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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama

The Real Thing

Tom Stoppard

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To purchase The Real Thing

Title: The Real Thing
Author: Tom Stoppard
Genre: Drama
Written: 1982
Length: 115 pages
Availability: The Real Thing - US
(also in: Tom Stoppard Plays: Five - US)
The Real Thing - UK
(also in: Tom Stoppard Plays: Five - UK)
The Real Thing - Canada
(also in Tom Stoppard: Plays 5 - Canada)
La vraie vie - France
  • Originally produced in London in 1982, directed by Peter Wood and starring Felicity Kendal and Roger Rees.
  • The Real Thing first came to Broadway in 1984, in a production directed by Mike Nichols and starring Glenn Close and Jeremy Irons. It won a slew of Tony Awards.

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Our Assessment:

A- : clever, touching writer's drama

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 17/11/1982 Michael Coveney
Financial Times . 23/4/2010 Ian Shuttleworth
The Guardian A 3/6/1999 Michael Billington
The Independent . 23/4/2010 Michael Coveney
Independent on Sunday . 25/4/2010 Kate Bassett
The LA Times . 19/5/1997 Nancy Churnin
The LA Times . 30/9/1998 T.H. McCulloh
The LA Times A 24/1/1998 Laurie Winer
The NY Times . 23/6/1983 Frank Rich
The NY Times A 18/4/2000 Ben Brantley
The Observer . 25/4/2010 Susannah Clapp
San Fran. Chronicle A 2/5/1998 Steven Winn
The Spectator A+ 12/6/1999 Sheridan Morley
The Telegraph . 22/4/2010 .
The Times . 22/4/2010 Benedict Nightingale

  Review Consensus:

  Great play. Barely a whisper of complaint about any of it.

  From the Reviews:
  • "The beauty of this play is that it combines structural intricacy with pain and passion. (...) Among many other things, the play offers a sentimental education in which Henry learns the gift of inarticulacy." - Michael Billington, The Guardian

  • "On the last major London revival of Tom Stoppardís The Real Thing, in 1999, the consensus was that it had aged well since it was written in 1982. Anna Mackminís new production -- through no fault of hers or the castís -- suggests rather the opposite." - Ian Shuttleworth, Financial Times

  • "Owing as much, or as little, to Noël Coward's Private Lives and Harold Pinter's Betrayal, as it does to his own deliciously quirky and provisional temperament, Tom Stoppard's marvellous 1982 comedy is, above all, a play about the theatre; or a play about love in the theatre; or a play about expressing love in the theatre, as opposed to love of the theatre." - Michael Coveney, The Independent

  • "Art and life are amusingly and painfully entangled. Moreover, there is an additional teaser here: Stoppard's intimations of autobiography. Obviously, The Real Thing isn't a wholly faithful docudrama, but Stoppard had left his first wife to marry his second in the Seventies." - Kate Bassett, Independent on Sunday

  • "Passion is not usually what one looks for amid the intellectual and verbal gymnastics that make Tom Stoppard's writing so stimulating. But that's what drives The Real Thing (...): passion between a man and a woman and passion of that man for language, for finding just the right word to express a meaning." - Nancy Chernin, The Los Angeles Times

  • "The quality of love, though, is not the only thing Stoppard has in mind with regard to the subject of the real thing. The play deals with a playwright, actors and actresses, dodging in delicate patterns between make-believe and reality, and whether their own work constitutes a sham or the real thing." - T.H. McCulloh, The Los Angeles Times

  • "The Real Thing is the real thing, a play by a world-class writer, a play with insights that follow you out of the theater and deep into the night." - Laurie Winer, The Los Angeles Times

  • "True, this 1982 play (...) is also always subverting itself, pointing out how some things, love among them, defy glib articulation. But, ah, how articulately it manages to say so. If its structural game-playing seems a tad to clever (...) and its second act weaker than its first, the fact remains that few comedies have ever managed to have it so successfully both ways." - Ben Brantley, The New York Times

  • "Tom Stoppard's 1982 play is a millefeuille meditation on authenticity. It throws up, and picks to pieces, multiple notions of the real in writing, romance, music and politics. It begins by tricking its audience into thinking they are looking at one thing, and then reveals that what they've been watching (it wouldn't be fair to say what this is) is, well, not a fake, but not quite kosher. Which in turn reminds them that what's on stage can itself never exactly be called real. It goes on tweaking your expectations, putting the ersatz alongside the true, undermining its fluency with fluent attacks." - Susannah Clapp, The Observer

