The iconic composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim has written that he lives by one important rule in his work: Content dictates form. But for Indian Ink playwright Tom Stoppard, it’s the opposite that most often drives his creative process.
Indian Ink began with a formal idea and an image rather than with specific characters or a particular setting. He has explained, “I [wanted to] write a conversation between a poet and a painter. While the poet was having her portrait painted, she would be writing a poem about having her portrait painted. There would be this circular situation. That’s all I had. And not necessarily in India…I think simultaneously I’d been thinking about a play about the Raj, or at least India during the time of the British Empire. Things coalesced.” This evolution of the work is quite typical for Stoppard. He is a constant reader, mostly devouring newspapers and non-fiction, and he sees this reading not as research but as pleasure and creative fuel. As the various ideas collide in his brain, a play will start to emerge. He has said, “I can never remember why I write anything…I tend to get going on a play when several strands begin to knit together…It’s when things turn out to be possibly the same play that I find I can get going.”
The great majority of Stoppard’s work developed through this collision of a form and an idea. For his 1982 work The Real Thing, many critics assumed that the playwright had made a decision to push beyond his reputation as an intellectual dramatist and write an autobiographical play that digs deeper emotionally. But in actuality, he’d had an idea of writing a play in which the first scene turns out to be the work of the person in the second scene. The logic of this structure determined that the main character would have to be a playwright and that the scenario could be repeated in interesting ways if the playwright were married to an actress who appeared in that first scene. Thus, character and story came out of form. Even though he put a playwright center stage, Stoppard claims, “This play wasn’t written in order to say certain things about writing. It was written because I liked the idea of the game, the device of having the same thing happen two or three times.”
This kind of game is evident in the structural playfulness of so much of Stoppard’s oeuvre. His earliest success, 1967’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, began with the situation he wanted to explore: two minor characters on the outskirts of the Hamlet story who don’t know why they’re here. It’s a riff on the work of Samuel Beckett (particularly Waiting for Godot) and Luigi Pirandello, and the content was dictated by the desire to play with this situation and with the idea of existentialism.
Chaos theory is addressed through characters in two time periods occupying the same space in Arcadia. The existence of God is explored through philosophy lecture as well as song and dance in Jumpers. In almost all of Stoppard’s work, the form and the idea have dictated the characters and the story. What’s remarkable is that we do not leave the theatre thinking about structure. Though structure may be the impetus, Stoppard is a singular dramatist in his ability to turn the intellectual into the accessible, leaving our hearts and minds equally jolted.
Indian Ink plays through November 30 at the Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold & Miriam Steinberg Centre for Theatre. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.
2014-2015 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Indian Ink, Upstage