I always get a smidge nervous reviewing short works and book club choices. This one is both. Exciting times friends!
My immediate takeaway when I finished was that it may be too absurdist for me. But that doesn’t quite grasp the idea I was after. From my limited experience with Stoppard, he is always playing with words, playing with meaning, playing with intent, and has no problem (perhaps prefers) to have his characters speaking at cross purposes. What that does to a reader is leave them with a sense of whiplash and “what the heck just happened?” Or at least, that’s what happens when that reader is me.
The Real Inspector Hound is about theatre, critics, reality, and fate. Or it is just a play about two people sitting around waiting for something to happen, like that other one. This is early Stoppard, and I found his introduction to my edition most edifying about his process and what we received as a result. He had bits and pieces of dialogue between the characters who would become Moon and Birdfoot, but they had no purpose. He would come back to it over the years and eventually the device of the body on stage, and that body being Higgs catalyzed Stoppard into its completion. Which makes sense to me that we ramble about a bit and then land on an ending.
But that ending doesn’t mean a great deal on its own, nor does it really resolve anything. We are still left without firm footing about who each of these characters are, or even if Higgs is really dead. I don’t think we know who anyone in the play is at all, making the “real” in the title a red herring. It’s a similar play on words to “Absolutely True” in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian.
As we move from the word play of our critiques and their supercilious language and self-absorptions, to the play within the play which is riffing on any number of genres, there is a moment where the characters have already been pulled into the maelstrom of events. It probably happens before the play begins, but there’s really no way to know for sure. The character motivations and choices that had led them to this moment and we’re off. Without Higgs’ dead body on stage, there’s no reason for Moon to be there miscommunicating with Birdboot, without Birdboot’s fascination with leading ladies he isn’t drawn onstage and on and on.
What does the author have to say about it all? Quite a bit actually. Here’s a quote MsWas found from Tom Stoppard in Coversation:
I originally conceived a play, exactly the same play, with simply two members of an audience getting involved in the play-within-the-play. But when it comes to actually writing something down which has integral entertainment value, if you like, it very quickly turned out that it would be a lot easier to do it with critics, because you’ve got something known and defined to parody. So it was never a play about drama critics. If one wishes to say that it is a play about something more than that, then it’s about the dangers of wish-fulfillment. But as soon as the word’s out of my mouth, I think, shit, it’s a play about these two guys, and they’re going along to this play, and the whole thing is tragic and hilarious, and very, very carefully constructed.”
So where does that leave us? As I said over in the Discussion Post “I feel like he is both fucking with everyone and very carefully critiquing the ever-loving shit out of existence, while just having a go at a dead body on stage.” And that about sums it up.