Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Remnick/Stoppard Part 2

[Part one can be found here.]

REMNICK: How much fussing do you do with actors?

STOPPARD: A great deal, actually. I always tell the actors, it is never too late to improve a translation. At the closing in London, yes, that will be too late. But up until then? As a matter of fact I was dicking around with a couple of lines just the other day. The thing about writing a play is that one has to construct a functional utterance which serves the narrative utterance. Sometimes a sentence which has to be said to move the narrative is not what a person would say at that moment, so you keep going back and forth. Now when one is writing his own play, it’s an interesting brain thing. One gets something pretty much right, it’s fine, and once it’s done you come back to it and it never changes, one goes to bed thinking, “Okay, that part is done.” With a translation, one goes through the same process, one goes to bed thinking it’s pretty much right, it’s fine, and then when one wakes up and re-reads it, it’s as if the Estonian au pair had rewritten the script during the night. [LAUGHTER] Translation involves a reverberation, one is constantly experiencing certainty followed by an erosion of clarity, which is why one should never work on it for more than three hours. Any more than that and one is writing rubbish.

REMNICK: Let’s talk about Eugene Onegin. I know you think thaty Nabokov's translation is a total disaster, --

STOPPARD: I don’t think it is –- it is. [LAUGHTER] Nabokov spent years on it.

REMNICK: And it runs to several volumes and it’s totally accurate, but it’s not a very good translation.

STOPPARD: Actually the best translation out there is --

REMNICK: Charles Johnson

STOPPARD: Charles Johnson, yes.

REMNICK: Have you read the latest War and Peace?

STOPPARD: The new one?

REMNICK: The Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, the husband and wife team –- she’s Russian, he’s American, and they live in Paris.

STOPPARD: I have read it; and that is actually the best way to do it. She knows Russian, he knows English – in my case it’s like I’m married to Helen Rappaport. I was talking to someone about this version recently, and he didn’t like it. And I said, “Yes, too accurate, isn’t it? You feel like you’re missing absolutely nothing.” Which is a case of aesthetics sacrificed to comprehensiveness.

REMNICK: They have several good translations –- Dostoevesky, Chekhov. But their Gogol is not very good.

STOPPARD: Gogol is difficult. There is one version by . . . [thinks for a moment] I’m hopeless with names nowadays. But I did come up with Gogol, give me that. [LAUGHTER]

REMNICK: What kind of preparation did you do for the Cherry Orchard translation? Did you read Chekhov’s stories, his diaries, his letters?

STOPPARD: I’ve been reading them for years.

REMNICK: Let’s talk about Coast of Utopia. A great deal of reading went into those three plays. How did you start? What inspired you?

STOPPARD: When it comes to creating a play, all that reading is a consequence of the ignition, not the ignition itself. This particular trilogy started with a paragraph in Isaiah Berlin about a Russian writer called Belinsky. When Belinsky was temporarily allowed outside Russia, and went to Paris, his friends begged him not to return because, if he did, his writing would be censored. But Belinsky hated Paris precisely because there was no censorship. He could have written anything he liked and no one would have noticed. In Paris, there were magazines and pamphlets everywhere, and none of them mattered. In Russia, students would line up and wait for the latest magazine to be published, and then twelve of them would share a manuscript and argue about it all night long in a coffee shop. “That is success,” said Belinsky. And I thought, “Well, there’s definitely a play in that.” I have always been interested in the fate of dissidents, and in fact in one of my recent plays [Rock ‘n’ Roll], I have a character who says in effect, “I’m better off in Prague in 1977 than London in 1977.” There’s that sense of samizdat literature, of smuggling typewritten sheets back and forth and in and out of the country.

REMNICK: You went to Russia to work on the Russian version of Utopia. Personally I found that in a country where nothing is allowed, everything matters, whereas in the West, anything goes and nothing matters. The last time I was in Moscow, I was in a supermarket and I actually heard over the loudspeaker system, “The new edition of Gulag Archipelago is now being sold in Aisle Three.” And my face nearly fell off, because twenty years ago that would been an impossibility. So my question is, are you disappointed that anything goes in our culture?

