The Real Thing (play)
|The Real Thing|
Cover of the Faber and Faber edition
|Written by||Tom Stoppard|
|Date premiered||16 November 1982|
|Place premiered||The Strand Theatre (now the Novello Theatre), London|
|Subject||Love, reality versus fiction|
The Real Thing is a play by Tom Stoppard, first performed in 1982. It examines the nature of honesty, and its use of a play within a play is one of many levels on which the author teases the audience with the difference between semblance and reality.
The play focuses on the relationship between Henry and Annie, an actress who is part of a committee to free Brodie, a Scottish soldier imprisoned for burning a memorial wreath during a protest.
Setting: London in 1982
In the first scene, the coldly witty Max accuses his distant and travelling wife, Charlotte, of adultery. She leaves indignant and angry.
The second scene appears to follow directly after the first, but Charlotte's personality has changed completely, and she is now married to a playwright named Henry. Gradually the audience realises that Charlotte is an actress, and the first scene was her performance in a play that Henry, her husband, wrote. The character of the husband is played by the husband of a couple they are both friendly with, Max. Charlotte is unhappy with the play, believing that Henry gives short shrift to the female character in order to show off his own wit through the mouth of Max.
Max and his wife Annie drop by for a visit to Charlotte and Henry. Without the benefit of Henry's dialogue, Max turns out to be a likable but negligible fellow, and Annie is, according to the script, "very much like the woman Charlotte has ceased to be." Annie is a devoted activist on behalf of an imprisoned soldier, Brodie, who has been arrested for setting fire to the wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. Henry mocks her as a sentimental do-gooder, giving offence to Max. But when Annie and Henry are left alone, it's revealed that their fight was also a performance: they are having an affair, and she agrees to meet him later on the pretext of visiting Brodie in prison.
Max discovers the affair, and Annie leaves him to be with Henry. Soon, Henry is reduced to writing television scripts in order to pay alimony to Charlotte. He struggles to write a play about his love for Annie, but finds it difficult to find the right language to express sincere emotion: he can vocalise his feelings but struggles to express them in writing.
Two years later, Henry's play about Annie remains unwritten. Annie asks him to ghost-write a play by the prisoner Brodie, whom she continues to visit. Brodie's anarchist politics, anti-intellectualism, and lack of ability for writing are the antithesis of everything Henry values. Annie discounts this in favour of the intention behind the writing. Henry defends the importance of beauty in language and skill in writing using an analogy with a cricket bat: good writing is like hitting a ball with a cricket bat (i.e. something that has been carefully designed and crafted to hit balls in the best manner possible); bad writing is like hitting it with a plank of wood (i.e., something that has the same composition as a cricket bat, and bears it some resemblance, but is ultimately random and inferior). He accuses her of being attracted to Brodie, and instantly realizes his mistake.
When Annie is cast in a production of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore in Glasgow, she must be away from Henry for some time, and Henry visits Charlotte and their daughter Debbie. The teenage Debbie declares that monogamy is a thing of the past, a form of colonisation. Henry gently cautions the girl against his own vice of making clever phrases for their own sake, but he is shaken by her cynicism nevertheless. For her part, Charlotte breezily admits to multiple affairs during their marriage, and tells him that his affair with Annie only caused trouble because he treated it romantically instead of as a source of fun.
Henry returns home in a frenzy of jealousy and ransacks his and Annie's apartment searching for evidence of infidelity. His confrontation with Annie echoes the scene from the play he wrote that was performed in the first act of The Real Thing, but Annie has more to say than his imaginary wife did. She admits that she is having an emotional affair with her young co-star Billy, though she claims it is not a physical one; but she refuses to either give Billy up or leave Henry: both romances have a moral claim on her, and Henry will just have to accept it. With pain, he does. Her relationship with Billy seems to come to an end, but there remains a notable distance between her and Henry.
As if their relationship were not under enough strain, Brodie is released from prison and stops by for a visit. He turns out to be a prize oaf, with all of Henry's arrogance and elitism, but none of the genuine skill or eloquence to back it up. He is highly critical of Henry's ghost work on his television play, and makes several crass comments about Annie as well. It becomes clear that Annie's crusade to free him was not based on idealism, but because she feels guilty over his crime, which he committed in an effort to impress her. At last, Annie pushes a bowl of dip in his face and throws him out of the house, and peace between her and Henry is restored. The play ends with a phone call from Max, who tells Henry that he has become engaged.
There are obvious parallels between Stoppard and his main character: both are middle-aged playwrights known for their exact use of language; both express doubts about Marxism and the politics of the left and both undertake work outside the theatre to keep up their comfortable lifestyles and pay alimony to their wives. With these similarities established, it is only a small step to compare Henry's fictional situation with that of his creator: both men take up with another man's wife and find happiness, while retaining a strong relationship with their children. In Stoppard's case this is reinforced by his relationship with Felicity Kendal, the actress who played Annie in the original staging, although, as Stoppard notes, he developed his plot before Kendal took the role.
Felicity Kendal created the role of Annie and Roger Rees created the role of Henry. Glenn Close played Annie and Jeremy Irons played Henry in the Broadway production. Close and Irons both won Tonys for their roles, as did Christine Baranski for her featured performance as Charlotte. Supporting players during the play's run on Broadway included Peter Gallagher, Simon Jones, D.W. Moffett, Steven Weber, Cynthia Nixon, and Yeardley Smith. In his review for The New York Times, Frank Rich wrote that "The Broadway version of The Real Thing – a substantial revision of the original London production – is not only Mr. Stoppard's most moving play, but also the most bracing play that anyone has written about love and marriage in years."
The play was revived in 2000 with Jennifer Ehle as Annie and Stephen Dillane as Henry. It played on Broadway and at the Donmar Warehouse in London. Ehle and Dillane both won Tony Awards for their roles and the production won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play.
A Broadway revival opened on October 30, 2014, at Broadway's American Airlines Theatre, produced by the Roundabout Theater Company and directed by Sam Gold. Ewan McGregor and Maggie Gyllenhaal starred as Henry and Annie, with Josh Hamilton (actor) as Max and Cynthia Nixon, who played the role of Debbie in the original Broadway production, as Charlotte. Unlike previous productions, it received mostly negative reviews.
Awards and nominations
- 1982 Evening Standard Award for Best Play
- 1984 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play
- 1984 New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play
- 1984 Tony Award for Best Play
- 2000 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Revival of a Play
- 2000 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play
- Lawson, Mark (14 April 2010). "Tom Stoppard: 'I'm the crank in the bus queue'". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 18 May 2010.
- Fleming, John (2008). Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. London: Continuum. p. 12. ISBN 0-8264-9621-0.
- Rich, Frank (6 January 1984). "TOM STOPPARD'S REAL THING". The New York Times. Retrieved 15 March 2011.
- Brantley, Ben (18 April 2000). "Poor Henry! He's So Clever, So Glib . . . So Vulnerable". The New York Times. Retrieved 15 March 2011.
- The Real Thing at the Internet Broadway Database
- The Real Thing study guide, (Archive) from Remy Bumppo Theatre Company