Tom Stoppard

The playwright will not be hacking his iPhone anytime soon.

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ILLSTRATION, ROB KELLY

The last time Tom Stoppard was on Broadway—with the eight-hour, three-part Russian epic The Coast of Utopia—the play was so dense that The New York Times actually printed a list of 11 books (Pushkin! Gogol!) under the heading REQUIRED PRETHEATER READING.

The last time Tom Stoppard was on Broadway—with the eight-hour, three-part Russian epic The Coast of Utopia—the play was so dense that The New York Times actually printed a list of 11 books (Pushkin! Gogol!) under the heading REQUIRED PRETHEATER READING. Stoppard replied with a 76-word letter to the editor that ended with this directive: "Come as you are; you'll be fine." Stoppard's latest play, Rock 'n' Roll, is no less dense—among other things, it concerns the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution—but it's a lot more fun, if for no other reasons than it concludes in one evening and it's set to the music of the Rolling Stones and Syd Barrett. The biggest surprise: The play may do for the Czech rock band Plastic People of the Universe what Coast of Utopia did for Turgenev. We spoke with the 70-year-old playwright by phone minutes after he returned to his London home from a trip to Moscow.

When Coast of Utopia hit, bookstores were suddenly selling out of Russian thinkers. You're like Oprah! Is there one Plastic People of the Universe song we should check out?
Because the lyrics are in Czech, I'm a bit stuck when people ask. They used to do cover versions in the early days that were fairly horrible. Milan Hlavsa started the band. He couldn't play the guitar. He kept listening to things like Jimi Hendrix. And he was about to throw the guitar away when he heard the Velvet Underground. He thought, This I can do! They got a lot better then.

Do you own an iPod?
I write with a fountain pen. Everything I've got here is old-fashioned. Try me next decade.

What are you listening to these days?
I love pop. I'm not a kind of aficionado of rock & roll in that narrower sense. When I was young, I remember seeing the Everly Brothers more than once.

This play feels, at times, like a critique of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
If I wanted to write a play which resonated with Iraq, I don't think I'd pick Czechoslovakia from 1968 to 1990. As you know, the fault lines nowadays have altered; they're not ideological, they're religious.

The story is about rebellion and rock & roll—which is to say, youth. But it's awfully expensive for that crowd.
I know... I don't even know what the price of the tickets is.

The better seats are $100.
On the other hand, I noticed in London that West End cinema tickets are ten pounds—and the actors aren't even there!

Why theater? What can it do that TV and movies can't?
All three of them can be very good, and they can be mediocre. I'm amazed that the theater still exists. It just seems anachronistic.

It's the immediacy, no?
So it seems. I don't have a sense of theater being in any way superior. But the idea that we actors have arrived to do this for you people on this night—it's a most wonderful, magical phenomenon when one really stands back and looks at it.

There's a rumor that you wrote a draft of The Bourne Ultimatum.
I wrote a script for [director] Paul Greengrass. Some of the themes are still mine—but I don't think there's a single word of mine in the film.

I don't think there's a single word in the film at all!
Well, yes. I'm having lunch with Paul this week, and I intend to rebuke him about that.

Where do you eat when you're in New York?
I'm a complete failure as a temporary New Yorker. I always get demoralized by New York and I go to rehearsal, thankfully, as a refuge. We tend to go to the restaurant which is convenient. If I'm working at Lincoln Center: Cafe Luxembourg. I've never been to a restaurant I don't like. I'm easy to please. A friend took me to a French outfit with hamburgers the size of a dollop coin which are full of foie gras. I've had nice food in New York. On the other hand, you know—a hamburger and fries is very satisfying after a hard day's work.

Rock 'n' Roll begins previews Fri 19 at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. See Theater.

 

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