomy, that play. It can be very depressing, a fiercely dark play. You can't follow it, obviously, with another play of that intensity. Even if you could write one. It's almost begging for a farce. I began to talk to Ken, who had seen that mime, about that convention. I had no idea for a play. And then Ken, being very gung-ho about looking for new material - he was the dramaturg - bore me off to see Olivier, and I kept saying, there isn't a play, it's just a convention, I haven't got a play and anyway I'm going to NewYork. And Larry, who had this extraordinary stare that just looked straight through you, didn't see you, an unseeing eye, he didn't say anything, he just listened and said, 'it's all going to be thrilling'.

Stoppard: How long before rehearsals was it?

Shaffer: About two months, or even less?

Stoppard: Christ!

Shaffer: It was absolutely paralysing. I fell into a complete doldrum about this. I was actually going to ring up and say, I can't do it. I was paralysed. And I said, come on Peter, what's the problem? And you talk to yourself, or at least I do, and I said, well, the problem is that no one would stay in the dark. They wouldn't put up with it. There'd be candles and matches, whatever. Or if there weren't, they'd just abandon it and go to the pub. How do you solve such a problem? And a very clear answer came to me. There must be one of them in the room who has a reason for keeping everyone in the dark. What could that be? They must be expecting someone very important - a multi-millionaire - so you can't just leave - and why-why-why would you keep anyone in the dark? Because you've stolen something belonging to one of the others. Lots of things. And it all began to tumble out very quickly. They've stolen all the furniture. Then you have something like the sword, and the fighting, and it's also mime. The dialogue is just filler if it works well.

So the situation you gave yourself wrote the plot.

Shaffer: I'm afraid it did. Actually, I've never thought of it like that. That's right.

Stoppard: Could I say, in parenthesis, what I've said to countless people in the last 33 years - is it? - but never to you as far as I know, which is that Black Comedy is the only time, in a time-span as long as the life of Christ, when I've ever been envious of another writer's idea. The only time I've ever felt a moment of envy: oh God, what a great idea!

Shaffer: I'm very delighted.

Stoppard: I don't know why that stops one doing one's own, but it does. You can't say, well I'm going to do my own, so sod it. I've sometimes wondered whether Alan Ayckbourn felt the way I did, because it would appeal to him enormously.

Shaffer: It would.

Did 'The Real Inspector Hound' also start with a formal idea?

Stoppard: I began with the small notion of having two people watching an Agatha Christie kind of thriller and getting involved with it and ending up dead. That's all I had. And I wrote that. I had half a dozen pages. For some reason in red Biro, which is most unlike me. I remember I kept the coffee-stained red Biro pages for about five years and - in 1967 - after Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead was done in London, I think - Michael Codron must have asked me to write a play, or whether I had a play. And I had hung on to these half a dozen pages because I just liked the central idea, which, by the way, was very much an idea of that time. It was the fag-end of a period of labels, like Theatre of the Absurd, which I wasn't, and so forth, and the idea of crossing the fourth wall and doing something unconventional with time and space and logic and all that was very much in the air, and that was my tiny contribution.

Then, at some point, I realised that life would be a lot easier for me if the two people watching were actually theatre critics. It gave me something to write for them. I was doing parody or pastiche, and I needed some archetype. And after that, I just hoped for the best. The play - to me, anyway - looks as though it was carefully plotted, practically on graph paper, but in fact I didn't know who the body was until I got to the moment. I had to work out the identity of the corpse. There's a corpse on stage from the beginning. It was an early reminder of something very important. That it's OK not to know what you're doing for a while. And probably better not to know what you're doing, because then the game unfolds according to what's in your hand, and so you avoid, not always, but you hope to avoid the sense of the play being rather too premeditated.

Shaffer: Had you seen The Mousetrap when you wrote it?

