Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers and the Absurdity of Philosophy

The talented Tom Stoppard!

The talented Tom Stoppard!  This photo looks like a Chuck Close painting.

After the success of his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard released a series of short plays, but Jumpers was the first full-length play produced after this success, and in the spirit of many plays being produced around the same time, it employs what might fairly be called an Absurdist or Surrealist narrative (depending on how you define the two, though writers seldom like to be categorized in such a way).  The play, like Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, serves as an attack on the lack of ethics and morality in the field of logic and philosophy and, like Ionesco, creates and alternate reality.  In Stoppard’s world, a political group of philosophers known as the Radical Liberals (Rad-Libs) have won an election in Britain. Britain has simultaneously landed on the moon.  The group, though, is tirelessly mocked throughout the play, juxtaposed to second-rate gymnasts/acrobats, and though Stoppard does provide some engaging comic relief that plays on language and questions of philosophy, the play reads like a straw-man argument against philosophy and regurgitates a lot of the content that was being discussed in other works at the time.  Coupled with this, the play is weighed down by long rambling and unengaging soliloquies that indulge in false logic that doesn’t accurately represent the forms of logic it aims to critique.

 

 

A poster from a stage production of Jumpers.

A poster from a stage production of Jumpers.

One of the instances in which Stoppard’s play is most effective, is its semiotic lampoon of language.  Ferdinand de Saussure suggests that the meaning of a word depends on the nomenclature, meaning both its context and the differences it shares with other words.  For those who are unfamiliar with the nomenclature of a given language, however, subtle differences that a person is unaware of can cause confusion.  For instance, when Bones, a police detective, questions George, the play’s protagonist, George tells him that he is something of a logician.”  Bones replies: “Really? Sawing ladies in half, that sort of thing?” (44) Because ‘logician’ and ‘magician’ are similar, and because Bones in unfamiliar with the nomenclature, the subtle differences go unnoticed and in turn cause confusions.  Though mixed up also juxtaposes logicians with magicians, suggest the illusions and deceit provided by a magician somehow mirror the work of a logician.  In some instances, a signifiers can express two different things.  Stoppard draws on this to instil the play with humour, using word play to cause confusion, which demonstrates how language can undermine meaning.  Dotty, who was once a singer, is unimpressed with the acrobats that are jumping about her home and states that she can sing better than they can jump and can likely jump higher than they can sing (19).  The word ‘higher’ is used to describe both the pitch of a voice, and a physical height, but Dotty conflates the two and creates a false analogy.

 

Diana Rigg, who starred as Dotty in the original stage production of Jumpers.

Diana Rigg, who starred as Dotty in the original stage production of Jumpers.

Aside from words having different meanings, certain expressions can have two different meanings as well.  Because we often use figurative language, confusion can ensue when we use literal language that overlaps with the figurative.  Dotty, who is being investigated by Bones, claims to be ill and informs her husband George that she only feels well when she is lying down in bed.  When Bones questions George about her whereabouts and illness, he tells Bones that Dotty is “all right in bed” (70).  This is a double-entendre so ripe with sexual innuendo that it would make Oscar Wilde proud, implying that Dotty performs well sexually.  This happens again when Crouch asks about Dotty, who is in bed supposedly receiving treatment from Archie, a philosopher/lawyer/gymnast/psychiatrist.  George tells Crouch that Dotty is “in bed with the doctor” and then recognizing the potential confusion says “Not literally of course” (77), though he actually does mean this literally, as opposed to the figurative phrase that means to be engaged in the sex act.  As is often the case throughout the play, “words betray [one’s] thoughts” (46).  The figurative language become so predominant, that it is mistaken for literal.  Stoppard employs this to mock psychiatry as Archie does an analysis of Dotty’s language to arrive at the conclusion that she needs help when calling for help.  Archie tells Bones not to be concerned when Dotty yells ‘Help!’ because  “It’s… just exhibitionism: what we psychiatrists call ‘a cry for help’.”  Bones states that it was a literal “cry for help”, to which Archie replies: “Perhaps I’m not making myself clear.  All exhibitionism is a cry for help, but a cry for help as such is only exhibitionism” (66).  In this instance, the word ‘help’ takes on at least two different meanings, and Bones and Archie both come away from their conversation assuming the other to be an idiot because the literal and figurative meanings of the word overlap.

