Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, it encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. For the third year, here is our #ReadaPlayaWeek initiative. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.
Week 31: Tom Stoppard’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1977)
This month, we’re seeing the pre-London tour of Pinter’s No Man’s Land with Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart in Sheffield. Later this month, Belarus Free Theatre opens the world premiere of Burning Doors, a play about about artists’ freedom in Russia, at our local theatre, Leicester’s Curve. Therefore I thought I’d revisit Stoppard’s play which originally starred McKellan and Stewart and is about political prisoners and the repression of art.
The play’s title refers to the method used to teach children how to play the piano, inspiring thoughts of teaching, reward, structures, rules and the freedom of music. Stoppard’s tightly written, clever and funny satire on the stupidity and hypocrisy of authoritarian regimes criticises the readiness of the Soviet practice to treat political protest as mental illness.
One strand of the plot focuses on two men in a cell, both with the same name. One, who we know as Alexander (McKellan), is a political prisoner for criticising the government, but the doctors see his problem as a mental one. All he needs to do is apologise and say he is ‘cured’ and he will be freed, but he refuses to do so instead choosing to go on hunger strike. The other one, Ivanov, is in fact mad. He thinks he can always hear an orchestra despite the doctor (Stewart) trying to convince him that there is not one. However, this is contradicted by there being a full size orchestra on stage (original music was by André Previn) in which the Doctor plays the violin.
Music is brilliantly used as a metaphor for liberation and repression, similar to Ronald Harwood’s Taking Sides about the American interrogation of musicians in occupied post-war Nazi Germany. But here, the addition of a live orchestra means that we literally see and hear artistic liberation on stage. We see the order and hierarchies of an orchestra and how it involves a group of people working together. We are told by the Doctor that there is no orchestra but we know there is, thus we question who is mad. Authoritarian figures that speak in coded language are bunched together as strict, restraining and stupid people, from colonels and prison officers to teachers, doctors and nurses. There’s a funny twist at the end which satisfies both of the prisoners without giving in to the authorities. It’s such a well-written and playful piece of theatre and perhaps a good play to have in mind before seeing Burning Doors.