Stoppard: No. I read it at one point. I suppose I thought I'd better read this thing. I suppose I thought I'd better go and see it, but I'm fairly lazy, and so I read it. There was another thing I'd remembered. Do you remember a man called Paul Dehn? He was a critic actually. The News Chronicle. He wrote a little book of pieces, and one of these pieces took off from a comment by Noel Coward - I think it was Noel Coward - that if you were ever stuck in a play, have someone come on and offer everyone else a cup of tea. It was that sort of remark. I haven't got this book any more because I once lent it to Richard Attenborough and never got it back. In 1960, I think. There's a scene in Hound, a completely pointless scene where everyone's offered coffee, milk and sugar. Anyway, when Michael Codron showed up as a producer looking for half an evening, because he had a play already called The Audition, I dug out these half a dozen pages and said yes, I think I can do a comedy about a couple of critics watching a whodunit.

Have your plays been paired with any other authors?

Shaffer: No, this is the first time. Only Strindberg and Tom.

Stoppard: I don't know the answer to that question. I did write an even shorter play, an extended sketch called After Magritte, which is done with Hound now and again. I suppose Hound is done with other plays, but I don't know what they are.

Shaffer: Well, wasn't it done at the National?

Stoppard: Oh, that's right. I'd forgotten that. I should have remembered that because I directed it.

Shaffer: That was with The Critic by Sheridan.

Stoppard: I'm getting ancient, aren't I? Of course, it was so long ago, six, seven years ago. [He later remembers it was 1985.]

Shaffer: It would be nice, if people found this an agreeable combination, if they were paired together.

Stoppard: We're quite interested to find out whether comedy plus comedy is actually that good an idea. Or whether Strindberg is actually a much better idea to go in front of Black Comedy.

Do these two plays strike you as period pieces?

Stoppard: In a particular sense. I think of mine as a play I wouldn't write now. So it's a period piece in my life. I suppose these plays belong in some different decade. I'm not sure you would wish to set the play- within-the-play as something happening in 1998. It would seem a bit archaic probably.

Shaffer: Even though The Mousetrap is still running.

Stoppard: That's true. But your play ... I think of it as being set in its decade.

Shaffer: Oh yes. You have to.

Stoppard: It's built in, isn't it? I'm trying to remember if there's a plot reason for that.

Shaffer: There is a plot reason. No one has fuses like that any more.

Stoppard: Oh really?

Shaffer: You sent for an electrician.

Stoppard: And you needed wire to wind round ...

Shaffer: And you had those awful little ivory bits from a hardware shop.

Stoppard: That's right.

Shaffer: That you could do for yourself. What you couldn't do for yourself was if you had a mains fuse. Which was in a box in a cellar and sealed up. You asked the London Electricity people to send someone round, and you waited until they came. It did occur to me that three of my plays, that one and Five Finger Exercise and The Private Ear, are all in that sense period plays. Both Five Finger Exercise and Private Ear involve a gramophone record.

Stoppard: Oh yes.

Shaffer: One that sticks, and betrays the fact that the German tutor is unconscious and trying to kill himself.

Stoppard: Very important.

Shaffer: Yes. You just hear this bit of this Brahms symphony going round and round. And there's a boy who actually scratches a gramophone record at the end of Private Ear. And of course you can't injure a CD in that way. I thought of issuing them under the title "Three Outdated Plays".

Stoppard: I wrote one which was all about a Telex machine in the middle of Africa. And now people have mobile phones and satellites in little attache cases, so they can phone New York or London from the middle of the Kalahari Desert. You have to say, this is a long time ago when all this happened. Before we had Cellnet.

Shaffer: We have to have the boy saying the mains is in the cellar, etc, etc. Otherwise a lot of people would not know. What's the trouble? Flick the switch.

Did you both know these ideas were one-act ideas?

Stoppard: Yes.

Shaffer: Yes.

Stoppard: It didn't feel like the long haul as an idea.

Shaffer: I don't think Black Comedy would stretch to it. Although Zeffirelli, when he directed it, put an interval in - which I would have thought let the gas out of the balloon.

Stoppard: Quite nice to have an interval in pitch darkness.

! 'The Real Inspector Hound' & 'Black Comedy': Comedy Theatre, WC2 (0171 369 1731, previews from Thurs, opens 22 Apr.