If anyone asked you who you are . . .

Related Topics
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)

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £60,000

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Care Workers Required - The London Borough of Bromley

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This homecare agency is based in Beckenh...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Polish minister Rafal Trazaskowski (second from right)  

Poland is open to dialogue but EU benefits restrictions are illegal and unfair

Rafal Trzaskowski
The report will embarrass the Home Secretary, Theresa May  

Surprise, surprise: tens of thousands of illegal immigrants have 'dropped off' the Home Office’s radar

Nigel Farage
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'