In some ways this is a more “mature” play by the author of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, but it is recognizably by Stoppard, who makes a specialty of dramatizing the same philosophical conundrum: How much is two and two? Or, to put it at greater length, how, in the face of an existence ultimately inaccessible to rational understanding, can we be sure of anything at all? The answer is, of course, we can’t. Existence is finally opaque, resisting all inquiry.
Stoppard’s method of dramatizing this idea is to pose two opposites. There are basically two scenes in the play, the study of the moral philosopher George Moore (not the George Moore) and the sensuous bedroom of his wife, the singer Dorothy Moore (the Dorothy Moore), who retired while still young, after a nervous breakdown. In the study, Moore composes a lecture, an inquiry into knowing. In the bedroom, we see how Moore’s inquiries disintegrate under the duress of inexplicable existence.
The problem Stoppard has set himself is to make his essentially abstract theme theatrically viable. He does so, on the one hand, by giving Brian Bedford as Moore some brilliant monologues in the form of a series of dictations — to a secretary who reacts with utter skepticism and boredom, and never utters a word. These intellectual forays are really Stoppard’s meat, but they are balanced by the mashed potatoes and gravy (served up in a scene in Act II) of sensory, indeed sensuous, experience. Sir Archie Jumper, the Dean of Moore’s University and a pseudo-Renaissance man (mens sana in corpore sanis, and all that), is among other things a gymnast, and we are treated in each act to a spectacular and admirable display of gymnastics by a team of a dozen or so yellow-clad athletes, superb dancing specimens of humanity. At the very beginning of the play, at a party in the Moores’ Mayfair flat, we are treated to one of these exhibitions; toward the end of the exhibition a shot rings out, and one of the gymnasts falls dead. He turns out to be McPhee, who holds the chair of logic at the University. (So much for logic, evidently.) Dorothy Moore is charged with hiding the body in her bedroom until morning, when the jumpers remove the troublesome corpse, which is neatly packaged up in a plastic bag. An inspector calls, whose name is Bones and who is a great fan of Mrs Moore, prompted by an anonymous call. He ends up solving nothing, and compromising himself in the process by an attempted rape on Mrs Moore (a lovely creature altogether, whom we see at certain selected moments nude and inviting in her boudoir; thematic continuity of course — this is the emblem of the opaqueness of existence). Given a Stoppard play, of course, one doesn’t expect anything to be solved.
I found the play on the whole successful, though one or two of Moore’s monologues were over-long. I liked it, and came away with a sense that the greater maturity I perceived in the play was owing to a more deeply felt perception of the moral issues implicit in the failure of the effete intellectualism that would seem (in Stoppard’s view, at least) to pass current for philosophy. The pathos in the play is that Moore is no young, brash Oxonian Rosencrantz, but an aging contemporary of our own. The problem is still the same problem, however.
Jack Benny (the Jack Benny) was sitting in front of me in the orchestra, and made the comment, “When I say something funny, I want everyone to laugh.” The force of the observation was Benny’s being put off by the scattered laughter in the house at some of Stoppard’s more recondite humor. The limitation still evident in Stoppard’s plays is that one has to have read Hamlet — that is, one has to be in tune with an intellectual and cultural tradition that remains relatively remote from the contemporary theatre and, one might argue, contemporary life. In some sense, Stoppard has not ceased to be the brilliant undergraduate. The half-empty balcony suggested that the appeal of the play is not great enough to make it go on Broadway, despite its apparent appeal to hedonists. But there it was, on the stage of the Billy Rose, all the same.