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Eating Out Of His Hand

January 8, 2008

The Geary Theatre in San Francisco was packed for playwright Tom Stoppard's appearance, even though it was far too early on a Saturday morning and pounding with rain.

The dramatist has been to the Bay Area on many occasions, I believe, yet he must have forgotten that the weather up here isn't what it is in southern California. Stoppard looked like Earnest Hemingway stepping out of a hotel in Marrakech. He was wearing a mustard yellow linen suit, a white button-down shirt and summery white lace-up shoes. Only his crimson socks didn't live up to this image.

ACT artistic director Carey Perloff (whose name Stoppard pronounced in the same way as one would the word for tooth decay -- "caries") spent the entire time on stage with the playwright smiling profusely. I thought she'd wear her face out smiling so fiercely like that. Once I managed to get past Perloff's puppy-dog adoration for Stoppard, I was able to concentrate on what the dramatist had to say. Mostly he rambled -- he's getting old so it's to be expected I suppose, and his plays are kind of verbose anyway -- but he did come up with a few insightful comments and one lovely anecdote from his past. Here are some of my favorite of his thoughts in paraphrase:

1. Every play has a public and a private narrative.

2. The things that abide in a play, as in life, are to do with humanity. The politics and social content are transient.

3. Good plays get better as time goes on, bad ones get worse. Plays that are true to themselves are never quite ready. But they get more ready the more they are performed.

4. The most important quality in an actor is clarity of utterance.

5. Stoppard told a story about going back to his home town in the Czech Republic as an adult and meeting with a woman who had known his father -- a doctor whom Stoppard hardly knew (he was killed when the family was in Singapore on the run from the Nazis in the early 1940s). The woman had been treated for an injury by Stoppard's dad and had a scar on her hand as as reminder of the accident and the healing process. Stoppard was very moved when he saw the scar -- it forged a sudden connection for him with his father.

The conversation between Perloff and Stoppard came off the rails a couple of times during the course of the hour. The most embarrassing moment was Perloff's assertion that the greatest 20th century playwrights in the UK are not born-and-bred English. She cited Stoppard, Pinter and Beckett as examples. Complete rubbish of course. What about David Hare? What about Michael Frayn? What, for heaven's sake, about Caryl Churchill? Stoppard nipped her ravings in the bud by saying that he wished he could write like Evelyn Waugh, the most quintessentially English of authors. Stoppard himself then went off on a slightly idiotic tangent when he started talking about his fascination withe the stage "aside". Perhaps I didn't understand what he was saying properly, but he talked as if he'd only just noticed that it's possible for a character in a play to break the fourth wall and not interrupt the flow of the action completely. His befuddlement was sweet and not a little strange.

Everyone gave the playwright a standing ovation at the end. You can always rely upon an American audience to do this. Perloff called Stoppard "the greatest living playwright in the English language" at the start of the event. It hardly mattered what she called him -- the room was eating out of his hand.


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