ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I spoke with Tom Stoppard on the set of "Indian Ink" in San Francisco just before opening night last month.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The play opens tonight. Are you nervous?
TOM STOPPARD: Oh, that's the good news about getting older. I'm no longer like that about first nights. I used to be terrified, because that's the magic and nightmare of theater, is that anything can happen. And nowadays I think, "Well, let it." And usually, it works out fine.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, do you think you've just gotten used to it, or do you think it's actually something about growing older?
TOM STOPPARD: No, it's the latter. There's something deep and Zen- like about my calm and my fatalism. When I was starting out, it seemed to be terribly important, you know, these two hours, that particular moment. And they're still important, but in a quite different way. They're important to do with a kind of professionalism and a delight in things happening well. But in those days, they seemed to be important about the rest of my life, and now they're only important for that moment.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why do you like so much in your plays to juxtapose the present, or almost the present, with the past? What does it allow you to do that you like so much?
TOM STOPPARD: I think theater ought to be theatrical. I like the theatricality of, as it were, you know, shuffling the pack in different ways so that it's -- there's always some kind of ambush involved in the experience. You're being ambushed by an unexpected word, or by an elephant falling out of the cupboard, whatever it is. The thing about the shuttling between time periods, I think that makes vital -- you know, full of life -- situations which, you know, perhaps would be not that interesting if they were not in counterpoint to another perspective.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What does come to your mind? I mean, how did this play come to your mind, in what form? Did one image come to you?
TOM STOPPARD: Well, to begin with, I spent four years as a child in India, so I've always had that in my luggage, you know. And I'm not the sort of writer who's got a bureau stuffed with wonderful ideas for plays. I just have to use, in some way, what I've got. And India was one of the things I got.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But do you have to wait for these ideas? Are you -- you said you don't have a drawer full of them. Are you -- like, every couple of years, do you get a really good idea for a play?
TOM STOPPARD: I think that I get some juice from the enormous weight, the huge burden of obscure self-dissatisfaction in not having started something 18 months after I finished the last thing, which is pretty much where we are now. I think I finished the play 20 months ago. And I'm feeling kind of edgy. I don't know why. Why should I write a play? I don't have to write a play, do I? But somehow, I think that's what I'm here for, so I'd better do it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And do you get blocked the way Shakespeare was blocked in "Shakespeare in Love"?
TOM STOPPARD: I just have this huge -- what is it? It's like a Chinese Wall between me and the next play. And it's just getting -- it's getting to the top of page one that's hard for me. When I'm there, I begin to feel okay.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Were you surprised -- are you surprised -- by the tremendous success of "Shakespeare in Love"?
TOM STOPPARD: Well, it would be nice to be very wise after the event. I mean, I certainly didn't think it would be anything but a success on some scale, so I think we're really talking about the scale of the success. We all thought this was a really nice movie; it's going to do well; people will like it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But very erudite, and yet it's so popular among so many, many people.
TOM STOPPARD: Well, it's very romantic and emotional.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you think that's it? Do you think that's key? Do you think it's more the love of the romance, or the love of words, that has brought people to this movie?
TOM STOPPARD: Well, I think that the scale of the success of the film is rather more to do with the way that the director responded to the romantic possibilities in the story. So it's a highly romantic, rather sexy story. And the words are really working towards that, you know, working hard. I think -- oh, listen, how do I know? What do we know? Nobody knows anything.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You were criticized early on for not writing characters that had more emotional depth, and you told the critic Kenneth Tynan that you were waiting. "I'm waiting until I can do it well." Do you think you can do it well now?
TOM STOPPARD: Whether I can do it well now or not, is that for me to say? I mean, the whole excitement for writing anything is quite intense. And for a day or two, you think you've done everything extremely well. The problems start on the third day, and continues for the rest of your life.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Somebody once said it's never as good or as bad as you think it is.
TOM STOPPARD: That's good. That's a very good remark. It's never as good or as bad as you think.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What is your response to the criticism that your plays are superficially brilliant, witty, full of wonderful repartee, but lacking in emotional depth?
TOM STOPPARD: I think that that's -- you know, is a reasonable thing to say about them, except insofar as it doesn't question the premise, that emotion is better than not emotion. I don't really understand the premise. You could ask precisely that question of the author of "The Importance of Being Earnest."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Oscar Wilde.
TOM STOPPARD: Right. And he might be quite surprised to be asked it, and you might be quite surprised to find yourself asking it. That is a -- it's a work of genius, that play. I've written stuff, funny enough, a play called "Travesties" which cannibalizes parts of "The Importance of Being Earnest," of which one would say exactly that, you know -- it's too smart for its own good, it's got no real emotional heart, and I'm quite interested by the premise that that's not as good as making people weep. And then I think, "Well, all right, that's actually quite an intelligible criticism," because that's what theater is best at, to just get through to your innermost heart, and just expose it for a moment. Looping back to an earlier point you made, I think that "Shakespeare in Love" is as successful as it is because it is capable of bringing a tear, more than for its capability of bringing a chuckle.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you think your legacy will be to the theater? If you got hit by a bus out here on Geary Street tomorrow, what would your legacy be?
TOM STOPPARD: Well, I'd like to think that at least some of the plays will continue to be performed when -- you know, when I'm long dead and buried. I'm quite unshy about saying that. Lytton Strachey, a Victorian essayist, grumbled "What has posterity ever done for me?" But I'm not like that. I mean, I'm not doing it for thou. I used to be a journalist. I loved being a journalist. I think journalism is important. But it's important for now. And I think you can change things probably more violently and more quickly through journalism, especially through television journalism nowadays. But I think the matrix of our moral sensibilities is in the arts, and that's where I'd like to be remembered, if I'm remembered at all. But I'd rather be remembered by my family than by theatergoers.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you very much for being with us, Mr. Stoppard.
TOM STOPPARD: Thank you.