All ‘Thing’ Considered

Tom Stoppard’s 1982 play ‘The Real Thing’ gets real about love ­— just not his personal life

June 13, 2013
Annie (Annie Purcell) and Henry (Teagle F. Bougere) argue about love.
Annie (Annie Purcell) and Henry (Teagle F. Bougere) argue about love.

Tom Stoppard, the 75-year-old British playwright responsible for 1966’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” 1993’s “Arcadia” and numerous screenplays, has found that people assume all sorts of things about him from his characters. It doesn’t help that “The Real Thing,” now at Studio Theatre, is about a playwright and his tangled love life. We got the chance to ask Stoppard about what’s real and what’s not in “The Real Thing.”

Is it frustrating when people interpret “The Real Thing” as autobiographical?
I don’t have that great a memory for what I was doing 30 years ago, but I remember I didn’t want [the play] to be about a playwright, because I didn’t want it to seem like I was writing some sort of memoir. I tried to write it as a play about a novelist and found I didn’t know how to do it. It’s not in any way an autobiographical play — except in Henry’s prejudices about music and English literature. It’s quite a self-revelatory play about love and literature, friendships and so on.

“The Real Thing” is often seen as a departure for you, a play about love after works that were more clever and had a lot of jokes and wordplay. Was that a conscious change?
I don’t think anybody sets out thinking, “Ooh, I’m going to write this kind of play this time, and I should show a bit more this or that.” I like writing dialogue, trying to keep a fictitious world alive. The one thing I don’t have is any real self-awareness about it. It’s irrelevant to what I do. It’s an aftereffect of what I do.

Has your writing changed with age?
Broadly speaking, when I began, I was less behind my own work than later. There wasn’t so much life behind the work, it was more off the top of my head.

You started your career as a journalist, and your writing has a certain objectivity. Do you try to advance certain viewpoints, or do you feel you should be objective somehow?
A lot of times I agree with a character, but usually I have the responsibility of providing the arguments and the words for whichever character is arguing with the first character. It’s almost the lifeblood of plays to have disagreement. It’s like ping pong, but I’m running around the table hitting the ball back to myself.

Backstory: Henry, a playwright (Teagle F. Bougere), tries to navigate his marriage as his notions of fidelity and loyalty are challenged by actress Annie. “The Real Thing” does have a lot of traditionally Stoppardian wordplay, but arguments about literature and the Everly Brothers rise above the academic as the characters try to figure out what love is (and how you know you’ve found it).

Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW; through June 30, $39-$72; 202-332-3300. (Dupont Circle)
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Rudi Greenberg | June 13, 2013