Tom Stoppard’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favour had a splendid run at the NCPA in November. A conversation with the British playwright.
A hundred miles from London, in his sunlit drawing room, Tom Stoppard takes slow sips of his coffee as he indulges every thought before it begins. Each word a meditative choice. The screen in between becomes invisible as Stoppard ruminates on writing, family, dissent and “You can’t write a decent play unless you are fueled by a genuine feeling for what you are writing about, and why one feels for a subject, I do not know” death in a conversation that lasts a fleeting two hours, with each side deeply interested in the story of the other
Considered one of the greatest modern playwrights, Stoppard’s most prominent works, which include Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Travesties, Night and Day, The Real Thing, The Invention of Love, and the recent Leopoldstadt, often traverse through themes of political freedom, identity and morality.
All of 85, Stoppard sits down to write every day. The fountain pen remains his weapon of choice over the typewriter in his attic that has collected dust over the years; the computer a contraption he would rather not tinker with. The pursuit of writing is more a way of life for the playwright than anything else. A writer is kinder when he writes, happier too. “It’s easier to be a nice guy if you are happy with yourself,” he muses. The conflict between selfish acts and selfless instincts runs deep as a fundamental philosophy of life, permeating through his most loved plays. But the scale, for Stoppard, tilts to the side of a better world. “I’m talking like a pessimist, I have reasons to. But I don’t believe that we are incapable of living morally,” he asserts.
Stoppard’s rarely performed masterpiece, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (EGBDF), is a political satire set in Soviet Russia. Questions of political dissidence and truth turn into those of morality in the play, which was staged at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre in November. The premiere of the NCPA production would have also marked the playwright’s long-awaited return to the country where he spent a part of his childhood. Stoppard gets emotional as he speaks of his years amidst the hills in Darjeeling. Hornbills flying over trees as he rested in coffee plantations form some of his most precious memories.
Although Stoppard could not make it to Mumbai, EGBDF certainly transported the city to a Stoppardian world. Here’s an excerpt from a conversation with the playwright before the play’s premiere at the NCPA.
ON Stage: A play set in the Soviet Union, which was first staged in 1977 as part of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations, premieres in Mumbai (India in all probability) in 2022 with Indian actors and a British director distilling the words of a playwright who calls himself a bounced Czech. What do you make of the world in which Every Good Boy Deserves Favour returns to the stage?
Tom Stoppard: The kind of multicultural set-up the play finds itself in is ideal. Theatre and music work emotionally, so language is no barrier. India has a huge audience for works in English and we are lucky enough to have EGBDF performed here. I visited the Prithvi Theatre in Bombay years ago, so I have had a tiny bit of experience with theatre in India. It was what you want theatre to be at its essence. It was intimate and the relationship between the theatre company and its audience is what you want it to be too. It was very different from theatre-going in England. I found it really exciting and it had tremendous charm as well. It is one of my best memories. The more I talk to you, the more I want to come back to Bombay. I should try to be impulsive when the moment comes.
OS: The conflict between individual freedom and entrapment is something you have returned to time and again in your plays, including Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, A Walk on the Water, Professional Foul, Jumpers, Dirty Linen and NewFound-Land. It plays out poignantly in EGBDF too. What draws you to this theme?
TS: I don’t think anybody knows the answers to their own process. It’s quite a difficult thing to do, to write a decent play. You can’t do it unless you are fueled by a genuine feeling for what you are writing about. And why one feels for a subject, I do not know. I suppose your experience brings you to be interested in some things and less interested in others. I don’t even think about the connections in my play; each one is individual to me and I don’t have an overview. People tend to assume that the play is a result of a set of ideas but the ideas are a result of the play.
OS: When André Previn had a play in mind for the orchestra where it plays a significant role, he thought of you. Could you tell us about the genesis of the play’s plot and what it was like to work with Previn with whom you have collaborated on other works too?
TS: I can’t read music. I was writing the words before Previn wrote the music. He played me little bits on the piano but I never actually experienced the whole thing until it was performed for the first time in a rehearsal and it was incredibly exciting. I always felt that Previn had to be very indulgent towards me because he understood the language I was using but I didn’t understand the one he was using. But when it was finally performed, it was exhilarating. When the actors gathered together in the concert hall for the first rehearsal, everybody was very nervous about the musicians having to make room for the actors among the orchestra. We were afraid they’d be rather grumpy about this unusual situation. But the director made the actors read the whole text to the orchestra and they really enjoyed listening. Once that was done they became very cooperative. There was a very nice atmosphere about it. I find that musicians are very sympathetic. They enjoy musical jokes.
Previn was wonderful. He was one of the few people with whom I share a sense of humour completely. We first got to know each other because his wife was working at a theatre where I was translating a play. He would come to pick her up after rehearsal and we’d have time to chat. We used to go and have meals together. Even as a schoolboy, he worked in Hollywood, arranging music scores for movies. His stories had me under the table with laughter. We became very close right from the beginning of our friendship. Ultimately, he was living in New York and I was in London, so I didn’t see him very often. But towards the end of his life, we spent a lot of time with each other because we wrote another piece together. His last months were spent writing music for Penelope. Sadly, he died before it was performed. I was in New York a couple of weeks ago, and by good chance, there was a memorial for him where a lot of his music was played. It was very moving.
Transcribed by Aishwarya Bodke. This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the December 2022 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.
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