Opening salvo, hot take: everything Tom Stoppard has ever written is incredible; this isn’t his best work.
The Real Inspector Hound is the first live production of a Stoppard play I ever saw, followed about a year and a half later by Arcadia. So, I will always be grateful to Hound for preparing me, because otherwise Arcadia might have melted my brain, and working directly with Tom (humblebrag) on The Coast of Utopia would have been the actual death of me.
Hound is a delight. It takes on the absurdity of the business of criticism and the entitlement of understudies and backups. It mashes up at least six genres all at once – gothic horror, romance, drawing room farce, slapstick comedy, murder mystery, and social and political commentary. In form, it’s practically a sonata. It’s magic.
But it’s also pretty superficial. This is early Stoppard, before he goes deep down the existential, metaphysical rabbit hole. And while I am here for all Stoppard, this really is just an amuse-bouche.
Maybe it’s not fair for me to compare this to his later, extravagently indulgent, utterly brilliant works. But I think it’s useful to understand that what he’s doing here with this work is of particular value because this is Stoppard (the man) learning how to Stoppard (the verb). His voice is incredibly unique and so deeply important. But everyone comes from somewhere, and it’s lovely and refreshing to revisit his younger mind and see that he has always been on to something.
When I saw Hound as a young person, it was a pivotal and important theatrical moment for me. Reading it again almost 25 years later, I am impressed all over again. It’s pure but also irreverent. It’s complex but also predictible (in a good way). It’s hilarious and tense. And while his later works tend to ramble a bit (and I say that with love, because I love love love), this is tight, with no fat to trim.