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Tom Stoppard, beneficiary of the subconscious

From time-bending drama to the absurd adventures of Shakespeare's supporting cast, almost 50 years of work has brought playwright Tom Stoppard popular, critical and even royal acclaim.
/ Source: Reuters

From time-bending drama to the absurd adventures of Shakespeare's supporting cast, almost 50 years of work has brought playwright Tom Stoppard popular, critical and even royal acclaim.

Acclaim, he says, shrugging, for "lucky" plays inspired by the realms of his subconscious.

The Academy Award-winning Stoppard, who was born in the former Czechoslovakia and was sent as a refugee to Singapore and India, found fame on British radio before seeing his name in lights in the West End, and, later, on the silver screen.

Knighted in 1997, he is known by many for the screenplay of 1998's "Shakespeare in Love," which won seven Oscars.

But it is works such as his 1966 play "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," and "Arcadia" in 1993 that has earned him a reputation among critics as one of the world's greatest living playwrights.

Stoppard, 74, spoke with reporters on the sidelines of the Jaipur Literature Festival in India last month.

Q: You're seen as one of the world's best at what you do. How do you deal with that as you keep writing?

A: "I don't look at my work in a critical or analytical way, I just don't think of myself objectively. It doesn't interest me.

"Writing mostly boils down to what will be the next line. If a play works out well, the author should be feeling lucky rather than clever."

Q: Rosencrantz came from Hamlet, Arcadia concerns advanced mathematics. Where does your inspiration spring from?

A: "When I came to write (Arcadia), I found myself referring to books that had been lying on my shelves for years. This leads me to believe that I am the beneficiary of my own subconscious.

"I am not somebody who meets a man or a woman somewhere and feels like that is an incredible character that I must write into a play.... (Inspirations) come just one at a time. I don't think it is a good idea to know too much before you begin.

"I get turned on by an abstract idea and wait for it to develop into a story. Like a limb developing around a molecule... You see, I write 10 drafts of the first page, and one draft of the last page."

Q: Are you working on anything in particular at the moment?

A: "Something I'm engaged with is evolutionary biology, not physics. It's probably gone now that I've told you...

"I get the feeling that a number of people in the United Kingdom are working on plays involving journalism. I have wanted to write a play on journalism for a long time now, and have actually collected a great deal of material on it.

"But then this phone-hacking story broke, and I abandoned it all. I sort of felt like I had missed the boat rather."

Q: How have you seen theatre change during your career?

A: "I am exorbitantly unobservant, and hence disinterested in theatre as a culture... I do enjoy writing plays and watching plays and thinking about the possibilities they have. But I don't think of theatre as a text. I think of it as an event.

"Perhaps due to the economic downturn there has been a cultural sea-change in British theatre. One manifestation of that has been that three-quarters of the stage is dedicated to musicals.

"People realized that you can make a lot of money from a successful musical. I think that the institution for straight theatre is shrinking, except for a handful of plays that go against the grain."

Q: How did you get involved with Shakespeare in Love?

A: "I had an arrangement with the film company, Universal Studios, to choose a couple of things to write over a few years, something like that, and so they asked me to have a look at the things they had in development.

"One was a screenplay, Shakespeare in Love, and they asked me to work on it... I didn't really wish to adapt it, but once I started, I became totally involved.

"The credit has to be give to Marc (Norman) for coming up with the idea of a young Shakespeare who falls in love."

Q: Was there ever the temptation to only write films?

A: "All of my scripts are based on other people's novels. Generally I consider myself as one who writes for theatre. I do not see film work as a continuation of writing for theatre. It is more of an interruption of the writing process.

"I have read so many appalling (film) scripts. There are not enough good scripts to go around. The ability to write a script is different from the idea of a script."