STOPPARD: My sense is that the circle is never squared. Human nature is not good enough or constrained enough to take only the good out of the free market system and not the bad. I actually stole a line from someone, I forget who it was now, but I was having this conversation in England with a young, upper-class Marxist on Russia, --

REMNICK: Which are the only kind of Marxists in England.

STOPPARD: -- exactly, and he said, “In Russia, the lorry drivers all read Dostoevsky.” And this other friend of mine said, “But if pornography were available, . . .” [LAUGHTER]

REMNICK: It’s an interesting fact that the Russians in Coast of Utopia are precisely the kind of people that Russia doesn’t have today – liberals. What was the reaction in Russia to that part of the Utopia trilogy?

STOPPARD: They reacted in two different ways successively. I originally sent the script to the theatre which had done Arcadia, and the reaction I received was that it was too soon. They were sick of the characters before they even read the play. [LAUGHTER] The second reaction was much more receptive. It went from “Who does he think he is to tell us about our own people?” to, about four years later, a recognition of what the play was doing, and a sense of being grateful that someone was taking an interest in their history.

[Brief discussion about Hertzen/Gertzen’s alleged softness, “he’s out of fashion now,” “he was too hard for the liberals and too soft for the Communists,” and current Russian street names -- Hertzen Street named and re-named; “I was actually staying in a hotel on Belinsky Street.”]

STOPPARD: Russia is still a country where, if you think out loud, you can be murdered. This is happening to journalists. Playwrights, poets and novelists – they’re okay, because they no longer fill the truth-telling role they did on the old Russia. Today that role is filled by journalists. In a way, Solzhenitsyn was a journalist; he was hated because even though he was writing a novel, he was telling truth to history. Of course, his career was strange and in the end tragic. He told the truth when no one else told it, but after history turned turtle, he was looked on as a bit of a bore and a reactionary, the voice crying in the wilderness while a louder voice was proclaiming that the new BMW is coming to the showroom next week. I exaggerate, but once the country opened up, he was looked down on for his conservative nationalism.

REMNICK: He was never as hip as Havel.

STOPPARD: Havel happens to be one of my 20th-century heroes. I say that not just as a fellow Czech but because I admire his prose, his essays, and of all the writers who engaged with politics, he is the one who displayed the greatest consistency.

REMNICK: You wrote once [and he quotes a New York Times essay in which Stoppard claims to have no political viewpoint or agenda]. And yet currently you have written about history and politics in a ferociously committed way.

STOPPARD: Yes, I seem to have definitely outrun that statement. Does that have a date appended somewhere?

REMNICK: 1968.

STOPPARD: That was very early on, and I would say it was a conscious over-correction, given the politicized times. But the terms on which I wanted my writing to be valued have always been absolute ones, not relativistic. Personally, I’ve always loved newsprint. I love reading newspapers, and I have always loved reading them, ever since I was a teenager. I remember, when I was 15, I read a story about the Ray Robinson/Randolph Turpin fight, written by someone who was unknown in England called Red Smith, and the way he described Turpin getting knocked out was just seven words long, but I have never forgotten it. It was, “He zigged when he should have zagged.” [LAUGHTER] I would have given a lot to have written those words. I’d give a lot to have written “O to be in England, now that April’s here,” but not as much as “He zigged when he should have zagged.” [A 2005 essay by Stoppard on the subject can be found here.]

REMNICK: So did you grow up wanting to be Red Smith?

STOPPARD: No, I grew up wanting to be a foreign correspondent and live a glamorous life.

REMNICK: [darkly] That can be arranged. [LAUGHTER]

STOPPARD: [uh-oh] Great. [LAUGHTER]

REMNICK: There’s a plane leaving for Kabul at 10 . . . [LAUGHTER]

STOPPARD: I was rather hoping to be the St. Tropez correspondent actually. [LAUGHTER]

REMNICK: When you’ve cited your influences, there are names which come up that one does not ordinarily associate with you, in terms of your work. John Osborne, for instance.

