THEATRE / The way he tells them: Tom Stoppard's first stage play for five years opens next week. The story so far is one of unusual success, unmatched wit and underrated wisdom. But what of the uncertainty that really makes him tick?

ONE EARLY trademark in the career of Tom Stoppard was the presence of two characters - Boot, who gets things done, and Moon, to whom things happen - who recur from play to play like a comic double-act. It is a relationship Kenneth Tynan might have drawn on in 1977, when he set about composing a New Yorker profile of the author of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and found himself interweaving it with a profile of Vaclav Havel.

Life did seem to be imitating art in the case of these two playwrights, born in Czechoslovakia, a year apart - Havel in 1936, Stoppard, 1937. Both non-university intellectuals, both supremely gifted in the comedy of ideas, and both running wicked circles around the controlling dogmas of their age from a resolutely non-aligned standpoint. One who got out, and one who stayed behind. By 1977, Stoppard had recognised Havel as his mirror image; or perhaps as the Moon to his Boot - for the Seventies carried Stoppard to a zenith of fame and fortune, while his opposite number was languishing in jails and treadmill jobs, banished from the Czech stage and seldom able to smuggle anything out to the West. However, as Stoppard put it in his prophetically titled piece of the same year, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour - and, in a fairy-tale reversal which he would never have dared to put in a play, the victimised alter ego became president of his country. A few months before the Velvet Revolution, Stoppard came out with Hapgood, an over-elaborated espionage comedy that did him no good at all, and then fell into an unaccustomed silence. Apart from a 1991 radio piece (In the Native State), Arcadia, which previews at the National Theatre from next week, , is his first full-length play for five years.

For Havel the playwright, it remains to be seen whether, having acquired the power to correct some of the bureaucratic lunacies that gave birth to his plays in the first place, he has anything more to say. Move through the ideological looking-glass, and the same question applies to Stoppard. He has enjoyed the customary freedoms of the Western artist; no one has censored his work, banished him into menial jobs, or thrown him in prison. But compare, say, Hapgood with Rosencrantz or Jumpers and you feel that could have been the victim of such treatment. As usual, Stoppard forestalls the point by making it himself. 'That's the fate of all us artists,' says the playwright hero of The Real Thing, 'people saying they preferred the early stuff.'

One notable feature of the early stuff is its refutation of the idea - fashionable before the Wall came down - that the best work can only be created by artists who are politically 'under pressure'. Rosencrantz, for this reason, was undervalued even by its admirers, as a Beckettian jeu d'esprit with nothing of any importance to declare. If Havel had been living in Britain, The Memorandum would likewise have been taken as an ingenious frolic at the expense of IBM.

The playwright Peter Nichols (who introduced a mock-envious portrait of his fellow Bristolian in his 1987 comedy A Piece of My Mind) took exception to Stoppard's lack of 'rough edges - none of those awkward local references'; with the implication was that Stoppard was thinking ahead to his foreign royalties. But how many local references do you find in Havel, or indeed in any East European dissident work? Had Rosencrantz surfaced over here as an Aesopian offering by the Prague Cinoherni Klub, it would instantly have been recognised for what it was: a subversive fable housed inside an officially sanctioned masterwork.

At the time, I was as blind as anyone else to its essential qualities, and only woke up to them last June when the emigre Russian Gesher company brought its production to Tel Aviv. No one could have recommended this as a witty piece of verbal figure-skating, or quibbled over its 'prevailing strain of cuteness' (in the words of Stoppard's persistently hostile American critic, Robert Brustein). It was a parable on State terror; featuring Claudius as an omnipotent thug attended by a crawling spymaster, Polonius, who prepares a brainwashed Ophelia as a honeytrap for the ambitious Prince - whose manifest purpose is to embark on his own reign of terror.

Presented like this, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern shed their usual role as clueless spectators of incomprehensible events. They understand what is happening all too well, and the tragedy is not that they are excluded but that they are sucked in. Forget the metaphysical speculations about this piece: it is about the enforced transformation of ordinary citizens into spies. Short of casting them in the Moon and Boot likenesses of Christa Wolf and Heiner Muller, the topical impact could not be more devastating.

Whether Stoppard himself foresaw such a future for the play is not to the point. He wrote a piece like a conjurer's hat, out of which different marvels can be extracted at different times. Maybe it was his bad luck that it first appeared in the innocent 1960s when all that came out of it was Brustein's cute white rabbit. The play was immensely successful, and by the mid-1970s had earned its author something in excess of pounds 300,000. But at the same time it lumbered him with a reputation he spent the next 20 years trying to shake off. Pronounce the name 'Stoppard' and out chugs a set of labels and fixed ideas - 'university wit' (although he never went to one), 'verbal acrobat', 'moral gymnast', 'can't write parts for women', 'can't write about love', 'doesn't care', 'nothing to say' - few of which would have stuck if we had been able to see that first masterpiece then as we can see it now.

