Artist Descending a Staircase

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Artist Descending a Staircase is a radio play by Tom Stoppard, broadcast by the BBC in 1972, and later adapted for live theatre. The play centers on a murder mystery involving an artist who dies from falling down a set of stairs.[1] The play is a humorous exploration of the meaning and purpose of art. The title alludes to Marcel Duchamp's painting Nude Descending a Staircase.[2]


The play opens with the sound of the artist, Donner, falling down the stairs. The other two roommates, Martello and Beauchamp, enter and find their 50 year old friend at the bottom of the staircase. Beauchamp, an artist whose focus is on the sounds of daily life, examines a recording of the sounds of Donner's fall. The pair decides that a murderer must have awakened Donner from his sleep and then pushed him down the stairs to his death. Martello and Beauchamp accuse each other of the crime. The following scenes flash back to several different years at least 50 years in the past. This part of the play follows the three artists and their interactions with a blind woman named Sophie. The end of the play returns to the present. Martello and Beauchamp are unable to solve the mystery, but Stoppard alerts the audience to the truth. When the audience witnesses a fly buzzing around the studio and Beauchamp's attempts to swat it, they realize that Donner must have fallen down the stairs in pursuit of the fly. The play ends with Beauchamp recording over the sounds of Donner's death.

Original production[edit]

The play was originally broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 14 November 1972. It is now available on the BBC CD Tom Stoppard Radio Plays.[3]

Theatrical production[edit]

A stage adaptation, written by Stoppard, was first performed at the R.J. Reynolds Theatre, on the Duke University Campus, in 1989. It was followed by a Broadway production, at the Helen Hayes Theater. It featured the following cast:

  • Michael Cumpsty - Young Beauchamp
  • Jim Fyfe - Young Martello
  • Harold Gould - Beauchamp
  • John McMartin - Donner
  • Stephanie Roth - Sophie
  • Paxton Whitehead - Martello
  • Michael Winther - Young Donner

•Produced by Dennis Grimaldi, Emanuel Azenberg, Robert Whitehead, Dick Button, Byron Goldman

The production team was the following:

  • Director - Tim Luscombe
  • Assistant Director - Nicholas de Wolff
  • Scenic Design - Tony Straiges
  • Costume Design - Joseph G. Aulisi
  • Lighting Design - Tharon Musser
  • Sound Design - Tom Morse

The Play has been re-staged for the first time in twenty years;[4] running from 1 to 31 of December at the Old Red Lion Theatre in Islington with the following cast:


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