STOPPARD: When talking about influences, one has to separate what it does to one, reading the work, seeing the work, from what it makes one want to write like. There are many playwrights whom I like, and you must excuse my fuzz-headedness, I can’t think of any names at the moment, but that doesn’t mean I want to emulate them. There’s Havel, of course. When I was given Memorandum and The Wedding Party to read, I said to myself, “Now that’s the stuff.” And there’s a play I reviewed years ago called Next Time I’ll Sing To You by James Saunders, which was very good. When it comes to one’s own work, the whole question of influence is one that doesn’t matter. It’s like saying, “How can I possibly like the works of Harold Pinter, since he doesn’t write anything like the way I do?”

REMNICK: Talking about influences, who would you cite as those in your life which gave you permission to write like Tom Stoppard?

STOPPARD: Your premise is wrong. One does not obtain permission to write in one’s own style. One writes what one writes because of who one is. In my case, it came out the way it came out, and if nobody had liked it, well, there you are.

REMNICK: How would you describe the London theatre scene versus the New York theatre scene?

STOPPARD: I’m not comfortable here. There’s a certain pressure to succeed. Everything has to be good – the collaboration has to be good, the work has to be good, the run has to be good. And I don’t feel that in London. I don’t feel that the West End is capitalism the way that Broadway is capitalism.

REMNICK: Do you feel that there’s a stronger element of good work in London as opposed to New York?

STOPPARD: No, there’s a stronger sense of, for example, the importance of advertising; the constant blood pressure of how are we doing – how are we doing tonight, how are we doing this week versus last week, how are we doing for the run? In London, frankly, I never know that because I never ask. I would say that, yes, there are devoted professionals in both places, but here, you are all in this tent where you are judged by a success ethic. Here there is more shame in failure than there is in London. But you can see them both slowly becoming the same thing, especially when you look at the proportion of musicals to so-called straight plays every year. And then of course what always happens statistically when one starts judging by numbers is that during a particular season, suddenly there are 8 straight plays when one has calculated the best possible average to be 3.7. [LAUGHTER]

REMNICK: So does the economic side of things drive you to write more screenplays?

STOPPARD: I get offered a lot of things to write, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m interested. Having an opinion is not the same as having an idea for a play. Recently I haven’t been able to think of what to write next. I’m never happy when I’m not writing, so I said, “All right, I will write the screenplay of Arcadia and direct it myself,” and I had some interest in that and started working on it, and literally three days later I received a call from the BBC asking me if I would be interested in adapting a series of 1920’s novels for them. I’m not going to go into any more detail than that, because I believe in bad karma, but it’s a project in which I’m very interested, and I’m having a great deal of fun working on it.

REMNICK: So you’re not going to be writing the next Indiana Jones movie? [LAUGHTER]

STOPPARD: I had involvement in only one Indiana Jones movie. That came about because Sean Connery said, “Cripes, look at what they’ve got me saying. Can we get Tom to do some of the dialogue here?” And when I came on board and started writing for Sean, Harrison said, “Jesus, if he’s doing his dialogue, . . .” [LAUGHTER] So I did a great deal of writing, some of which is actually in the picture. [LAUGHTER]

REMNICK: Can you give us an example?

STOPPARD: I think that strange bridge thing at the end is mine. The bridge that doesn’t look like it’s there? That was mine. That’s the beauty of working with people who have a great deal of money. One comes up with these crazy ideas, and they can actually afford to create them. [LAUGHTER]

REMNICK: Final question. [Groans from the audience] Would you say this is a rich time for American playwriting?

STOPPARD: I wish I was in a position to say yes, I’ve seen a lot of new plays lately. What I am aware of is that there are far more small stages today than there were years ago, and the new play, the good new play, is still somehow the animal most of them are trying to catch. It’s a reciprocal chicken and egg machine. And I am blathering now.

REMNICK: Which seem like a good place to stop. Thank you.

STOPPARD: Thank you.


Candy said...

Thanks for this Matthew. Very interesting.

pamelab52 said...

Fascinating. He really is a chatterbox and charming too-- thanks for the llink.