life meeting art
Carey Perloff Pinter and Stoppard: A Director’s View (London: Bloomsbury / Methuen Drama, 2022)
Theater director Carey Perloff’s 2022 publication Pinter and Stoppard: A Director’s View is many things at one time: a memoir of her own encounters as both director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 1992-2018 and before that of New York’s Classic State Company from 1986-1992 with the two most significant British playwrights of the 20th century Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard; a handbook of how to direct their plays, particularly given the fact that on several occasions she worked in close collaboration with the playwrights during the rehearsals and early productions; and, perhaps most importantly, a sophisticated analysis of their works based on her own readings, their personal comments, and the history of critical dialogue that proceeded her involvement with their works.
I can’t recall when I so enjoyed a book of theater history and artistry. But then Perloff has long been an acquaintance and over the years those of us who have known her are no longer surprised by her intellect and immense knowledge of theater, her instinctual insights into each work she and her companies have produced, and her utter enthusiasm for all things concerning language, particularly that of the theater.
One’s first reaction to the book, obviously, is that she could not have chosen two more different British playwrights, differences with she herself summarizes in her “Introduction”:
“…It might appear that the differences between these two writers outweigh the similarities, when viewing them across the landscape of post-war English theater. Pinter is a playwright of intense observation, with an uncanny ability to mine the simplest of situations for the hidden current of menace, violence, and power play underneath. His is a drama mystery, of subtext, of terror. ….His plays usually take place in a single space, in an atmosphere so denuded of superfluous detail that the slightest move is a radical act. He is uniquely able to take seemingly ordinary speech and lift it onto the plane of poetry without ever disconnecting it from the guts and heartbeat of his characters. Stoppard, by contrast, is a writer of ideas. Following his own internal dialectic, he sets off the create characters and situations that can best reveal his own debates in dramatically satisfying ways. ‘I’m a playwright interested in ideas and forced to invent characters to express those ideas,’ Stoppard told the critic Mel Gussow in 1979.”
Yet by the time she is finished, we recognize that, despite the vast differences of how the works mean and are performed on the stage, there are perhaps just as many similarities between the two major figures of the late English theatrical revolution of the second-half of the 20th century.
The most important similarity, perhaps, is that both playwrights are profoundly Jewish, something which has previously received little attention, but to which Perloff devotes an entire highly revealing first chapter. Her first paragraph indeed summarizes her discoveries about these two writers:
“If finding a playwright’s ‘voice’ is a key to realizing their work onstage…a crucial aspect of both Pinter’s and Stoppard’s life histories is that both are Jewish. Not only Jewish, but Central European Jews who came of age in the traumatic period of the Second World War and the Holocaust. ….In the New York, where Judaism is pervasive, the fact that these two major figures happened to be Jewish may seem inconsequential. I would like to argue that Pinter’s and Stoppard’s Jewish heritage ultimately had a profound impact upon their plays and is a useful angle to explore in the rehearsal room.”
By the time she was finished, I saw Pinter in an entirely new way, realizing just how radically different he was from the first wave of British playwrights of the 1950s and 1960s such as Alan Bennett, David Storey, Edward Bond, Alan Ayckbourn, Michael Frayn, John Arden, Simon Gray and Caryl Churchill and even from fellow Jewish writers such as Arnold Wesker who dealt specifically with Jewish themes and characters. For Pinter power lies in language and when that is taken away, even momentarily, it evidences a loss that is immediate and devastating.
Stoppard, born in Czechoslovakia in 1937 with the name Tomas Staussler, was the son of a Jewish surgeon employed by the company hospital of the Bata shoe factory. That company’s owner had arranged for the evacuation of his Jewish employees to various world-wide factories to escape the inevitable invasion by Hitler. Accordingly, the young Stoppard, nicknamed Tomik, with his parents ended up in Singapore for two years before heading to Australia and being diverted to India, where by that time the boy called “Tommy” ended up with his mother and his elder brother Peter in Darjeeling. It was only later that he was told that his father had died.
Stoppard’s memory of that revelation was: “For my part, I took it well, or not well, depending upon how you look at it. I felt almost nothing. I felt the significance of the occasion but not the loss. How had my father died? At sea? No one seemed to know. As far as I was told, he had simply disappeared.”
The family remained in India for the duration of the war, an experience that Stoppard fondly recalls, afterwards moving to England (Retford, Derbyshire) where he attended school and quickly grew up to be an “honorary Englishman,” adopting the new language along with a new identity that only occasionally resulted in a slip that made him conscious of his transformation. Perloff quotes him in a Guardian interview: “I fairly often find I’m with people who forget that I don’t quite belong in the world we’re in. I find I put a foot wrong—it could be a pronunciation, an arcane bit of English history, and suddenly I’m there naked, as someone with a pass, a press ticket.” Perloff demonstrates how that sense of alien being, the temporarily loss of identity, haunts a play such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in which the two characters are not quite certain of who they are or what role they are to play in Hamlet’s world in which they find themselves.
