If anyone asked you who you are . . .

THE stage is the Lyttleton at the Royal National Theatre, on London's South Bank. It is set to show a very large country house in the 19th century. In front of it the seats for the audience are about three-quarters full of people of varied ages and dress. If they have a coherent look, it is earnest.

Enter stage right, suddenly, A PLAYWRIGHT: 'There's a mirror out there (gesticulates towards wings) so you can look at yourself just before you go on. It makes you look fat. I can't believe they would do that (pauses for laughter).'

The playwright gesticulates. On closer inspection the audience can see that he is, in fact, a little plump, perhaps plumper than he realises. Large, soft, white hands wave with abandon as he tells a few stories. He seems to be enjoying the attention. He can be, he says, quite garrulous.

'Can you ask your questions in alphabetical order? Is there anyone here whose name begins with A and has a question? (Pause for laughter.) I'll answer any questions, including, 'Who are you?' '

Who is he, indeed? He is tall, his curly hair is parted in the middle above strong, fleshy features. He looks like a caricature by Beardsley: remarkably like Oscar Wilde. In fact, of course, this is Tom Stoppard and 100 years have passed since Wilde took audiences' plaudits. Still, in Arcadia, Stoppard's new play, the writing is often reminiscent of Wilde, viz: 'Mr Hodge, ignorance should be like an empty vessel waiting to be filled at the well of truth - not a cabinet of vulgar curios.'

In the sunshine of Arcadia, according to Stoppard's play, lies the shadow of extinction. In another 100 years, when his ideas have lost their power to surprise, will this playwright be as loved as Wilde?

Tom Stoppard chooses to show the past and present confused. His audiences are also often a little confused. So are the critics. What are his plays about? Time, mathematics, death, verbal acrobatics, the tortoise as metaphor, the unfairness of critics? Even the applauded Arcadia has been described by Jack Tinker of the Daily Mail as 'too clever by about two-and- three-quarters'. Stoppard had come to the National, we hoped, to tell us.

'When I began to write, I thought plays were what happened to what I wrote. It's a rather Olympian view. Now I hardly hold it at all,' the playwright confided. 'I don't think I would ever think of those curious objects that look like books as being quite like those other things that look like books - say, for the sake of argument, Northanger Abbey. They look like the same category of object and I think that's a coincidence.' We laughed uneasily. 'The text provides the occasion for something more mysterious to transcend it,' said Stoppard.

Oh, Lord. If he wasn't certain what his own plays were about until he saw each production, what hope was there for the rest of us?

In the circle, a woman stood. 'I'm a schoolteacher in Australia,' she said. 'Two of your plays are set by our examiners. What advice would you give to a new teacher who has to present your plays in the classroom?'

Stoppard paused, and shuffled his suede shoes. 'The first time I ever talked like this was in a university in America,' he said. 'I said something I thought was quite innocuous. I said I'd never written anything to be studied. And there was a kind of ripple of panic. There were 3,000 people there and most had never been in a theatre, what they did was study theatre . . . As for advice . . .' - we leant forward hopefully again - 'This thing that looks like a copy of Northanger Abbey isn't that at all. It's an attempt to describe an event.'

The schoolteacher subsided into her chair. In examinations, as Oscar Wilde said, the foolish ask questions that the wise cannot answer.

An American, by the sound of him, bravely stood up. 'I wonder if you would talk about your indebtedness to Samuel Beckett and . . .'

'I paid it back,' interrupted Stoppard.

Over the laughter he talked about the first time he had seen Waiting for Godot, and how it was a shock because, he said, po-faced, 'it completely re-

defined the minima of a theatrical transaction'.

'And Oscar Wilde?' said his questioner, undeterred.

'Oscar Wilde,' said Stoppard, relaxing. 'I don't feel the same about that. You just love it, don't you? It makes you laugh.'

'How did you come to write Arcadia?' someone else asked.

'I never 'come to write' anything,' he began.

'Why do you write?'

Stoppard paused. 'Well. Em . . . The first time I had a play done professionally what I remember is the deep feeling of relaxation. I'd ceased having to try to be something or other. I thought, I wrote that play, that's who I am. And after that I wrote because I had done one already.'

It was a masterly performance. Rarely has a man spoken so volubly, with such apparent frankness, and yet illumined so little. Throughout he waved a watch in one hand. At quarter to seven he looked at it and gazed out at us with schoolboyish charm. 'Oh gosh,' he said. 'Well, last, anyone whose name begins with Z?'

A man rose. 'I don't believe you,' said Stoppard.

'If anyone asked you who you are, how would you reply?' the man asked.

'Talking of Samuel Beckett - that will reply very well - pretending to have misheard,' said Stoppard.

'Thank you very much.'

Skipping off in the direction of the hidden mirror, the man who writes curious objects that other people transcend vanished like a conjuror's mouse.

Outside the theatre a queue of 100 or more waited for his signature. In their hands they all carried curious objects that looked like books and yet, according to their author, were not.

(Photograph omitted)