Searching For The Real Thing

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In India, or anywhere in the world, there’s a certain set of classic plays you are supposed to admire if you are a playwright of any kind. I must admit I’ve never liked any of the plays that experts said I should like. In fact, here’s my summary of some of them, in one sentence, so you can be saved some precious hours of your life.

  1. Oedipus Rex- The moral lesson here is don’t try to marry your mother because if you do, you’ll eventually have to go blind.
  2. Death Of A Salesman- If you’ve lost your job as a salesman and are delusional, someone in your family should tell you and save the audience 3 hours.
  3. Six Characters in Search Of An Author- Note to authors. Don’t abandon your characters so they want to roam around and interrupt other people’s rehearsals.
  4. Waiting For Godot- We get it. Godot is not coming. It’s about the wait.
  5. Hamlet- If you’re a wronged Danish prince, stop talking to yourself. Just kill your uncle who you suspect of killing your dad, get some therapy, so we can all go home.

I remember the specific date on which I saw my favorite play on stage. It was the 23rd of March 2000, and it was a sort of first date. I don’t know why I wrote ‘sort of’ but suffice it is to say that I don’t remember the specific machinations of my private life those years, but I do remember every bit of the play.

I knew a bit about Tom Stoppard because he’d written Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a staple text in college dramatic literature syllabi. Like a lot of people pretending to be artists in their late teens, I told everyone, like a good pseudo intellectual would, that I loved Stoppard’s work when in reality I understood none of it. It had something to do with a play going on while Shakespeare’s Hamlet is going on in the background, which sounded like a clever idea but when you get into it, you realize you’re not clever enough to get it. However, the pay had a line of dialogue, which never left me. A character is asked, ‘Are you exclusively players sir?’ to which another character answers, ‘We are inclusively players sir, if you consider every exit to be an entrance somewhere else’.

A tremendously fun repartee even though its meaning was obtuse. What stayed with me though was the fact that one could have fun with characters on stage. Something I’d never seen before.

And that was it with me and Stoppard. Till that evening in 2000. Now graduated with a job, in my early twenties, on a faux romantic outing with a stranger, I saw Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing.

The Real Thing plays in London

The play was/is about a married playwright who has an affair. Told entirely through astounding wit as he leaves his ex-wife and proceeds to move in with his new lover. Both the women in his life are sharper than a sword when it comes to quick banter. You might say there isn’t anything new in wives and lovers – the worlds of Neil Simon and Woody Allen have explored this sort of thing with the ‘bedroom farce’. The difference here is that the witty banter isn’t there to service a lewd joke. It is to explore wholly, and  cruelly, the nature, and tumult, of love.

Take this monologue for example.

“The trouble is, I can’t find a part of myself where you’re not important. I write in order to be worth your while and to finance the way I want to live with you. Not the way you want to live. The way I want to live with you. Without you I wouldn’t care. I’d eat tinned spaghetti and put on yesterday’s clothes. But as it is I change my socks, and make money, and revise your friends’ unspeakable drivel into speakable drivel so you love me”.

Jennifer Ehle and Stephen Dillane

In the end, Stoppard finds, time and words, are all we have in understanding love. They, and not kisses and divorces and emojis, are the real thing.

The production I saw had Stephen Dillane as Henry the playwright, who later went on to play a Baratheon in The Game of Thrones. And (now famous Hollywood name) Jennifer Ehle played Annie, an actress who has the affair. During this production, they were relatively young and unknown, and I believed they were in love. The fact that we were in an artificial setting, with an audience, didn’t matter. All that melted away because I believed their exchange and them as people, which is often hard in the theatre. Especially, if say you’re watching Hamlet and the guy playing it has a sword and a helmet and you’re telling yourself I want to get immersed in this ‘to be or not to be’ stuff, but I can’t, because I don’t know anyone with a sword or helmet.

Jennifer Ehle
Jennifer Ehle

I was 22 and single when I saw The Real Thing, and that night, for that time, Henry and Annie gave me my first glimpse into love and marriage. Much more than life had. The original play was staged in 1982 with Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close and I suspect they would have imparted fewer lessons to me as I would have been six.

I also remember Henry spent a lot of the play, even as he went from one love to the next, wearing red socks.

The lady I was with didn’t quite like the play. She didn’t believe words and time are what sustain love, money and marriage did. I disagreed. We had a little chat about it on the steps outside my apartment and we never saw each other again. Last month, she popped up on my Facebook feed. Twenty years on, she has two children and lives in China. Not all time and words result in the Real Thing.

Also, the day after I saw the play, I went and bought a pair of red socks. The day after that, in a tiny room in a shared flat, I wrote the first words to my first play Chaos Theory which ended up being about professors and unrequited love. Neither of those things, nor life that happened subsequently, taught me as much as Henry and Annie did.

In 2018, I had a chance to interview Tom Stoppard at The Jaipur Literature Festival for a newspaper. He was quite frightened by how much I liked the play. And about what Henry and Annie had done to me. I asked him if he still believed The Real Thing had captured, more than any other dramatic work, the true nature of love. He leant forward, now withered in his 80’s but still quick as a leopard, and said, ‘I’m not sure but I just got married for the fourth time at 78, so maybe. I have to go now, she’s waiting. We don’t have much time’.

An interview with Tom Stoppard – YouTube 

The Real Thing is available to purchase on Amazon 

About Anuvab Pal

Anuvab Pal started his career as a playwright and is the author of a number of stage plays performed worldwide including: Chaos Theory (2001), Out Of Fashion (2002), Love, Love and EBITDA (2003), Fatwa (2004), The President Is Coming (2007), 1-888-Dial-India (2009) and The Bureaucrat (2010). He's spent the last decade traveling as a stand up comedian.

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