These discoveries eventually made their way into his plays, particularly in the Czech-based 2006 play Rock n’ Roll which Perloff bravely directed in San Francisco and in Leopoldstadt, which as I write this piece is about to have its premiere on Broadway. When Stoppard and his wife made a surprise visit to San Francisco in 2018 in celebration of Perloff’s farewell party from the A.C.T., they drove after down to Los Angeles to visit her mother Marjorie, whose parents had left with her from Vienna the day before the Anschluss. Marjorie had written a memoir The Vienna Paradox about growing up as a child in pre-war Vienna and traveling with her family to resettle in the US. And clearly those very issues were very much on Stoppard’s mind as he was working on that play, which premiered and quickly closed in London in 2020 because of the COVID pandemic. As Perloff reports: “Over a long afternoon, he asked her innumerable questions about pre-war Jewish life in Vienna. She was amused by how surprised he was about certain aspects of that complicated, assimilationist, culture-obsessed Jewish universe, and tried to make nuances clear to him,” just such issues that arise in Leopoldstadt. The guilt Stoppard now clearly felt for his previous ignorance of the truths of his own ancestors was played out, so Perloff reveals, in his Rock ‘n’ Roll, The Hard Problem, and The Invention of Love, discussed in a chapter titled “Anatomizing Guilt.”
These two very different authors also shared a remarkable interest in observing, commenting on, and in Stoppard’s case actually remaking their plays in pre-production. Despite the many warnings Perloff had received about Pinter’s difficulty, given his media outbursts and his well-known disliking of US politics, the young director found the former actor and director completely caring and accommodating with regard to her actors David Strathairn, Peter Riegert, Richard Riehle, Miguel Perez, Jean Stapleton, Bill Moor, and Wendy Makkena at CSC. Although only occasionally interrupting Perloff’s own directorial comments, he was loathe to tell the actors how to play their roles and respected the characters he had created as individuals who were as unknowable as the humans around him, on several occasions quietly asking questions and posing answers that helped his fellow thespians to come to terms with his works and the figures they portrayed. Indeed, Perloff found his presence necessary and reassuring, and enjoyed the pleasure of working with someone who had had years of acting experience himself and was a brilliant director as well.
With Stoppard she corresponded for long hours via fax wherein he would completely explain seemingly impenetrable scenes, often rewriting passages to make them clearer. Working with her in New York on his early play Indian Ink, he completely reconceived the ending of the play, restructuring it thoroughly and rewriting various moments.
In both cases she appears to have become close friends with the playwrights neither of whom threatened her role as director but contributed to the final fuller dimensions of the actual productions.
When I was younger I had long imagined, given my deep interest in theater, that I might someday be a theater director. With my abilities to rather thoroughly analyze theater works and my managerial affinities, I might have, in fact, been somewhat successful in such a role. But I cannot imagine conceiving the play with regard the wide range of details that Perloff outlines in relationship to the sets, lighting, and props. Particularly in Pinter’s plays in which the space is so particularly defined and free from unnecessary objects one has to think about how to reveal a staircase, as in The Birthday Party that leads to an invisible upstairs which is both a fortress to Meg and her boarder Stanley, and a territory to be breeched by Goldberg and the other intruders, or another, much longer staircase in The Homecoming which represents an entire kingdom to the males of the house and later to Ruth who will reign as their queen after her husband Lenny leaves her to them almost as a “homecoming gift.”
How to create lighting that conveys the vast shifts of time and place that occur throughout Stoppard’s plays? These questions are not only brilliantly answered by Perloff, but the significance of their roles in these plays is thoroughly explained by the writer in terms of ambience and overall thematics.
By the time I had finished Perloff’s book describing the works she had directed by Pinter and Stoppard—in a couple of cases in two different productions—I could not imagine them differently than the way she described them, and I wished to rush out immediately and see productions of them, even if they were conceived by other directors in completely different manners. I discovered, alas, that I had missed a production of The Birthday Party by a small Glendale-based theater by just a few weeks!
If nothing else, I was convinced at book’s end by the genius of both the playwrights—both of whose work I had long admired—and their director. I have always believed that coincidence has something to do with evidence that one has made the appropriate decisions in life. And I was absolutely delighted, accordingly, when Perloff reported that in the midst of their A.C.T. production of Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll, the cast met up by accident with the band that had helped to inspire the play. The Plastic People of the Universe had regrouped long after the events in the play, had somehow managed to stay together, and were suddenly performing in San Francisco.
“We could not quite believe that those famous ‘pagans’ had shown up on our doorsteps just as we were trying to tell their story onstage. The night before their gig at the Independent, they came to see our production (in which we had used their music at strategic moments), and afterwards met with the audience, chatted with the cast, and sold merchandise which we all eagerly bought. …The next night, when our curtain came down, we all descended upon the music venue in our “Plastic People of the Universe” t-shirts, exulting at the sight of a group of passionate aging Czechs playing their unique brand of cacophonous, rebellious rock ‘n’ roll. The rest of the San Francisco audience, totally unaware of what this band had done to change the world, bopped along, happy in their ignorance. It was a surreal and moving example of life meeting art.”
Los Angeles, August 23, 2022