"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
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I remember the night I fell in love with Tom Stoppard. He seduced me with shimmering language, ideas that revved my mind, and emotions that expanded my heart and left me breathless. Back in the spring of 1995, as I sat through a preview performance of his “Arcadia” in its U.S. premiere run at Lincoln Center, in New York, I was utterly his.
Who else could commingle chaos theory and carnal embraces — his characters positing that sexual attraction may be the one variable Newton left out and contemplating the “action of bodies in heat” — with such dexterity?
He waltzed through time with enviable ease, guiding characters and parallel ideas with a sure hand. The audience sat rapt, working hard to keep up — afraid to miss a key idea in the fast play of words. Yet “Arcadia’s” Septimus offers comfort: “We shed as we pick up,” he says of our collective desire to learn and understand, “like travelers who carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind.”
Stoppard provided no answers, but rather posed question upon question, allowing his characters to hold each one up to the light and watch the insights glance off its facets. “It’s wanting to know that makes us matter,” “Arcadia’s” Hannah says of life’s unanswerable quandaries. “Otherwise we go out the way we came in.”
I emerged at the end not at all the way I’d come in. Whole chunks of the audience walked out mid-play, not yet told by critics how to react and frustrated by its challenges. But others picked up the ideas that Stoppard had shed.
New York Times theater critic Vincent Canby said “Arcadia” was “like a dream of levitation: you’re instantaneously aloft, soaring, banking, doing loop-the-loops and then, when you think you’re about to plummet to earth, swooping to a gentle touchdown of not easily described sweetness and sorrow.”
And while some reviewers complained about the play’s abundance of words and flashiness of ideas (a frequent criticism of Stoppard), San Francisco Examiner critic Robert Hurwitt gushed, “If ideas were flesh and all conception carnal, Tom Stoppard would be the sexiest writer of the modern stage.”
“Arcadia,” in which Stoppard allowed himself to mine human emotions more deeply than ever before, was but one highlight in the playwright’s long career writing for the theater, film and TV. For the last four decades, Stoppard has filled the theater world with clever wordplay, big ideas and palpable passion.
Thus far, he has turned out some 22 plays — including the Tony-Award winning “The Real Thing,” and “Travesties”; 10 adaptations and translations of works by Anton Chekhov, Federico García Lorca and Vaclav Havel; myriad television and radio plays; and a novel, “Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon.” His screenplays include “Brazil,” co-written with Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown; “Empire of the Sun,” based on the J.G. Ballard novel; and “Shakespeare in Love,” the Oscar-winning screenplay written with Marc Norman.
Whether on stage, screen or simply page, Stoppard questions everything from the nature of love to the nature of the universe, from the compulsion to act to the compulsion to act out, from the impulse to create to the impulse to procreate. And while absolutes are scant in Stoppard’s work, interrogatives and insights abound. “What a fine persecution — to be kept intrigued without ever quite being enlightened,” observes Guildenstern in Stoppard’s 1966 breakthrough effort “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.”
Stoppard’s work invariably demands much from its audiences — head, heart, libido — and credits them with the capacity to learn. They must come prepared to laugh and to ponder the gravest of thoughts. If they do, they will find themselves not just intrigued and enlightened, but also moved and enlivened, with all their switches flicked on and buzzing.
Although Stoppard’s language and imagery are exquisitely British, he was born Tomas Straussler in Czechoslovakia on July 3, 1937. His father, Eugene Straussler, worked as an in-house doctor for the Bata shoe manufacturing company. In 1939, his family — Jewish, though Tom wouldn’t know to what degree until years later — fled the country of his birth just before the Nazis invaded. Settling in Singapore with his father, his mother, Martha, and his older brother, Tomas attended an English convent school until 1942, when the Japanese invaded Singapore and he was evacuated to India with his mother and brother. His father was taken to a Japanese prison camp, where he died.
The rest of the family found its way to Darjeeling, India, where Martha found a job with Bata. Tomas was sent to an American-run multiracial boarding school. But in late 1945, Martha wed Kenneth Stoppard, a major in the British army, who shared his surname with his new stepsons and moved the family to England with him after the war. Dispatched to boarding schools in Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire, Stoppard found relative stability. Although the family moved around a bit before settling in Bristol in 1950, Stoppard has said the main features of his schoolboy years were “a privileged education, a lovely house, acres of parkland.”
With adolescence, Stoppard grew restless. In 1954, at age 17, he found himself “bored by the idea of anything intellectual.” So he dropped out of school, moved in with his folks and got himself a job as a junior reporter at Bristol’s Western Daily Press. Within two years he was writing feature stories, but he calls his early journalism “indefatigably facetious” and self-referential.
