Tom Stoppard and the Inspiration behind Indian Ink

Monday, January 26, 2015

By Shannon Stockwell

Tom Stoppard (photo by Amie Stamp)
Tomáš Straüssler was born in 1937 in Czechoslovakia, and he arrived in India as a refugee when he was four years old. He lived there from 1942 to 1946, and he learned English while attending a school in Darjeeling run by American Methodists. While in India, his mother met Kenneth Stoppard, a major in the British Army, who brought the whole family back to his home in Derbyshire, England. His mother and Major Stoppard married, and Tomáš adopted the name he uses today.

Stoppard did not enjoy school and dropped out when he was 17, taking a job at the Western Daily Press, a newspaper in Bristol. He hoped to pursue a career in journalism, but while working as a critic, he fell in love with the theater. His first play, A Walk on the Water, introduced him to the agent Kenneth Ewing, who provided Stoppard with the inspiration for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

The National Theatre in London produced Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at the Old Vic in 1967, and later that same year, the play moved to Broadway. The reviews were overwhelmingly positive, and the production won the Tony Award for Best Play. Stoppard was just 27 years old.

Since the success of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Stoppard continues to be an astoundingly prolific playwright with a flair for intellectual themes and witty dialogue. In 1972, shortly after the premiere of The Real Inspector Hound, he explained in an interview with Mel Gussow:

I suddenly worked this out: I write plays because writing dialogue is the only respectable way of contradicting yourself. I’m the kind of person who embarks on an endless leapfrog down the great moral issues. I put a position, rebut it, refute the rebuttal, and rebut the refutation. Forever. Endlessly.

Stoppard began writing In the Native State as a radio play, which was commissioned by the BBC. “I had this tiny notion that I could write a conversation between a poet and a painter,” he remembered in a 1995 interview, again with Gussow. “While the poet was having her portrait painted, she would be writing a poem about having her portrait painted. There would be this circular situation. That’s all I had. And not necessarily in India.”

Although the seminal image for the play didn’t contain India, the country was always in Stoppard’s mind. “I had only been thinking about [India] in the general sense of using what I’ve got,” he said. “I’ve got India. It feels that one should be using it sometime sooner or later.”

In another interview, he said that he wanted to write about “the ethics of empire.” Whichever came first, the two ideas—empire and the circular relationship between painter and poet—coalesced in In the Native State, which aired in April 1991 and starred Felicity Kendal as Flora Crewe.

Next, Stoppard adapted the play for the stage, and Indian Ink premiered in London at the Aldwych Theatre in February 1995. Indian Ink is often called Stoppard’s most romantic play, its warmth a stark contrast to the intellectual debates that typically mark his work. He agrees with this sentiment: “One of the things that is nice about working on Indian Ink: there are no villains in it. It’s a very cozy play in many ways. . . . I really enjoy its lack of radical fierceness.”

For more about Indian Ink, be sure to read our latest edition of Words on Plays!
Click here to order online.

For tickets to Indian Ink visit act-sf.org/ink.

Dreaming in Color

Thursday, January 8, 2015

An Interview with Costume Designer Candice Donnelly
By Shannon Stockwell

From the many hues of rasa to the festival of colors known as Holi, Indian culture is marked by a love for vibrancy that is truly ancient. For a play set in India, especially one centered around poetry and art, the visual design vocabulary is of the utmost importance. A.C.T.’s production of Indian Ink is in the capable hands of costume designer Candice Donnelly, whose work has brought her to almost every corner of the world, from Broadway to Buenos Aires to Hong Kong. Previously at A.C.T., she has created costume designs for Elektra, Endgame and Play, ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, The Circle, and Happy End. We spoke with Donnelly to find out what is behind her costume design and how she created the visual world of Indian Ink.

Costume rendering for Flora Crewe, 
by costume designer Candice Donnelly.
What appeals to you artistically about Indian Ink?
The play has an elusive quality regarding the essence of somebody who’s not here anymore, but the characters are trying to recapture that essence in many different ways. That’s probably why Flora’s dresses are so wispy, made of very light chiffons. They’re very dreamy. I didn’t do that intentionally, but I think I did it subconsciously.

The colors of the costumes are striking, which reminds me of the different colors of rasa discussed in the play. What was the process of choosing the color palette?
It had to do with rasa. It also had to do with the set, which is blue. I liked the idea of contrast and having Flora be part of that. India is a very colorful place. Even though Flora is not necessarily a part of India, in some ways she is, because she dies there. Her rasa ends up living there. Having Flora wear vibrant colors seemed right.