IT IS pointless to discuss Stoppard's plays in a literary vacuum: laying out the texts in chronological sequence in search of biographical revelation and thematic development. Perhaps no playwright functions like that; but in Stoppard's case it is contradicted at the outset by the fact that he has always seen himself as a 'writer for hire' (witness his film career, in which he makes himself cheerfully available as a doctor, ministering to sick scripts). The nature of the commission dictates the result no less than the images inside his head. The success of Rosencrantz put the full resources of the National Theatre at his disposal, so he was able to call for the troupe of acrobats who form the central metaphor in Jumpers. EGBDF comes with a symphony orchestra because that was what Andre Previn offered. Such luxuries were not available in the West End: so when Stoppard wrote to commission for Michael Codron, he deemed it tactful to reduce the number of actors, revert to naturalism, and even throw in a graceful reference to a public school called 'St Codron's'.

He never has been an autobiographical writer. What the plays do disclose, though, is an acute sensitivity to what other people think about his work. As a former theatre critic, he understands all the subterfuges that lie behind the black magic of print, and the theatrical illiteracy that leads reviewers into awarding marks out of 10 on a score sheet of themes and messages. Writing a play, he patiently explains, is about deciding what happens in the next 30 seconds; not about ventilating your opinions and commitments, if any. A page a day is good going, and if a plot does emerge and leads to a logical ending, that is an unforeseeable gift from the gods. Experiencing plays like Jumpers and Travesties, where farce and ideas ignite with a brilliance not seen since the burning of the Alexandrian library, you undergo a similar process. What counts are the style games, the abrupt replacement of one reality with another, inspired moments where philosophy and clowning interlock - as where George (in Jumpers) demonstrates a theological argument by firing an arrow which unhappily puts paid to his beloved pet, Thumper (that rabbit again). And yet, at the end of these self-deconstructing plays, you are left in possession of a theme: a debate on the existence of God, or on the relationship between political and artistic revolution. In spite of the endless leap-frogging reversals, you also know where Stoppard stands. He is trying to define the minimum conditions in which human beings will treat each other well. If he fails to endorse any existing system, it is because no system yet devised has ever met that minimum requirement.

Jumpers and Travesties (which the RSC is reviving in September) were also hugely popular; thanks in part to the performances of Michael Hordern and John Wood; and to Stoppard's partnership with Peter Wood, a virtuoso director for whom the stage becomes the equivalent of a concert grand. None of which stemmed the complaints levelled at Stoppard's alleged coldness and political evasiveness; or the indignation he aroused by quoting Auden to the effect that poetry never saved a single Jew from the gas chamber. With passionately engaged writers like David Mercer and Trevor Griffiths on the scene, how could Stoppard manipulate forces of history like figures in a board game?

WHETHER these arguments wore Stoppard down or whether, as he said, he simply tired of writing intricate intellectual vaudevilles, something evidently snapped. He began engaging in public demonstrations, and writing political plays, like EGBDF and Professional Foul, from the viewpoint of one who knows best. They were good works; perhaps, somewhere in the world, they disproved Auden's confession of futility. But where they come most to life is in passages like the opening of Squaring the Circle, where the sight of Brezhnev and Gierek glumly debating Leninist norms leads on to a replay of the same scene with the Soviet leader screaming abuse at his Polish underling.

Uncertainty about the truth, as always, activates Stoppard's talent; when he does not know what to say, he really speaks. Since then he has done so less and less. In his first two West End plays, Night and Day and The Real Thing, you observe the author of Rosencrantz striving to turn himself into an ordinary playwright: a craftsman in exposition, development, and denouement, integrating a manifestly important theme with the feelings of carefully drawn characters. The first delivers Stoppard's irreproachably sensible views on press freedom; the second his hard-earned conclusions on true love. Neither takes you anywhere interesting or unexpected; and both give the impression of a free man gritting his teeth and toeing the line. Then followed Hapgood, which promised a return to his old form in its cross-fertilisation between espionage and quantum physics; but in the event proved a humourless exercise in sterile ingenuity, fizzling out with the bathetic revelation that its superwoman protagonist (Stella Rimington please note) has been running her spy network at the expense of maternal fulfilment.

