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Fellows Find: Scholar studies playwright Tom Stoppard's wit

Bill Demastes with Tom Stoppard outside London's Old Vic Theatre in 2010 at the opening night of the revival of Stoppard's "The Real Thing."
Bill Demastes with Tom Stoppard outside London's Old Vic Theatre in 2010 at the opening night of the revival of Stoppard's "The Real Thing."

Bill Demastes of Louisiana State University spent  June 2011 at the Ransom Center on a fellowship reviewing material from various collections, including the Tom Stoppard papers, for his forthcoming book, The Cambridge Introduction to Tom Stoppard. Demastes’s fellowship was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Endowment.

When playwright Tom Stoppard’s name comes up in conversation, most people will recognize him (with a little help) as the author of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and the (co)author of the award-winning movie Shakespeare in Love. People who follow live theater will recognize him as perhaps the most important (certainly the most successful) playwright alive today, a man who over the past five decades has dazzled the stage with such hits as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (his 1960s breakthrough play), Travesties, Jumpers, The Real Thing, Hapgood, Arcadia, and The Coast of Utopia. He is a word master, wit, comic genius, a man who juggles thought with feeling and provides rich entertainments that generate intellectual resonances for his audiences well after the theater goes dark.

I have been working on The Cambridge Introduction to Tom Stoppard (Cambridge University Press) for the past few years, increasingly realizing that no one short of Stoppard himself could capture the heart of Stoppard’s theater. When that point finally crystallized in my mind, I determined to come to the Ransom Center, home of the Tom Stoppard papers, looking for Stoppard’s own words to incorporate into my book. Over the month that I spent combing through letters, interviews, essays, and speeches, I found gem after gem. Throughout his writings, Stoppard uses peacocks crossing highways, fairies flitting over ponds, men listening to jazz on a radio, a bookstore, landscape gardening, a coin toss, tales from Wittgenstein and Feynman, a love of slapstick, rock-n-roll, and so much more unlikely material to illuminate such complexities as postmodernism, cognitive psychology, determinism, existentialism, nonlinear dynamics, particle physics, and love. Having so much of Stoppard’s writings in a center dedicated to preserving the written word in all its manifestations has made my job infinitely easier. It is for that that I thank the Ransom Center.

Writer: "Shakespeare in Love" screenplay shows Tom Stoppard's edits

Click image to enlarge. Early draft of the screenplay for 'Shakespeare in Love' by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, 1998.
Click image to enlarge. Early draft of the screenplay for 'Shakespeare in Love' by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, 1998.
Of all the elements of filmmaking, the screenplay is arguably the most important. It is also the element most debated, discounted, discarded, and arbitrated. More often than not, the screenplay is an adaptation of another work—a novel, play, news story, biography, or even another screenplay.

The screenplay expresses character and narrative and is therefore the focus of interpretation by the director, actors, and designers. Furthermore, the screenplay is the foundation on which all the other artists and technicians base their work. Whether a scene takes place indoors or outdoors, for example, may affect the sets the art director designs and builds and the clothes the costume designer creates for the characters to wear. A scene set at night will have implications for the cinematographer and might be played differently by the actor than a scene set during daylight hours. Special effects, exotic locations, and action scenes will also have implications for the budget, the shooting schedule, and for everyone on the production team. All these elements must be spelled out in the screenplay in order to budget, plan, and successfully incorporate them into the film.

In this early draft of Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s screenplay for Shakespeare in Love (1998), handwritten notes and edits by Stoppard are visible. Scripts from 16 films are featured in the exhibition.

This is just one item from the “Writer” section of the Making Movies exhibition, which runs through August 1 at the Ransom Center. Follow our RSS and Twitter feeds or become a fan on Facebook to see new items from the exhibition revealed each day for the next few weeks as part of “Script to Screen.”

For Central Texas readers, join us February 12 on the red carpet for a special opening celebration for the Making Movies exhibition. Details at www.hrc.utexas.edu/redcarpet.