Speaking at a session titled, ‘Stoppard in Arcadia' on the final day of the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival, Tom Stoppard, one of Britain's best known and loved playwrights, resorted to what he laughingly referred as a ‘high risk strategy.'
Introduced by Mukund Padmanabhan, Senior Associate Editor, The Hindu, Stoppard opened the floor to questions from the audience, which he said would guide the flow of conversation for the rest of the session. The result was an in-depth and invigorating discussion on everything from his brief stay in Darjeeling, to Quantum physics in relation with fiction, and the structure of a perfect play.
In response to the first question, Stoppard talked about his Darjeeling experience. ‘We came to India as refugees from Singapore. I spent a couple of years being schooled in Darjeeling, and when I went back after quite a while, everything looked exactly the same; except the smell. Back then, it had smelt of horses. Now, it smelled of exhaust fumes.'
Stoppard also discussed his own reluctance towards formal education. ‘I didn't enjoy my later school life. After my A levels, I knew I wanted to be a journalist, and was a very happy journalist for around 6 to 8 years.'
It was the ‘vanity of ambition,' he said, that got him writing plays and the phenomenal success of ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead' brought him fame and recognition as a playwright. ‘That's when, bit by bit, I stopped being a journalist.'
Giving advice to budding playwrights, he said, “It's my personal experience that to think you can do something by not doing it, is a delusion. You have to sit at that desk, with a paper and pen in front of you, to write. That, he said, is the physical part of the creative process. The mental one, which explains what actually happens inside your head, is impossible to describe. In fact, I don't know what happens!”
Asked to describe what he thought to be the perfect structure of a play, Stoppard said that there really wasn't any. “A structure is a sort of an artifice, to do with the setting and shape of the thing you want to create. It has to build itself. If you start with a prefabricated sense of the perfect structure, you might end up with something quite brittle. The best ones in fact, are the ones that surprise you along the way.”
As far as the adaptations and interpretations of his plays were concerned, he did not accept or deny any views. “Every subjective response has its own validity.”
The most important thing Stoppard asked from actors performing his plays was the clarity of utterance. “I'm enthralled with actors, all of them. What they do is extremely difficult, and I'm in a posture of gratitude to them, except when they don't speak clearly!”
On Indian theatre in relation with Western drama, he said, ‘One would not expect the western style of drama to hold sway everywhere. Why would it and why should it? I look at it and appreciate it like an observer.'
He admitted that there was a very delicate balance between knowing too much and not knowing enough about what you are writing. “And if it's a choice between the two, I'd probably be in favour of not knowing enough.”