 

Another shot of Diana Rigg, because why not?  Oh, and she starred in The Avengers!

Another shot of Diana Rigg, because why not? Oh, and she starred in The Avengers!

While unintended word play can inhibit communication, the intentional manipulation of language can be even more problematic.  Stoppard demonstrates the euphemistic approach to language when George is soliciting Archie to make him the new Chair of Logic.  He suggests that “the senior professor” should be given the chair, and Archie asks if he means “the oldest”, to which George: replies: “The longest-serving professor” (73).  This kind of manipulation of language seems innocuous.  Here, George just wants to be seen as experience, and not old, so he chooses a rhetoric that places the emphasis on the former.  Such manipulation can warp our perceptions in some instances.  George, when preparing a speech, consults his wife on his word selection, asking her which he should go with: “‘My friend the late Bertrand Russell’ or ‘My late friend Bertrand Russell”, as “They both sound funny”.  Dotty succinctly replies that they “Probably [sounds funny] because [Russell] wasn’t [his] friend” (31).  Bones indulges in a similar approach, refusing to call Dotty ‘Mrs. Moore’, even after George explains that she is married.  Bones calls her ‘Miss Moore’ because he prefers to think of her as romantically available (44-45).  Likewise, when George makes mention of Dotty being in bed with Archie, George suggests that he should explain what he means, but Bones states that he prefers to use his imagination (45).  This may seem like harmless self-delusion, but Bones also deludes himself about the nature of the law.  When questioning George and Dotty, he says that “the law… makes no distinction between rich and poor, famous and anonymous, innocent and—”.  Bones cuts off at the end.  As he is listing a series of binaries, he suggests that the law is only concerned with fact and not the standing of a person, be that standing based on class, celebrity, or any other number of things.  Bones, though, includes innocence in the list before quickly withdrawing that statement.  The issue, though, is that the law doesn’t care about innocence; it only cares about evidence.  If the evidence puts an innocent person in prison, it does not ‘care’ one way of the other.  It is a system that runs on empirical and ocular proof, and so it’s only care is for such proof.  This is reinforced by the fact that Jones states that “justice must be seen to be more or less done” (66; emphasis added).  He does not suggest that justice should be done, only that others see it as being done, again placing value on ocular proof over the truth.  This is where ones delusions become problematic as they no longer simply delude the self, but facilitate an oppressive system.

 

St. Thomas Aquinas

St. Thomas Aquinas

Though Stoppard effectively lampoons language, his attacked on religion is not as effective.  Much of George’s cyclical arguments are based on the arguments put forward by St. Thomas Aquinas regarding the existence of god.  The portion of the play that deals with this is excessively long, and though it effectively mirrors Aquinas’s reasoning, it doesn’t provide the kind of commentary that demonstrates the flaws inherent in it.  In terms of staging, given that Stoppard has over three pages of text spoken by one person without any breaks, I can’t see how this would be digestible to an audience that isn’t plucked straight out of a lecture on Aquinas.  When George makes comments like “When I push my convictions to absurdity, I arrive at God” (67-68), or “You can’t rationalize the Thirty-Nine Articles” (37) it makes it clear that Stoppard is linking theology with absurdity, but he might as well have just said: “You know that St. Thomas Aquinas guy?  His logic about the existence of god is absurd!”  I have seen Stephen Colbert take on Aquinas’s logic and tear it apart with hilarious analogies, so simply portraying a character as foolish and adopting Aquinas’s rhetoric and stating that it is absurd is not up to the standard that I’ve seen and read.  He does have some interesting observations, such as when he notes that “it is surely religious zeal rather than atheism which is historically notorious in the fortunes of mankind” (68), and in this case Stoppard links the observations on religion with his lampoon of language by using the word ‘fortune’ which often mean great wealth, but in this case simply means ‘outcome’ and has a far more negative implication, making the use of the word ‘fortune’ ironic.  And through George, Stoppard raises an interesting semantic issue when speaking to god, by asking if we should say ‘are God’ instead of ‘is God’, though I assumed that he was going with a holy trinity angle here and instead he ended up simply speaking to the multiplicity of gods that would have been required in the process of creation.

 

Did I mention that Diana Rigg starred in the original stage production of Jumpers?

Did I mention that Diana Rigg starred in the original stage production of Jumpers?

