I first experienced Tom Stoppard's play The Real Thing as a teenager. At the time, I remember thinking: "Wow. Is this a grown-up's explanation of what real love is like? Is Tom Stoppard tearing away the Disney-version of romance and happily ever after? Are these the sorts of relationships I will be having when I am in my 30s and 40s? Is this the REAL THING?
Fortunately, my personal life did not emulate the lives of Max, Charlotte, Henry, and Annie. However, like it or not, Stoppard's play is a much more real take on love than what can be found in typical Hollywood romances that end with a kiss and fade to black.
A Brilliant Opening Twist
Forgive me for spoiling some of the surprise of the play's beginning. But if you haven't seen The Real Thing and you are disappointed with the following spoiler material, just remind yourself that the play was first published in 1982, and you really have had sufficient time to watch the play. There, I said it.
The Real Thing begins with a male character stoically building a house of cards. His wife enters, the cards fall down, and he dryly asks where she has been. The wife claims that she has just gotten back from Switzerland. The husband suspects that she is cheating on him. Instead of expresses rage or desperation, the husband exhibits a very wry sense of humor, asking if she is sleeping with more than one person. ("Do they work together, like the Marx Brothers?"). She neither confirms or denies the accusations, but decides to leave. And still, the husband betrays only a bemused sort of attitude.
In the next scene, the audience learns that Scene One was actually a play within a play, written by the main character Max and starring his wife, Charlotte, and his actor friend Max. Such a twist early on puts the audience on guard (in a wonderful sort of way). We become suspicious. What is the "real thing" and what is fake?
The Plot Thickens
Apparently, the love between Henry and Charlotte isn't all that real. Or if it was, it's not love anymore. Max's wife Annie arrives and the audience discovers that Henry and Annie are having an affair. They contemplate when and if they should break the news to their spouses. This is the sort of play where tangled webs are weaved, and yet at the same time, the stakes never seem terribly high. For example, in between all of the adulterous subversiveness, Henry is fixated on which songs to present during a radio appearance on Desert Island Disks. In fact, he seems more passionate about his music tastes than the state of his marriage.
But of course, that seems to be Stoppard's point. These characters, just like everyday people, focus on the things they have control over: Which records are my favorite? What should my next play be about? When it comes to love, one loses control. One falls victim to the whims of his lover.
Writing and Cricket Bats
One of the best parts of the play has nothing to do with romantic entanglements. It's when Stoppard's characters debate about great literature versus literary garbage. Annie wants to help a young (not to mention handsome and mysterious) activist get out of jail by enlisting Henry to polish up the activist's autobiographic screenplay. Henry refuses vehemently at first. And then he launches into a tirade comparing literary brilliance to whacking a ball with a cricket bat.
HENRY: What we're trying to do is write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might... travel.
But other characters such as Annie and Henry's clever daughter Debbie feel that Henry over-values the importance of high art in literature. Annie believes that Henry is bigoted when it comes to writing. She states, "You judge everything as though everyone starts off from the same place, aiming at the same prize. English Lit. Shakespeare out in front by a mile, and the rest of the field strung out behind trying to close the gap." Not quite as upset, Debbie feels that her father's plays aren't about deep important themes or symbols, but rather entertaining stories about characters who may or may not be cheating on each other.