Written by Tom Stoppard and directed by Julianna Rees.
March 19-23 @7pm
The two plays we present tonight, Tom Stoppard’s Dogg’s Hamlet and Jean Cocteau’s The Eiffel Tower Wedding Party, were both written during times of political and social upheaval not unlike our own. Their authors were responding to recent events and trying to make sense of the modern world around them. Stoppard and Cocteau felt uncomfortable and disoriented, and the art they created attempted to reflect that disorientation while commenting on its absurdity.
Tom Stoppard, perhaps the most English of the 20th century British playwrights, was in fact many times an emigré. Born Tomas Straussler to Jewish parents in territory that was at the time Austro-Hungarian, he traveled to Sri Lanka, then India, finally moving to England at the age of eight when his widowed mother remarried Major Andrew Stoppard. Major Stoppard introduced the boys to their new homeland by sending them to boarding school where Stoppard played cricket and football and learned how to be British, or as Stoppard later said, “hide his feelings.”
Dogg’s Hamlet was first performed in 1979, a year when the Winter of Discontent was declared due to union strikes, IRA and Provisional IRA bombings, and a vote of no-confidence in the government. Scotland and Wales also voted – unsuccessfully – to leave the United Kingdom. In May, Margaret Thatcher and her conservative government swept into power with a huge majority. Only six months later, they poll five points behind Labour in a deeply divided country.
Stoppard was reading the philosophy of Wittgenstein at the time he wrote Dogg’s Hamlet and was fascinated by the idea that two people can use the same language but mean very different things. They may also observe the same phenomenon which can mean something different to each of them. Dogg’s Hamlet is the result of Stoppard’s musings, as well as his biography: a boy’s boarding school in England speaks a language that sounds very much like English but the words mean something different to them than they do to us. An outsider coming to the school, like the audience, has trouble making sense of the language everyone else uses so effortlessly. And, for good measure, Stoppard spoofs perhaps the greatest play written in English – the boys perform an abbreviated Hamlet and an even shorter encore of the play.
Dogg’s Hamlet is a play about language, about people understanding and misunderstanding each other. Like our politics today, people can use the same language or observe the same phenomenon – a rally, a newscast, a demonstration – and come away having very different experiences of the event and interpret the language they heard in vastly different ways. In our era of divided politics, when people speak past each other without hearing, Stoppard’s message is as timely now as it was in 1979. Stoppard’s genius for subversion allows a world in which a schoolboy can call a headmaster “cretinous pig” as a compliment, but the audience knows otherwise.
Cocteau wrote The Eiffel Tower Wedding Party in 1921 after France’s traumatic engagement in the first World War. Looking back to an earlier time, Cocteau offers that most conventional of moments – the celebration of a wedding – through a fractured lens. Writing with an economy of absurdist style, Cocteau gives us a wedding party that is disturbed by a variety of mirages. Technology both informs and malfunctions in this newly modern world populated by generals, children, animals, and singing radiograms. What goes wrong is also what goes right.
In his exploration of style, Cocteau sought to present a world that was more real because it was less so. Like the Cubists he admired, he believed inner reality was best revealed when events onstage were not realistic, but rather surprising and unexpected. And who could argue? Those who lived a pre- and post-World War existence must have wondered why anything happened the way it did. Why does a bird pop out of a camera instead of something else? The laws of nature and history may not continue to apply the way we expect them to once the world has been ravaged by mechanical violence.
Despite the upheaval that inspired them, Stoppard and Cocteau serve up delightful plays that entertain more than provoke. It’s our pleasure to include you in the fun we’ve had these past weeks, and hope you enjoy these plays’ irreverence and humor.