When speaking to morality and ethics, Stoppard does a much better job than he does with religion.  Much of this centers on how we view ‘good’ and ‘bad’.  George notes that “Good and evil are metaphysical absolutes” (40), going onto clarify that they are “categories of our own making, social and psychological conventions which we have evolved in order to make living in groups a practical possibility” (48).  Dotty supports this by noting that things simply are as they are and if we described some things as ‘better’, then we are only describing “how we see them” (41).  George uses the example of beauty, noting that beauty can be discredited “as an aesthetic absolute” (53), which sounds like something Rust Cole would say in True Detective.  His example is that of Tarzan, who upon “seeing his face for the first time reflected in the jungle pool, bewails his human ugliness as compared to the beauty of the apes among whom he had grown up” (53).  That is a fine example, but the Twilight Zone episode ‘The Eye of the Beholder’ is a much better example.  The problem is when George applies this to morality, suggesting that lying and killing are not ‘sinful’, but rather just ‘antisocial’ (48).  Such philosophies are admittedly limited, but it is only the ignorant who apply them absolutely.  Stoppard seems to mock the philosophical exploration, suggesting that it makes room for cannibalism and frames humans as automatons who see no difference between “obeying the Ten Commandments or the rules of tennis” (49).  If the Nazi regime proved anything, it’s that taking anything to its logical conclusion is dangerous, but at the same time, Stoppard’s lampoon of philosophical polemics seems to fail to see the value in such explorations, though in his defense be may be simply encouraging the reader to temper such philosophy with moderation.  This may be a miss reading of the work, but it does seem that Stoppard thinks very little of philosopher, especially given that he juxtaposes them with fourth-rate acrobats.

 

 

Diana Rigg recently did a hilarious cameo in Extras and has most recently appeared in the popular series Game of Thrones.

Diana Rigg recently did a hilarious cameo in Extras and has most recently appeared in the popular series Game of Thrones.

The play does have its moments.  There are scenes that are reminiscent to William Wycherley’s The Country Wife, with Archie taking on the role Horner and George playing the part of 20th century fop.  Stoppard’s play on language is excellent and makes the piece worth reading, but this is certainly not a play I would look forward to seeing performed.  The extended monologues about philosophy lack a linear and engaging cohesion, and though reading them on the page can be illuminating, as the reader has time to pause and re-read, most audiences are not going to be able to maintain their attention span long enough to be engaged with a man sitting at a desk dictating to a secretary for ten minutes (though it would be quite an accomplishment for the actor).  Overall, the play has its moments, but it reminded me in many ways of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, which had come out over ten years before Jumpers and tackled much of the same subject matter and did so, I think, much more effectively.  I also would have liked to see more than a single female character in the play so that there might be a little bit more diversity in terms of the presentation of women, but this is a problem with many plays in the era and can be seen in the works of Harold Pinter, Arthur Miller, and many others (but don’t worry, I’ve tried to compensate by giving the lone actress of the original stage production more face time in my post than her male counterparts).  I am a big fan of Stoppard’s work, but this one left me feeling a little disappointed.

 

If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out my thoughts on other playwrights from the mid-20th, such as Arthur Miller, Gunter Grass, Eugene Ionesco, Max Frisch, and Harold Pinter. And if you are a fan of post-modern drama, be sure to check out my play The King’s Attrition, which is available for free on this website.  If you prefer prose, my novella thieves is also available for free.  Be sure to check them out, ‘like’, share and leave a comment.  And to get updates on my latest posts, follow me on Twitter @LiteraryRambler.  And now I leave you with some of my favorite quotes from the play:

 

Words I thought I’d look up:

Traducing: Discrediting.

Cognomen Syndrome: Also known asnominative determinism, it is the theory that a persons’ name can determine their life path.

Chiropody:  Study of the foot.

Osteopath: Study of bones.

Riposte: Fencing, or an offensive attack.

Filial:  The word comes from the Latin for daughter and refers to a church that falls under the authority of another church.

Parochialism: Is when somebody focuses on a small section of an issue.

Aniseed: It is a flowering seed from the eastern part of the Mediterranean.

Barmy:  British slang for silly of ‘crazy’.

Lupine:  Either something that is like a wolf, or a reference to a flowering plant.

Raison d’être: It’s how the French say ‘the reason for life’ or ‘reason for existence’.

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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