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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > August 2017 > Heartfelt high jinks

Heartfelt high jinks

Tom Stoppard has been astonishing audiences for 50 years with his dazzlingly cerebral and surprisingly moving plays, says Andrew Dickson

Interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme in July, Tom Stoppard admitted he was stuck for what to write next. Brexit, Donald Trump, the election result, the Grenfell Tower fire: it was too much to process. “Art is somehow so overshadowed by real events,” he sighed. “Every time I blink, there’s a play begging to be written. But not always does it feel like a play by me.”

It is a tantalising question of how this most inventive of writers might respond to the events of the last 12 months. But one of the striking things about Stoppard’s career—now, as he begins his eighties, nearly 60 years long—is that inspiration strikes him in unlikely ways. It’s hard to think of another playwright who would write a spy thriller based on Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (1988’s Hapgood) or a drama that calls for a symphony orchestra (1977’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favour). Had anyone else pitched a two-act comedy about logical positivism, the script would most likely have ended up in the slush pile rather than at the National Theatre. Yet in 1972, with Jumpers, Stoppard not only pulled off the trick, but took it triumphantly to Broadway.

Tom Stoppard: “Every time I blink, there’s a play waiting to be written”

It is sometimes said of Stoppard’s work that it is all head and no heart; that his fascination with verbal high jinks and conceptual fireworks doesn’t mine the deepest truths about human existence. Yet few writers have engaged so passionately with the big issues of our time—faith, politics, revolution—or pushed the boundaries of theatre so far. And in a period of nervy global uncertainty, perhaps a few high jinks are what we need.

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In Prospect’s August issue: Adam Tooze, Helen Thompson, Ben Chu, Julian Baggini, Tom Clark and Hepzibah Anderson reveal the secret history of the banking crisis and its impact over the last decade. Tooze examines the secret history itself, suggesting the work done to repair the world’s finances could mean another crisis is just around the corner. Chu asks why more people at the top of the banks that failed haven’t faced more serious repercussions, and Anderson shows how post-crash Britain has retreated into cosiness. Elsewhere in the issue Alison Wolf asks whether universities are doing any good, and David Goldblatt explores how the decision to take football off free-to-view television in Argentina could backfire for the government. Also in this issue: Kasia Boddy asks why writers are still addicted to watching boxing despite falling viewing figures, Andrew Dickson profiles Tom Stoppard, Stephen Bush explains how Jeremy Corbyn learned to compromise and David Omand outlines the cyber-security challenges facing the UK and the wider world.