Interview with Playwright Tom Stoppard

Posted on: August 29th, 2014 by Ted Sod

Ted Sod, Education Dramaturg sat down with playwright Tom Stoppard and discussed Indian Ink.

Tom Stoppard

Ted Sod: Indian Ink was first performed as a radio play, correct?

Tom Stoppard: Not quite correct. This play, Indian Ink, was preceded by another play entitled In the Native State, which was the origin of Indian Ink. Indian Ink is very different in structure, but has the same subject matter.

TS: What inspired you to write about Flora Crewe in India? Was it a specific person?

Tom Stoppard: I was in India myself as a child.

TS:  Was that in 1941?

Tom Stoppard: My family was in Singapore when the Japanese War started. We were in Singapore at the time of Pearl Harbor, and by the beginning of 1942 the Japanese invasion of Burma and Singapore had started. Our little family -- my mother, my brother, and I -- had got onto one of the boats which were leaving. It was supposed to go to Australia, but everything was so chaotic; we ended up in Bombay. We got off the boat and the three of us spent the rest of the war in India. Meanwhile, my father got onto the very last boat leaving Singapore, which was sunk by the Japanese, and he didn’t survive. So it was a saga, really. We were Czech refugees. We weren’t in the British Raj at all. We were a Czech family from Czechoslovakia.

My father was a doctor in Moravia, in the south of the country. There were a number of Jewish doctors in the hospital there, and at a certain point – almost too late really, but in time – they were all sent overseas by their employer. It was the Bata Shoe Company -- an extraordinary outfit -- which had its own hospital, school and so forth. They had started a generation or two earlier, and by the time my family was involved, they had places all over the world. There was a Bata in South America, in India, and in London. We were dumped on these poor Bata people who were established in India, up the river from Calcutta. I’m sure they didn’t know what to do with us. I think there were about fifteen mothers and their children who had all arrived there.

TS: So, the character of Flora – did she come from a memory?

Tom Stoppard: No, not at all. It is a different period. It’s 1930, more than ten years before I was in India. Also, when I was there I was a five-year-old boy. I really wanted to write the role for Felicity Kendal, who had been in India and was in a film called Shakespeare-Wallah. I liked her very much as an actor and said, “I’m going to write this play for you, in which you go back to India.”  Of course I had chosen an earlier period and I don’t even remember why I was writing about 1930. But as you know, it’s a play which takes place not only in 1930, but also in what was more or less the present day when I wrote this play, which was about 1990 I think.

TS: Carey Perloff, the director, intimated that maybe Flora was based on someone like Edith Sitwell or Hilda Doolittle.

Tom Stoppard: She wasn’t. Edith Sitwell was a very different kind of person, aristocratic and rather genteel really. Flora wasn’t based on anybody in particular. I just had this notion of a ballsy young woman who was on her own with a much younger sister to worry about. I just made Flora meet all the people I wish to have met at that time. It is a period that I liked.

TS:  So many of your plays are exquisitely structured. Do you start with a structure, with a character, or is it very different from play to play?

Tom Stoppard: I think it becomes different over the years. I feel that when I began writing I had a need to know more about the play before I got into it. I think that’s the way I was thinking. But my actual experience is that the best way to find out what the structure is, is by writing the play out laterally. You just have got to be brave enough to start without knowing where you are going. You might have one or two thoughts about places further down the line, but on the whole, I just try to make what I’ve just written suggest to me what I should write now. I mean literally line by line and scene by scene.

TS: Like Arcadia, Indian Ink is bifurcated into two time frames. How do you keep track of where it’s going? Or is that something that happens later?

Tom Stoppard: I just do it the way you would do it. I’m not conscious of having some kind of method or game plan. I don’t really have a system or set of principles. It’s kind of common sense mixed up with instinct. If you set off on a certain course, you know that you’re zig-zagging between time frames, if that happens to be what you’re doing, and you’re trying to look out for the unwritten part of the play.

TS: But it’s definitely a puzzle that both you and the audience are solving simultaneously, which makes it fun for the audience!

