The interview with Tom Stoppard took place in the coffee lounge of the National Theatre London in a break in rehearsal of his new play “The Hard Problem”.
Your new play “The Hard Problem” opens at the National Theatre on January 31st, 2015. The Director is Nicholas Hytner, and this is your first play since “Rock ‘N’ Roll” in 2006. Why is “The Hard Problem” your first play for the National Theatre since “The Coast of Utopia” in 2002?
I am surprised that it’s that long, it doesn’t feel like so many years to me. When I wrote “Rock ‘N’ Roll” I said to Nick Hytner that I would send “Rock ‘N’ Roll” to the Royal Court Theatre because I have never been performed at the Royal Court Theatre, and I really wanted to be there with something before I am dead. I said I will come back to the National Theatre with the next play, but I didn’t think it would take so long.
How do you feel?
I love being in rehearsal, and I like being in rehearsal with a new play, so generally speaking I feel very good. I feel this is the main part of my writing life and other things are interruptions. Being in rehearsal with a new play at the National Theatre is where I touch base with my life as a writer.
Are you worried about it?
No, I am too old to worry about these things. The play will be OK or it won’t be entirely OK, until there’s an audience you don’t really know what you’ve got. It doesn’t keep me awake. I hope the play works pretty well, but we’ll just have to see. I don’t worry nowadays; I used to worry when I was younger.
What is the subject matter of “The Hard Problem”?
The “hard problem” as you probably know is actually a phrase referring to the problem of accounting for consciousness. Most things are not conscious. This table we are sitting at isn’t conscious. Vegetables aren’t conscious. We are conscious, and nobody understands how we do that; physically, scientifically or metaphysically. Nobody really knows; and that’s the “hard problem”.
Where is the play set?
Much of the play takes place in a science institute which is investigating the brain. There are thousands of laboratories in the world which are investigating the brain, and I have invented another one with fictitious characters.
Who are the main characters?
My main character is a young woman psychologist, but most of what goes on at the institute is not psychology, it’s neuroscience, which involves for example investigating the physical brain in monkeys. That’s what mostly happens at this place, but the characters I am dealing with are in the psychology department. However, the play is also concerned with the fact that for many scientists the brain works computationally, like a form of very complex, very complicated computer. One or two of the people in the play actually work in finance, not in biology, and that aspect of the play is to do with the possibility that there’s a formal relationship between the human brain and the computer. I personally don’t think there is, but there are many people who do. Many people think that the brain works the way computers work. I have no scientific training, but I just instinctively don’t feel that consciousness is the product of a biological computer.
You started your career as a journalist for a newspaper in Bristol, and your only novel “Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon” was published in 1966. How did you decide to write your play “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead”?
I wrote my first play in 1960 and the novel was actually an interruption of my attempts to write plays. Frankly, the only reason I wrote a novel was because a publisher commissioned me to write a novel, I didn’t want to be a novelist. I wrote some short radio plays, and the play which I wrote first was ultimately done on television three years later. I was still a journalist, but little by little I translated myself into a freelance playwright. I wasn’t married and lived very cheaply, so I was trying to live beyond the journalism – but I must also say I loved being a journalist and I wasn’t trying to escape – but I did want to be a writer for the theatre, because at that time everybody my age wanted to be a writer for the theatre. The theatre became the object of great cultural interest, I don’t know why. The previous generation of young writers wanted to make an impression with their first novel, but my generation wanted to make an impression with their first play. I didn’t succeed in that by the way, my first play was quite conventional and it took me some years to write a different kind of play. I wrote “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern” between 1964 and ’66, and it was first performed in ‘66 by students at the Edinburgh Festival.
How long does it take you to write a play?
Normally I can write a first draft in three or four months, but that’s rather misleading because it can take a long, long time to get to the top of the first page. “The Coast of Utopia” is a trilogy, and I think I probably wrote the whole thing well inside 12 months, but that was after three or four years of reading and preparing to write it. Of course, it depends if you are writing about historical people and whether your subject matter requires you to research. For a play like “The Real Thing”, which is entirely invented, you don’t have to spend all this research time – you just write it.
