75 at 75: James Shapiro on Tom Stoppard - 92Y, New York

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75 at 75: James Shapiro on Tom Stoppard

Mar 27, 2001

A special project for 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary, 75 at 75 invites authors to listen to a recording from our archive and write a personal response. Here, James Shapiro writes about Tom Stoppard’s reading from several of his plays: Night and Day, Arcadia, The Coast of Utopia, and, in particular, Cahoot’s Macbeth. It was recorded live at 92Y on March 27, 2001.

Posted on Apr 18, 2014

James_Shapiro_100x100When I was sixteen I saw my brother act in a summer-stock production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and was hooked on Stoppard. When I got home I picked up a copy of Hamlet, which wasn’t taught in my high school. Encountering the two plays in that order left me with a nagging sense, one that I’ve never quite shaken, that Shakespeare owed more to Stoppard than the other way around.

I had never thought to collect the works of a writer before, but I started buying copies of everything by Stoppard that I could get my hands on, hard-covers published by Grove Press and Faber paperbacks that had found their way to the second-hand bookstores on Fourth Avenue. I especially prized a used copy of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead with a large black and white photo of Stoppard on the back of the dust jacket. He looked a lot like Mick Jagger.

Decades later I managed to get a seat at a sold-out performance of Hamlet at the National Theatre. Like everyone else in the house, I found myself deeply absorbed in the play, until a vaguely familiar silhouette a few rows in front of me caught my eye. From that moment on I was hopelessly distracted, finding it impossible to ignore that I was watching Stoppard watching Shakespeare and half expecting that the actors playing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would hijack the performance.

Except for the photo and that passing glimpse of Stoppard himself, I only knew him through reading his plays or seeing them staged. Because actors (themselves playing characters) spoke his words, I never heard Stoppard’s own voice nor could I imagine what it sounded like. The need to do so became more urgent after I read an interview with Mel Gussow in which Stoppard declared—perhaps truthfully, perhaps not—that “all my people speak the same way, with the same cadences and sentence structures. They speak as I do.”

I somehow missed the chance to hear those cadences when Stoppard appeared at the 92nd Street Y in 2001 and read from several of his plays. It’s unusual for dramatists to read from scripts intended for performance and Stoppard admitted at the outset that he had never done such an event before. He also warned in advance that he didn’t “do voices.” He may not have slipped into character much in the hour that followed, but he was more than willing to do hesitations and pauses—and did so masterfully. You could read and reread a transcript of that evening’s performance and never register their impact. With each successive pause he brought those in the audience slowly around until they were laughing warmly and appreciatively and knowingly at all that was left unspoken. His self-effacing and blatantly false claim, punctuated by the longest of pauses—“Reading out loud from a script was a skill . . . which I had not acquired”—got the biggest laugh of all. As soon as he began to read from Cahoot’s Macbeth, it was obvious how much of the wariness, wit and irony that pervade his work turned on those pointed silences.

Stoppard wrote Cahoot’s Macbeth in the late 1970s after meeting in Prague with the actor Pavel Kohout, to whom the play is dedicated. After the Communist authorities barred him and other Czech dissidents from performing publicly, Kohout created a short version of Macbeth that could be performed by a handful of actors in a living room. Inspired by their act of defiance, Stoppard wrote Cahoot’s Macbeth as part of a short Shakespearean double bill, the interlinked plays separated by a comma: Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth.

Watching the video of his reading from Cahoot’s Macbeth at the Y, I was a little disappointed that Stoppard skipped over its opening scene because it contained mostly Shakespeare’s words and not his own (though bits of Macbeth he did recite—“Wake Duncan with thy knocking”—were thrilling). You could sense his discomfort with the possibility that someone might mistakenly think Shakespeare’s words were his when he stopped and said: “Shakespeare wrote this. Is it art if you simply reproduce it precisely?” But Stoppard never reproduces Shakespeare precisely, his surgical cuts confirming just how intimately he knew those old plays, understood when and where he could safely interrupt Shakespeare and find space for his own words.

Stoppard began his reading of Cahoot’s Macbeth at the moment when that play largely abandons Shakespeare and turns into an exploration of the crushing effect of government surveillance on art and artists. In a typically Stoppardian move he grounds this in a play, Macbeth, in which the characters themselves reflect on what it means to live under a tyrant in what we now call a surveillance state. Cahoot’s Macbeth is arguably Stoppard’s most political play; it may also be his most prophetic one.

This past year, after news of Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks broke, Stoppard wrote in the Guardian that the “world of surveillance operated by the people we pay to guard us exceeds the fevered dreams of the Stasi.” Few have described those fevered dreams so well as Stoppard does in Cahoot’s Macbeth. It’s an uncanny experience, hearing him share that warning in a reading at the Y just a few months before the horrific 9/11 attacks that ushered in, along with so much else, government spying on an unprecedented scale.

James Shapiro has just edited a collection, Shakespeare in America, for the Library of America.

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