Last night I saw the new production of Tom Stoppard’s play, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour. It was sensorially spectacular. The play features a nice big orchestra on stage, whose performance is integral to the play, and the lighting was truly stunning (the artistic director was from Punchdrunk productions). As you may expect, it is clever writing, with the wordplay representing the usual range of brilliant, multi-layered language through to [deliberately?] irritating punning. Stoppard’s physical language is as playful and considered as his verbal, and EGBDF is fun to watch for sure, with members of the orchestra getting up to join in the action, getting beaten up, and all sorts of other fun and japes going on round the revolving stage of the Olivier theatre.
The play explores freedom of conscience. It is set in communist Russia in the second half of the 20th century, and follows the protest of a political prisoner banged up in a mental asylum. His cellmate is genuinely insane, believing he has an orchestra playing music (in his head). Conformity is inherent in music, whether it be orchestral musicians playing in concert, conformity to the well-tempered scale, or notes toeing the lines of a stave (aptly described by the mnemonic and title of this play). The tense discordant music performed by the orchestra complements the action and themes well. In the vein of the late-Romantic and atonal movements, it strains against the established tonality of western culture. How apt for a play about an individual’s struggle for liberty in a totalitarian state?
There is not much drama in the play in terms of tension and inner development of the characters. It is a feature of post-modernism that plays do remain in a frustrated impasse, trapped within their own literary confines. Stoppard’s plays do often move towards a subtle climax, however, and there is a sort of denouement here, turning on one of those idiosyncratic touches of fortune. I am just not sure there is enough to make it a thoroughly enthralling experience to which I would want to return.
My problem with the play is how dated it feels. It does not go any further than 1984 and even references the novel in its central expression (“one plus one is always two” references Orwell’s statement in 1984 that “freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four”). But the era of communist oppression is gone. The threat to liberties nowadays comes from very different elements of our culture and collective psychology. I think that if were to recommend a piece of literature about the individual in the state and freedom of conscience, it would not be EGBDF. 1984 is more powerful, more sad, more gripping, more terrifying, and (surprisingly as it was written in 1948) more relevant to the twenty-first century.