LEADERS OF THE PACK / The fathers of invention: Play Of The Year

TWO LOST playwrights - Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter - bounced back in 1993; both filled large theatres without making artistic concessions. Pinter's Moonlight was a terrific acting piece with the bonus of relaunching Ian Holm in the fieriest performance of his life. The play itself, though, with its short-winded spurts of invention and strings of synonymous phrases, is a strained exercise in self-imitation.

You could also describe Stoppard's Arcadia as a throwback: a high comedy of ideas of the kind he was writing 20 years ago. Since then, in pieces like The Real Thing, he had been striving with some success to turn himself into an ordinary playwright. Arcadia marks the end of this detour and a return to what he does best. Shutting his ears to all the voices urging him to develop a social conscience and show his heart, Stoppard has abandoned the dutiful pursuit of important themes and regained contact with his unfettered talent. Other people can write about love and current affairs. Only Stoppard can devour half a dozen seemingly unrelated subjects and set the ideas dancing in a comic world where insight and laughter are inseparable. You did not get the whole piece in one go; but not since Waiting for Godot has there been such a rush for playscripts.

For the reputation of new English writing, this was a good year for Stoppard's comeback. There has been no shortage of well-written, small-subject studio pieces (the Bush, in particular, has been on a winning streak). But as for main-house shows, virtually the only passable offerings were Ayckbourn's Time of My Life, an intricate, self-destroying machine that choked the laughter in your throat, and The Absence of War, the last and weakest part of David Hare's institutional trilogy. Otherwise, the best work was all American: August Wilson's The Piano Lesson, Arthur Miller's The Last Yankee,

David Mamet's Oleanna and Tony Kushner's Perestroika. At least we can be glad that good plays are still coming from somewhere.

(Photograph omitted)

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