On the one occasion I met Vaclav Havel, in the late Sixties when he was undergoing three day-long interrogations a week, I asked him what his visitors hoped to achieve, apart from preventing him from working. 'They have a priori conclusions they're determined to arrive at,' he said. 'So they ask innumerable questions totally unrelated to anything politically significant, with the aim of rearranging whatever evidence they collect to fit their existing conclusions.' Hapgood makes this point more succinctly: 'You get what you interrogate for.' This, it seems to me, is what Stoppard himself has been doing in his work for the West End and Broadway. Judging from In the Native State, a gentle Forsterian Anglo-Indian conversation piece on art and politics, it seems that he has done with answering his interrogators and is now going wherever his mind leads him. I hope it leads to Arcadia.

'Arcadia' previews at the Lyttelton (071-928 2252) from 5 April, opens 13 April. 'Travesties' will be revived at the Barbican (071-638 8891) from 15 September.

STOPPARD'S LIFE AND TIMES

1937 Born Thomas Straussler, 3 July, Zlin, Czechoslovakia, second son of a doctor, Eugene, employed by the Bata shoe company, and of Martha.

1939 The Straussler family flees the German invasion and settles in Singapore. When the Japanese overrun Singapore, Mrs Straussler and the children are evacuated to India by the British: Dr Straussler remains behind and is killed by the Japanese. Mrs Straussler subsequently marries Kenneth Stoppard, a major in the British Army.

1943 Tom, whose first language was Czech, learns English at school in Darjeeling.

1946 The Stoppards move to England, settling in Bristol and sending Tom to a Yorkshire public school whose influence, he will say, was 'negative'.

1954 Tom joins the staff of the Western Daily Press, as a reporter. 'I got a bigger thrill from seeing my first byline . . . than from having my first play on at the National.'

1958 Moves to the Bristol Evening World; begins to cover theatre.

1960 Turns freelance and writes his first play, A Walk on the Water. Optioned by ITV, it will not be shown until 1963, or staged until 1968 (as Enter a Free Man). An attempt at Arthur Millerish realism, it 'works pretty well as a play, but it's actually phoney' (the author).

1962 Moves to London. Becomes theatre critic of Scene magazine, as William Boot.

1964 First radio play, The Dissolution of Dominic Boot: a 15-minute farce set in a taxi.

1965 Marries Jose Ingle, a nurse (two sons). Publication of Lord Malquist and Mr Moon, his only novel, which 'went down particularly well in Venezuela', according to Stoppard. Sample line: 'Nothing sounds more studied than a repeated spontaneity.'

1966 First television play, A Separate Peace. Set in a nursing home, it avoids fireworks.

1967 Oxford students' production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead acclaimed on the Edinburgh fringe. Mixes Shakespeare and Beckett; arguably funnier than either. Sample line: 'Life is a gamble at terrible odds - if it was a bet, you wouldn't take it.' National Theatre production of Rosencrantz wins Evening Standard drama award. New York production opens to rave reviews: 'very funny, very brilliant, very chilling' - Clive Barnes.

1972 National Theatre production of Jumpers. Mixes philosophy and trampolining. Sample line: 'It's not the voting that's democracy, it's the counting.' Gets divorced; marries Miriam Moore-Robinson, pharmaceutical executive and future TV personality (two more sons).

1973 Tells a television interviewer: 'I write plays because dialogue is the most respectable way of contradicting myself.'

1974 Travesties staged by RSC at Aldwych Theatre. Mixes art and politics. Sample line: 'For every thousand people there's 900 doing the work, 90 doing well, nine doing good, and one lucky bastard who's the artist.'

1976 Speaks in Trafalgar Square for Committee against Psychiatric Abuse, and marches to Soviet Embassy to deliver a petition on dissidents' rights.

1977 Travels to USSR for Amnesty International; returns to Czechoslovakia, where he meets Havel. London premiere of Every Good Boy Deserves Favour. Mixes music and human rights. Sample line: 'A circle is the longest distance to the same point.'

1978 West End production of Night and Day. Mixes journalism and morality. Sample line: 'I'm with you on the free press. It's the newspapers I can't stand.'

1982 West End production of The Real Thing. Mixes literature and love. Sample line: 'What we're trying to do is to write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a knock, it might . . . travel.'

1984 Squaring the Circle, television drama-documentary about the Polish Solidarity movement. Mixes politics and geometry.

1985 Joins Terry Gilliam to write screenplay for film Brazil, a futuristic satire.

1988 Aldwych Theatre production of Hapgood. Mixes espionage and quantum physics. Sample line: 'A double agent is like a trick of the light.'

1991 Makes debut as film director with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In the Native State broadcast on Radio 3. Separates from Miriam Stoppard.

1993 National Theatre production of Arcadia, directed by Trevor Nunn, starring Felicity Kendal, Harriet Walter, Bill Nighy and Rufus Sewell. Mixes sex and historiography.

Compiled with a little help from 'Tom Stoppard', a study by Susan Rusinko (Twayne, 1986).

(Photograph omitted)

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