Nevertheless, in 1958, the Bristol Evening World offered Stoppard a position as a feature writer, humor columnist and second-string drama critic, which brought him into the world of theater. At the Bristol Old Vic, in those days an extremely well-regarded regional repertory company, Stoppard formed friendships with actor Peter O’Toole and director John Boorman, early in their careers. And Stoppard himself became something of a notorious figure in Bristol, known more for his strained attempts at humor and exceedingly unstylish clothes (rock-star good looks notwithstanding) than for his writing.
Stoppard was, he told the New York Times in 1972, “an awful critic. I operated on the assumption that there was an absolute scale of values against which art could be measured. I didn’t trust my own subjective responses.” Stoppard longed, it seemed, to write for the theater rather than about it. And so, in 1960, after celebrating his 23rd birthday, he quit his newspaper job (though he did arrange a columnist gig to fall back on), and set about accomplishing his goal. Three months later, he’d written his first full-length play, “A Walk on the Water.”
It was a play of its time, like the work of so many other “angry young men,” inspired by John Osborne’s “Look Back in Anger,” which had caused a sensation in 1956. “In England at that time seven out of 10 who wanted to write were writing plays,” Stoppard recalled in a 1977 interview. “Of these, four would be carbon copies of ‘Look Back in Anger,’ and the other three of ‘Waiting for Godot.’”
His own first work, he says, owed so much to Robert Bolt’s “Flowering Cherry” and Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” that he has since been moved to dub it “Flowering Death of a Cherry Salesman.” No matter, less than a week after Stoppard sent “A Walk on the Water” to an agent, he received “one of those Hollywood-style telegrams that change struggling young artists’ lives.” The play was optioned and was later staged in Hamburg and aired on British Independent Television.
Around that same time, Stoppard moved to London and began working as a drama critic for the short-lived Scene magazine. He tried his hand at other forms of writing, including short stories, radio plays (several of which were produced) and short television pieces. But Stoppard recalls being told by one TV exec that he should “stick to theater.” That, as it turned out, agreed with Tom. “I wanted to be in the theater,” he writes in the introduction to a collection of his works for the small screen. “It is simply the way I felt.”
In 1964, a Ford Foundation grant allowed Stoppard to spend five months writing in a Berlin mansion. He emerged with a one-act verse play called “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Meet King Lear.” This evolved into Stoppard’s first big theatrical hit, the full-length absurdist romp “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” a comic retelling of “Hamlet” from the perspective of two of its minor characters.
When “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” was first performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August 1966, Stoppard felt it was received “politely rather than with hilarity.” But the play attracted the notice of critics. This led to a National Theatre production in 1967, under the supervision of Sir Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Tynan, which in turn brought Stoppard, then the youngest playwright to have had his work mounted at the National, glowing notices and a bevy of prestigious awards.
It also brought him a New York production seven months later. A few critics sniffed that the play was derivative, drawing strongly not only from “Hamlet” but also from Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” with dashes of Pirandello. But most critics lauded the work, which scintillates with Stoppard’s signature clever wordplay and quick-cut banter:
Ros: I want to go home.
Guil: Don’t let them confuse you.
Ros: I’m out of my step here —
Guil: We’ll soon be home and high — dry and home — I’ll —
Ros: It’s all over my depth —
Guil: — I’ll hie you home and —
Ros: — out of my head —
Guil: — dry you high and —
Ros (cracking, high): — over my step over my head body! — I tell you it’s all stopping to a death, it’s boding to a depth, stepping to a head, it’s all heading to a dead stop —
Guil (the nursemaid): There! … and we’ll soon be home and dry … and high and dry … (Rapidly.) Has it ever happened to you that all of a sudden and for no reason at all you haven’t the faintest idea how to spell the word — “wife” — or “house” — because when you write it down, you just can’t remember ever having seen those letters in that order before …?
The New Yorker called “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” “a dazzling compassionate fantasy.” It won both the Tony and the Drama Critics’ Circle awards for best play of 1967-68.
Stoppard spent the next few years enjoying his success and overseeing productions of “Enter a Free Man” (the reworked version of “A Walk on the Water”) and the one-acts “The Real Inspector Hound,” “After Magritte” and “Dogg’s Our Pet,” as well as a few works for radio and TV, but he didn’t produce another full-length play until “Jumpers,” in early 1972. The play, which tackles ethical questions, took him two years to write, much of which he spent reading and researching. He sought to ensure that his insights “weren’t simply the average conclusions of a first-year philosophy student,” he told the Times of London in 1972, “which indeed they invariably turned out to be.”