  • "In this anatomy of an emotionally naive playwright and the marital maneuvers in the theater world around him, Stoppard brings head and heart, life and art together in an exhilarating way." - Steven Winn, San Fransisco Chronicle

  • "In 1982 this was the one that first showed us Stoppard has a heart as well as a head (.....) The Real Thing turns out to be just that, a play which reminds you why you go to the theatre and why you fall in love. And why, just sometimes, it is all worth the effort." - Sheridan Morley, The Spectator

  • "The Real Thing is a play that glows with loveís warmth and burns with loveís pain. It certainly is not embarrassing, childish or rude but it is manifestly deeply felt, and it is as close as Stoppard will ever come, I suspect, to writing a piece that is nakedly autobiographical. This is a piece that clearly comes from the heart." - The Telegraph

  • "The connecting theme, it seems, is commitment. When, why, how can and do we commit ourselves to spouses, lovers, causes, ideas, anything? Intricate stuff, fascinating stuff, the more so because Mackmin has got excellent performances from her principals." - Benedict Nightingale, The Times

Please note and bear in mind that reviews of dramas generally refer to specific performances rather than to the written work itself. (Note also that complete review's reviews refer specifically to the written text.)

Please note that these ratings solely represent
the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Real Thing begins with a short scene in which a man confronts his wife after discovering that she has been unfaithful to him -- a tour de force of clever lines in best Stoppard fashion. The scene, it turns out, is merely one from a play (within this play). Charlotte, who played the wife in the scene, is in fact married to Henry, the playwright. Max, who played the husband, is in fact a friend of theirs, and married to Annie, another actress.
       There is some imitation of life in art: Henry and Annie are having an affair, and they are eventually caught out, leading to the dissolution of the two marriages and to Henry and Annie moving in together.
       Annie also happens to be involved in the "Justice for Brodie Committee", a group supporting the cause of a young private who has been jailed for attacking some policemen at an anti-missiles demonstration, a cause to which she remains devoted even after two years have passed (as do, in the jump from the first act to the second). By this time Brodie is no longer of much interest to the media and the masses. In the hopes of reminding them of the cause Brodie writes a play -- and Annie asks Henry to fix it up. The play is unpresentable as written ("half as long as Das Kapital and only twice as funny"), a horror gleefully quoted at length.
       The play, and his changed life circumstances, all gnaw at Henry, who can't come up with too many words of his own at the moment. He is reduced to writing film scripts (to cover his alimony payments to Charlotte), not able to write "the real stuff."
       Henry's relationship with Annie is also tested as another actor comes into the picture, young Billy who is in a Glasgow performance of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore with her. Henry doctors up Brodie's play, life imitates art some more, and Henry manages, pretty much, to get things right by the end.
       Stoppard weaves his tale fairly neatly. It is not entirely seamless -- the jump across acts is large and arbitrary, Henry and Charlotte's daughter Debbie is squeezed in less than ideally, and the momentum of the piece is hard for actors to carry convincingly through to the end -- but still makes for excellent entertainment. Stoppard's dialogue sparkles, and there is some brilliant and hilarious repartee.
       Music plays a large role in the play, as Henry tries to put together a playlist for his appearance on Desert Island Discs in one of the minor storylines. Henry has a decidedly plebeian, pop taste: "I don't like artists. I like singles," he explains. This -- and his conspicuous ignorance concerning classical music -- are used to generally good effect throughout the play (which closes to the strains of the Neil Diamond/The Monkees tune, I'm a Believer).
       What Henry does value is writing, and Stoppard uses him to proclaim his belief in the power of writing: "I don't think writers are sacred, but words are." Brodie's monstrous abuse of words tears him apart. However, Henry also finds that he can not do everything he wants to with language: "I don't know how to write love," he complains, and much of the play is a discovery not so much of how to write love but how to live it. "Love and being loved is unliterary" -- putting it almost out of Henry's reach. Generously Stoppard allows his playwright to ultimately find it.

       Very clever, often touching, very entertaining, The Real Thing is an excellent play. Stoppard writes for the stage (as opposed to some, more literary playwrights) and The Real Thing is meant to be seen there. Nevertheless, Stoppard writes so well that the play is also a great pleasure to read -- with only the music missing (though the enterprising reader can set up a soundtrack to play along ...). Highly recommended.

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The Real Thing: Reviews: Tom Stoppard: Other works by Tom Stoppard under review: Works about Tom Stoppard under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Drama under review

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About the Author:

       British dramatist Tom Stoppard, born in 1937, is author of such notable plays as Arcadia and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

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