Are the costumes of the Indian characters equally as colorful?
They are. [Acclaimed fashion journalist and editor] Diana Vreeland once said, “Pink is the navy blue of India.” So I had to put that color in; the 1930s Rajah wears a hot pink Indian coat. I have been to India, and it’s very vivid in so many ways. You do see that hot pink a lot, and you see people wearing saris in that color, working in the fields. It’s endemic to the country, and that’s part of what makes it so beautiful. Indians are truly in love with color.

Costume rendering for Nirad Das, 
by costume designer Candice Donnelly. 
In addition to your trip to India, what other research did you do?
I found a lot of old black-and-white photos on someone’s Flickr account. They are from the 1930s and feature a combination of Brits and upper-class Indians. There’s a picture of a train station with all these people in turbans and fezzes. [. . .] Of course, in India now, you see people in modern clothes all the time. The women still wear saris, and the men wear traditional shirts and vests; sometimes they wear them with jeans.
I looked at a lot of fashion magazines from the era, like British Vogue. Even though Flora didn’t really have money, she was still of a certain class that traveled and hung around with fashionable, forward-thinking, well-educated people, so her clothes would have been at least a little bit sophisticated.

Have you worked on other Stoppard plays before?
I’ve done Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead twice.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is very different from Indian Ink, but did you notice any similarities?
There is something metaphysical about the style of writing that identifies it as Tom Stoppard’s. For example, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, they know that they’re dying, and they’re going towards their death and can’t get out of it. From the title of the play, you know that. And then, of course, Flora Crewe is dead. I’m just thinking about it now. Stoppard might have some sort of preoccupation with the inevitability of going to the other side, and with what’s left behind.

I find Indian Ink a completely approachable Stoppard play. It’s a romantic story that unfolds as you’re watching it. I don’t feel as though you ever lose interest in it, because the story keeps evolving and it is tied up so beautifully.

For more about Indian Ink, be sure to read our latest edition of Words on Plays!
Click here to order online.

For tickets to Indian Ink visit act-sf.org/ink.

The Man Who Invented Christmas (with a Little Help)

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Man Who Invented Christmas (with a Little Help)
By Michael Paller

Charles Dickens, circa 1860s. 
Heritage Auction Gallery
Imagine a Christmas without carols or cards. No festive dinner. No presents under the tree on Christmas morning. No tree. No day off to spend with the family. This was Christmas in most places before A Christmas Carol was published on December 19, 1843. Charles Dickens has been called “the man who invented Christmas,” and while that’s an exaggeration, it’s only a slight one. He didn’t invent the modern holiday by himself, but for many people, his vision of Christmas is Christmas.

Christmas was grim in England’s cities during the Industrial Revolution. Factories and businesses were open on December 25, and there was no day off for employees like Martha Cratchit. Still, while Christmas wasn’t much celebrated in London or other large cities, some of the old customs were observed in remote rural villages.

"The Spirit of Christmas Present."
From Dickens's A Christmas Carol, 
illustrated by Soy Eytinge.
Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1869. 
Courtesy the British Library
When Dickens was 12, his father was declared a bankrupt. He and the entire family except for Charles were imprisoned for debt. The boy, suddenly alone in the world, was removed from school and put to work. It was the formative experience of his life. It’s not surprising, then, that in a series of pieces beginning in 1835 with an essay called “Christmas Festivities,” Dickens depicted a holiday centered on families, especially children who were loved, cared for, and surrounded by warmth and good cheer. Dickens eventually produced five short books and numerous articles on Christmas themes, but A Christmas Carol has always been far and away the most popular, and the most successful in setting out what he came to call his “Carol philosophy.”

"A Retrospect."
From Dickens's A Christmas Carol, 
illustrated by Soy Eytinge.
Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1869. 
Courtesy the British Library
First stated in “Christmas Festivities,” the philosophy is an earthly one, concerned with the welfare of all in the here and now, however much it might find echoes in religious texts: “And thus the evening passes, in . . . good-will and cheerfulness, doing more to awaken the sympathies of every member of the party on behalf of his neighbor, and to perpetuate their good feeling during the ensuing year, then all the homilies that have ever been written, by all the Divines that have ever lived.”

It’s a sad irony that the profit-driven atmosphere of the early nineteenth century, which led Dickens to write Carol, has infected the holiday in our own time. Still, Carol is an antidote to what a contemporary critic referred to as “this money-seeking age and money-getting country.” Dickens’s vision of Christmas isn’t about money; it doesn’t divide rich from poor. It encompasses all, child and adult, fortunate and unfortunate, the loved and the orphaned. It’s summed up in a sentence that, if it’s accumulated sentimental baggage in the ensuing 169 years, is still revolutionary in its plea that the bounty of life be shared among all: “God bless us every one!”


For tickets to A Christmas Carol visit act-af.org/carol.
 
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