Tom Stoppard: There’s a puzzle element, and it’s fun for all of us: the writer, the audience, the actors. If you are in control of who knows what when, it’s kind of nice sometimes. The same thing happens in Arcadia where the audience is ahead of the characters. I’ve done that more than once. I probably should stop doing it.

TS: The play is often said to be about “nostalgia and romantic loss.” What do you think the play is about?

Tom Stoppard: The thing is, that’s a kind of critic’s question or an academics question. I don’t mind you asking it, it’s just that it’s about different things to different people. What it’s actually about is what happens in the play. That’s what it’s about. I guess I’ve been asked that about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern now for about forty years and the answer is it’s about two courtiers of Elsinore. And this is about a young woman I invented who is a poet, and she is in India dying of TB.

One doesn’t write these things so that there is a secret “aboutness” which the audience is supposed to guess or arrive at. That’s not how it is. It’s a storytelling art form. You’re telling a story. It’ll chime this way or that way for people who are listening to the story. I think it’s a love story probably. I think that in the end it works as not a conventional love story, but it turns out to be very much about a romance. You have to completely change your mind-set about what a play is trying to be, and when I say you, I literally mean you sitting there today in this room in this chair. I just feel that there is this idea that a play is interesting because it’s actually about something slightly mysterious. That’s not how I see it at all. I think it’s a story about some characters and a story that is trying to hold your attention. If it succeeds, that’s what it’s trying to do.

TS: I asked just in case there is something you wanted the audience to look out for. I realize it’s impossible to answer and maybe I should stop asking playwrights that question.

Tom Stoppard: It’s a perfectly reasonable question. I think that one of the things it ought to be saying to an audience is, “Hurry up. It’s time. Time’s going by; you only get one chance.

TS: That’s why I love Flora. She is obviously trying to make the most of the time she has left.  I think we all do that once we hit a certain age.

Tom Stoppard: I don’t know if we do. I think we still diddle around. I do. I mean I’m seventy-seven and I’m not using my time well most of the time. At the moment, I’m just getting up in the morning and seeing what’s on the diary.

Emily Eden

TS: Will you talk about some of the changes in the text you are contemplating?

Tom Stoppard:  It’s a kind of mantra of mine that the play is the event, not the text. It always bothered me a little that after all these years, anytime Indian Ink is being done anywhere, it ends up with a recorded voice, which is essentially Emily Eden’s letter. I always thought, “Is that really what I would have most wished?” So that was one thing.

Carey knows this play better than anybody, better than I do, and I talked to her about my feelings about how the play ends. It ends with a statement about empire and politics rather than about love and the death of an individual. I thought if I could just shift a necessary few words, which I really wanted to keep from the letter, which was recorded —and move them earlier, then I could actually bring Flora to her own graveyard, like a ghost. We’re sitting here on the first day of rehearsal and I don’t know whether it will work. When the play was new, the kind of audience that would come to it wouldn’t need that much help about who was E.M.Forster or Gertrude Stein. Those two references are still in the play, but there are a few others. I thought that there is no point in including little in jokes about English literary life, so I was quite happy to find one or two trims there.

And finally, although there is no right or wrong length for a play I suppose, I really wanted to get out from under the burden of a ninety-minute first act. We’re in a period of theatre history here where up to ninety minutes is when you go to a restaurant. You don’t go back in for more. With this play and with several other plays of mine, all I remember about the experience of being in production with them is simply trying to make act one five minutes shorter. I’ve been there so many times it’s kind of ridiculous. I said to Carey, “Maybe we can do that before we start this time.” I’m quite pragmatic about these things, especially if that includes lines and references that are literally meaningless to ninety percent of the audience.


Indian Ink begins previews on September 4 at the Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold & Miriam Steinberg Centre for Theatre. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2014-2015 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Indian Ink, Upstage

1 Comment
  1. angela brown

    October 17, 2014

    How interestesting. I was born in Bombay in 1938. I had a school friend who was from Czekoslovakia,her family went to Singapore during the war and they were sent to Bombay where she ended up in my class that graduated in 1957. They were Catholic. Her father had to stay in Singapore and was not able to join the family till after the war. Would it not be funny if we somehow met in Bombay when we were children



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