And with “The Invention of Love”?
That was about a real person, a Latin scholar and a poet, so I was reading up on his Latin scholarship and his life in general for certainly two or three years before I began writing the play.
How do you write?
With a fountain pen on A4 white sheets. I have several, but there’s usually one which has the nicest nib. Different pens over the years, but I usually have a favourite pen. I fax the paper to my secretary and she types out what I am writing, and after that I correct on printout.
Were you never afraid of losing talent and inspiration?
Not really. I mean, I never thought about it. I enjoy writing. I feel I am very lucky to be able to live as a writer. Writers in our society are perhaps overvalued, which is lucky for us, and I just assume there will always be something next that I want to write. But I don’t always have an idea for a play waiting for me and so, in between “Rock ‘N’ Roll” and this play, naturally I wrote other things. For example, I adapted a very big novel for five hours of television on the BBC, called “Parade’s End” by Ford Madox Ford. I also wrote a movie from “Anna Karenina”.
You won an Oscar for the screenplay of “Shakespeare in Love” and you worked on other films like “Brazil” and “Empire of the Sun”, and recently “Anna Karenina”. Is film work part of your metier?
It’s not the same, because it is not my original work. I didn’t write Anna Karenina. I am only adapting it for a screenplay, so it doesn’t mean as much to me as my original work, naturally.
But do you do enjoy it or just do it for money?
I enjoy it, not particularly for money, although of course it is nice to get paid. It’s a very nice change to adapt something, as somebody else before you has already done the hard part; they’ve invented the story and the characters.
So adapting Chekhov, for example, is very different from doing your own work?
Yes, I don’t read Russian, which is of course the tradition here for Chekhov translators, they rarely read Russian. Mostly the many English versions of Chekhov rely on other translators and on the word-for-word translation specially prepared for the translator. It’s a very challenging, stimulating kind of work, to turn a play from German or Russian or French into English, but it’s not the same kind of work as being your own master.
Why were you so attracted by Ernest Hemingway, ever since you were young, so much so that you have even bought first editions of his work?
Yes, it’s true, I did buy first editions of his, but I also bought first editions of other writers like Evelyn Waugh; and Charles Dickens, which in those days were not expensive. But you are right, I really fell in love with Ernest Hemingway when I was a young man.
I don’t examine myself very much, but I think it was because of his writing. Thousands and thousands of young writers were fascinated by him. They were enthralled by him, bowled over by Hemingway’s writing when it was new. The writing is stripped away and simplified. Hemingway had a pretty small vocabulary in his work compared to more prolix, florid writers. Also, probably Hemingway’s personality and publicity had some bearing on one’s interest in him, naturally. I always had a feeling for Hemingway which exceeded the feeling I had for Scott Fitzgerald, but when I was older I think I began to like Fitzgerald more. I liked American writers of the period, when I was young I was reading Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Nathaniel West. I was always a Hemingway man more than a Fitzgerald man when I was in my twenties. In my seventies I am not so sure.
You liked American literature because as a child when you lived in India you went to an American school?
No, that wasn’t the reason I don’t think, although I did go to an American school. I left India when I was 8 years old, so not really no. No, I didn’t read Hemingway until I was probably 18 or 19.
But he had influence on you, on your work and writing?
I am sure he had a bad influence on me at the beginning. He had a bad influence on pretty much everybody! If you try to start writing like Hemingway, if you succeed you’re writing like someone else, and if you don’t succeed you don’t succeed. He didn’t influence my play writing, not consciously.
Who did influence you?
I think it’s very difficult. Liking things is one thing, the influence isn’t direct of course, it’s probably subconscious. Nobody influenced me in the sense of my saying I want to write like this person or that person. One’s own nature leads one to certain kinds of enthusiasms, and those enthusiasms feed back into your own work. I don’t think of that as being conscious influence, but I am sure I have cause to be grateful for it, whether it is conscious or subconscious.
What about you being a Sir, an Englishman, your Jewish Czech origin, being born as Tomáš Straussler in 1937 and then in 1946 becoming Tom Stoppard?
