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An Evening With Tom Stoppard at the 92nd Street Y

Tom Stoppard (L) interviewed by Daniel Kehlmann. Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

On the afternoon of Sunday, September 18th, at the 92nd Street Y, the brilliant English playwright, Tom Stoppard, made an absolutely splendid public appearance—his only one in New York this fall—interviewed for about an hour by German writer Daniel Kehlmann primarily about his latest work, Leopoldstadt, which will have its opening on Broadway this fall.

The title of Stoppard’s new play was arrived at at an advanced stage, with A Family Album and Cat’s Cradle both originally considered, he affirmed. Commenting on a scene added well into the play’s composition that enlarged two roles, he said, “more is good for an actor.” He stated, “I love the fact that the theatre is such an empirical art form,” noting that, for him, theatre is an organism, an event, and so the text is not stabilized. The author clarified that he was in “a false position” because there is “an assumption that one is aware of what one is up to” with respect to “the art of playwriting,” which he described as “the art of controlling the flow of information from the stage to the audience.” Stoppard reported that he thought to himself that “I’d like to write a play for that set” after he saw a production of Ivan Turgenev’s A Month in the Country which he “loved so much” and remarked that he had done so with his A Coast of Utopia. He also expressed a desire to create a play like Anton Chekhov’s but objected that he is “too literal.”

About his late discovery of his Jewish origins which was partly explained by indifference, he amusingly averred, “I didn’t have a lapse of memory—I had a lapse of character.” He recalled that after his mother died he investigated his childhood and wrote about it in an article for a magazine, admitting “That’s when I understood what it would mean to be moved by my past.” He asserted that Jewishness “doesn’t enter into his mode of living” but it “seems inadequate” that it “is just an interesting fact” about him, claiming that he is not at ease with this. His youthful affinities, he said, were more with Englishness, citing his fondness for Georgian architecture, the landscapes of J. M. W. Turner, the poetry of T. S. Eliot, and the novels of Evelyn Waugh, although now he is also interested in Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig. When he first visited Czechoslovakia in his forties, he was not especially moved by the landscape—it was “a foreign country.” He added that “Autobiography is a kind of trap,” when asked why Leopoldstadt is set in Vienna rather than the Czechoslovakia where he was born.

When queried about whether he recognized the historical timeliness of his trilogy, The Coast of Utopia, he replied that “I’ve never managed to outguess history.“ And asked about whether he had written for a specific actor, he answered that he had had occasion to do so, specifically naming the late, distinguished John Wood.

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