Knock! Tom Stoppard Writes a Cricket Bat

As I was saying about Tom Stoppard: Few people would deny he’s a clever sausage, including Tom Stoppard. Cleverness is the calling card of Mr. Stoppard’s alter ego, Henry, portrayed brilliantly by Stephen Dillane in the champagne revival of The Real Thing at the Ethel Barrymore Theater on Broadway. I enjoyed the play immensely; I always do. And so–I’ll take bets–will you.

We must all give ourselves a well-deserved rest from worrying about the metaphorical significance of transvestite impersonators of Mae West in Dirty Blonde and relish Mr. Stoppard’s superior fun and games with far more important matters, such as the metaphorical significance of cricket.

The Real Thing is, of course, about many real and imaginary things, including the illusory nature of love, fidelity and theater. But one subject it is unequivocally, dogmatically clear about is the great English game of cricket. Cricket is the real thing, and it is absolutely central to the play itself. Mr. Stoppard’s Henry actually builds a philosophy of playwriting around it.

“Are you trying to be funny?” asks Henry’s wife, Annie.

“No, I’m serious,” he replies, and indeed he is.

One cannot be frivolous about cricket. Americans, viewing the game as an incomprehensible form of baseball, have always been confused by its felicities; the Irish, too. “The English,” wrote George Bernard Shaw, “are not a very spiritual people so they invented cricket to give them some idea of eternity.” True, but that only proves how enjoyably Stoppardian the Shavian can be. Who else but the English would invent a national sport that stops for lunch and tea? It also stops for rain. Rain is good. It creates more time for lunch and tea. “Rain stopped play,” goes the traditional announcement, which is received by the English with the serenity of the meteorologists who told us so. Cricket ought to be a civilized waiting game. Traditionally, it abolishes all sense of time. “Cricket is a process, not a sport; seepage rather than drama; a summer’s dawdle akin to a picnic or a garden party,” wrote the novelist Paul West. “To ask it to be crisp and spectacular is like asking an oyster to sing the role of Faust.”

Our point, precisely. No sane person would dream of asking an oyster to do any such thing. Cricket isn’t just cricket. It is a social history of England. Cricket was old when the Tudors were young. We know that Englishmen played cricket as well as bowls at the time the Spanish Armada was sighted. The word cricket itself is a diminutive of “cric,” a cric or curved staff, a shepherd’s staff. Moses was a keen cricketer, I hear. Which is where Mr. Stoppard and, indeed, the cricket-loving Harold Pinter, enter the story.

In the tradition of Lord Byron, who played cricket for Harrow, England’s two leading dramatists are mad about the game. Mr. Stoppard plays for Harold Pinter’s team, or used to, and I once saw him in a friendly Sunday game that Mr. Pinter, meticulous in his whites, umpired with the gravity of a bishop. Duty compels me to report that Mr. Stoppard was a little flashy with the bat, though a pleasing risk-taker who scored more than a few that day. I regret that I was too preoccupied enjoying tea to see him bowl (or pitch, if you must), but I cannot imagine him going for the overheated drudgery of the long run that leads laboriously to a cricketing fastball. He would go for the deceptive slow spin or killing googly–the equivalent of the curveball, only better. To be bamboozled by a googly makes you a doozy.

But Mr. Pinter–who names his characters after English cricketers–puts all in perspective. “I tend to believe that cricket is the greatest thing that God ever created on earth,” he has said in his understated way. “Certainly greater than sex, although sex isn’t too bad either. But everyone knows which comes first when it’s a question of cricket or sex–all discerning people recognize that. Anyway, you can either have sex before cricket or after cricket. The fundamental fact is that cricket must be there at the center of things. To put my cards on the table, I must also say that cricket means England to me.”

The Real Thing is a very English play. I mean in its expertly relaxed banter that camouflages real feeling. Pirandello is an influence, but the hero’s flippant ironies masking pain are Mr. Stoppard’s spin on Noël Coward. “What’s so good about putting words together?” asks Henry’s exasperated wife. “It’s traditionally considered advantageous for a writer,” replies Henry.

But the Englishness of Henry’s cricket lesson isn’t glib, but passionate. Henry’s wife, Annie, has asked his opinion of a novice play by a working-class political activist named Brodie. She’s one of his supporters. Henry demolishes the play.

“Shut up and listen,” he says, fetching his cricket bat. “This thing here, which looks like a wooden club, is actually several pieces of particular wood cunningly put together in a certain way so that the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor. It’s for hitting cricket balls with. If you get it right, the cricket ball will travel 200 yards in four seconds, and all you’ve done is give it a knock, like knocking the top off a bottle of stout, and it makes a noise like a trout taking a fly [he clucks his tongue to make the noise]. What we’re trying to do is write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might … travel.”

He then gives a wickedly funny impression of the fledgling playwright Brodie with a lump of wood “trying to be a cricket bat.”

“And if you hit a ball with it,” he adds, “the ball will travel about 10 feet and you will drop the bat and dance about shouting, ‘Ouch!’ with your hands stuck in your armpits.” Because, Henry is saying, the man can’t write. He hasn’t the talent. He can’t write cricket bats.

Mr. Stoppard weights the argument against the opposition, of course. Which isn’t, as the English say, quite cricket. The amateur Brodie–”a lout with language”–is easy prey for our lordly Tom. But Mr. Stoppard’s enjoyable intellectual snobbery reminds me of G.M. Trevelyan’s observation that if the French noblesse had been capable of playing cricket with their peasants, their châteaux would never have been burnt.

And the world would have been spared the Tour de France. Not that Mr. Stoppard’s château is about to be burned down any time soon. It’s too well fortified with cricket bats. But some of us would argue that the playwriting game needn’t be cricket at all. It could be more what the unpolished, un-Stoppardian Brodie might have had in mind in The Real Thing –namely, the blood and dirt and dangerous art of English rugby. But my guide to the great contact sport of English rugby must wait for another week when I shall be examining the hidden significance of croquet in the collected works of David Hare.