What about it? It’s just personal history. I don’t know what the question is. These things happened to me, yes. I don’t ask myself psychological or analytical questions, I react quite simply. I accept what happens and try to make the best of it. I think I have been very fortunate to have ended up in England, learning and using the English language. I would rather that than ending up in communist Czechoslovakia when I was 10 years old.
They say that after your mother died your brother and you went back to your hometown of Zlin to find your roots and your relatives. Do you feel Jewish?
Yes. When my mother was alive I didn’t press her about the past, but of course after the fall of communism our family history became clearer, because we met one or two relatives who were Czech and then we found out things that our mother had not ever told us about. Like, for example, the fact that her sisters and parents died in the concentration camps at Terezin and Auschwitz. We only knew about one sister who went to South America before the war, and that’s the only sister that my brother and I were aware of.
But you knew you were Jewish?
We knew that we had Jewish in us because otherwise we would have had no need to leave Czechoslovakia when the Germans were approaching, to escape Hitler as it were, but it wasn’t until many years later that we understood. My mother would say in those days that if you had one Jewish grandparent you were in danger, but in fact she was not really telling us what she knew. My mother was grateful to find herself safe in England after the war, and she wanted us to be bought up as little English boys, so she never went back into her own past.
You are not a political writer, but somehow your writing has to do with politics, espionage, emigration, identity. What do you feel about the murder of the Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris?
Same as you I expect! It’s not just Charlie Hebdo, one is appalled, absolutely horrified by the world at the moment. Look at what happened in Nigeria in the same week. 2,000 killed, murdered. I don’t know what to say about it.
You had to leave Czechoslovakia because of Hitler. Hitler has changed the destiny of your life. Now in France and Holland there is public anti-Semitism. Is that worrying you? What do you feel about the violence of the jihadists?
It’s worrying, but I am beyond offering a solution. I do not know how one solves irrationalism. These acts of murder are impelled… they are propelled, by a murderous irrational… psychology, I suppose you’d have to call it. I am very wary of writers pontificating as moral experts because they have written a book or two or a play or two, or posing as moral guides.
Do you consider yourself an English writer, or are you a middle-European who writes in English like your predecessors Conrad and Nabokov?
I consider myself an English writer. I am not even that familiar with Eastern European literature. Obviously one knows the big names. I don’t read any other languages except French, badly. I am very much somebody who is aware of the traditions of English literature.
Are you part of English literature?
I am a writer who has grown up and grown out of what he has read, and what I have read is English. Even the great works of European literature I have only read in translation.
Do you feel an affinity with your humour, or with your intellectual approach to problems, to Czech writers like Havel or Kundera or Kafka?
I enjoy them very much. That’s the kind of question that everybody else can ask of my work. I can’t ask this interesting question of my work. I am not well placed to answer the question since I am looking at my work from the inside and I look at other people’s work from the outside.
How do you feel now vis-à-vis your many plays, your corpus of work?
I feel quite critical of most of what I’ve written and there’s usually in my view something wrong with everything. If there isn’t you are lucky. I tend to be critical of what I have written in the past, that’s quite a normal healthy feeling I think; better than feeling uncritical about it.
Do you have your favourites?
Yes, one or two. When you are writing and things work out well with a play what you feel is lucky, not clever, and there are one or two plays where I felt that they fell out luckily. You know, I invent them as I go, I don’t construct them, and when they work out OK, like “Arcadia” worked out pretty well, I feel lucky; and actually I like “The Invention of Love”, which I saw in Italian in Sicily at a festival some years ago. And now there’s “The Hard Problem” for which I have to go and find out whether I am lucky or clever, or neither!
Is it always the latest play that you like the most?
No, I don’t think like that. The latest is the one I am more concerned about perhaps, that’s more alive until there’s something to replace it. I change plays when I am rehearsing them, making little changes all the time. So now “The Hard Problem” has my interest, and I am due back, and I’ll go back.
South Bank, London
14 January, 2015.
Sir Tom Stoppard: President, The London Library