Tom Stoppard, The Real Thing
secret bestsellers & suffocating brilliance
“Now, what we’ve got here is a lump of wood of roughly the same shape trying to be a cricket bat, and if you hit a ball with it, the ball will travel about ten feet and you will drop the bat and dance about shouting ‘Ouch!’ with your hands stuck in your armpits.”
Writers have in common with DJs and notaries the haunting suspicion that anyone could do their job. What, after all these years of sheepishly hesitating before filling out the Occupation line on forms, do I actually know? (Certainly not when to use who versus whom.) The writer’s toolbox is mortifyingly open and accessible, like one of those Little Free Libraries stuffed with garbage and old Zagat Guides.
Thus the lawyer who dreams of taking a year (or maybe just a few months!) after retirement and banging out a masterpiece. Half the people I’ve sat next to on planes or at weddings have believed themselves to be secretly pregnant with bestsellers. I’ve never met anyone who imagines himself to be carrying a symphony.
However: in order to get any writing done — in order even to get out of bed in the morning — the writer must construct for himself a refuge, a belief, however fragile, however delusional, in his own ineffable expertise. So when the lawyer really does dredge up the novel within him (it occasionally happens), the writer, generously giving it a read, will think, This is not a book. It’s not that it’s a bad book, or a clumsy book — it simply isn’t a book. And no amount of labor, the writer meanly, self-protectively thinks, could make it one.
The maddening thing — the obnoxious thing — is that the writer, however unsavory his motivations, isn’t wrong. The professionalism — the intrinsic excellence — of a piece of writing is not detectable by lab test, and cannot be accounted for by Grammarly, but it is nonetheless real: I believe this as unshakably as a Christian believes in the Holy Spirit. The high priest of this belief system is Tom Stoppard; the holy text is The Real Thing.
The Real Thing is a Swiss watch of a play from 1982. It features plays within plays, a tangle of extramarital affairs, a confetti cannon shower of brilliant banter. Reading it feels like talking to your smartest friend while surrounded by mirrors on all sides.
The play’s pivotal scene takes place between Henry, a Stoppard-ian playwright, and Annie, an actor and activist. Annie has lately — to Henry’s dismay — taken up the cause of Brodie, a soldier imprisoned for burning a ceremonial wreath. And Brodie, it turns out, has written a play — a wooden, amateurish, politically engaged thing. Henry is miserably, dutifully reading it.
HENRY: It’s no good.
ANNIE: You mean it’s not literary.
HENRY: It’s not literary, and it’s no good. He can’t write.
ANNIE: You’re a snob.
HENRY: I’m a snob, and he can’t write.
They carry on like this, their argument inflamed by various unseen thorns (Henry’s suspicion that Annie is in love with Brodie; Henry’s professional and financial miseries). The more exasperated Annie gets, the closer she gets to lancing Henry’s smug self-satisfaction.
ANNIE: You’re jealous of the idea of the writer. You want to keep it sacred, special, not something anybody can do. Some of us have it, some of us don’t. We write, you get written about. What gets you about Brodie is he doesn’t know his place. You say he can’t write like a head waiter saying you can’t come in here without a tie. Because he can’t put words together. What’s so good about putting words together?
HENRY: It’s traditionally considered advantageous for a writer.
ANNIE: He’s not a writer. He’s a convict. You’re a writer. You write because you’re a writer. Even when you write about something, you have to think up something to write about just so you can keep writing. More well chosen words nicely put together. So what? Why should that be it? Who says?
What I love here is how energetically Stoppard roughs himself up. We’ve been tooling along in this faultlessly written play for fifty pages at this point, admiring the craftsmanship, perhaps chafing at the airlessness — and here’s Annie kicking out the windows. There is something suffocating about relentless verbal brilliance, isn’t there? Don’t we long, after too much time in the drawing room with Oscar Wilde, for the rougher company of Barry Hannah and Joy Williams? Who wouldn’t prefer Brodie’s awkward but sincere embrace to Henry’s meaningless, fluent attentions?
But watch how Henry — and Stoppard — recovers. Henry goes to get his cricket bat (a bit menacingly and a bit puzzlingly), and then:
HENRY: Shut up and listen. This thing here, which looks like a wooden club, is actually several pieces of particular wood cunningly put together in a certain way so that the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor. It’s for hitting cricket balls with. If you get it right, the cricket ball will travel two hundred yards in four seconds, and all you’ve done is give it a knock like knocking the top off a bottle of stout, and it makes a noise like a trout taking a fly… (He clucks his tongue to make the noise.) What we’re trying to do is to write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might … travel … (He clucks his tongue again and picks up [Brodie’s] script.) Now, what we’ve got here is a lump of wood of roughly the same shape trying to be a cricket bat, and if you hit a ball with it, the ball will travel about ten feet and you will drop the bat and dance about shouting ‘Ouch!’ with your hands stuck in your armpits. (Indicating the cricket bat.) This isn’t better because someone says it’s better, or because there’s a conspiracy by the MCC to keep cudgels out of Lords. It’s better because it’s better. You don’t believe me, so I suggest you go out to bat with this and see how you get on.
Here we have an effortless-seeming (and therefore tirelessly crafted) piece of prose exhorting the tireless craft that goes into making an object capable of effortless-seeming action. The pop of a bat striking a ball just so ought to come pre-installed on MacBooks, set to play each time a paragraph clicks into place — such is its delicious rightness as an image for the feeling of finally, finally figuring out how a stretch of words ought to be arranged.
And yet the genius of the passage isn’t in its defense of the church of writing. It’s in its quiet heresy.
“…the ball will travel about ten feet and you will drop the bat and dance about shouting ‘Ouch!’ with your hands stuck in your armpits.”
As an account of the experience of reading bad writing, this is impeccable. But as an account of life — all the bits that don’t take place at the keyboard, that don’t revolve around printed material — it’s even better. Henry is in agony — his life is nothing but shouting “Ouch!” with his hands stuck in his armpits. He’s terrified of being cheated on, self-anesthetizing with cleverness and alcohol. Even when things are going well — when he and Annie are able to achieve a sort of peace — it’s unsteady, unsatisfying, much more a ten-foot bunt than a towering home run.
And this, the play argues, is not because Henry has gotten something wrong; this is life. The church of writing’s domain turns out to be dismayingly small. Good writing is real and it matters — but it matters only within the confines of a game; it depends on a set of rules that don’t, for better or worse, pertain off of the field. With his immaculately constructed cricket bat, Stoppard points at the world in all its manifold deficiency. The lump of wood is never far from hand.