In London last month we were rich and smart enough to invite Sir Tom Stoppard to stop by for tea, and lucky enough for our invitation to be accepted. As official host, I was petrified, not a usual teatime state for me. I spent two days reading everything I could about the great man, almost inarguably the most brilliant person now writing for the stage. As it turns out, I needn't have worried. He arrived promptly at 4:30, looking rumpled and wearing red socks. After a very brief introduction he was off to the races. You had the feeling he might have done this before. Silly me to worry about talking to the guy who writes the best talk written for the modern stage. So I did the right thing; I listened, and happily. Here is living proof.
Murray Ross and Tom Stoppard
Rumor had it Tom Stoppard was a lovely man, and so he proved. He spoke very openly about the new production of his play with full orchestra at the National Theatre-Every Good Boy Deserves Favour-- which we had seen and admired. He liked its theatricality, didn't like the staging at the end (too dismal), and was not eager to share production details with his collaborator and friend, Andre Previn, since he was worried the composer might (rightly) think the very physical staging could detract from attention paid to the music. I confess I might have missed some harmonic nuance when the cellist did a back-flip and the trombonist was savagely beaten with his own brass.
Sir Tom was very candid and open about his own theatre life in London. He confessed it was hard to keep up with all the work of all his colleagues (just last night he had gone to the first act of one play at the National, then crossed the hall to see the second half of another). He obviously tries to be a good citizen, but he confessed that when he sees something that's really great the experience "stops" him---compelling attention from his own work, pulling him with a magnetic force that perhaps isn't useful. And he confessed that just at this moment he was experiencing the very last thing you would expect of him: writer's block. He had finished writing a television series two months ago, then taken a glorious trip across Russia to see a performance of his orchestra play in Japan. The grandchildren had a good holiday; he was a single man again,and now------nothing. I asked him if this was making him anxious. He said "yes, it is." He has lots of boxes all over the house filled with notes and clippings of stories and subjects that interest him--and nearly everything interests him---but he still doesn't know what to write.
It was at this moment my research paid off-- I remembered an interview he had given years ago. "Didn't you once say," I asked, "that when you know you know what your next play is you feel as if you were sitting in an armchair in palace, and at the far end the doors swing open, and a footman appears walking slowly down the colonnaded hall, with a silver tray with a note bearing your play's title, which is presented to you with the sound of trumpets?"
There was a brief silence from a man not known for pauses (that would be Pinter,and he's dead). A little smile,then: "I demand to know your sources!" I told him I was sure the footman would be coming out of the palace kitchen very soon. He thanked us, and took his gracious leave.
How different from this intimate and rather personal conversation was the colloquium of playwrights sponsored by Colorado College a few weeks ago. The college had brilliantly assembled three of America's most distinguished writers to talk about culture, politics and theater. For the first time ever, we were told Suzan Lori-Parks, David Henry Wang and Tony Kushner would be be sitting down together for a public conversation. It didn't quite turn out that way. The panel moderator, a media critic of some prominence, felt obliged to begin with a long largely irrelevant monologue describing how he had first met each of the playwrights. When he got round to asking questions, they were answered in turn--each playwright getting a brief shot at the question before passing the baton, and when each had taken a single turn a new question was asked, another round completed. The result wasn't really a conversation at all--at no point were the playwrights really talking to each other, exchanging ideas or opinions. It was very mediocre PBS television. This was a pity since it was obvious each of the guests had quite a lot to offer, and at least we did get some sense of their individual personalities: Suzan Lori-Parks cellphone keep going off in her purse, reminding her it was time for her meditation program. Tony Kushner was characteristically eloquent and comprehensive, David Henry Wang modest and wise (he proposed that the new cultural challenge in the US was no longer race, but internationalism--an awareness that we all now belong to the world). There was a lot of talk about theater and none of it amounted to very much.
The event finally reminded me of how difficult it is to have a good conversation, an actual conversation, in a format like this. "If you want to really talk," my father told me, "invite one person over for dinner." Or to tea.
As for Tom Stoppard and his writer's block, I believe we might be able to be of some help. We have a play to write for next season about Nicola Tesla, the brilliant physicist who came to Colorado Springs in 1899 to conduct a series of radical experiments designed to create wireless energy and make it free to everyone. What in fact happened was a blackout of the entire town for better part of four days. I believe this might very well be the subject of Tom Stoppard's next great play. It has all the crucial Stoppard requirements: science, comedy, a titanic central figure, disaster, international politics, questions metaphysical, and core voltage. Somewhere in the palace, Sir Tom sits,taking his tea. There is a distant sound of trumpets. The doors of the golden hall open, and I appear in tails, carrying a silver tray with a card on it. His block will soon be over.