Colleagues compare Stoppard’s relatively slow writing speed to that of a student cramming for an exam, and he himself admits that his process is anything but effortless, as he once told Time magazine:
I half commit myself to some distant future date. I often talk to someone about it and suggest that in six months it will be done, so I set up a kind of deadline. But most of the intervening period disappears in a kind of anxious state of walking about. You cannot start until you know what you want to do, and you do not know what you want to do until you start. That is Catch-22. Panic breaks that circle. Finally a certain force in the accumulated material begins to form a pattern.
Stoppard, who has been married twice and has four sons, two from each marriage, says he works best when his personal life is stable and serene. But he wrote “Jumpers” during the breakup of his first marriage, to nurse Jose Ingle (whom he married in 1965, separated from in 1970 and divorced in 1972). The playwright got custody of the couple’s young sons and married again in 1972, this time to Miriam Moore-Robinson, the head of a pharmaceutical company and something of a U.K. celebrity in her own right; the two divorced in 1992.
“Jumpers,” which wittily explores man’s place in a universe beyond his control, was mounted at the Old Vic in late 1972. It cemented Stoppard’s theatrical reputation and proved he was more than a one-trick pony. The radio play “Artist Descending a Staircase” followed later that year, introducing two themes to which Stoppard has returned over the years: the elusive nature of truth and the purpose of art.
With “Travesties” (1974), Stoppard began to address the role of politics in art. This was a departure for the playwright, a self-described conservative who had always striven to exclude politics from his plays for fear it cheapened the work. His plays, he wrote at the time, “must be entirely untouched by any suspicion of usefulness. I should have the courage of my lack of convictions.”
Nevertheless, both of Stoppard’s next two plays, “Every Good Boy Deserves Favor” (written with Andre Previn) and “Professional Foul,” addressed human-rights issues. The latter focused on freedom of speech in Czechoslovakia, reflecting the fact that each play is a product not just of its time, but of a particular time in the playwright’s life. In 1977, Stoppard traveled to the Soviet Union and several Eastern European countries with a member of Amnesty International. In Czechoslovakia, he met playwright and future president Vaclav Havel, who had been imprisoned for nonconformism. Struck by what he saw, he subsequently worked with “Index on Censorship,” Amnesty International and the Committee Against Psychiatric Abuse, and he began to write newspaper articles and editorials about human rights.
Around this time, Stoppard’s work shed some of its self-consciousness and explored more deeply his characters’ emotions — though he continued to plumb morality, art and other ideas. His play “Night and Day” (1978) tackled the moral responsibilities and practical shortcomings of a free press. “The Real Thing,” first performed in 1982 and generally considered one of Stoppard’s best works, took on love, commitment and the place of art in society.
With “Hapgood” (1988), Stoppard melds the drama of a spy story with … physics. A double agent is like an electron, Stoppard posits, because trying to find out one’s side changes the results. Clearly, Stoppard’s dramatic exploration of wave/particle duality paved the way for his next big hit, “Arcadia,” which opened in London in 1993.
In his latest play, “The Invention of Love,” currently enjoying a successful run on Broadway, he delves deeper than ever into the personal implications of love. The play centers on A.E. Housman, the homosexual English poet and scholar who died in the ’30s, never having allowed himself to fulfill the unrequited love of his youth. Stoppard sets Housman’s temperate life against that of his contemporary, Oscar Wilde, who was tormented and reviled for his homosexuality, but who allowed himself to love at all costs. No matter that the two Victorian authors very likely never met.
“It’s a dream play, so it’s not literal biography,” Stoppard recently commented. Wilde proposes that “one falls in love with somebody whom one has helped invent,” Stoppard explains, adding that he himself is “not sure” he agrees with the contention that has inspired the play’s title.
And herein lies an element of Stoppard’s genius: Refusing to offer you a single pat lesson spoken by a character who serves as the play’s moral authority, Stoppard requires his audience members to piece together their own conclusions. “I write plays because writing dialogue is the only respectable way of contradicting yourself,” he has said. “I put a position, rebut it, refute the rebuttal, and rebut the refutation.”
But above all, Stoppard never loses sight of the play’s obligation to entertain. His comedies may “make serious points by flinging a custard pie around the stage for a couple of hours,” but he’s ever mindful that theater is “first and foremost a recreation.”
So as you laugh, you learn. As you listen, you question. And as you stretch your mind, you may feel something akin to love.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)